May 21st 2017
Ephesians 4:7-8, 11-13 Matthew 13:24-30, 36-40
Well we finally had a string of nice days this week; with temperatures closing in on the ‘century’ mark on Thursday they were bordering on too nice. It was a drastic, but not unwelcomed, change from the extended “early spring weather” which has just seemed to drag on, week after week, after week. I’m not sure why but the furnace kicked on one day this week and I thought, ‘it will be nice not needing that again until October,’ and switched it off – only to wake to 50˚ and those all-too-familiar gray, threatening skies yesterday.
I can endure an awful lot of gray and rainy weather without it getting me ‘down’; mostly because that old adage about the necessity of contrast in our lives has a great deal of truth to it – if we did not have dark we could not appreciate light; if we didn’t have our bad days we wouldn’t know what a good day was; if every day was sunny and 72 we wouldn’t appreciate them. But in reality, the truth is much more pragmatic; if every day were sunny everything would dry up and we would never have the blossoms; and that reality makes me able to see things in the larger scope, and to be thankful.
Since coming to live here at the church, in the north-west corner of Passaic County, I have often observed that if I was ever in the position of searching for a new place to live, my preference would be somewhere that was even more rural than our town. After growing up and living my entire life in homes with property no larger than 60×100 feet (and several times as confining as a 700 sq. ft. apartment), I have a deep-rooted longing to be in open spaces – wide open, where things can (and do) grow.
When I look back at all those places, I shudder – but I also realize that, no matter where I lived there was always some type of planting and growing, going on; my dad always had a garden that we boys, tilled, helped plant, weeded, watered, (and after his triumphal moment each year picking the first tomatoes), we harvested. When I owned my own home, I experienced those same triumphal moments in my own garden, when I picked the first tomatoes. I recall having to ask permission from my neighbors, as well as the ‘super’, to plant flowers out front of my apartment, and the balcony of my condo was covered in a blanket of pink blossoms each year. So I seem to have an innate need to plant, which might have its origins in a deeply-recessed memory of when I was a very, very young child, going to an “uncle’s” farm. I have no idea who the uncle was but assume it was on my father’s side of the family, and that it was more than likely within a 50-60 mile radius from here, because my father’s family was from Port Jervis, and it was a day trip from where we lived. I recall it being a legitimate farm with chickens running around freely, a few cows, which were watered in a steel trough filled by a hand-pumped well, and a tractor in the dirt field. That’s as far as my memory goes (and I’ll admit it may have been enhanced over the years by imagination).
It seems undeniable that there is something drawing me to cultivate; so last year, after several years of placing more and more annual flowers around the church, I needed to once again plant a vegetable garden. I built a little garden box, only 20 square feet, and by late summer I had some really nice tomatoes, hot peppers, and a few enormous cucumbers – and that sense of triumph!
I’ll tell you one thing about all those rainy, chilly (bordering on down-right cold) days and nights we’ve had all spring; they are a source of me anxiety, and make me obsess; (which isn’t surprising, if you know me). In addition to obsessing and being compulsive I am also a terrible procrastinator.
I have anxiety that it is already the third week of May and, although my tomatoes, cucumbers and beans are in the ground, the peppers and basil are not; and the hanging flower baskets are still depressingly, hanging empty from last year. I’m obsessing that it is not truly the weather that has prevented my planting, but that I’ve been procrastinating… I’m also obsessing that despite all the bravado, I’m really not a very good ‘gardener’. I don’t know ‘ph’ factors, I don’t know about nitrogen levels; it was not until after the season was over last year that I found I had been over-watering my tomatoes. But I’m not about to let a little thing like that stop me. On Friday I went ‘down the hill’ to the garden center to figure out which annuals I needed to buy, which required full sun – which needed shade; the lady who waited on me said, “You know we (she and I) go through this every year; you should write this down.”
