Back to the Garden: life together

Text: Acts 2:42-47 and Hebrews 13: 1-3, 16 (sharing in common)

What kind of community do we want? What kind of church are we building? And what kind of city, country, and world do we want to live in?

Today I reflect on these questions based on the readings we just heard from the New Testament books of Acts and Hebrews, and on stories from the Woodstock Festival of Peace and Music of 1969.

Last Sunday I began a series of Sunday reflections inspired by Joni Mitchell’s 1969 song “Woodstock” and I appreciated the comments it generated. One was from Kathy Poechman who told me the surprising news that our friend Wayne Dooley, a long-time member of Mill Woods United, had been at Woodstock.

I saw Wayne this past Tuesday. People may not know that Wayne and his wife Marlene have started coming to the church every Tuesday with food for The Bread Run and the Collective Kitchen. They pick up surplus food from local retailers and donate it to a local women’s shelter and to us. Their charity effort was one of the many happy developments I learned about when I returned from a sabbatical two weeks ago.

This past Tuesday, I asked Wayne about Woodstock, and he confirmed that indeed he was there in August 1969. So, for those of you who know Wayne, I ask you to now picture him in 1969 — an 18-year old Newfoundlander with a big Irish Afro and a goatee. That August, he drove with three friends from their home in St. John’s to New York State. About 10 miles from the Woodstock site, they had to abandon their car in a massive traffic jam. Eventually, they found a bus that took them the rest of the way; and so, they, along with 400,000 other young people, experienced three days of mud, music, and communal chaos. Wayne told me he loved it; and I enjoyed speaking to him about it. It was the first time I have spoken with someone who was actually at Woodstock, and I am grateful to Kathy for making the connection . . .

The Bible passages we heard today uphold radical hospitality and sharing. The author of Acts writes that the first followers of Jesus lived and ate together. They sold their property; pooled their resources; shared everything in common; and devoted themselves to prayer, worship, and service.

This picture of followers of Jesus in Jerusalem in the weeks and months after Jesus’ death brings to my mind the hippie communes and gatherings of the 1960s and 70s, including Woodstock when more so many young people descended on Yasgur’s dairy farm in New York State for three days of music 50 years ago.

Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock” captures the hopes and dreams of the 400,000 people who were there and the millions more of us who wished we’d been there.

Last week, I played a music video of Mitchell’s song, and some noted that it was difficult to make out the words. So, I now recite her lyrics and ask you to focus in particular on those that relate to community:

“I came upon a child of God / He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going / and this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm / I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land / I’m going to try an’ get my soul free

We are stardust / we are golden / and we’ve got to get ourselves /
Back to the garden

Then can I walk beside you / I have come here to lose the smog /
And I feel to be a cog in something turning / Well maybe it is just the time of year / or maybe it’s the time of man / I don’t know who l am /
But you know, life is for learning

We are stardust / we are golden / and we’ve got to get ourselves /
Back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock / we were half a million strong /
and everywhere was a song / and a celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bomber jet planes / riding shotgun in the sky /
and turning into butterflies / above our nation

We are stardust / billion year old carbon / we are golden / caught in the devil’s bargain / and we got to get ourselves / back to the garden.”

Mitchell’s song is about joining a pilgrimage with other children of God. Some, like the man she meets on the road, want to live out on the land, play in a rock and roll band, and get their soul free. Others like Mitchell are trying to escape the smog. When they join together, they realize they have become small cogs in a huge movement. With song and celebration, they dream of turning bomber planes into butterflies. And as their gathering grows, they sense that their movement of peace and love might help usher us back to the Garden from which we had been banished.

Now, not everything was Eden-like at Woodstock. A fierce rainstorm created an ocean of mud. There too few bathrooms, not enough food, and no easy way to communicate amid the chaos. Some drug trips went bad, and so on.

