(As preached on May 17th, 2009 at a U.C.C. church in Maine)
(Note: this sermon was inspired by this week's assigned lectionary readings, the passing of recent legislation in Maine, and this post.)
We knew we had come to the right place when we saw the line of cars. There were bumper stickers that said things like “organic gardeners have more fungi,” “compost happens,” and even “tree-hugging dirt worshiper.”
After a two-hour drive north, we had arrived at Fedco, central Maine's fabled tree, seed, and garden supply co-op. It was the Annual Tree Sale weekend.
The long lines had already formed. I went to the end of the line, clutching my pre-order confirmation slip like all the other frugal folk who had come to avoid shipping fees. The line was hardly moving at all, as each order had to be checked, cross-checked, then gathered from the cavernous nursery warehouse. Every minute or two, a huge brown paper bag would be hefted out from the shadows of the building, into the waiting arms of another customer. From my vantage point, it looked like I was in for at least a twenty-minute wait...yet there was a special spirit in the air, and, like everyone around me, in spite of the wait, I just couldn't stop smiling.
On one side of me, a burly fellow with a grungy, frayed ball cap stood waiting for his strawberry plants and apple trees. He talked of an old hayfield that have never really worked out, and how they would beautify that challenging scrap of land. His face glowed as he shared his humble vision. It had sustained him all winter long, the image of those berry plants sending out runners and those trees growing up, spreading their limbs, bearing fruit.
On the other side of me, a grey-haired woman wore a hand-knit sweater—with yarn every colour of the rainbow—over blue jeans and rubber boots. She was there to get seed potatoes and blueberry bushes. She must have come right from the garden-- there was chaff in her hair and dirt under her fingernails, yet she radiated beauty. She was clearly in love—in love with the work of raising her own food, in love with the creative power of tiny seeds and the strength of stems and roots. She was in love with Creation itself, and the Creator of all these good things. Her passion had moved her to tend the earth and, in doing so, to care of herself. She hadn't always lived like this. She used to work and live in the city, in a walk-up apartment. Now she could hardly wait to get home and play in the dirt. She looked forward to months of growth, months of harvest, and months of feasting. She gloried in this participatory abundance.
Before I knew it, my turn at the counter had come, and I was walking back to the car with my own giant, unwieldy brown paper bag, loaded with bare-root tree saplings and carefully-bundled baby plants. Then it was back down the road, back to the highway, and home, on that soft grey day, home to get on my work gloves, get out the shovel and a bucket or two of compost, dig some big holes, and plant.
Planting trees is hard work. It's hard on the back, all that digging and hauling and lifting. And it's hard to remember the big picture, to hold a vision of blooming, fruiting loveliness when all you can see is a little greyish-brown stick. This year, I invested in a “Vermont Beauty” pear, a “Redfield” apple, an American Linden and a Ginko tree.
None of them will offer much of anything in the next few years. They'll grow slowly. They'll still look like little more than sticks. But someday, the fruit trees will start to bear their sweet and lovely fruit. Someday the Ginko will give shade in the summer and light up the Autumn landscape with a graceful canopy of golden, fluttering leaves. Someday, the Linden will bloom so sweetly that it will draw honeybees here from miles and miles around, giving every flowering tree and plant the chance to become more fruitful. They say it's a lovely shade tree, too, and the wood is sought after by carvers. The catalog says the leaves can be made into a soothing tea, and the inner bark used to make ropes and nets. That's intriguing, but mostly we chose it because there is no other tree that the bees love so well.
It was hard to talk myself into the investment. My usual idea of a good tree is one that hangs heavy with fruit, one that produces a crop reliably. The Linden won't do that. It will grow, spread its particular branches in their particular shape, put out its own particular leaves and blossoms, and lure hundreds of precious little pollinators to our farm. It's different from all my other orchard trees. It doesn't match the template, the standard set. But the catalog described it as having so many uses and gifts... I know we'll be the richer for its presence among us.
The last step in planting a tree is to “water it in.” The long trip to the nursery and back, the time spent reading and choosing, even the work of digging the hole, adding rich compost to the soil, spreading the tree's roots out and filling the soil back in—all of this would amount to nothing if we didn't water it in. The shock of being uprooted and moved could do a plant in if the water were withheld. I don't want any of my trees to go to waste, so I carry heavy, sloshing buckets out to the orchard. I splash the water out until it makes a pool at the little tree's base. I watch the water soak in, all the way down to the roots. Honeybees are not so common as they used to be. We need this Linden to do well and thrive. With a prayer and a bucket of water, I welcome the little tree home.
They say Jesus was mistaken for a gardener. His friend Peter had also spent some time in the garden. I want to tell you a bit about Peter, since he's involved in the passage from Acts that we read today.
Peter was a zealous man, on fire with love for God, love for the community of faith, its health and its growth. He was a good Jewish man who pledged to carry on the work of Jesus, a Jewish prophet, teacher, and reformer. So Peter set out to get things organized. He traveled from one Jewish congregation to another, consulting, teaching and preaching, healing and praying, helping restore faith and helping good Jews become better followers of their faith. Always he kept the Jewish laws, avoiding that which was unworthy and unclean.
