OF FAITH AND LOVE AND FIRE AND GRAPEVINES
A sermon by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
February 24, 2019
The years I spent on my grandparents’ farm taught me a lot. One thing I learned was that my grandpa was capable of reasoning himself into believing that almost nothing qualifies as trash. His barns were filled with coffee cans and jelly jars and door knobs and shutters and pickles that had been pickling since the Depression.
Inside those coffee cans and jelly jars were screws and nuts and bolts and washers. Some of them were usable, others were broken or rusted to the point of returning to dust.
On the walls of my grandparent’s home were deer heads and largemouth bass and stuffed bobcats standing on fake rock cliffs, looking far off into the distance, forever pondering the moment my grandpa’s thirty-aught-six turned it into a statue.
What did qualify as trash, things like old tires and spent spray-paint canisters, went into the firepit. Once a week my grandpa would gather the most environmentally toxic waste on his property, cover it in gasoline, and light it on fire. I enjoyed fire day because it afforded me the collateral benefit of a rather dangerous adventure. You never knew when a paint can would explode, sending fire and shrapnel high into the sky. By morning all that remained was the smoldering remnants of barbed wire, hubcaps, and tin cans.
My grandparent’s farm was a far cry from the picturesque scenes you see on TV and in paintings. Their farm was a ramshackle place, complete with an RV on concrete blocks right on the edge of their property. Just beside the house were several trees with tables and buckets stored underneath; and if you looked closely, you could see chains hanging from the tree’s branches. The tables were the site of many fish slaughters and the chains were kept in place for hanging deer after a successful hunt.
Inside the house, my grandpa’s shotgun sat loaded behind the front door just in case a squirrel or rabbit or coyote trespassed the rows of corn near the house or disturbed my grandmother’s pigeons or my grandpa’s beloved grapevines.
Inside was no tidier than outside. With the exception of the living room, which was kept tidy and ready for visitors, every room was filled with tools necessary to mend clothes and weave afghans and quilts, freezers filled with fish and pork and beef. In the basement were jars of food and preserves and bottles of homemade wine.
There were no books in the house save a couple bibles. In the bathroom was a stack of Cosmopolitan magazines my grandmother like to thumb as she soaked in the tub, and between the mattresses in the guestroom was a magazine with pictures of ladies who weren’t wearing any shirts. Over the years all four of my grandparents’ daughters would have their wedding receptions in the backyard right between the barns filled with nuts and bolts and the burn pit and the grapevines and the gardens.
My grandma kept photo albums filled with pictures of people in ties and bellbottoms, drinking cans of beer and smoking and riding lawnmowers they steered with their feet. In other albums there were pictures of the dead, with their arms folded softly across their chest right next to photos of women and men marrying in churches with wood-paneling on the walls.
In that old farmhouse I’d overhear my grandma telling someone on the phone that they found her brother dead in a hotel room beside a suitcase filled with empty bottles. I’d listen to my grandpa cry himself to sleep the night he learned his mother died. The next day when we went to her house to gather some items for the funeral, we found her ball of yarn and a half-drunk cup of coffee sitting next to the couch she was found lying in.
Their four daughters would marry and have kids, divorce, and remarry. In all of the four divorces my grandparents took their daughters’ sides, vilifying the ex-husbands every chance they got. But secretly, behind their daughters’ backs, they’d welcome their ex-sons-in-law over for coffee and a slice of pie every so often.
I suppose you might say my grandparents lived unremarkable lives. They never questioned their circumstances, at least they didn’t while I was around. They practiced a simple faith, which they accepted without question—God rewards the good and punishes the bad; and if a good person was struck down by ill fate, they’d trust God anyways, quoting the book of Job, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? … Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
When my grandma was dying of lung cancer my grandfather made the decision to sell the farm that had been in his family for generations. Preparing for the sale, the grandsons were given specific instructions: we were to distribute my grandma’s prized cockatiels to her daughters and divide the afghans and quilts amongst the grandkids. We were to set her pet pigeons free and help our grandpa clean out his barns and sheds.
For days we gathered items for auction and mowed the grass and threw a few coats of paint on the barns and windowsills. But mostly we gathered a lifetime of nails and bolts and dry rotted horse saddles and broken ladders and piled them high on the burn pit.
Once the house was cleared of three generations of clothes and sewing machines and photo albums, once the barns were empty and the sheds swept clean, we lit the pit on fire and watched it all go up in smoke.
In the years since, my grandparent’s farm has been parceled into land used to build entire neighborhoods. The old farmhouse burnt to the ground a few years after it sold. Now a new home sits on the plot. The new homeowners cut down the trees where we used to clean fish and carve the deer. Gone are the grapevines and gardens and rows of corn. In their place are rows of homes filled with families that, I’ll safely assume, are composed of people marrying and divorcing, and having children, and whispering big secrets overhead by little ears. I expect those new houses built on the land of the old farm are, like my own home, occasionally filled with joy and laughter; others, like mine as well, are shocked by sadness and tragedy.
At my grandma’s funeral the preacher said that faith is when you save an ounce of hope for extraordinary things. Heaven, he told us, is that extraordinary place where the dead are reborn, made perfect, and live on for eternity. The preacher freely admitted that there’s no way to know for sure if heaven exists, but that’s what faith is for. Faith isn’t a science experiment, it cannot be proven or disproven, and it’s not meant to be. I have no judgement for people who put their faith in heaven. After all, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to hoping there’s a little slice of heaven waiting for all of us in the end.
