Growing The Garden

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Life, like gardening, is riddled with choices. How much water? Direct sunlight? Special food? Is the climate hospitable? Too windy? Cold? Hot? People and plants have a lot in common. This Sunday, Rev. Victor examines the commonalities between flora and fauna—and how it’s all so much better when we trust The Master Gardener…God.

Sermon Video


This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scriptures

Sirach 15:15-20, alt.[1]

If you choose, you can keep the commandments;

to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.

God has placed before you fire and water;

stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.

Before each person are life and death;

whichever one they choose will be given.

For great is the wisdom of God:

mighty in power and seeing everything;

God’s eyes are on those who fear God;

God knows every human action.

God has not commanded anyone to be wicked,

and God has not given anyone permission to sin.

 

[1] For the full Revised Common Lectionary readings for February 16, 2020: <https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=18>  As per the PC(USA)’s guidance (and my practice), I have edited this reading for current language inclusivity standards.

 

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Full Text of Sermon

 

Sirach 15:15-20, alt.[1]

If you choose, you can keep the commandments;

to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.

God has placed before you fire and water;

stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.

Before each person are life and death;

whichever one they choose will be given.

For great is the wisdom of God:

mighty in power and seeing everything;

God’s eyes are on those who fear God;

God knows every human action.

God has not commanded anyone to be wicked,

and God has not given anyone permission to sin.

 

The Revised Common Lectionary

Greta[2] just read from the 2,200-year-old[3] Hebrew Wisdom of Sirach, a book of Jewish ethics influenced by Egyptian literature. Sirach is not part of the official Protestant Bible, but this day, in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches all over the world, this passage from Sirach is being read.[4] So, today, we peek over the fence to see what our neighbors are doing.

Early church theologians Augustine and Athanaisus accepted the Book of Sirach. Later on, the Protestant church chose to omit it from the canon with Reformers like Martin Luther calling Sirach part of the “hidden” Bible. The Apocrypha has many books and offers a window into yet more ancient expressions of God. Today’s reading from Sirach mirrors the official Protestant reading of the day, from Deuteronomy 30. On the plain of Moab, Moses preaches duty before they enter the Promised Land.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…[5]

 

Non-Binary Choices

In contrast, Sirach writes: God has place before you fire and water, a la Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice. Sirach says stretch out your hand to to the water. Why, to purify, to put out the fire? Stretch out your hand to the fire, to be burned, to warm yourself, to dry off from bathing in the water?

Both Deuteronomy and Sirach teach us about Choice, how our decisions will lead us somewhere: to God, to ruin. Both books avoid describe these choices as non-binary. It’s not fire OR water but fire AND water, blessings AND curses, life AND death. I can almost stretch my head around it, almost understand how our goal can be non-binary. Can the final destination be found on a spectrum?

 

The Curse of the Bottom Line

For example, as a church, don’t we feel that we’re either growing OR shrinking? Numbers don’t lie, right? But, right here, from the pages of Sirach and Deuteronomy, we learn that even our binary—win or lose—perceptions are spiritually lacking. Our hand-wringing over the number of members or dollars or politics or how much should the pastors placate bad behavior or what the preacher did or did not say—these concerns do not come from God. God calls us to be open to the new thing God is always doing.

Jesus needed very little: twelve committed disciples and relied on the kindnesses of his followers. What’s even richer, he cursed fruitless fig trees[6] and overturned tables of money-changers[7] defiling God’s house, and and and we need money to be the church in the 21st century. Maybe it’s never either-or. I am really trying to work my way to becoming a both-and person.

I have noticed that when Christians look only to the Old Testament for the answers, things can get dark pretty quick. For us, it’s got to be both-and Old and New Testaments. So, let’s read on in today’s lectionary, an excerpt from church-planter Paul’s letter to the congregation in Corinth. Warning: he’s is in bit of a snit today.

 

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

 

Pause. In other words, commit to the church’s mission, not to the style in which it is accomplished. Follow Jesus, not the preacher. What is a preacher anyway? He continues.

