Psalm 85

Its origins are deep in the heart and soul of a disparate group of ancient people in the Middle East known simply as “the people of the land.” It was their plaintive cry to God for rain at a time of drought. Subsequently, that prayer was transformed into Psalm 85, the quintessential Advent Psalm — an expression of the deepest hopes and dreams of the human community. Those dreams were then, as they are today, for peace and justice and righteousness to prevail on earth. Those hopes, nascent in Israel, became focused on the dream of a Messiah who would come to establish an ideal society on earth that could only be understood as God’s reign. Those same hopes and dreams shaped the emergence of Christianity from the manger of Judaism, but with a radical shift in understanding — now the Messiah became the embodiment, in Jesus of Nazareth, of all that God intends for humankind; now the human community has experienced a foretaste of God’s reign on earth; now the human community has the option of living everyday as Advent people — living in the direction of that which was revealed through the Messiah. Psalm 85 moves us, as Advent people, from praying for raindrops to a foretaste of the reign of God!

We in Nebraska know something of becoming Advent people, a movement from praying for raindrops toward a deep and abiding desire to share in God’s reign of peace, justice and righteousness on earth. Nebraska’s original “people of the land” — the Pawnee, the Otoe, and the Omaha — were a lot like those in ancient Israel. They didn’t own the land so much as they belonged to the land. Their identity and their fate were inextricably tied up with that of the land. They sought harmony (peace, justice, and righteousness) with the land.

We can see the echoes of that same sense of identity today as it is caught up in Palestinian Christians, Israeli Jews and Arab Moslems — all of whom see themselves as belonging to that land we now know as Israel.

The European-Americans pioneers who came to settle Nebraska after 1850, like their descendents today, also understood themselves to be “people of the land.” Each one dreamed of a new age of prosperity (filled with peace, justice, and righteousness) as they developed their farms and ranches. They were an Advent people — praying for raindrops; hoping to experience a foretaste of God’s reign of peace, justice and righteousness on earth.

There is a richness of spirit among these “people of the land” in Nebraska. There is also a romantic myth about the idyllic nature of ranch and farm life. In truth, the economic conditions of rural life on the prairies and plains do not spell prosperity for most farmers and ranchers. The three poorest counties in the US are in Nebraska (and seven of the poorest twelve counties). It has been estimated that more than 1000 family farms/ranches will be lost during 2003. Banks and local businesses, just as huge conglomerate agri-business farms and ranches, are increasingly controlled by decision-makers outside the local community. The “people of the land” are losing ground. Sometimes, the hope for peace, justice and righteousness seems more like a pipedream.

The church has been there from beginning — sharing the Advent gospel of Jesus Christ with Native Americans and gathering pioneers into fellowships of believers to keep this Advent people attuned to the presence of God’s reign in their midst. Twelve different ecumenical partner denominations (including the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska) representing more than a quarter million members in 1100 congregations join other partners in our common mission of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, and challenging Nebraska citizens to respond to the challenge, compassion and constraints of the Gospel. As we celebrate Nebraska State Day, I come to you as a representative of that statewide ecumenical witness to bring you a report from the mission field — our movement from just praying for raindrops toward participating as a foretaste in God’s reign of peace, justice and righteousness on earth.

Praying for raindrops has always been foremost in the thoughts of farmers and ranchers on the prairies and plains of the upper Midwest. Drought-like conditions prevail. In recent years we have been witnessing: farm ponds drying up; rivers flowing at significantly lower levels; watersheds being threatened; crop yields low. So we pray for an abundance of raindrops.

The statewide ecumenical witness of the church has been forged, to a large degree, in response to the growing rural crisis in the state. The statewide rural response hotline, begun 20 years ago through Interchurch Ministries, receives 12 to 15 phone calls a day (about 4500 calls a year) from individuals dealing with personal, family, and farm/ranch management issues. They call for help with the stresses of daily life on the farm or ranch — issues like depression, substance abuse, and family upsets — and may be given vouchers to see a counselor who is part of a statewide network. They call because they are facing legal complications — and are connected to legal services. They call to seek help with financial issues — and can meet with a financial counselor. They call because the hotline is run by the church, not a government agency. They call because they sense that the church offers them a trusting environment where confidentiality will not be breached. Farmers and ranchers have learned that the church is there for them. As one farmer said, “You helped me get through harvest and prepare for the future. Now I have a future.” God’s Advent people moving from just praying for raindrops to experiencing a foretaste of the reign of God!

Recent drought conditions have created major crises for Nebraska farmers and ranchers — hay has been sparse. Farmers and ranchers have had to sell off their livestock, including the brood-stock that has been developed by their families over a number of generations. Major networks have developed through the church to help farmers in greener parts of the country donate hay, have it transported to Central and Western Nebraska and distributed freely to needy farmers and ranchers. A flatbed semi-trailer of hay was delivered to one farmer. As he stood in the bitter cold, tears of appreciation froze on his cheeks. “How long will this hay last?” he was asked. “About three days,” he answered. When he saw the shocked look on his questioner’s face, he then added, “But that is three more days of hope than I had before. You have brought me hope.” God’s Advent people moving from just praying for raindrops to experiencing a foretaste of the reign of God!

