I don’t know how many of you remember this far back, but for the majority of last year I was suffering from plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the large web of tissue that covers the bottom of the foot, the plantar fascia that makes it very difficult to walk, run, stand, you know, it makes it hard to be alive. The doctor was very helpful, he said it usually goes away in between six weeks and eight months. Sure as shooting, about eight months later, it just went away.
But it kept me from taking my morning walk with the dog, it kept me from standing on my left foot whilst preaching on Sunday mornings and most irritating of all, it kept me from taking good care of my lawn and flowers, and it was a kind of fallow season.
But now it is better. (dance a little) I can walk and push the mower and whack weeds, the whole nine yards and so when the weekend turned out to be so darned nice, I decided to spend a fair bit of it gardening.
Caitlyn was very helpful, she’s a pretty good kid and did a lot of weeding for me on whatever nice days there have been in the past month and was then, as you might be, all excited about getting some flowers to plant, she’s pretty clear on how that whole thing works, you take some stuff out, you replace it with better stuff. Some of Caitlyn’s favorites are snapdragons and dianthus but in the past we have had lisianthus, pansies, marigolds, you know; the regular run of flowers.
We work these newcomers into the field of ever present irises and roses as well as the lilac bushes at the four corners of the yard and the oddly out of place palm tree whose fronds will grace the sanctuary in short order as we celebrate Palm Sunday. There is also a trellis with a grapevine climbing both sides to fill out the scene alongside an overgrown geranium that is almost impossible to kill.
Into all of that, each and every year, we dig little six-packs and pint pots of johnnie come lately’s, invaders into the settled firmament that is the front yard. I was sitting on the porch yesterday, replacing the line in my weed-whacker when I noticed that the dichotomy was more than I had previously thought.
Each year someone somewhere plants and nurtures little snapdragon seeds, little lisianthus seeds, little seeds of a million different varieties, a cornucopia of seeds, varieties and color variations and you could easily get lost in the garden department sorting them out by color, or by size, or by how much light they need, or by how hardy they will be in our extremely forgiving climate here in Northern California.
And each year we dutifully line up at nurseries and Home Depots and OSH hardware stores or where you like to shop and buy them; I always try and bring Caitlyn, trying to nurture in her the vision it takes to set out a garden in your mind and then make it come true with your hands, to create that first moment when it is perfect, that first moment when it is pure.
And we dig and we weed and we prune and we trim until that first moment is achieved and then we sit back, for about twenty minutes and really enjoy it, really revel in its serenity. We’ve been lucky so far this year and the Lord has been doing the watering for us, so that hasn’t been a stressor just yet. But eventually, it goes back to being work. Some of the flowers do not thrive and have to be either given a little TLC or removed entirely and replaced with newer, “better” ones, you have to make sure that everyone gets the amount of water they need and not any more, you have to dead-head the geranium and the lilac and clip the roses just so, so they will re-bloom.
It becomes a new living thing, a garden. And I can easily see how a lot of people have stopped being quite so involved in gardening. It is work, and we already have work, we already have things that take up our time and make us sweat and sunburn our faces and bloody our forearms, that’s for you rose growers out there. After having our children I can see that there is a desire to be done with the tending, the constant need for attention.
But like petty little gods standing astride the world we dip our hands into the mess and try and make it better, we break into the world as we have made it and try and make our wills manifest in soil and plant and whether or not it succeeds, I should say that the second summer we have the house was undoubtedly my favorite garden and no garden since has lived up to it, but whether or not it succeeds it is in the effort that we are known, to our neighbors and the people driving or walking by. I am a little annoyed that people feel free to snag the occasional rose from my yard, but I have to confess that I am also a little proud that they like them so much.
But the end of the summer comes as it always does and we get a little lazy. Things aren’t blooming as much as they once were and it seems a little less rewarding to tend and clip and I don’t know about you, but somewhere at the end of August for me, I stop paying attention altogether and just let the thing run wild, let it thrive or die as it pleases.
Then the long winter comes and the tender annuals, the six packs and pint pots wither and die away, leaving woody little stems upon which beautiful flowers once stood, their memory fading from my mind as November becomes December and Christmas worship fills my mind.
By the time spring comes around again the garden is truly a valley of dry bones and like in Ezekiel we feel compelled to prophesy to the breath, to the skin and sinew of the garden, to the bones themselves, the bones of the garden and we bid them rise again.
If I were prone to Disneyesque outbursts I’d be tempted to call it the <sing> “Circle of life!” Lucky for you I am not prone to such things.
