This month I continue in my reflections with the theme of gardens and gardening, and what that means for our spiritual lives. This pastor’s page is based on a sermon from last summer.
Down the block and over the field from Hope Lutheran is a garden where I took my lunch one day. In the Brentwood Community Garden people are growing everything you can think of: peas, beans, tomatoes, chard, potatoes, onions, beets, and all kinds of herbs. Ornamental and edible perennials and bushes surround the neatly kept raised beds. In between them gravel paths ensure accessibility to gardeners and plant-lovers who use wheelchairs and walkers. Everything is neat, orderly, and beautiful.
Two things impressed me about what I saw at the Brentwood Community Garden. One – gardening is a massive amount of work! Clearly a lot of effort had gone in to making these plots so verdant. Prepping the soil with compost and fertilizer, planting, weeding, thinning, and much watering—it all takes time and effort. But the second thing that impressed me is in some ways just the opposite – the abundant growth of the gardens in many ways comes as pure gift. The main work is just to clear out of the way and make space for the earth to bring forth its bounty. So a fruitful garden represents a paradox: it is the result of massive effort, and it is the result of pure grace.
Which is why a garden is such a rich metaphor for the spiritual life. A fruitful life with God is the result of great effort on our part, and it is the result of pure grace from God.
When it comes to the nurture of our souls we are called to be “all in” with practices of prayer and meditative scripture reading, acts of mercy and justice, and regular worship with Christ’s community. This is not something we just tinker at, but must commit ourselves to with whole and willing hearts. It takes effort, discipline, dedication and work. On the other hand, we recognize that when it comes to the fruits of the Spirit – patience, kindness, generosity, compassion, and so on – it is God who brings the growth, coming to us in the nature of a gift. Our work, often as not, is to get out of the way and be attentive to what God is already doing in our lives. The spiritual life is both effort and rest, works and grace.
There is a story in the gospel of Mark in which the apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. (Mk. 6:30) They were excited because they had been at the centre of marvels. Healings! Exorcisms! Transformational teachings! Hungry people fed! They felt like they were on a roll. They felt like they were part of something big, important and meaningful. They were putting in huge effort, getting results, and seeing success. They were all in.
But did Jesus commend them for all their excellent hard work? No. Instead he simply said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”
The lesson the apostles had to learn, like that of any good gardener, is that it is God who creates, renews, and sustains all life. God who was all along responsible for the healings, exorcisms and feedings – not the excited apostles themselves. They had to go away to the desert to learn that Jesus heals, feeds, and saves people. In fact, when the crowds go out to the desert after the group, the apostles recede into the role of witnesses as Jesus acts.
I wonder if the church today hasn’t been called by Jesus to come away and rest a while. And perhaps this call has even been very forceful over the past couple of years. The COVID-19 pandemic actually mandated that most of our events, activities, and programs in the church be on hold over the past couple of years. Rather than gently invited, we were “driven” to a wilderness of inactivity, just as Jesus was driven by the Spirit to the desert after his baptism.
In this dry wilderness we were invited to garden. To wait and watch for the growth that Jesus would bring. To become less do-ers ourselves and more witnesses to what Jesus is doing.
A temptation of the past few months, when gathering restrictions were finally and fully lifted for most of us, was to get back to the excitement of action, doing, and achieving in the form of church events and activities. There is no doubt that it has been good to see each other at worship and church events again, because there is no substitute for face-to-face community; but the hazard is to fall into thinking that the health of our spiritual lives depends entirely on the outward and visible signs of the events and actions we ourselves organize. We are at risk of abandoning the quiet wilderness—and all the good that comes from waiting on God there—for the bustle of social life.
I have a hunch that Jesus would like us to continue with him in the desert where it is obvious that the only growth, the only life, the only healing – comes from him. It’s not up to us at all, and it never was.
Even as we become more active, post-pandemic, Jesus continues to call us to be like gardeners in the desert, with lives fully committed to the work of spiritual growth yet in the end recognizing that it is God alone who brings the growth.
I hope this summer season can represent a return to desert for many of us, a time to re-commit to the practices of prayer, scripture reading, service, and worship—but also a time of patient waiting on God in the midst of our quiet.