But then Peter was given a vision. God showed him, not once but three times, a vision of the goodness of all Creation. Peter heard God's voice, saying, “what God has made clean, you must not make unclean.” In other words, contrary to popular opinion, everything was Kosher.
Peter was bewildered. God wanted him to broaden his understanding, and he was unprepared. Where he had cultivated neat little olive groves, there was God thrusting a huge brown paper bag in his arms, saying, “these trees are all good too. Prepare a place for them! Peter answered the call, stepped beyond his close-knit community with all its rules and known comforts, and went to visit a Gentile—a Roman soldier, no less—who had asked for him to come. There he found a crowd assembled. With them, he shared God's vision. He preached the Good News—and then he got to the very best part: the Good News that included them.
The story of what happened next is still told:
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.”
These soldiers, these pagans, these cast-offs and throwaways-- all were touched by the fire of Peter's words. They were touched by the Holy Spirit so powerfully that it was like Pentecost all over again, with people so moved, so inspired that they sang praises to God in a whole host of languages.
Peter's Jewish friends watched in absolute amazement. Then Peter did something even more amazing. Against convention, against custom, he challenged anyone to exclude these people from baptism, for clearly they, too, were God's beloved children. “Can anyone withhold the water?” he asked--and he ordered them to be baptized. Then he stayed with them, broke Jewish law and ate at the table with them, prayed and laughed and feasted with them, and these strangers experienced a community, a communion, a love greater than any they had known before.
From these strange seeds, the Church was planted. From these odd little sticks grew the great spreading canopy of faith. To some, they didn't match the plan. They didn't belong. They didn't seem to fit. But God created each of them, blessed them, and touched them with the Holy Spirit, whether others were prepared to recognize them or not. And Peter came along, like a good gardener, and watered them in.
Have you ever felt unsure of your place, unsure whether you were worthy of being blessed? I felt it when I returned to my childhood church, a week after I'd graduated from seminary. I was called on the carpet by our pastor. “What gifts do you think you have, anyway? She asked me. “What makes you think you can become ordained in this Church?” I thought about my friend, C. —one of the most pastoral, most gifted ministers I had ever met, and also openly gay. In that denomination, he could only be ordained if he hid or denied a part of who he was, a part of how he had been created by God. I thought about my friend K., pastor of a thriving church, beloved by her congregation, who felt called by the Spirit to speak out during a Church debate on issues of human sexuality. She stood at the microphone and came out to the entire assembly, and faced a church trial and the loss of her ordination as a result. Standing there in the minister's office, my throat went dry. “Can anyone withhold the water?” There was no one there to minister to my thirst. Though my own calling was strong, I felt I had been uprooted. I no longer knew where I belonged. It took years for me to find my voice again, to recover from the shock.
But God calls us to BE. God calls us each to be true to ourselves, to our unique gifts, to the blessings with which we were created. God keeps nudging us, surprising us, shaking us awake, splashing us with water, dazzling us with light. Every tree has a place, a use, something beautiful to offer. Every person does too. Like the rooted citizens of the orchard, we are called to be fruitful, to blossom in our own unique ways, so that others may share the benefits. We are called to stop denying the way God created us, each of us full of unique gifts and blessings.
We cannot do this alone. And so, just as God created each individual, God also created community. We are called to help each other grow and live. As Jesus says, in John's Gospel,
... I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you...
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
The love of this community, of this church, has helped me grow. You have lifted me from the misery of an unwanted servant into the joy of a cherished friend. Gradually, I am learning how to use my gifts again. Slowly but surely, with your support, I am taking the steps in the U.C.C. to seek ordination. I am learning to abide in joy, because all of you—like good gardeners—have made a place for me and watered me in.
As we move from Easter towards Pentecost—the season of celebration of the Holy Spirit—I invite you all to reflect on your gifts. What is it that you are called, and created, to do? Are you living out your gifts, or are you living in fear, feeling uprooted, unsure how to be blessed or offer others your blessing? Are you open—truly open—to the movement of God's Spirit and the full blossoming of your own fruitful life?
Growth is a hard discipline, just as gardening is a hard discipline. It demands attention and constant care. But this is the season for this work. Yes, as the bumper sticker says, “compost happens.” But God has called us to live fully in community, to stop denying and withholding our gifts. God has called us to abide in love—love for ourselves as well as love for others. Recognize your gifts. Seek to recognize the gifts of others. There is not a single sapling that has no use. We all grace this uneven landscape with our own unique and beautiful forms.
Can anyone withold the water from these? Come, water them in. Find your own roots, your own place in Creation. Stand tall and let your own arms reach out wide. Extend the welcome and abide in joy, in God's abundant and all-inclusive love.
(All photos copyright Mainecelt 2009, except for the linden blossoms. Photo credit for linden blossoms: http://www.flickr.com/photos/skoobie99/2613922062/)