It is certainly Fall here! This past Sunday in Germany was Erntedankfest – a holiday akin in sentiment to American Thanksgiving – a day to give thanks for the fruits of the earth and God’s gifts to us all (but typically not celebrated by overeating). This evening at the Collegium Oecumenicum (COe), members of our community gathered along with residents of the Hailpädogogisches Centrum Augustinum (HPCA), with whom we share a campus. The COe is our community of students, both German and international, united in our love of Christ. The HPCA is a community of adults with mental and physical disabilities and their helpers who live together in a therapeutic environment. These two groups came together to celebrate Erntedankfest in worship.
I was there early to practice with the choir when the HPCA residents arrived. They brought noise and excitement. Some of the HPCA folks didn’t talk. Others couldn’t seem to stop talking. They shuffled and wheeled into their places and the COe students trickled in, filling in spaces around the room. I ended up sitting next to Bettina from HPCA. Bettina spoke little, but she looked at me and pointed to her ear, and then she sang. She also patted my leg and put her head on my shoulder.
The service began with organ music, and the surface noise dropped. When the prelude ended, one man (who responded loudly throughout the service) said, “Well done! Play some more!” With smiles, the ministers from COe and HPCA welcomed us to the celebration of Erntedankfest, speaking over the noisy worshipers and gesturing toward the altar bedecked in gourds, vegetables, fruits, and a grape vine. The HPCA minister held up a lettuce and asked, “What is this?” The loud guy, Andy, yelled, “A carrot!” He received much laughter. We then passed the fruits and vegetables from person to person so that we could all touch and smell God’s gifts of creation. When the green bell pepper was handed to Bettina, she looked from the pepper to me with a smile. “Is that a pepper?” I asked. She nodded and smiled again, then was prompted by her helper to pass it on to me. She laid her head back on my shoulder for a moment.
The COe minister gestured to the grape vine and reflected on the symbolism of John 15. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. What are the fruits of a relationship with Jesus? We gave thanks for this relationship, and for the fruits of service, care, friendship, and kindness. Grapes were passed, and all who were able were invited to partake.
We sang, we prayed, we were sent… and I marveled at the gift of faith. Without getting too theoretical (but to channel Tillich, Niebuhr, Fowler), being in this joint service with HPCA reminded me that faith is not an act of cognition. (That is, people with mental disabilities are not thereby spiritually disabled. Likewise, children too young to comprehend are not precluded from lives of faith.) Furthermore, faith isn’t a level of certainty that we must possess or achieve. (Doubt goes hand-in-hand with faith, so we pray in good company, “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief.”)
Faith is a way of being – more action than object -and it is a gift from God to us all. We experience faith as a way of being oriented to the Divine, and it is in faith that our lives are made meaningful. Faith is God’s gift to the smallest of children, to Andy and Bettina who knew the goodness of God tonight, to you in America and in Saudi Arabia, in Germany and in Greece, and also to me. And in our shared experiences of faith, like today’s Erntedankfest worship, we come to know a little bit more of God’s love and care for us all.