Lessons of Summer
How Does Your Garden Grow? Click here for audio
Mark 4:3-9, 26-32, Jeremiah 29:4-5, 7
Pastor Donna Buell
When Marty and I divided up the topics for the last month of sermons on the Lessons of Summer it just seemed to make sense for the aging jock to cover the topics of golf and baseball. And I was all over the Sabbath theme. That was right up my alley. And at first the gardening image seemed very fruitful and I was just sure I could do something with that. The problem I found is that the gardening image is a bit too fruitful. I was overwhelmed by the wealth of spiritual connections to be made to gardens and to gardening. And if the random notes typed in to my sermon document are any indication, those spiritual connections are truly infinite. That document started to look a lot like the out of control perennial garden we used to have in the yard behind the parsonage in Northfield – lots of great random thoughts running rampant across the page with very little order or definition.
As I struggled to bring order to my thoughts, I had to confess this truth: I am not a gardener – at least not a gardener with appreciable skills. The only reason we had a perennial garden in Northfield is because the former pastor’s wife and her gardener friends created it long before we moved in. Come to think of it, the best vegetable garden Marty and I ever had was the one we inherited from the previous pastor in Redwood Falls.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love gardens and I’ve always dreamed of having a beautiful garden. Sometime in the future gardening may be something that I devote time and energy to. But that time is not now. The few pots of flowers and herbs that are growing on the small patio at our townhome are about all I can manage.
Anyway, the other morning I was sitting there, casting about for a structure for all my random thoughts. And it may have been my confession about not being a gardener, but suddenly the order of worship popped into my head, and I started thinking about where I left off in my sermon two weeks ago.
That Sunday I ended my sermon by talking about the pattern of Sabbath rest that is built into the very fabric of creation; and about how practicing Sabbath patterns of rest and renewal can help us to build and sustain a faithful balance in the midst of our hectic lives. And I began to wonder if that might not give me the structure I needed to contain the disparate thoughts I had about gardens and the spiritual life. At some point you just have to make a commitment and start digging, so that’s what I did.
Two weeks ago I spoke about the seasons of the church year, those seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost, which are patterned on the life of Jesus and provide a structure for our worship throughout each year. And gardens certainly have a pattern of annual seasons, as well.
The first year we lived in Northfield I took pictures of our garden every couple of weeks, especially during the growing season, so that I could have a record of the perennials that were growing there. And when I lined those pictures up, I could see the garden’s seasonal changes. In the springtime it was tulips and irises that flowered first. Later there were coral bells and coreopsis, in mid summer the bee balm and lilies, coneflowers and hostas took center stage, and by August the garden was just completely overrun with phlox. In the fall, unless we put in a few mums, all that would be left were dried up plants and a bit of sedum. And then it all went dormant once again. Yet I found that even as winter approached the garden had a certain beauty. One of the books I read this week talked about how the season of winter “exposes the bones of a garden.” That’s when the outline of the garden and the features which give it definition become visible, at least until it receives a thick blanket of snow. It was as winter approached that we were able to see, again, that our garden had paths of cement stepping stones running through it.
The life of the spirit has seasonal patterns as well. They don’t always follow a yearly schedule, but we do experience spring-times of freshness and rebirth, summer-times of growth and productivity, fall-times of harvested blessings. And then there are those winter-times when we have to let go of things to which we so tightly cling. And when we are stripped bare and our vulnerabilities are exposed we often find that our faith may go through times of dormancy.
Each season of the spirit calls for a different kind of spiritual gardening. Preparing the soil and planting seeds in hope; watering and nurturing new callings so that they may take root; weeding and trimming and pruning and otherwise dealing with things that might inhibit growth; harvesting the fruits of that growth, and sharing from the abundance so that nothing goes to waste, and allowing for those fallow times, trusting that they will lead to new life.
I spoke two weeks ago about the pattern of weekly worship and of the value of coming together with others each week in a community of faith to be reminded of who we are, and whose we are, and who we are called to be.
