The Garden We Plant


I am preaching at two churches, Fort Montgomery UMC and The United Methodist Church of the Highlands (Highland Falls, NY) this coming Sunday, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost.

The service at Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church starts at 9:30 am with the service in Highland Falls beginning at 11 am.

Fort Montgomery United Methodist Church US 9W South, Fort Montgomery, NY 10922
United Methodist Church of The Highlands 341 Main Street,  Highland Falls, NY 10928

Directions View Larger Map

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 28: 10  – 19, Romans 8: 12 – 25, and Matthew 13: 24 – 30, 36 – 43.  Note this has been edited since I first posted it.

(I added the link to “The Lost Generation” on 9 November 2009)

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Over the past few weeks and for the next few weeks to come the Scripture readings have focused (and will focus) on growth. The Gospel readings have been the parables of Jesus planting seeds in gardens and the difficulty of getting the right conditions for growth.

The Old Testament readings have been about the family of Abraham and its growing pains from the man Abram living in Ur to the establishment of the twelve tribes of Israel living in the Promised Land. Even the Epistle readings, Paul’s writings, have dealt with our own growth as individuals and with Christ.

Against that backdrop, my wife and I have been planting and developing a Children’s Garden at Grace Church (actually, my wife has been doing the work; I get the “fun” tasks of digging holes, moving rocks, rolling up the hoses, and putting the tools away). As we have prepared the soil, we have uncovered stones and debris of every size and shape; we have encountered the remnants of an old foundation, and we have dealt with and removed every sort of weed and unwanted foliage imaginable. I found a rock that I was going to call the “Peter Rock” because of its size until I found one bigger. If nothing else, the work in the garden has made the parables of Jesus come alive. But then again, that is why the parables were told and retold, to make the Gospel message come alive.

It is possible that Jesus could have told the message of the parables from an academic or theological standpoint and without the allegory or metaphors. He could have answered questions about the Heavenly Kingdom and God’s plan for us just has he did with the scholars and priests in the Temple when He was twelve (Luke 2:39-52). But many of those who came to hear Him when He was in the hills of the Galilee would probably not have understood such discourses. They were peasants, shepherds, and farmers; so the stories that they would remember and tell others needed to be stories about peasants, shepherds, and farmers, stories about themselves.

And perhaps that is why the disciples had trouble learning the message. As fisherman, stories about farming and being a shepherd were a far cry from their own lives, background, and knowledge. They understood the call to be fishers of men because they were fishermen. To seek the lost lamb as a shepherd would was a completely different story and one not easily understood by fishermen.

But it seems to me that even today, by the actions and words of the church today, we have forgotten the stories, do not understand those stories, or feel that they are no longer a part of our lives. Recent reports tell us that many people outside the church and even within the church see the church as hypocritical, of saying one thing but doing another. For me, this is not just something that others are saying.

I grew up in the South where people sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children” on Sunday and then went out and enforced segregation in the schools and public institutions on Monday.

Nor is it is just something from my past. Reports of young people leaving the church or never coming near it are painfully close to home. One of our granddaughters is not interested in church because of what she sees and hears from those who proclaim to be Christian but who lead lives that are anything but Christian. It used to be that we could say that the reason our children left the church is because they have grown up and are on their own. That is true but it is also evident that the church has driven them away.  (see “The Lost Generation”)

And that can only mean that we have either forgotten the stories, don’t understand them, or they don’t figure into our lives anymore. We may sing “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus” but we sing them as songs from our childhood. We are adults now and childhood stories don’t count anymore. They are meant for someone else; we have to deal with more practical things. Many people see what is done and said on Sunday as totally independent of what we do the rest of the week. We prefer to think in terms of the world and what the world calls upon us to do. But the world around us, as Paul so often reminds us, is not attuned to the message of the Gospel.

And that is where we fail. The world may not be tuned to the message of the Gospel because we have failed to do what we have been asked to do.  The Gospel reading for today is to remind us, as the previous few readings have done and the readings to come will do, that we are asked to prepare the fields for planting and, when the time comes, harvest the crops. But, for so many, the garden planned and planted on Sunday begins to wither and die on Monday.

