Preached on July 16, 2017
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
My favorite part of gardening is putting seeds in the ground. Planting is the time of possibility, dreaming of a bountiful harvest. Winter is gone, warmer days beckon, and little green shoots are everywhere. I’m the same way about most projects, I love the brainstorming, creative work, collaborative envisioning, but I always struggle to get through the last 20 percent. So I relate to the parable of sower. I envision the happy farmer, scattering seeds, then checking every morning to see if something is peaking above the ground. If that is all there was to farming, I would have stayed in Iowa. But Jesus is a realist. The birds are going to eat some of your seeds, rocky soil does not produce, just ask all my Village Hill neighbors how impossible it is to grow grass with all the rocks and bricks below us, thorns and weeds can choke out new growth, and honestly, Jesus does not tell us the half of it. Gardening is complicated and risky, much like church.
You might think because I grew up in Iowa, and because I am from farming people for several generations, and because I was once President of a chapter of Future Farmers of America, therefore I would know what I’m doing. You would be wrong. We attended the orientation session with a master gardener, and it was quickly apparent to me that cultivating a New England garden had little in common with planting vast acres of corn and soybeans. My mind was awash with factoids about nitrogen content, mulching, water retention, cold weather vs. warm weather seeds, layout and design issues so we don’t pack the soil down or accidently shade our own plants. I felt trapped in a 20’ by 20’ intelligence test that I was quickly failing.
Undaunted, Jeanne and I went to the Garden Center, a hopeful and happy time where we dreamed of peas and carrots, arugula, and rattlesnake pole beans. And then we tackled our square of dirt with nothing but a garden spade, hoe and rake as our tools. One man, and one woman, united to bend nature and capture its bounty. I quickly remembered why I left the farm. It is very hard work. The next morning I was going to be so sore. I studied diligently in college to escape the farm. Jeanne, after listening to a dissertation on dry rot, and the proper way to crush beetle eggs under the tomato leaves, said “This is heart-breaking isn’t it?” Yes it is.
And yet, after two days of digging, hoeing and planting, we looked at our little patch, with the pride of the Creator God looking at creation on about day five, and said to each other, “It is good.” We went home sore and happy. This is so much of what a spiritual journey is like. We all would like to be more spiritual and connected with God, but it is so hard to sit still and be quiet, to find the time in our busy lives, to understand words of scripture, it is so hard to wait for God to speak, and then wonder if we had heard correctly. It all seems so fragile, our prayers pop up like little sprouts, and you wonder how they will fare against storms and hungry rabbits. To pray and not be heard is like pounding barren dry soil for nothing. To pray and know that God is still speaking, is like pulling the ripe tomato from the vine and biting into it right there in the garden because you can’t wait to take it home.
This is so much of what church is like. We desire what church is supposed to be, the place of community, love, inclusion and forgiveness. We look upon the holy moments singing “Silent Night” in candlelight on Christmas Eve, seeing our children baptized, carrying the flower cross at Easter. And then we are asked to serve on a committee, and find out that behind the organ music, preaching and sunlight coming through the stained glass, there are budget meetings, coffee hour procedures, and schedules for whose turn it is to wash the communion cups. We go to Wednesday night administration meetings and find that just like a community garden, some people like their rows very straight and others would like to plant in a circle. Some believe in no-till farming and others want to rent a roto-tiller. But we like tomatoes, peas and carrots, so we talk and work it all out.
We need to be aware how intimidating this is for anyone new to the process. By random draw our garden neighbors included the lead gardener at Smith College, a chef at Northampton’s well-known Paul and Elizabeth’s restaurant, and a legendary local Master Gardener. Their patches are works of art and engineering marvels. Strings of pole beans climb next to Tiger Lillies (how do we make our beans climb?!), tomato cages uphold slender vines bearing heavy fruit, mesh tents provide haven for fresh new starts. The rows are neat with little brick traversing each section. I didn’t realize I was signing on for an art project as well as back-breaking work.
As the summer went on our neighbors turned out to be supportive, generous and humble. One evening we asked a neighbor why our lettuce was not growing, noting that lettuce was growing quite well as volunteers in the compost pile, but none in our garden. She chuckled, “Nature is trying to get you to quit. Gardening is a blood-sport. It is a full-contact, us against them battle to the death with nature,” she said with the vigor of one who has fought in the hedgerows.
I like to call our other neighbor the Happy Chef. He learned to garden and cook from his family in Mexico. Like the sower in Jesus’s parable he relentlessly sows on all kinds of ground, and if the seeds don’t survive and thrive, it is just an opportunity for another happy day of more planting. There is a section devoted to salsa, with the loveliest cilantro, tart cherry tomatoes, and chili peppers. He shares new starts with us while telling us the recipe and how to arrange it on the plate, making us hope that we might see the journey through to the harvest. (And if we fail there is always a chance at dinner in his restaurant!)
The faith journey did begin in a garden, an Eden paradise. Church community is God’s gift of soil, seed and rain drops. It is a place where the miracle of life sprouts and the ground to which our dust returns. This garden takes our sweat and toil, and pours out tomatoes and potatoes, roses and tulips, food for our hunger and fragrance for our pleasure. This is a gift that keeps on giving, but it is an endowment that has to be used and tended. There are no shopping carts, but plenty of rakes and hoes and watering cans. The garden can be fertile or can easily be reclaimed by weeds and brambles, or covered over and forgotten under a concrete parking lot. But the gift is always there for those who are ready to claim it.
We go through many seasons in the church, with Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost following each other just like planting, tilling and harvest. It is important to note that every part of church life is sacred and an opportunity to grow closer to the God we know in Jesus Christ. Jesus is not just present in the great festivals and communion celebration. We may find the risen Christ in committees, teams, coffee hour and budgets as well. The bloom is sweeter and the harvest more delicious when we know our hand was on the hoe. And by the grace, we find the love of God in every part.
How shall the garden grow in our congregations? What will we plant? What will we do with the parts that are rocky ground or where the thistles grow thick? Are you willing to get some dirt under your fingernails so that we can enjoy the Great Feast together? This is our little patch of ground East of Eden. It is our hopeful sign of Paradise. It will soon be time to plant and harvest follows close behind. I am dreaming of bright pumpkins and ripe tomatoes. What about you?