 

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. [The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.]

 

Intangible Benefits

Now, about that last word “You are God’s building.” The older Koine Greek reads oikodomE which also means the process of construction.[8] We are God’s building in a present participle kind of sense: God’s process. Oikodome also means home building.[9] Just think on this, and let’s become this teaching. We are God’s home. We are God’s building, God’s home building, God’s process of building. This is worth meditating upon.

Sadly, social mores in 2020 do not care much about process. It’s all about results. How much can we produce and squirrel away through any means necessary—lies, exploitation, distractions. Who really cares if the market is doing well? But hope, real hope, is not tied to retirement plans! You are here today because you know, deep down, you know there is more to this life than the bottom line.

 

Gardening: A Slow Process

At our Tuesday morning seniors gathering in Calvin Hall, Marion Stanton schedules some spectacular speakers. Our programs range widely. Muslim-Christian Dialogue was soon followed up a few weeks later with The History of Strip Clubs in North Beach. Perhaps my favorite presenter has been Dr. Victoria Sweet, author of God’s Hotel,[10] stories from San Francisco’s Laguna Honda residential hospital. Dr. Victoria Sweet works with what she calls Slow Medicine, the title of her latest book[11] on the current state of healthcare. She describes her medical education as akin to learning to be an auto-mechanic. When a part breaks, or kidney or a hip, she was taught: repair it or replace it. This system works. Like many of you, I would not be alive without modern medicine and the system, such as it is, but what happens to the patient who is not well-served by the current system? For example, what about Jane, a Calvary senior: she is blind and needs extra support, her kidney transplant is now worn out, and her benefits are down to only 60 days of lifetime longterm care remaining?  What about Sara, Calvary’s former receptionist, a retired government employee, relocated against her wishes to San Bruno and wants to come home to her friends on San Francisco. Because the system now considers Sara a resident of another county, Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital actually refused her emergency medical service.[12] and she has landed twice as far away, in Menlo Park, at the age of 93, where no one knows her? Or Calvary’s oldest living member, Klara, a hundred-something years young, recently relocated to Belmont. In your later years, how many here want to be relocated against your wishes to start over in, say, Chico?[13] Dr. Sweet describes a medical system that is expedient and inhuman.

 

Hildegard von Bingen

Dr. Sweet did turned to history to discover Slow Medicine. She discovered a medieval nun, a woman healer, an herbalist, a poet, a composer of music and a master gardener. The Mother Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, born over 900 years ago held possibilities for Dr. Sweet, who discovered in Hildgegard’s spiritual writings a devotion to healing—not a career, a devotion—a vocation that overflowed into how she did everything.

Dr. Sweet says Hildgegard’s model of medicine is like gardening: try a little of this, a little of that, wait and see. For Hildegard and Sweet, the body is living organiem much akin to a garden. Hildegard soothed the odd plants with something…else…, and advocated patience in healing. Of course, Dr. Sweet advocates “repair and replace” auto-mechanic-style medicine—but alongside the tender long-haul gardening approach of Sister Hildegard. Like people, not every geranium needs the same amount of sunlight. Like people, not every jade plant objects to being moved around. Like people, not every ear of corn turns out as we’d like. Like people, not every tree grows to a pre-determined height. We cannot predict how living organisms will live.

Did you know that the coastal redwood trees here in Muir Woods and north of Eureka drink water out of the air? Some of them extract up to 500 gallons of water per day from the fog[14]—life-giving water out of thin air! When these same trees become diseased or injured, the fungus around their root systems alert the healthy neighboring trees to conserve the nutrients in the soil and water, and the healthy trees actually share their resources with their neighbors in need. Love thy neighbor is the true nature of life. When Lou and I visited Muir Woods last fall, we both cried during the nature talk. How rich we are! How able we are to love and to forgive. Oh that we would drop the human costumes of fear and vitriol!

