The ground does not know what it wants to grow there. The pots along the west side of my house, the ones where I plant my garden each year do not have an opinion, they do not seek alfalfa, which is good from my perspective. The soil is the medium, willing to take the seed and to make of it whatever is inside of that individual seed.
It is in planting that the dream begins, the plan unfolds and the soil fulfills its function and nurtures the seeds potential until fruition or desolation. The act of planting is the act of expression, the desire to see something, a particular thing come into being and to see to it that it comes to pass.
Left to its own devices, the soil will accept whatever seed the wind blows upon it, it has no volition; it will grow what seeds there are.
So each year I decide what will be planted and God decides what will grow and how well. Sure, I try and impress my own will and my own skill and my own vision upon things but I am truly not in charge of whether or not the nights will be hot, which is great for tomatoes and for grapes, or whether the nights will be cool and the mornings foggy, which is good for the redwoods but death to tomatoes.
But along the way I do not sit idle. Merely planting the seed in the soil is not enough to guarantee a harvest. Over the years you learn about how the plants will react to stress, to hot days and so you provide partial shade to the ones who are vulnerable and extra water to the ones who will benefit from it and extra nutrients for the ones that will produce better.
You keep at it, you keep your promise.
Not to the soil, the soil is patient and kind, it endures over the years and will even heal itself if you are bad to it and let it get depleted. It may take a while but like the earth, the soil is a kind of self-cleaning oven, it will take care of itself given enough time.
You make the promise to the seed. You say in your deeds, “I will put you in good soil and I will care for you” and you do so, planting the seed. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
Debbie’s grandmother, as I have mentioned, would always ask if we’d gotten any rain, all through the summer, because having been raised on a farm you needed the occasional rain to water the crops in the days before mass irrigation. Rain meant a chance at harvest and sometimes when it did not come, times got hard.
I kind of envy people who live in places where they do not have to water their gardens as assiduously as we do here, where they are not as reliant on the city pipe to deliver water to their plants, where God can be relied upon, at least occasionally, to tend and to nurture.
But I live in California and so the need for continuing care, for dead-heading the roses so that they will continue to bloom throughout the summer, the need to manage the grape vines so that they will produce a good, strong yield, not a lot of small clusters but a smaller number of robust ones; the need for a continuum of care and nurture hits very close to home for me.
As I sat, sweltering in the 100 plus degree heat in Pleasanton watching the kids running to and fro on the soccer pitch my mind kept wandering back to the garden, the squash patch and the barrels of vegetables, cucumbers and tomatoes because I was gone for more than a day and more than one very hot day and I didn’t want them to scorch.
I also didn’t want to presume that Debbie would not take care of the garden in my absence because that is not a road I like to walk down.
But it reminded me of how tenuous the whole endeavor is, how prone to failure at every turn and I turned my head and watched as Caitlyn rushed a player from the opposing side and blocked her shot on goal and heard the cheers from our side and the groans from the other and realized that the garden that we tend is not just the plants we plant or the soil into which we plant them.
We are raising a garden of people as well, young and old, new to our fellowship and long standing members of the family all together.
To each side of you are the roots and the branches, the fruit and the vines of the faith planted either long ago or just the other day in the hearts of those gathered here and while it may seem like it is my task to tend and nurture, we all have a role to play, we all have something to contribute.
Vacation Bible School is taking place this upcoming week and while it will not be as large as it has been in the past, I was pleased to hear in a meeting the other day that it doesn’t really matter how many come, what matters is that each of them feels loved, feels the love of the Body of Christ, hears the Gospel and learns that faith is something that can be a festival of joy and not just an hour out of the week that you endure in order to make your grandmother happy.
We ought to reinforce the notion, fertilize it, shall we say that faith is a path to joy, and peace and all of the other things that kids do not treasure yet, that kids do not assign a value to yet but that will one day feed them more than McDonald’s and strengthen them more than any exercise can manage.
If we stick with what matters.