I was thinking about this circle of life as I sat there, replacing the string in my weed-whacker in the warm spring sun, bag of seeds for the vegetable garden at my side, and I got to thinking about the life of those flowers, those six-packs and pint pots that accumulate in the side yard after planting season until I get up the gumption to recycle the ones that can be recycled and dispose of the others.
I thought of their birth, so to speak, in a nursery somewhere, no surprise that we use the same word for plants as well as people. They are nurtured and put into an environment custom designed to help them grow, like the room we put Caitlyn into when she was a child. They are given the food and water that they need, again designed to help them grow.
By the time I got them they are healthy and lush, their pampered little leaves as green as they are ever going to get because I just don’t have the kind of time to give them the TLC they have received thus far and they will either thrive or not and not all of that depends on me. They go into the ground, taking places formerly held by their grandparents, the weird little cubes of nursery soil plucked out along with the dry bones from gardens past, and there they grow.
They grow and they live solely to please us (this is where they stop being just like children, eventually, children start living to please themselves and that is how it ought to be) they strive to reach out to the warm sunlight and to fulfill the very purpose of their lives, to bloom and die as best they can, as best we can make them.
I thought of all the people who have lived since the dawning of time, how many of them in Shakespeare’s words lived as “but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
I thought of the notion of being planted, nurtured, moved about, fretting out hour upon the stage, and eventually dying. What do we leave behind? What is it of us that remains once we are gone? Even Lazarus, who we all speak of as one of the great miracles of Christ foreshadowing the coming kingdom when death will not hold the same sway as it does now, even Lazarus dies again. His resurrection is for only a moment, just a brief respite from the icy claws of death and then he too is dead and gone.
I didn’t get quite bold enough as to see myself in the role of Christ, sitting there on my front porch surveying the metaphor I was constructing in my mind; but I did picture Jesus surveying the garden that He and the Father had planted, and nurtured and trimmed and pruned and occasionally tore up and replanted. I thought of the love, the hope, the desire to see beauty come out of such humble beginnings; the desire to see love blossom, to see charity and compassion bloom in the fertile soil of the creation.
I imagined how it must have been so sad to see such potential fall short again and again, to see even the best falter when confronted by the law, given as a gift to mankind to guide and to teach, to keep our feet upon right paths. If even the best were doomed to fail, to strut and fret their hour upon the stage, to blossom as best they can and then to die, falling to dust to be yanked out the following spring and replaced with another, the new one no better than the old one, no better suited for heaven.
I thought of this odd petunia we had bought when we first moved here and tried to grow in a pot outside our front door when we lived on Martha way and then carried with us to the house on Horseshoe and then again to the house we now own on Lewis rd. because it unexpectedly overwintered again and again, putting out new growth each spring when the soil grew once again warm and the sun came out and urged it on. I called it the Lazarus plant for a long time because it kept rising from the dead but still seemed doomed to die, after all, that can’t keep happening forever, can it?
I thought of Jesus as well, surveying humankind and wondering if there weren’t some other way, something that could be done to stop us from living only to die, appearing only to disappear again and be heard from no more.
And I thought of the love of God, the love for us that Christ must have felt when in that moment of compassion for us, for the beloved creation Christ stood and said to the endless cycle of death and life, of death having the final say in the lives of everyone who ever lived, “enough.”
And Christ did the unthinkable. He said to death which had reigned undisputed since the Garden began, “Take me instead, spare them the end of themselves, the end to all that they know; the end of them in my sight and take me instead. I cannot bear to lose a single one of them again; we will make of them something else.”
And where once we would be born, live our lives and die without the chance at anything greater; the door was swung wide open and a new way was made. Instead of being planted and blooming for a day and then turning to the valley of dry bones again and again we were remade, Christ’s love for us remade us and we could now be, not annuals in God’s garden, but perennial, evergreen, ever bearing, saved from the sting of finality, of knowing that we would end, of knowing that we would be no more.
I was sitting there on my front porch and the whole of the salvation story strung out in front of my mind’s eye, of Jesus’ inescapable compassion for the creation He loved too well to let it suffer under the pain of sin and the sting of death, of how something else had to be made, something else had to be done, a new way through the wilderness.
I am going to do a lot more gardening this year; it was a pretty moving experience that I hope to repeat.
The Lazarus petunia finally succumbed to death. I am a fair gardener, but I am no Christ and one year it was just dry bones and no amount of prophesying would bring it back.
Such is not the case for you and for me. In Christ and in His name and in His love for us there is another way, a way in which God gets to keep us around, in the divine sight forever. It is this story, of hope over fear, of life over death that we ought keep close to our hearts during Lent and then throughout the year and throughout our lives. It is hope in the darkest day, it is life when all seems lost, it is salvation, pure and simple, the gift of God, for you.