A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson for Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN.
March 2, 2022: Ash Wednesday
I’ve been thinking about my garden a lot lately, sitting out on the edge of my front yard and on the boulevard near the curb, the ground still and frozen, resting under a blanket of snow. Lent, as Barbara reminded us last Sunday, shares its meaning with the natural season of Spring, drawing as it does from the same root for “length” – as the daylight lengthens and the earth slowly tilts on its axis in the northern hemisphere toward the warmth of a distant sun. And as it does, I have started a mental catalog of all the things I want to plant, what I need to do to keep the soil fertile, and where I might squeeze in another raised bed. I don’t have a lot of land on which to garden, here in my corner of Saint Paul, but I am mindful that compared to many, I have an abundance of space which I can call my own, and out of which I can coax my tomatoes and kale, a handful of zucchini and cucumbers, and always a scattering of herbs. I like this time of imagining, the waiting and the planning, the expectation of what will go into the soil and what will come out of it.
But, there is a risk and a danger in this imagining. We westerners have a strange way of relating to the land. We believe that it can belong to us, and that we can possess it and take from it by right and by force. But, as the scripture from which our observances tonight derive their meaning tell us, God “knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust.” As we will hear again at the beginning of our lenten practices, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We belong to the soil. We are children of earth and one day we will return to it – ashes to ashes, dust to dust. So we must resist the danger of a western imagination, the insidiousness of whiteness, wherein we contort our minds into thinking that the land is ours, that earth and rock and soil can be divided into mine and yours, so that we can be masters of the ground upon which we stand. But the danger here is even deeper, because in so doing we also forget who and whose we truly are, that it was a good and loving God who dreamed of a relationship with us, who took soil and clay and shaped us out of it, who placed us on the land, and invited into relationship with it.
In the seven time academy award nominated film Black Panther about a fictional Afro-futurist country Wakanda and her superhero king, T’Challa, played by the late Chadwick Boseman, the land features as a character in and of itself. Hannah Beachler, the first African American ever nominated for an Oscar for production design, was very intentional about weaving a natural and earthy aesthetic into the whole of the movie. In this way, a very modern, futuristic culture, remained literally grounded in the real geological and anthropological history of the African continent. The people of Wakanda are a culture far advanced from the rest of the world, with technology and weapons far superior to that possessed by other nations and peoples. So it is, that when the camera swoops in on the throne room of Wakanda, the glass and steel floor, the soaring windows, and futuristic walls of clean cut stone, it is almost a shock as these give way in the middle to a red, earthen floor. It was intentional to place the throne here, not separated from or above the earth – there is no mastery of the soil or the land. The king, like the shepherd or the farmer, is rooted in the ground, of the soil, connected always to the land. Even though this is a fictional place and a fictional people, the roots to such a way of thinking are very intentionally drawn to the land-people connection of non-white cultures the world over, a connection implied and perhaps hoped for in the opening of our own Judeo-Christian story, when God creates humans, and places them, literally, in the midst of the garden.
In his now classic text The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, the great poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry writes,
“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
Berry is by no means the first to have given voice to this sentiment. His thought echoes the indigenous wisdom of generations of native peoples from this and many other corners of our country, that we belong to the land, that whatever it is we do to the ground we are doing to ourselves. One of Berry’s influences, Aldo Leopold wrote in the 1940s, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
These are many and similar ways of saying that not only do we belong to the land, but we are also woven into a great web of belonging, connected to all things living, and indeed the earth itself, in and through the land. We forget this to our peril. Remember that you are dust. And, to dust you will return.
In his powerful reworking of classical Christian thought, in an attempt to liberate worn patterns of Christian theology from the racialized ways in which it has been shaped and bound for generations, Willie Jennings starts with the land in his seminal book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. Jennings tells the story, in the introduction, of his first memory of an encounter with missionaries, in his parent’s garden – the strangeness of two white men entering their yard, uninvited, to share with them a faith that was already deeply embedded in their family’s consciousness. He says that it was, ironically, here in this garden where his mother had told him time and again the stories of his family, a great grandmother who had been a slave, the migration north to escape the Jim Crow south, of Cherokee relatives who had instilled a love of the land, and all told in the garden. It was here that Jennings learned a story that wove together family, scripture, the presence of Jesus, and the very real and often conflicted stories of human struggle and pain. He says that his parents,
“…also channeled what Toni Morrison so eloquently called ‘the hurt of the hurt world,’ the knowledge of the deepest struggles and contradictions of black folks living among white folks. My mother was one of those black women who carry intimate knowledge of slave voices. As a little girl she lived with her grandmother, a former slave. She also knew from her own experiences the lives of poor folks in the South who picked cotton, got cheated for their backbreaking labor, and worked diligently to stay out of harm’s way with whites. The experience of agricultural labor, life in the dirt, also brought her into a contradictory but very intimate relationship with the land itself.”
Illuminating this contradiction, Jennings writes that his parents “loved the soil, the earth, the outside, and in their garden I saw the freedom they felt with it. The garden announced to them and the world that they were absolutely free to be themselves.”
Jennings argues and I think Ash Wednesday echoes, that it is the way of the world, often aided and abetted by Christianity itself, to sever our connections to the land, separate it and rename it, dividing and often removing the peoples, plants, and animals from the land, and in so doing remaking the world as we would have it be, stripped of its intention to be a place of care and connection. But, Ash Wednesday is our invitation back to right relationships, first with God, and our own minds and selves, but also with the world, divided and enslaved and often at odds with itself. We yearn for this restoration and reconnection, we crave to be healed of all that divides us. And so it is that we who are here tonight strive by practices of prayer, fasting, repentance, and charity, to pattern our own lives after Jesus, whose very life was given, laid in the ground, and raised by the power of God, so that all divisions might cease and all brokenness be healed.
Tonight we are given this holy reminder, the starting point to heal and be free, a call to remember the earth, the soil and land of the very places we live, to know its stories, the injustices it has suffered, the pain it has born, and to remember that we are of it as it is of us. Remember that you are dust. To dust you shall return.