Nevertheless, many of us believed that hippies who listened to folk music and acid rock; who grew their hair long and ignored traditional mores about gender and sex; who were united in horror against the War in Vietnam; and who dreamed of a world in which bombers became butterflies might just be able to stop war, mend the earth, and set everyone’s soul free.

In 2014, when I first preached on the utopian vision of Acts, I connected its vision to the visions of hippies. I wondered what the retirement lives of former hippies might look like and suggested that churches like Mill Woods United might one day be led by former hippies who revived the culture of our youth for a new day.

Five years later, I believe that a return to the dreams of the 60s is just around the corner. This is so not just because many of us are nostalgic about those days, but also because of the depth of the crises facing society.

For instance, in the face of climate disaster, scientists say that humanity needs to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels by 95% or more. Living as we do in a city that was built for automobiles, it can feel impossible to imagine such a massive shift. To concretize the difficulty, picture a 10-minute walk along 38 Ave in front of the church. Today one might encounter five pedestrians in those 10 minutes and one hundred or more cars and trucks. In a post-carbon future, the hope is that one would encounter 100 pedestrians and only five vehicles in those 10 minutes. But can such a change possibly come to pass?

Walkable neighbourhoods require a level of density several orders of magnitude greater than today’s Edmonton. Since WWII, multiple trillions of dollars have been invested here and around the world on residential suburbs of detached houses surrounded by industrial and retail zones accessible only by car. To mitigate climate disaster, these cities have to be transformed. And making this vision a reality would necessarily involve more communal living, I believe.

Communities of faith like this one can be seen as a kind of commune. We are a family of chosen friends who sing and pray in celebration and who congregate to learn, to reach out to our neighbours in care, and to work for a better world. But after Sunday morning worship or Tuesday evening clothing bank duties, we return to our homes, which are often not very communal.

Last week, I read a column in the Globe and Mail titled “Smaller homes could make us happier.” It referenced a report that estimated there are approximately 15 million unused bedrooms in Canada, which surprised me. But then I remembered that Kim and I live in a big house in which only one bedroom is used; and when I lived in Saskatchewan, I was the sole inhabitant of a manse with five bedrooms.

You know, if all the single people in Canada magically found a partner with whom to live, housing prices would plummet and rental vacancies would soar, which might indeed make us happier. But one thing the author of the Globe article doesn’t mention is that such a happy development would also be an economic catastrophe.

The established powers in 1969 were afraid of the hippies, and some of their fear might have been the challenge that communal living presents to the GDP.

Woodstock was a moment that highlighted the ability of the counterculture to challenge the logic not only of the economy, but of U.S. imperialism in southeast Asia, and the power of corrupt elites to rule the world; and so, the U.S. Administration of President Richard Nixon feared it. But when Woodstock occurred 50 years ago, Nixon had only been in power for eight months, and his efforts to disrupt the movement were still in the planning stages.

One of President Nixon’s domestic-policy advisers, John Ehrlichman, made the Administration’s fear of the counterculture explicit in an interview in 1994. He said, “the Nixon White House had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against the war or to be black. But by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then penalizing both drugs heavily, we could disrupt both communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.

There are many reasons why the dreams of the counterculture of 1969 didn’t end war, or smog, or loneliness, and the War on Drugs was only one. Another is fear; and when I return to this series in two weeks, I will reflect on fear as a barrier that hinders our dream of going back to the Garden from becoming a reality.

But despite how its dreams have faded, the Woodstock vision of 50 years ago – of a different logic for the economy, for international relations, and for how we could arrange life together — this vision lives on in many places, including in faith communities that are centred on peace, music, and love – communities like this one.

The utopian visions of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem in the First Century and of the 400,000 people who gathered at Woodstock in the 20th Century did not completely transform society.

But today in the face of unprecedented challenges, we have another gracious moment to join with others and to turn crisis into opportunity and work to bring the dream of a new Eden a bit closer to reality.

May it be so. Amen.