This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 5th Sunday of Easter, 18 May 2003. The Scriptures are Acts 8: 26 – 40, 1 John 4: 7 – 21, and John 15: 1 – 8.
The number of flowers that we have had grace the altar of the church and our collars these past few Sundays prompts me to point out that if you give me flowers, it should be with the specific purpose of my giving them to either Ann or my mother. For in the simplest possible terms, I do not have a green thumb. This naturally is a great disappointment to my family where the growing of flowers and the tending of gardens is a natural family activity. I understand the nature of gardens and planting and I can do yard work with the best of them. But I don’t have the special feeling that turns a barren corner lot into a blaze of color and a place of comfort for people to visit and enjoy.
A garden is a place of life, a place of refreshment, a place from which growth can come. In that sense a church is a garden. Many times it is like the Garden of Gethsemane where people come to enjoy the smells and colors and get away from the troubles of the world, if but for a few moments. It is a place where one can renew their relationship with Christ.
During the sermon, I sang parts of Hymn 314
Not only is the church a garden for comfort, it can be a garden for sustenance, for growth. There are times when people need to find that something in their lives which allows them to grow, to become better aware of the world around them and the church serves that purpose.
The Ethiopian in the chariot was at such a point where his growth could not be accomplished individually; he needed the help of someone to fully understand and comprehend the meaning of the prophecy of Isaiah and its fulfillment through Christ. To that end, Philip was there to help in that growth process. The history of the Methodist Church speaks of its impact and role in the educational process with the founding of the first Sunday schools so that children and adults could learn to read and write. Many a time, the bishops of the early churches encouraged the circuit riders to read and study, so as to understand the Bible better and be able to carry the Gospel into the world.
If Phillip had not been there for the Ethiopian, he might not have come to know Christ. We are given many opportunities such as the one Phillip was given that day described in Acts, many opportunities to plant the seeds of a fruitful garden, and we cannot pass any of them by. We do not know what will grow from the seeds we help plant but we cannot sit idly by and not plant the seeds because of this uncertainty.
Yes, like in the parable of the sower, some of the seeds will land on rocky soil and wither and die. Some of the seeds will land among the weeds and be choked by the competing forces of life and die as well. But a good portion of the seeds, a good portion of our effort will land in the fertile soul of mankind and the results will be good.
As we plant our gardens, we also know that it will take great care and love to see the effort through. We cannot simply plant the seeds and go away; we must work to remove the weeds and the obstacles to ensure good growth; we must tend the ground with love and care. As I watched my grandmother tend the flower garden that was the definition of her home in St. Louis, I could see the love and care that she put into each part of it. Caring for a garden requires much love, a love for the task and a love to see that the fruits of the garden are shared with others.
So too must the garden of the church be tended with love and care. And here we have to be careful. For we do not want to confuse the care we give for things with the love we have for what is here. No matter what the organization might be, a church or otherwise, if there is no love for the members of the group, there can be no love for its work or its growth. The love that individual members of the organization have for one and another must be genuine and real; it cannot be artificial or solely for the benefits of those visiting or on the outside looking in. As John wrote in his letter to the churches, if our outward expressions of love belie what is in our hearts, we cannot truly love and whatever love we express will only be a love for ourselves and not for others.
Now, I think that these words of John were written from his heart. There may be no way to really know but it has been assumed throughout Christian history that John, the writer of the three pastoral letters, was the same author as the Book of Revelation and was the same John who wrote the Gospel of John. And if he was the author of the Gospel of John, then he is the same John who was the disciple of Jesus. This means that he was the John, who along with his brother James and with the aid of their mother Mary came to Jesus and asked to be placed at Jesus’ right hand when the Kingdom of Heaven was established.
It does not matter whether you read this story in Matthew or Mark because Jesus’ response was the same in both stories. Jesus pointed out that if one wanted to hold a seat of power in the heavenly kingdom, they must first work as a servant here on earth. Jesus pointed out that those in power at that time held the power of the office and the authority of that office over the people for their own good, not for the good of the people. This is a point many of our leaders today who claim to be Christian should well consider. The Gospel message would require a change in the values of the world. Power for and of itself would have no value if nothing were done to advance the good of the many. I hope that John remembered Jesus’ rebuke when he wrote to the various churches about the love of the members for each other and how that impacted on what they were doing.
Jesus used parables and stories to illustrate the power of the Gospel. For the images that were used in the parables and stories were the images that the people were likely to encounter in their daily lives. They understood the need for a shepherd to tend to his flocks; they could understand the need for gardener to trim and prune the dead branches from the vine so that the vine could grow and flourish.
Perhaps I should have entitled today’s sermon “Tending to the Garden” because we have a garden already planted. But there is still some planting to be done, for all the indications show that there are people out there who want to know about Christ and want to be a part of God’s kingdom. Unlike the seasons of the earth where planting must be done in the spring, the planting of the seeds in God’s kingdom can happen at any time.
And that means that the care for the garden, the love given to mankind is not limited to a specific time or a specific place. We cannot be like Phillip, directed to be at a specific time and place. Rather we must be ready at any time to help someone find Christ and then to help them grow in that life. We must also work to make sure that there is always a place where people can find Christ, where that seed of peace through the Holy Spirit can be found. And once we start, we cannot stop. We cannot think that it will grow on its own, for like the gardens of earth, the garden I have described can quickly be overgrown with weeds and brambles, choking the growth of the church.
John’s words speak to us today. He speaks of love, the love God had for us, the love we have for Christ, and most importantly the love we have for others because of the love God has for us. How we plant the garden and then how we tend it will show others the type of love that grows in us.