Like Paul and Appollos, we plant and we water, and then step back. Only God can give the growth. In God, our spirits and souls find their home, just as God calls us to be God’s home. Plants, like people, need the warmth of the light, even fire to thrive. Plants, like people, need water. Plants, unlike people, do not contemplate their own existence and make choices that have consequences on future generations. We have been given freewill, the ability to choose: fire, water, blessings, cursings, life and death. Perhaps you feel unworthy of blessing due to what you’ve been told, what you’ve done, who you have hurt. Hear me now: every saint has a past, every sinner a future.

 

The Gospel of Okra[15]

Along the Rome Road in Plainville, Georgia, beside a house that no longer stands, my Uncle Elmer used to grow vegetables all summer. Around the spring thaw, he would start his ‘maters in Dixie Cups on the window sills. Then, he’d move the seedlings to the front porch, turning them once a day, so that they would grow straight up rather than lean to the sunny side. Now, the word ‘māter, in Lower Appalachia, is similar to Mater in Pixar movies: the same as tuh-mater but without the “tuh.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask someone younger than you at coffee hour “Who is Mater?”— you’ll love the answer.

Uncle Elmer used to tell me that he spent so much time in the garden just to get away from his wife, my Aunt Ella Ruth, but I knew he was just kidding. Lou and I enjoy a similar acerbic humor in our relationship, which I inherited from my people. Sometimes Elmer would return from the garden, grief-stricken.

“Well, the corn and my ‘maters are fine, but I might as well give up on the okra. I’ve done everything I know to do, but they’re shriveling.”

Then, from the kitchen sink, Ella Ruth would ask, coyly, “Did you water ‘em?”

“Yes, I watered ‘em. You think I don’t know how to water ‘em after all these years?!” She was an expert at driving Elmer crazy. Then, time would pass, which, for me as a child seemed like eternity, and my parents would eventually start to complain about all the okra Elmer had given us. We had fried okra, pickled okra, okra in soup, okra in bowls placed as table centerpieces.

 

Plant, Water, Behold

To tend the garden: plant, water, and behold. Something will happen. Tending a garden is just like that. We plant, we water, and growth comes from something bigger than us. Children are like that. They are born, you raise them, and God only knows how they’ll turn out. Relationships are like that, whether friendships or marriages. People meet, bonds are formed, and, with attention and work, something emerges—a love that is greater than its combined parts.

Churches are like that. We tend to a church that others before us planted. Now it’s our turn to feed it and water it, and just when the weight of responsibility feels too much, if you stop and listen long enough, head bowed in prayer, you’ll hear God saying:

Stop trying to fix everything, and don’t be in such a dang hurry.  Just stay faithful, and don’t give up, try something else. Try a little of this, a little that, and then, please, let me be God, and I will give the growth.

 

 

[1] For the full Revised Common Lectionary readings for February 16, 2020: <https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=18>  As per the PC(USA)’s guidance (and my practice), I have edited this reading for current language inclusivity standards.
[2] Greta Gahl, Calvary’s lay reader for the day
[3] Jesus bin Sirach is thought to have lived at this time, background information at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sirach>
[4] Or, the Revised Common Lectionary
[5] Deuteronomy 30 <https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=18>
[6] <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cursing_the_fig_tree>
[7] <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleansing_of_the_Temple>
[8] <https://www.messie2vie.fr/bible/strongs/strong-greek-G3619-oikodome.html>
[9] <https://scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/NTpdf/2co3.pdf>
[10] God’s Hotel info <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13121912-god-s-hotel?from_search=true&qid=qTaGZU2JxC&rank=1>
[11] Slow Medicine info <https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/33670464-slow-medicine>
[12] In the following weeks, as I attempted to lodge a complaint on behalf of Sara’s family (at their request), I called every day for several weeks only to get through to a supervisor who told me that I was not allowed to complain about a non-family member. In my experience as a clinical chaplain and pastor, hospitals and other bureaucracies claim HIPPAA exemptions when they do not want to help someone or admit culpability. Filing or accepting a complaint is not a violation of prvacy.
[13] All of these examples are from the last five years at Calvary.
[14] <https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=24728>
[15] NOT an Apocryphal book of the Bible!