A lot of gardeners join garden clubs. They love that opportunity to come together regularly with others who share their passion for growing things. Though I’ve never attended a garden club meeting, I suspect that they use those times to share stories, to learn from those who have varying kinds of expertise, to compare notes, to exchange ideas and tips, to receive consolation and encouragement, to be energized and inspired. It’s not all that different from what we experience when we gather for weekly worship. And as is the case with worship participation, I suspect that the more often a gardener participates in the gatherings and activities of the garden club, the more they grow as a gardener and the more they come to identify themselves as part of the gardening community.
I spoke two weeks ago about the pattern of weekly worship itself: of coming into God’s presence with praise and thanksgiving, of hearing and reflecting upon God’s Word, of responding to that Word through acts of prayer and dedication, and of being sent out into the world to love and serve God and neighbor.
When I look out our window each morning and see those plants growing on our patio it is like a call to worship. It reminds me that I am in the presence of God, and it invites me to celebrate that presence even if only for a moment. And the same thing happens when I walk or drive through a neighborhood. I am drawn by the beauty of each garden I see and by their unique qualities. It’s like looking out on a congregation of worshipers, “a dazzling bouquet of every kind of flower,” each one a unique reflection of God’s image. Coming into the presence of God, in a garden or in worship, calls forth a song of praise from the heart.
Once we have come into the presence of God, it is good to stop and linger a while, and to be open to whatever word God may have to share with us. In worship, that is done primarily through the reading of scripture and the sermon. And when we have “ears to hear,” as Jesus says – when our hearts and minds are open and receptive – we can receive many insights. Jesus describes this well in his parable of the seeds that landed in different kinds of soil.
When our hearts and minds are completely made up or closed off, like that hard-packed, well-traveled path, it is hard for those seeds or lessons that come from God’s word to penetrate. When our hearts and minds are filled with obstacles – with things like grief, worry, hurt, or fear – like seeds in rocky soil, it is difficult for God’s word to put down roots. When our hearts and minds are inhospitable with thorny thoughts and intentions – with blame, anger, criticism, and cynicism – the life gets choked out of those seeds so that God’s word doesn’t even have a chance. But when our hearts and minds are open and receptive to receive God’s word, as when the soil of our spirits has been prepared – when it is rich and fertile and well-watered – the seeds of God’s word are much more likely to find a place to put down deep roots and to grow and to thrive and to bear much fruit.
There are so many lessons to be learned in a garden, just as there are many lessons to be learned when we come together around God’s word as a community of faith, if we have ears to hear. When you look for the sermon text on our new website, you will again find that it is followed by some quotations. I encourage you to take time to read them, that they might be a resource for nurturing that fertile ground in your own life.
In a service of worship we also include times of prayer, the celebration of communion, and acts of offering and dedication. These are all ways of acknowledging that what we have is not ours alone and is not simply the fruit of our own labor: that, as Jesus said in our reading this morning, there are hidden things going on in the earth over which we have no control and about which we have little understanding. These acts of worship acknowledge our dependence upon the source of all creation, our interdependence with all living things, and our responsibilities to one another and to future generations. And so we respond by turning our hearts to God in prayer, by giving thanks for our blessings, by sharing what is on our hearts and minds, by praying for others and for our world, and by asking for the strength and the will to live in faithfulness to the values of God’s kingdom. We respond by sharing with one another in the sacrament by which we are fed and nourished to share in the kingdom work to which Christ calls us, and we respond with gratitude, by offering from the abundance of God’s blessings, to support the work of God’s kingdom with our neighbors near and far.
