Sermon Preached by The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley 14 March 2004
Jesus the Good Gardener
We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood and early manhood, apart from the glimpse we get of him as a bright boy disappearing off to the Temple. We assume that he lived a peaceful life in Nazareth, learning Joseph’s trade as a carpenter, studying the books of the Faith. It is important to me to believe that at least some of that time He was a gardener or a farmer. Why do I believe this? Well it isn’t just because I love gardening. It is because He so often uses stories which are based on agriculture and small scale cultivation. Jesus frequently uses parables which are about human involvement with nature and the struggle to make it productive. He talks about vineyards, farming, he tells stories about things growing or refusing to grow. He talks about the lilies of the field, sowing seeds, growing vines. They are parables that all His hearers, in His own lifetime and down through the centuries could understand and relate to. Stories which could be just as easily understood by people in Russia or Africa.
There is within nature a chance to grasp something of the beneficence of God, his generosity to us. Gardening helps you study these things up close. Those of you hate gardening may want to think about something else for a minute – there are those among us who are born concreters. But I also know there are some notable growers in this congregation. I wonder if they will agree with me that gardening is a profoundly spiritual experience. So much beauty and joy can only be given by a God blessed activity.
Dorothy Gurney 1858-1932 wrote,.
“The kiss of the Sun for pardon.
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden,
Than anywhere else on earth”.
And I believe this to be true. Although God is of course everywhere and with us always, I find it especially easy to meet God in the garden. In the silence of the garden, especially in the early morning there is space for God to enter your thoughts and speak to you. I often find that while I am working on the weeds, the thought of someone will come to me and I will go off and phone them, only to have them say that they were in particular need, perhaps wishing that someone would contact them.
So gardens are good for contemplation. I think this is because gardening is the perfect blend of fairly mindless manual activity, where your hands are automatically hacking or clipping, while allowing your mind to wander freely. When you are an experienced gardener, the application of skill, combined with the peace of being with nature, allows a particular kind of mental free-wheeling which creates time and space for God to be experienced.
The link between spiritual contemplation and gardens is especially well known to the Japanese, who have over centuries perfected the art of sitting in a garden, letting their minds ponder when they look at a subtle arrangement of stones, or a perfect sweep of gravel. This kind of sitting down meditation is impossible for me, as soon as I sit down in my garden, I spy a weed that needs attacking or a stem that needs staking. For me, it’s something about the work of gardening that is so spiritual.
When I am gardening I constantly think about the rich metaphors it throws out, which tie in closely to Christian belief. The fact that there is the rhythm of the seasons, things being new in spring, growing to glorious life, then dying and being reborn, is an enormous comfort to those grappling with bereavement. At this time of year, when the hidden bulbs are emerging from the dead leaves and old twigs, there is the excitement of feeling Spring coming again. For us Christians the anticipation is of the ultimate flowering of God’s promise at Easter. Lent is the time in which we set ourselves to learn and grow, not a fallow time of negativity and waiting.
As with all nature, there is a dark side to gardening. It can be a pretty tough business, killing blackfly, stomping on snails; the sorting of the weeds from the plants. Jesus often uses sorting metaphors drawn from the natural world: the sorting of the wheat from the chaff, the division of the sheep from the goats and today we have heard again the short but important story about the fig tree. It is important because it speaks of the mind of God and His view of our salvation. What could be more important?
When we turn to study the story in detail, you will notice that the tree was planted in a vineyard. In a country where fertile soil was at a premium, it was taking up valuable space, anything growing there had to “earn its keep”. We are told that the owner didn’t just decide on a whim that the fig tree was unproductive and hack it down. Over three years he had waited patiently, always hoping for wonderful fruit. His optimism as a gardener kept him coming back to check. You will remember, possibly, that I preached a few months ago about God being optimistic about humanity. The man in the story didn’t lose hope quickly or irrationally. He was willing to watch and hope.
Eventually the man had to make a painful choice. “Cut it down!” Why should it use up the soil?' 'Sir,' the vineyard worker replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'" And this is the end of the parable. Just like that. The tree will have one more chance and then destruction. This is not a vindictive choice, but a practical one. There cannot be many of us who do not have a bad moment when we read this parable about the fig tree. Are we productive? Are we idle and a waste of space? Could we be doing more, should we be doing better?
Undoubtedly there are Christian teachers who would emphasise the destructive element of the parable. It speaks to me more of God’s patience with us. His unwillingness to give up on us, no matter how unpromising and useless we are! Moreover, we are not left to sink or swim. Like the tree that was offered nutrients to help it thrive, God sends us help in the form of scripture, in the form of other Christians to guide and encourage us. Above all, God sent us part of His very self, Jesus, so that we could learn how to grow in His image. All people who grapple with nature, either in gardens or on a larger scale on farms, find it has certain laws, things that can be done and things that can’t. We can’t control nature but we can guide it, help it along. Which is a perfect way to think about God’s relation to us. He will not force us, we have a chance to blossom, to flourish and grow spiritually, but it is up to us to choose to do so. Amen