A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 27, 2015
Joel 2:18-19, 21-26 GNT
“He has given you the right amount of autumn rain.” Joel 2:23 GNT
The arrival of autumn means it soon will be leaf-raking time again, something that I look upon as a mixed blessing. You see, as with many Oak Ridgers, our house is surrounded by several large trees—tulip poplars, hickory nut, oak, and the like. So when the leaves start falling, they really start falling. As our daughter and son-in-law—who toured our house for us before we bought it, while we were still living in New York—said, “The one thing that stuck out about the house and lot was the great amount of leaf maintenance that will be required.” Many of you know what I am talking about.
However, in spite of the leaf maintenance, autumn has become my favorite season of the year. And I actually enjoy raking leaves for a few hours, at least, especially during the last week of October. The swoosh of dry leaves being corralled by the rake, or being parted and crunched by walking feet. The array of colors—yellow, brown, red, and gold—dappled across the lawn. The fallen leaves’ herald of Halloween soon to come (my second favorite childhood holiday), and memories of trick or treating with brother through the neighborhood. But then, more importantly for today’s purposes, there are the spiritual lessons I find in autumn and the leaf-raking process as well.
For instance, leaf-raking speaks to me of the need to tidy up and bring a sense of order to things. What is leaf-raking if not a tidying up of your lawn? We carefully blow or push leaves into a center pile or upon a tarp, being careful to rake in and around the corners of the house. We rake and push, rake and push, until the lawn is all tidied up and in good order.
Such can be a subtle reminder that periodically we need to tidy up our lives as well, in a spiritual or maybe a relational sense of the term, or both. To give you an example from our own lives, this past summer—just before we flew out to Utah—Mary Lou and I finally did what we should have done years ago: we met with our attorney down in Jackson Square and prepared our wills. In all fairness, I should tell you that Mary Lou had been trying to get us to do that for years. And both of us had prepared simple hand-written wills several years ago and tucked them away in our home safe. But this past summer, both of us felt it was imperative that we do it right and do it now. So we did. That was one loose end of our lives that needed tidying up.
But tidying up our lives can take so many different forms. It might mean restoring relationships with loved ones or friends we have become estranged from, either by asking for or by granting forgiveness. Tidying up our lives might take a religious turn, as we work out feelings about God or the Church or our relationship with the Universe. Tidying up our lives might have to do with our job or profession and the need to make a change so as to follow our heart or do what we feel we are really called to do in life. Or a decision related to retirement.
And there is a related thought about leaf-raking and tidying up: I find that leaf-raking provides a wonderful opportunity to think and meditate upon some of those important issues of life.
Second, falling leaves and trees going dormant speak of the universal need for a time of rest. Some of us push, push, push all the time, seven days a week, at least 50 weeks of the year. There are always more jobs that need to be done, projects that need to be completed, meetings that need to be attended, places we need to go, calls that need to be made, and the list goes on. There never is time to rest and just be, it seems. We feel that our worth is determined by what we do, rather than by who we are.
The coming of autumn serves as a gentle reminder that even as some parts of Nature need to undergo a time of rest, so we, too, need periods of rest so as to be restored and readied for new periods of service. Consequently, we were given the Sabbath as one day in seven to rest and be restored. We need times of holiday and vacation apart from the everyday demands of life where we can be rejuvenated and recharged. Such is what the national parks do for me. You likely have your own avenues of finding much-needed rest. Yes, examples in the natural world where certain plants and animals are heading toward a time of rest is a reminder that our bodies and spirits need periods of rest as well.
Third, dead leaves are a solemn reminder of the cycles of life, and that death is a natural part of earthly existence. Now, it is true that way too often death comes tragically and prematurely. An automobile accident; a massive heart attack or stroke at a young age; or some other unexpected tragedy that takes the life of a loved one long before the average life expectancy.
But death does not have to be looked upon as an enemy in every instance. Sometimes—as in the case of someone who has lived a good, long life but now suffers chronic, unbearable pain from which there is no relief; or one whose quality of life has long since gone—in such a case death might be looked upon as a welcome friend. Over my years of ministry, I couldn’t tell you how many people have shared with me that they welcomed and longed for death.
I have been following the story of former President Jimmy Carter (the one President I have been fortunate enough to meet and shake hands with, by the way) who learned a few months ago that he is battling cancer of the brain. I don’t think Carter is welcoming death, but he testified in a news conference that he is at ease and faces his unknown future with confidence.
Naturalist John Burroughs wrote, “If life is good, death must be equally good, as each waits upon the other” (Accepting the Universe). And Joseph Campbell contended, “One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life but as an aspect of life” (The Power of Myth). Falling, dead leaves that will decay and return to the earth, then come to life again in new flora, serve as visual reminders that death (and rebirth) is a natural aspect of life in our universe.
And fourth, that final leaf-raking and cleaning up the lawn (which occurs for me around the last week of November) is an affirmation of a job well-done. I don’t know about you, but when all the leaves have fallen, and when I have raked up and carried off that last pile, I feel a certain sense of satisfaction in a task completed and a job well-done. There is an inner joy in knowing I have tackled and completed that job, and I am done with it, until next year at least.
How wonderful it is when we can view our lives in general with that same type of satisfaction, that we can take pride in a life’s job well-done. I am reminded of that often-quoted parable of Jesus in which the master says, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant . . . enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25:21 KJV). The completion of leaf raking in the fall could be an annual reminder for us to take inventory of our lives in general and determine if we are able to take pride in a job well-done the past year.
Well, as shared in the beginning, as I have grown older, I have come to look upon autumn as my favorite season of the year, for many different reasons: the fall colors, frosty mornings, warm days and cool nights, fall festivals, autumn moons, the list is long. But as you should have also gathered, autumn also holds spiritual meaning for me as well. The world of Nature has many lessons to teach us in each season of the year, and autumn is no exception.
So may I suggest that we enter this autumn season with eyes wide open to the autumn wonders around us, with deep gratitude for the blessings peculiar to this time of year, and with open minds and open hearts to the deep spiritual lessons autumn has to teach us. May it be so. Amen.