If we do not forget that every hot day that scorches our tomato plants is nothing compared to the daily barrage, the heat you might say, of the world outside the church as it attempts to scatter other seeds in the garden we are tending. Not just seeds of doubt, those are easy and obvious but seeds of selfishness, seeds of pride and seeds of exclusivity, the feeling that only some people have the right answers and that all others are lost, those are the seeds, the ones that seem so like what we have planted, that can sap the vitality of the faith we are nurturing, that can distract and diminish the yield that the Lord has reason to expect from our efforts.
How many kids, forty years ago, were given the choice of whether or not they came to church or how many did not volunteer to be acolytes and were required to perform anyway?
How many of them do you see in pews these days? The lovely seed of blind duty, seemingly a good thing, something to be praised; dedication to church, yielded little fruit in the long run. This is not something that happened here, it is something that happened everywhere, all over the earth.
Maybe we might look to a different packet of seeds when we plant again.
I was chatting with Jonathan the other day and asked him what he thought Confirmation was all about. He didn’t have an answer. Who at his age thinks about stuff like that until they are asked about it, but I told him that it wasn’t about making sure he knew what communion meant or making sure he could memorize a snippet of scripture that he’d probably keep in his memory forever but someday forget why. I told him it was because the people of this church, who have watched him grow from a quite small boy until he is almost as tall as his grandparents love him enough to care about what happens to him as he continues to grow. “We are watching out for our investment,” I said because that is what we are doing.
Sticking to what matters. Making promises to our kids, and then keeping them. In the baptismal liturgy I turn toward the congregation and ask, “People of God, to you promise to support Jonathan and pray for him in his new life in Christ?” and all of you say “We Do” and we are just making good on that promise.
We continue to tend, to nurture, to try and add good things and weed out what can be weeded out without pulling up the wheat with the weeds as we learned last week.
The good thing we are trying to add this week is a sense of fun. The stories of the Bible are quite a load of rollicking good tales, of murder and mayhem just like in the movies, of intrigue an plots and twists and the whole thing can be embraced for the adventure story that it is, the adventure of seeing the rest of your life unfold, of growing in the faith, of learning a little bit each day what it means to wear the name of Jesus Christ on ourselves and to live through that truth.
And there is no soil so old or spent that nothing new will grow there.
We are not just talking about the kids here, we are talking about all of us, even you, whoever you are listening to my voice right now. You are not done growing, bearing fruit, learning how to live and love in the name of Christ. You are done when I say something like ashes to ashes and drop soil on your coffin and not before.
I have a master’s degree in this stuff and yet at least once a month one of the kids will surprise me during the children’s sermon and make me think about something in a new way.
If it is not too late for me, then it is not too late for you either.
Each new day presents opportunity to grow and to grow alongside others, to tend and nurture the whole body of Christ. Remember the waters of your baptism and all that was given to you in that moment and find that you have been refreshed and enlivened for another day. Feast on the body and the blood, the grace given so generously to you and too all mankind and find your hunger for meaning filled and your perspective turned toward God.
Revel in the faith of children. Honestly it is most profound to me to hear the kids speak of how they want to live their lives and to know that Christ will be with them, will be advocating for them and the Spirit will accompany them, reminding and instructing them.
And then I remember that it is often we who stand in for Christ and for the Spirit. As a matter of fact, the ELCA uses the phrase, “God’s work, Our hands” to describe the notion that we are the ones tending the garden even as we ourselves are being tended
The kids will climb the metaphorical mount Sinai this week and will hear the voice of scripture telling them of the love of God, of God’s trustworthiness and steadfastness and most of all of God’s love, precious enough to be hoarded and squirreled away, abundant enough to roll down the mountainside like a mighty river of grace.
We will sing songs and we will play games but we will all prune and tend, clip and water the precious little plants of faith because it is in so doing that we make Jesus truly alive, not just to the kids, but also to ourselves.
For those who are not coming to lend a hand this week, I might recommend the Tuesday Night Bible Study or perhaps volunteering to tend and nurture yourself and others in some other way as yet unexplored.
The soil in my back yard will not just shoot forth tomatoes and green beans and cucumbers. It needs the intention of someone, in this case me to make the move, to till and to tend, to prune and to nurture and the harvest can be magnificent.
How much more is that true when the crop we tend is faith? Bear some fruit and see God’s glory and you will know.