Monday, April 15, 2013

Volunteer Vegetables

ESR student Suzanne Cole delivered the following message in Earlham School of Religion Worship on Thursday, April 4, 2013:

Leviticus 25:19: "The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live on it securely." (NRSV)

Proverbs 15:17: "Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it." (NRSV)

          My father had a garden every year. His garden was neat and tidy, planted with all the things that should be in a vegetable garden: corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, squash. He tilled his neat, even rectangle in the backyard then planted in measured rows. We rarely ate anything from his garden, but it was there and producing exactly what a home garden is expected to produce. That was my impression of a garden and home-grown vegetables: ugly tomatoes, overgrown cucumbers, and non-existent corn. So with this picture firmly rooted, there is another garden worth talking about…
          One evening last summer, I called Sky. His daily report was one sentence: “I DUG UP HALF THE FRONT YARD FOR VEGETABLES!” He went on to describe all his plans and plantings, which sounded nothing like order or structure. I was confused (at best) and terrified of walking into a man-eating plant situation (at worst). This garden he was describing to me did not sound like a proper garden in the least. It was jumbled and tangled with so many plants in so little a space. When I actually saw the garden, he had not dug up half the front yard (thankfully), but my fears about plants being everywhere were true. At no point could I even find half of Sky’s garden because it was hidden on the bank or half under the porch or climbing up the taxus bushes instead of stakes.
          Out of a jumble and tangle of wild planting, it sounds very possible to acquire volunteer vegetables, doesn’t it? They sound like vegetables that appear where you forgot you planted vegetables. Which happens to the best of us. But no, volunteer vegetables are a little different. They’re vegetables that we didn’t know we planted in the first place. They can be charming little reminders of years past, left in our yard by letting a plant go to seed before harvest or they can be scrubby little root vegetables that appear after a head-scratchingly long germination time.  Volunteer vegetables can even appear from a scoop of half-finished compost applied to a waiting bed in anticipation of the actual planting, which would explain Sky’s cantaloupes and tomatillos last year.
          So we’ve established what volunteer vegetables are and where they come from (not outer space), but why are we talking about them in chapel? And even more obtusely, why did Matt read two seemingly random scripture verses? There is no specific mention of volunteer vegetables in the First Testament or anywhere else in the Bible, however. All we know is that the land will provide, vegetables are wonderful, and Daniel thrived on them when he was in captivity. We know that the lovers in Song of Solomon enjoy fruit together and the Christian virtues are compared to fruit in the Second Testament.
          Let’s start with the passage from Leviticus: "The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live on it securely." Taking this passage entirely out of context and being a bad Biblical scholar for a minute, the actual message is a blessing for farmers. Hearing word that the land will be “good dirt” and worth farming is enough to brighten any day. The promise of security and survival is what a farmer—especially a pre-industrial farmer—looks for, and HaShem (the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) is promising such bounty. In context, this passage comes in the section about the Year of Jubilee. It is a year of justice and return; verse 19 addresses the concern of food security. There shall be no planting, no harvest, and no food for the entire year of Jubilee. That sounds like disaster, even to modern ears. But HaShem is clear that the land will provide an abundance in the 6th year to carry the people through the 7th and into the 8th until the crops come up.
          Abundance. Abundance. I’ll let that word hang in the air for a minute. That term always sounds good in a Biblical context and equally delicious in a farming context. It certainly feels good to say. But how does an ancient promise of abundance deliver in the 21st century? And how does that promise manifest for non-farmers in the 21st century? First, we should make the promise in Leviticus a little more abstract. This is gap-filling, but can we make a promise like this into a statement about the character of HaShem? A divinity who will provide for the lean times, especially when the lean times are in service of justice and doing right to others sounds like a very good divinity indeed. First Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann highlights the Year of Jubilee as a radical return to just living and a practice of intense social justice. If the Biblical promises wrapped up in the Year of Jubilee section are taken to mean HaShem rewards justice and working for justice by meeting the needs of the people as they work for truth and justice, we have a more accessible and more applicable understanding of a rather obscure passage. 
          The second passage is less esoteric: "Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it." This proverb sounds warm and judgmental all at once. I turn to this passage today because of the equation of vegetables and love. The author of this wisdom book saw fit to line up simple vegetables with love and fancy food with emotional suffering. Better are the simple things when they’re wrapped in love than the finer things that have a side dish of bitterness. I’m sure we’ve all had moments where a simple dinner of left-overs from our own fridge eaten in peace sounds more appealing than the emotionally-fraught family or work dinner being spread before us. Using this passage as another gap-filling moment, I like that vegetables are the lowest of the low here. They are the simple, the common, the ordinary. It is more remarkable when ordinary things contribute to extraordinary moments. Superheroes can save the day, obviously. But can we—ordinary folks without magic lifting or flying powers—manage to do so as well?
          I suspect everyone here has had a moment of extraordinary strength in their own time. The strength may have been physical, emotional, or spiritual. Maybe you held a friend up through their darkest days or even through your darkest days. Perhaps you organized an event during finals week and managed to excel at both. Or you accomplished something that was beyond your body as you know it like hefting furniture into a moving van to help a friend start a new life. Those moments of extraordinary being often happen with us and in us without a lot of mental engagement. Analyzing how we are able to accomplish something that is well beyond our perceived abilities comes later in the process. When we can finally sit down, take a breath, and say, “WOW!” is when the volunteer vegetables of our soul start to emerge.
          In a journal entry for FC 101, I wrote, “I have all the tools at hand, but these seeds were planted long ago before I was even aware of them.” The essential falling apart and rebuilding of that class forced me to analyze what was actually growing in the garden of my heart, and I saw qualities there that I had not cultivated. These seeds were sown by others: patient friends, careful leaders, wonderful family members, and even annoying co-workers. These qualities that I needed were my volunteer vegetables. And that is often how it works in our lives. I am embracing the promise of living securely as I embrace the volunteer vegetables that are growing in my life.
          I challenge you, Friends, to reflect on the volunteer vegetables in your own life. What gifts have you been given that were nearly unknown? What surprising shoots have come up in your heart that carried through challenges? How have you been blessed by seeds sown?

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