November 21, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Every year, as Thanksgiving approaches, the refrain “All is safely gathered in,” runs constantly through my brain. Beginning in October, I start checking off the items on my winter preparation list: the snowblower must get its tune-up, my car must have snow tires; I have to compost the pond plants and replace them with a small heater to keep my goldfish from freezing solid in January; there are lawn chairs to put away, gardens to tidy up, windows to seal, and firewood to stack. Running like a mantra in my mind during the fall months are the words to our Thanksgiving hymn, “All is safely gathered in ‘ere the winter storms begin.”
Now, admittedly, in Alfred the winter storms often begin way before Thanksgiving. This year, my goldfish had to shiver under the ice for a few days last week because I hadn’t plugged in their heater yet, but I know November is fickle like that and I wasn’t worried. The fish, in fact, survived and are now huddled gratefully around the heater I put in on Thursday. For me, Thanksgiving is the absolute deadline, the day that I must be prepared for the coming winter storms because I know true winter is just around the corner. And Thanksgiving is only four days away. How are your preparations going? Some of you are sitting there in smug satisfaction knowing everything is storm-tight while others are feeling stressed out by this sermon thinking of all that you haven’t gotten around to yet, but there is not one of us who is oblivious to the need to prepare. Not one of you listening thought to yourself this September, “I don’t need to prepare for winter because this year there won’t be a winter. Alfred will remain sunny and warm right through to next June. The leaves will stay on the trees, the grass will continue to grow, and my garden will continue to bloom. No need to prepare for winter storms this year because this year winter isn’t coming.”
No, winter always comes. The earth tilts. The winds turn cold. The temperature drops. And the plants die. Some of us head south but not before wrapping our houses tight because we know that in Alfred, winter will come without fail. Sometimes it will be mild, sometimes it will be harsh, but it will always come and so we must prepare.
It is the inevitability of winter that made me choose the unlikely scripture for today from the book of Revelation, not a book that we usually associate with Thanksgiving. The book of Revelation, however, is about a world in the grip of winter, the winter of human cruelty and injustice. The book of Revelation was written in the last part of the first century and of that time, one historian writes, “In July of 64, uncontrolled fires raged for days in Rome and left most of the city in ashes; the emperor Nero responded with devilish ordeals for the Christians. In 66, another hell broke loose with the Jewish revolt against the Romans; it ended four years later with a Roman victory and the capture and destruction of Jerusalem. In 68, Nero committed suicide; near political chaos resulted, with no less than four emperors succeeding to the throne during the course of a single year.” (1)
Our Christian faith was founded during a time that feels much like our own; a world beset by chaos and violence where stormy winds whistled constantly at the door. In these past few years, we have had to cope with a world wide pandemic, political strife, racial injustice, and violence against women. Just this past week, Allegany County experienced the worst monthly death toll from Covid since the year began and Alfred-Almond Central School once again has had to return to virtual learning for the week. This past week, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of murder, found to have killed in self-defense and we were left wondering why he and his victims were armed as if for war in the first place. Scientists say that the past seven years are the seven warmest on record and that sea levels hit a new high in 2021. Famine, war, disease, cruelty, poverty, environmental decay — like the storms of winter, they batter our hearts and spirits, leaving us shivering with the cold of the world. And the storms are not just out there in society but right here in our day to day lives: perhaps for you it is the personal battle of heart disease, the creeping restrictions of an aging body, family members who need your time and attention, difficult relationships at work. If there is one thing we learn over the course of life, it is that storms in life are inevitable and that they will come as predictably as winter comes to Alfred. I am not trying to be depressing; I am just being honest and reminding us that our faith is not an escape clause. If it was, there would be no cross on our altar, but that cross reminds us that Jesus didn’t come to give us a free pass on life’s suffering but he came to teach us how to prepare to meet those storms and get through them with our souls still intact.
The gospels make it clear that from the very start of his ministry, Jesus was preparing his disciples for the storms that would come. As he traveled across Galilee teaching and healing, he warned his disciples that they would face persecution and sorrow, and even their little close knit group would be torn apart in the face of the cross. And so during those three years, he prepared them for that coming storm, and how did he do that? He taught them to return hurt with kindness and to forgive seventy times seven times. He taught them to turn aside from anger and dig deep down in their hearts for mercy. He taught them to embrace the hurt and the wounded, to heal the suffering, and to share their food with the hungry crowds. He taught them to love their neighbors as themselves and pray even for their enemies, the people who would one day hang him on a cross to die. What a strange program for storm preparation. Most disaster preparation sites tell you to find a place where you can hunker down in safety and protect your own until the storm passes, but Jesus told his disciples to meet the storm head on and defy its power through the strength of their compassion for others. The author of Revelation reminds us that Jesus “made us a kingdom of priests, serving God and Christ,” and so we too, are not to hunker down and think only of our own needs but are to step into the gale prepared to love others in compassion.
I cannot tell you how many times over the years of my ministry, people have told me how helpless they feel in the face of overwhelming injustices in our society or the unending needs around them.
“What difference can I make? What good can I do?” they say. We feel small and helpless in the face of the problems we see at our doorsteps and we wonder what the point is if we can’t stop the winter storms from coming. But Christianity doesn’t promise to cure all ills; what our faith promises is that if we practice the ways of Christ, if spread compassion constantly and show kindness to all we see, we will all get through this with our souls intact. It doesn’t feel like much, but those small acts of compassion may be the means of salvation for a starving heart.
Last winter, I was sitting at my back window drinking coffee watching the birds at the feeder when I noticed a nuthatch grab a sunflower seed and fly to a nearby log on my woodpile. Instead of eating the seed, the nuthatch worked diligently for five minutes to wedge that seed into a crevice in the log’s bark. When it was finished, it flew off into the woods, leaving the hidden seed behind.
A few minutes later, however, a sharp-eyed chickadee hopped onto the log, pulled the seed out, and flew to a nearby branch where it chowed down the seed.
Nuthatches are famous for stuffing seeds into bark and under lichen and moss, gathering thousands of seeds throughout the fall in caches that they depend on during the the winter. One study found that a nuthatch harvested more than 30,000 pine nuts, buried them in about 5,000 caches, and then relied almost entirely on its memory to locate and eat those seeds throughout the winter. This behavior is called scatter hoarding and nuthatches aren’t the only ones to do it. While red squirrels, for example, gather all of their nuts in one nest and scream at you if you come too close to their stores, gray squirrels scatter hoard: they bury acorns and pine cones all around their territory, spitting on them before they bury them so they can track them down later by scent. Scatter hoarders realize that other animals, like the chickadee on my back porch, will take advantage of those stores raiding them in the winter, so they prepare for that by burying more than they will need. They have determined, or evolution has determined for them, that it takes less energy to share their resources with others during the storms of winter than it does to protect their private hoard.
This is exactly what Jesus taught his disciples and taught us. He tried to get us to see that while we can’t stop the cold times from coming, we can make sure that we litter our world with compassion — that we live compassion, breathe compassion, plant compassion, and wedge compassion into every nook and cranny of the landscape so that when the storms of injustice, cruelty, illness, and sorrow come, we and all of those around us will be able to draw on those caches of love to get us through.
And so when the storms of life are raging and you ask me, “What difference can I make? What can I do to fight these injustices, heal these sorrows, or bring peace to such a brutal world?” my answer will always be the same: be a scatter hoarder of compassion. Don’t try to save the world; just make sure that you are scattering compassion over every inch of it because it will be those stores of compassion that will get us all through the winter until the spring comes once again.
1. Edwin A. Schick, Revelation: The Last Book of the Bible , pp. 14-15