Another thing that has me obsessing is that my little garden is ‘too’ little. If it were larger I could put in some lettuce, maybe eggplant (although I don’t really care for eggplant); it’s not sandy enough for celery, and I considered some strawberry plants. A 40 square foot box would make so much more possible; but would also make me obsess about more garden… just sitting, waiting to be planted.
I carry all those obsessive, worrying, procrastinating characteristics around with me every day, and they surface regularly – frequently. On Tuesday I visited the dentist; I mention it because I procrastinated for eight months, after my own dentist retired last September, to finally make an appointment with a new dentist. The hygienist was making the typical ‘small-talk’, asking where I lived, what I did; I said I was the pastor at that “little white church” on the top of Warwick Turnpike. I realized when I said it, (and I have realized it many other times), when I said “that little church” I was obsessing about how small our congregation is.
Almost like an apology, I have this nagging difficulty getting beyond the fact that we are a tiny congregation… I can hear myself, “We do a fantastic ministry to the food bank ‘for a congregation our size’”; “although we ‘may be small’, we are a very loving congregation.” It is not that I am troubled by our size, but that I feel it necessary to qualify it for every one unfamiliar with our church, using words like “little” “small” or “tiny”. All the well-documented statistics which indicate how many “little country churches”, just like our own, serve worshipers all over the country don’t seem to alleviate my anxiety.
Jesus uses a parable about planting, as a metaphor to define heaven, judgement day, and to describe our faith; he tells the one we read, but he also told one you might be more familiar with – the parable about the man who scattered seeds. Some of the seed was eaten by the birds, some withered and died in the heat, because the soil it fell on was shallow and the new roots could not sink down deep enough to find moisture; others died because the weeds around them chocked them out; and some of the seed grew strong and rich, and produced a remarkable harvest. As in today’s scripture, the meaning was not immediately understood by the disciples (or us) and Jesus has to explain it to them.
That little conversation with my dental hygienist was haunting me as I watered those vegetables I had managed to get planted. Our church is small; my garden is small. But not everyone is called to cultivate a two-thousand acre farm – with my knowledge (or lack of knowledge) I’d probably end up with two-thousand dry and barren acres. Not everyone is called to plant, even a twenty acre farm; it is not everyone’s mission to turn the soil and plant a 40 square foot garden – at the moment, caring for 20 square feet is sufficient, and if I add a few potted herbs, that would be great! I need to learn to be comfortable with that. I need to be comfortable knowing that not everyone is called to lead a three-thousand member congregation, not everyone has the gifts to minister to a church with 150 members, some of us… and I say “us” because being ‘good’ Baptists we understand every believer is called to minister, we need to realize that some of us get assigned the important job of caring for a couple of potted tomato plants; and that is just fine.
Rev. Herb Dorfman, who pastored the Ramapo Valley Baptist Church in Oakland until his retirement, once remarked that when he was a guest preacher to very small congregation in Bergen County, much like our own, “every one of those dozen or so worshipers was glad to have me there for worship on a Sunday morning.”
Like the disciples, we all need to question God about where we fall into God’s cultivation scheme, (and usually when we are questioning God’s plans, the best way is through pray), so that we understand, at any given moment, how we are being called to be the planters – to understand what our assignment is. Knowing how to cultivate is one thing… it comes with practice, with maturity, and by being trained through the knowledge and experiences of others. Paul says it best when he describes each of us possessing gifts for building up the body of Christ, but basically cultivating faith in Christ, in others, is all about sowing seeds of the good news of Jesus Christ by loving one another the best we can; by feeding and caring for the hungry; by caring for the sick and comforting the dying; and by being in communion with those who lives are bound in the chains of depression, addiction and mental illness, as well as the chains of literal prisons. And we must understand that very often, cultivating in these ways has little to do with the size of our farm or garden, it is more likely we will find our “garden” consists of one plant that is in need of nurturing; but rest assured, you will still be doing the crucial cultivating God calls you to do… and you can be comfortable in that garden patch.
— Amen ―