Before she died my grandmother collected photo albums for all of her grandkids. Inside were pictures of us swimming in the creek near her house, riding with grandpa on the tractor, picking grapes, standing on chairs helping with the dishes, or pretending to take sips out of empty beer cans. In other pictures we’re blowing out candles on cakes or throwing rocks into rivers, or flexing pretend muscles, or sporting out-of-style haircuts. The pictures capture forgotten moments in our lives. They mark the march of time that is forever moving forward along life’s winding road.
One day the road I walk upon will come to an end. It will for all of us. Some might say that is how it goes, others will say it is in accordance with God’s will. You’re welcome to choose whichever explanation you want. But all roads are walked by faith. That I know for certain. None of us knows what awaits. And all roads are traveled the same way, one step at a time. The choice is whether we will dare to walk it and to find out what lies beyond the dips and curves—to find out in time if the awful moments might be transformed into something of meaning by other happenings, both within and beyond us.
There is no way to control everything that awaits. There is no way to know what may be of use to us in the end. That is why we must reach out beyond the life that is right before us to a friend, to something sacred and beautiful, to something broken and discarded, a poem, a song, a moment in time when we were stronger, a place in nature, or an echo of the past.
The fact of life is that one day the family farm may be parceled into lots for homes; the barns and gardens traded for driveways and in-ground pools. Sometimes the things we’ve been waiting for never show up. Sometimes the nuts and bolts and doorknobs we’ve been saving for some future project never gets used. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things go up in smoke.
The strange thing about life is there are only so many remarkable moments, only so many causes for celebration. The vast majority of our lives happen in the space in between. Heaven knows that a marriage doesn’t really start until after the ceremony; parenting doesn’t really start until the gifts stop pouring in and everyone leaves you alone to figure it out for yourself; a friendship is made long after it’s born over a beer at a barbeque. So much of our lives are spent in those unremarkable moments, such as when you’re skipping stones across the creek, or flexing your muscles into the camera, or fixing supper, or mending the divides.
Max Coots said somewhere, “Life is made truly significant by those who do the daily job, who make unholidays significant unnoticeably, by those who do the ordinary things of ordinary days and do them well when no one’s watching, for life is almost wholly days without either packages or praise.” Faith is that space in our hearts we reserve for the possibility of something extraordinary. But everyday faith is when we recognize that ordinary days are what make life significant. This is no simple task. I expect we all know that life is a short embrace. But the tendency to plan our lives away is so tempting. So, what are we to do? I have my theories and I’m sure you do too. In an untitled poem a poet offers this advice on living with faith:
When love is felt or fear is known,
When holidays and holy days and such times come,
When anniversaries arrive by calendar or
When seasons come, as seasons do, old and known,
but somehow new,
When lives are born or people die,
When something sacred’s sensed in soil or sky,
Mark the time.
Respond with thought or prayer or smile or grief.
Let nothing living slip between the fingers of the mind,
for all of these are holy thigs we will not,
cannot, find again.
There is no all-embracing definition of faith. Some people mock the faithful, seeing them as ignorant or worse. I can understand why people believe that religious belief is a holdover from our ancient ancestors and therefore faulty when exposed to the rigors of science and logic. It is easy to follow their arguments; after all Islam, Judaism, and Christianity were developed at a time when thunder and hail and draughts were unexplainable and understood to be the result of God’s wrath. In other words, skeptics think of faith as nothing more than belief without evidence.
After all, us modern folks are spared the terror of the night with all those artificial lights we’ve put everywhere; abundant food and modern medicine saved us from 40-year lifespans and high numbers of infant mortality. But science and agriculture and logic don’t solve all our problems; and they certainly don’t answer all our questions, at least not for me. I still wonder why we fall in love. I wonder why there are times when I feel as though people who have been dead for decades are with me. I still wonder why some people, when they are dying, have the ability to teach us something about living.
There is a definition of faith that says somehow, by some measure, everything will work out in the end. That definition has its limits. Some things really don’t seem to work out in the end. Sometimes things are just a disaster. But I refuse to believe as some people and claim that we live in a cold, indifferent universe. I refuse because I believe tragedy matters and that life matters beyond what is here-and-now.
After all, how can we explain humankind’s compassion for complete strangers? How can we explain that tragedy has the ability to make us love the world more? How can we explain grace and moments when we are accepted or forgiven without a moment’s hesitation? How can we explain love at first sight?
The author of the book of Hebrews writes, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). The houses and fields and trees and people of my childhood are long gone. The old farm is now a neighborhood; the old house has been transformed into a modern one; my grandparents are dead and gone. But everything that place and those people meant lives on in me. It isn’t anything anyone can see or touch. It has been transformed into something that can only be enacted. That place and those memories live on whenever I have courage and grace enough to forgive, strength enough to try again, and hope enough to believe that the shadows of the world will one day flee away. Faith is that place within you that holds out hope for unfinished victories, for extraordinary things, whether in this life, or someone else’s.
Amen. I love you. And may God bless us all.