I have a friend who once told me that “gardens are for sharing.” Most of the time gardeners are more than happy to share from the abundance of their blessings. They are glad that their gardens give pleasure to those who walk past. They are glad to offer cuttings from plants to those who express interest. Gardeners cut bouquets of fresh flowers to bring cheer to a friend, our to enhance a table or a sanctuary, they leave a bag of tomatoes or zucchini on a neighbor’s doorstep, they lug a box of cucumbers, or a bunch of herbs, or a crate of apples to the church to share on a produce table. And what more beautiful way to share our abundant blessings than to gather around a table and to share in a meal, whether it be a simple supper with our family at the end of the day, or a feast prepared for friends from our own garden, or the bread and cup of communion shared with our church family. As one of my favorite communion hymns says”
“All our meals and all our living make us sacraments of thee,
that by caring, helping, giving, we may true disciples be.”
-UMH 632 Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether
Having dedicated our gifts to the work of God’s kingdom we turn our eyes with intention to the world beyond our doors. We are grateful for what we have together, but it is not an end in itself. And so we are sent forth by God’s blessing to share with a world that is so in need of what we have been given to share.
Two weeks ago I spoke about the invitation to engage in daily practices of prayer and reflection, as individuals and as families, that we might cultivate a great attentiveness to God’s presence that is with us in the midst of our daily lives. Gardens hold great metaphors for this.
My Dad was a weekend gardener. And I think it provided a change of pace for him to work with growing things rather than the numbers and equations and hard steel that he dealt with in his work as a quality control engineer. He was an okay gardener, doing what he could do in the time he had to devote to it. And since he tried to do a little work each weekend, his gardens didn’t usually get too far out of control. But the best gardeners know that a little time spent in a garden each and every day is the best practice.
Whenever I have talked with real gardeners, I have learned that they spend time each day in their garden. My friend Carol usually goes out for a little while each morning to pull weeds when the ground is softened with morning dew. And in the evening she goes out again to dead-head the spent flowers. She knows how important those tedious tasks are, not only to make a garden look nice, but to encourage future growth. And I suspect that it is during those daily rounds that she sees what needs watering, and identifies the bigger projects that may need her attention when she has larger blocks of time. It is probably also during those daily rounds that she dreams about the changes she wants to make to her garden in the future, for in reality a garden is never really finished. She once told me that the time she spends in the garden each day is her quiet place and time.
A couple of weeks ago I asked Chris Nelson if she would be willing to share some of her thoughts about gardening and the spiritual life. She was gracious enough to take time to do just that. Those of you who have been to the Nelson’s know that they have a beautiful yard. Their back yard is a contemplative oasis; the kind of yard I would want if I were a gardener. But that kind of garden doesn’t happen just because you think it would be nice. It requires regular care and attention, and a lot of hard work.
Chris’s love of gardening was nurtured early in life by her parents, who were also avid gardeners. So the earthy smell of rich soil evokes memories of her parents. The roses she and her mother purchased together are still in her garden, and each bloom brings her memory to the fore.
As with my friend Carol, the garden is place of closeness to God for Chris. That daily time alone with tasks to perform, allows her mind to wander. Memories are evoked, prayers are lifted up, blessings are named, tears are shed, problems are contemplated, and frustrations are worked out. But it is also a place to express creativity and hope. It is a place to experience unexpected surprises and great joy. Chris says she is “never happier than when dirty and grubby in the midst of some redo of the garden as it changes over the years. The physical work calms her and being alone nourishes her soul. Tending the garden is like my relationship with God,” she wrote, “in that if I don’t give it attention it withers and suffers.”
Gardens also help us gain perspective in life. Chris shared the insight that “if you garden in a place long enough, you have to say goodbye to plants or trees that die, but that often leads to another new phase in your garden.” And she also expressed appreciation for the “understated workhorse plants like hostas, ferns, and ground covers for always creating a sense of calm and peace and not having to be center stage. Lots of us are like that in life,” she wrote, “not major players but of value none the less in contributing to the whole.” I want to thank Chris for sharing so generously both her thoughts and her garden.
Oh, there are so many lessons to be learned in a garden; lessons of life and lesson of faith. And hopefully our worship this morning has inspired you to want to get out there and bring a little regular time and attention to the gardens in your life, and more importantly, to the garden of your soul. And if so, then thanks be to God. Amen.
HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?
random quotes and reflections
Now the Lord God planted a garden.
