Summary: Revision of earlier message. God calls us to remember that we are both physical and spiritual, and are therefore to be stewards of the earth as well as spiritually sound. The Table reminds of both our physical and spiritual sides and responsibilities.
Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC, October 6, 1985, World Communion Sunday
No matter how sophisticated we may become, something in us reaches out for the soil, reaches out for our roots and stirs within us to claim a simpler, more basic way of life. I would just about bet that most of us here do not think of the city as our home, not this city or any other city. We think, many of us, at least, of small towns or the countryside, we think of places with quaint names and country stores and main streets one building deep. Despite the tremendous growth of urban life in this nation, a whole host of Americans think of themselves as essentially rural people who have just become a little citified.
And because we have become citified, because we have come to the city to earn our living and to pitch our tents, at least for a while, there stirs within us that longing for the soil, that hunger to breathe clean air and to know the tastes and the smalls and the sounds of country life.
In fact, it's always been that way. In the 18th century French nobles sought to have the best of both worlds and built for themselves pretentious chateaux, but not in the city. Not in Paris where life was supposed to be dirty and complicated and mean, but out in the countryside, where they could pretend to be just simple farm folk, close to the soil.
Farther back than that, in the middle ages, when the monks built their monasteries, trying as best they knew how to recreate the style of holy simplicity to which they believed God had called, they went to the byways, to the lonely places, and built not only houses of prayer but also vast farms. More than that, they worked those farms themselves, they gave themselves to prayer, to works of charity, and to a relationship of labor and of love to the earth. It was their purpose to be in touch with earth.
Indeed, you can go back even farther than that, much farther; you can go back to Old Testament times, to that period in Israel's early history when she was on her way to becoming a settled nation. And you can see how some of the earliest of the prophets -- Samuel, for instance, or Elijah – how they worried that as Israel settled into cities and concentrated her attention to urban life rather than tilling the soil and tending the flocks, then maybe she would forget her God. Maybe she would not remember that it was the Lord her God who had led her forth as a wandering, rural people, with no fixed home. The concern of the prophets, in a sense, was that Israel might no longer be in touch with earth.
And so it comes as no surprise to us that we moderns also feel that need to be in touch with earth. We do a great deal to express that need. For example, we twentieth century Americans have created that strange new thing known as a suburb. In the suburb the goal of it all is to create, on a small scale, something of country life, something of being in touch with earth. And so we while away our Saturdays either coaxing that grass to grow, or, when it does, cutting it down. And planting flowers here and tomatoes there and cucumbers somewhere else – why? Not just to kill time, surely, because we often complain we don’t have enough time. Not even just to create status symbols, the greenest grass, the flossiest flower bed, because, after all, that would wear thin after a while. I think it is because we want, we need to be in touch with earth. We need to go back, even if it is only in our imaginations, to the basics of human existence: to the soil, to the sources of meaning, to the foundations of life itself. We need to be in touch with earth because it means we can be in touch with ourselves and with our God.
Why else, for example, would anybody uproot scores of Kentucky born and bred wild flowers, perfectly happy where they grew up, as anybody born and bred in Kentucky would be, and then transplant them to the unlikely garbage fill of Silver Spring? That’s what my wife did when we moved here years ago … because, and I do mean this quite seriously, to be in touch with those flowers, to be in touch with earth, was to be in touch with a part of herself. It’s important.
Why else would I be able to look up at a New York skyscraper and discover up there, forty stories up, a penthouse apartment, complete with shrubs and trees hanging out over the edge of the building? Because even in that rarified atmosphere, even there where everything is concrete and steel and city life, someone has an urge to be in touch with another style, another aspect of life, to be in touch with earth.