Do we not have people today who sow the seeds that grow into weeds in our churches today? By their inaction, indifference, and intolerance do they not choke the growth of the church and its work in the community? Is it possible that those who call themselves Christians are the ones who sow the seeds of mistrust and discord in the garden that we are trying to plant? Unfortunately, the answer for those questions is too often “yes.”

There are those who offer words that sound like the Gospel message but lack the substance of the Gospel. There are those who offer words of encouragement and hope but give little to bring about actual encouragement and hope. There are those who preach hatred, exclusion, and violence and yet dare to call it the Gospel. There are those who would call on the wrath of God to destroy people while God Himself is calling us to help them. The fruits of these words are the weeds that choke off and kill the flowers that should be growing in our gardens.

It is no wonder so many people are leaving the church today. They cannot see the small blossoms of truth and beauty growing in the church’s garden because the weeds have overtaken the garden.

And it isn’t that there are others working to destroy the garden. We don’t always want to do the work that is required. It is hard working in the garden day after day and we don’t want to do that. We like a Gospel message that is easy to listen to and doesn’t require much from us. And we get angry when we are called to do God’s work; why must it be us? We sometimes express the thoughts that Joseph Donders, teacher and chaplain at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, expressed,

Jesus sowed the seed in our hearts and then off he went. He knew that things would not be ideal. There would be birds, droughts, weeds, insects, parasites and blights. Growing the gardens would not be easy but then He gave us the power of the seed itself (from Verse and Voice, 15 July 15, 2008 – Sojourners).

The power of the seed is the Holy Spirit; just as God promised Jacob that He, God, would be there, so too is the power of the Holy Spirit present in the work that we do. But we ignore the presence of the Holy Spirit and try to do the work ourselves. And it is, as Paul pointed out very hard work and in a culture that expects the results now, the promises of rewards later doesn’t fit too well.

 

We planted the gardens several years ago and we are content with what is growing now. We know what it takes to care for a garden and we do not need anyone telling us what to do. At times, it seems as if we know the answers before the questions are asked. And we hold onto our own ideas, ideas that may have worked years before, but are clearly not working today (see “That’s nice, preacher” – the original link didn’t work; I hope this is the correct link). Gardens are not easy to take care of; they require constant work to maintain. Unless you are willing to work in the garden that you planted, it will not grow; the weeds will come back and take over. And all our work is lost.

We can have gardens that remind us of the years past and the ones who have gone on to greater glory (as well we should). But we must also have gardens that speak to the future and what the future offers. As Paul said, our life is not a grave-tending life but one of adventure; our gardens should be full of the anticipation of what will blossom and flourish each year.

We must do like Jacob did in today’s Old Testament reading. Remember that Jacob is on the run from his brother Esau. Esau had threatened to kill Jacob because Jacob had lied and deceived Isaac in order to gain the birthright. When Esau finally understood that he had lost almost everything and nothing that he did would get it back, he vowed to kill Jacob. Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven is a sign from God that he, Jacob, was not running away from God but to God. In renaming the place where he slept as Bethel, Jacob was saying to the world this is God’s place, this is where my journey begins, not where it ends. We must do the same as well.

We must make a statement that God is present in everything we say and do. Paul speaks, not of our relationship with the world around us in the past and today, but of our relationship with God through Christ for today and tomorrow. Our gardens will not always be free of stones or weeds and it will be a constant struggle to let the garden grow. But that is symbolic of our relationship with God. The garden that we plant and take care of is our relationship with God. And it begins here today.

Why do we come to church each week? Do we come out of habit, trying to tend the garden of our memory when life was good and things weren’t so hard? Life, as Paul wrote in the words that we heard today, is always hard and we should not delude ourselves that it was once otherwise.

Or did we come here today because we want to plant a garden for the future? Do we come because we know that God is here, in this place, and this is our chance to once again be renewed and refreshed by the Holy Spirit so that we can go back out into the world and plant God’s garden? We are called to plant and care for a garden but which garden shall we plant?

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