Be a gardener for Creation. Dig, toil and sweat,
and turn the earth upside down,
seek the deepness and water the plants in time.
Continue this labor, and make sweet floods to run,
and noble and abundant fruits to spring.
Then take this food, drink, and beauty,
and carry it to God as your true worship.
~Julian of Norwich
Speak to the earth, and it shall teach you. ~Job 12:8
Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful,
for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament.
Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every flower,
and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
When the world wearies and ceases to satisfy there is always the garden.
Gardening is one of the slowest of arts, asking patience and foresight and some simple manual labor in exchange for its ephemeral beauties. What the gardener plants in the spring is not so much seeds as seedlings as hope. ~Jennifer Bennett and Turgid Forsyth
When people praise me for something
I vow with all my being to return to my vegetable garden
and give credit where credit is due.
~ Robert Aitken Roshi
We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.
God sends the snows in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
the seedtime and the harvest and the soft refreshing rain.
“Wow,” Calvin tells Hobbes, “look at the grass stains on my skin. I say, if your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life!”
~ Bill Watterston from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.
A man who took great pride in his lawn found himself with a large crop of dandelions. He tried every method he knew to get rid of them. Still they plagued him. Finally he wrote to the Department of Agriculture. He enumerated all the things he had tried and closed his letter with the question, “What shall I do now?” In due course the reply came: “We suggest you learn to love them.” ~Anthony de Mello
Everyone has enough weeding to do in their own garden. ~Flemish proverb
Gardens bring us into contact with the cycles and irrefutable laws of nature, teaching us indelible lessons about ourselves and about the messy, difficult, and beautiful processes of living.
~ Cait Johnson
The garden reconciles human art and wild nature,
hard work and deep pleasure,
spiritual practice and the material world.
It is a magical place because it is not divided.
~ Thomas Moore
A garden is so much like a church. So much care and feeding. Such competitiveness among the plants – some of them literally choke each other to death if you don’t get out there and put a stop to it. The big gorgeous ones get lots of attention, but then one comes along that looks almost dead all season and suddenly, almost overnight, blooms splendidly forth. Never write anybody off completely. You just don’t know. ~ Barbara Cawthorne Crafton
Mine is a church where everybody’s welcome.
I know it’s true, ‘cause I got through the door.
We are a dazzling bouquet of every kind of flower.
Jump in the vase, ‘cause we’ve got space for more! ~ Bret Hesla
Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them. ~ A.A. Milne
Quotes from The Spirituality of Gardening by Donna Sinclair
We garden for our soul’s sake. If it was just about burning calories, we could walk for an hour each day and save all the money we spend on shovels, new plants, and manure. But competence in nourishing the soul is like any other skill. It involves practice, which my dictionary defines as “the repeated performance of an activity in order to perfect a skill.” Such discipline – at the violin, at medicine, at law, at spirituality – requires time. pp.115-117
Gardeners are in love with a beauty inherent in the earth. We just try to help people see it. The whole earth is a garden that we have been given by our Creator. Our own vegetable patches and perennial borders, boxes of plants that grace our apartment balconies, vivid borders installed by civic minded mall owners, old downtowns exploding with tough petunias in huge baskets from every lamppost – all these teach us that life is not solely about achievement. It is about beauty for its own profitless, extravagant sake. It is about stubborn resistance to all who would harm the earth. It is about living…in gratitude for this lovely, sacred, vital planet. p.147
When you get to be a parent, you can make your kids pull weeds. p.43
You can’t really make a mistake in a garden. Honestly, if you don’t like the way something turns out, you can always move it in the fall or early spring. That’s part of the fun, and the wonder. p.63
Gardening is about being grounded, rooted to the here and now without the need to tidy up. It is the difference between managing life and entering into life, reminding us that gardening need not be the fraught, perfectionistic, slightly paranoid struggle that it becomes for some. Truth is, our love for plants is bound up with a taste for human error, nature’s excesses, and sheer unadulterated indulgence. p.104