In the past few years there has been a lot of conversation about faith-based initiatives — government funding of social services offered through faith-based organizations. The State of Nebraska long ago found a willing and effective partner in the statewide ecumenical witness of the church — namely, Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska — a partner that can deliver some services on a statewide basis more effectively and more efficiently than if the State were to try to develop its own delivery system. Over and over again in the annual report of Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska, in addition to appreciation for the support of the various denominations, you will find the words: “valuable funding was received from Nebraska Health and Human Services.” State and federal funding of faith-based initiatives is alive and healthy in Nebraska. One new initiative brings the ecumenical church together in a coalition with the State of Nebraska, the University of Nebraska, and a variety of community organizations. This project, funded through the US Department of Health and Human Services, will help faith and community based organizations provide support to underserved populations (the elderly, members of racial/ethnic minorities, and residents of rural areas), helping them access available services for mental health, substance abuse, and addiction treatment. God’s Advent people moving from just praying for raindrops to experiencing a foretaste of the reign of God!

A statewide health ministry network provides training and support for local church health ministry programs. At a time when our federal legislators are trying to figure out ways to deliver more effective health coverage for American citizens, our health ministry network is helping churches establish parish nurses, distribute blood pressure kits, do health screenings, and receive mini-grants to develop or extend their health ministry programs. God’s Advent people moving from just praying for raindrops to experiencing a foretaste of the reign of God!

Nebraska churches have a long history of welcoming immigrant groups until recent history that has largely meant central and northern European immigrants. But times have changed and immigration patterns have changed dramatically. Over the past 30 years thousands of people from Mexico and Latin America have found their way to Nebraska, many drawn by the prospect of finding work in the meat packing industry. For nineteen years, Interchurch Ministries partnered with Church World Service to resettle refugees. In the past 10 years, we have seen Sudanese immigrant refugee population increase from 0 to about 8-10,000 — making Nebraska the center of immigrant Sudanese population in the US. One struggling small church in Omaha looked around and saw that their neighbors no longer looked or sounded like them. After a few years of trying to figure out what that meant, they declared: “God, seeing that we were not going to go into all the world to preach the gospel, has sent a part of the world to us so that we might have the opportunity to serve our Lord closer to home.” I wish I could say that ministry with immigrant groups is moving ahead as well as we all would expect. In truth, this is an area in which we are struggling. We are striving together with our newest neighbors to be God’s Advent people, learning from one another about praying for raindrops and seeking together to share a foretaste of the reign of God!

If ministry with our newest neighbors is somewhat problematic for us, it is even more so in relationship with our oldest neighbors — Native Americans. We support an ecumenical American Indian congregation in the state capital. A continuing program of Grants to American Indians in Nebraska (with significant financial help from the business sector) has helped fund a wide range of programs including: nutrition, emergency assistance, equipment, elder luncheons, drug prevention, and specialty programs. Relating to American Indians without becoming paternalistic or condescending has been a problem for our predominantly white, euro-centric churches. We pray that with our oldest neighbors we might be God’s Advent people moving together from just praying for raindrops to a sharing together in God’s reign of peace, justice and righteousness!

One last story for this report from the mission field — appropriate for this time of the year. The “Angel Connection” is an extension of the generosity of individuals and churches so as to touch the lives of families overwhelmed by the difficult economic conditions in rural Nebraska. We have been able to provide families with Christmas gifts of food, clothing, toys, and household necessities. Last year one recipient sent an expression of gratitude: “This is a year we would like to forget, but a Christmas we will always remember. As we looked at all of our opened gifts, our seven year old daughter said, ‘I want to be an angel for somebody some day.’ And she will, too.” That seven year old has already shown herself to be one of God’s Advent people. She is not praying for raindrops; she has already become a part of God’s reign of peace, justice and righteousness!

I suspect that Nebraska’s “people of the land” will always be praying for raindrops. At the root of our being, we want nothing more than for the land to which we belong to be productive — for the good of the land, not just for our own financial prosperity. I would ask you to be in prayer for the church’s ecumenical witness in Nebraska, that we might prove faithful as God’s Advent people, sharing in the abundant life that comes, not from increased crop yields and livestock production, but from God’s daily provisions, a foretaste of God’s reign.

After all, that is what Advent is about — the human hope for peace, justice and righteousness… the hope for this life to be more like what God intended at the creation of the world.

In the words of Psalm 85:

9 Surely [God’s] salvation is at hand for those who fear [the LORD], that [God’s] glory may dwell in our land.

10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will [rain] down from the sky.

12 The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

13 Righteousness will go before [the LORD],

14 and will make a path for [the LORD’S] steps.

May it ever be so — in Nebraska, in Washington DC, and throughout all the world — in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.