To grow a garden

When I was in England a few weeks ago, I started watching a TV show that introduced me to a brand new world… the world of English gardening. It’s called “Small Spaces, Big Dreams”, and is hosted by Monty Don, who is so famous that he’s basically the Oprah of BBC gardening shows. The title sort of gives it away—in each episode, Monty coaches an ordinary person through designing their own garden in a tiny backyard or plot.

I’m pleased to say that after watching three whole seasons of this fantastic show, I’ve learned a few things.

First of all, it doesn’t matter how many resources you have. You’ve got to have a plan that’s realistic. You can’t plant desert plants in a swamp, and you can’t spend all your time digging—at some point, you’re going to have to put something in the ground and wait for it to grow.

Secondly, it’s probably going to work best if you’re friends with a few sturdy folks who don’t mind helping out with the planning or digging. Two, or four, or five, are better than one, right?

Thirdly, the amount of money that you pour into the garden won’t make a difference if you don’t have realistic plans and supportive friends. Money can only go so far towards making your garden personal and meaningful.

So in order to build your very own dream garden, we need three things: we need a plan, we need friends, and we need more meaning than money can supply.

Today’s Gospel is a hard one to hear. This part of the Sermon on the Mount, the one that we love to hear the beginning of: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek. But in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount actually continues on for three chapters, and includes today’s passage.

Jesus takes some of the Ten Commandments, and other parts of Jewish teaching at the time, and instead of saying that the commandments don’t matter, he says, that yes, they do matter, and here’s how to live into them.

There’s a common theme for how to go about living into these commandments. Not only is it about the ACTION that you do or don’t do, but it’s also about what you think.

Yes, don’t commit murder, but just walking around feeling like you want to murder someone isn’t good for you or that person either.

Offering a gift to God won’t be an adequate substitute for the work of making peace with my brother or sister or friend or enemy.

What Jesus says about the law is this: that the bare minimum is not okay. In order to live with each other, we have to do more than just check boxes. The work of following Christ requires us to be all in, not just operating on technicalities.

If God was a gardener, which our 1 Corinthians reading suggests, you might say that this ideal of how we live together in peace and dignity is, in fact, the master plan. It is the plan that God conceived for humanity in the Garden of Eden, when the world was still echoing God’s voice speaking it into being. It is the plan that Jesus wanted to tell a world that was and still is obsessed with technicalities. How little can we do, or how badly can we act, and it still be “legal”, or “moral”?

If you read the news these days, I’m not sure we’ve changed a whole lot. We still want to know how to be “good” with the least amount of effort. But the master plan is a bigger dream than that, a dream that imagines a future where we will be reconciled with each other, where we will live faithfully, where murder, and lawsuits and divorce won’t be necessary because we will have learned to see each other with God’s eyes.

I don’t know about you, but this master plan seems a bit daunting to me. On a good day, I can only remember even one of these instructions, and most of the time, Jesus’ teachings from our Gospel lesson don’t actually seem that helpful.

Take, for example the teaching on divorce.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

What do we do with that? How can we possibly follow a teaching that is far more suited for the original Biblical context, where men controlled the relationship, and where divorce would absolutely impoverish a woman? It seems to make sense in that context: Jesus is admonishing the men in the audience not to abuse their power in the relationship, to do more than the bare minimum.

But knowing that context doesn’t do much for us, does it? For a lot of us who have experienced divorce in the 21st century, it’s much more complicated than that.

When my parents were going through the divorce process, I remember feeling a profound sense of relief. Thank goodness they’ve finally realized that it’s not going to work. In my parents’ case, both of them did as much as they could to make it work. But sometimes, through unequal effort, abuse, or a multitude of other reasons, a relationship just doesn’t work. And perhaps you’ve experienced this in your own family, or with friends, where you realize that ultimately, the healthiest decision is to separate.

This takes us back to the second step for creating our dream garden—sometimes, we need to find a friend, or two, or five. And perhaps, the person that we started the journey with will not be the person to help us plant, or water or prune the garden. In the Gospel’s ideal world, we would spend the whole journey with the friend or partner we started with. But sometimes, the digging is too much. And so we need to find another friend, another community, another group of people to support us as we aspire to the ideal–God’s master plan.

And this brings us to the final piece of gardening advice in this sermon: that you can’t substitute money or possessions for the hard work that ultimately makes a garden beautiful and meaningful. As the gospel says, you can’t substitute a gift at the altar for reconciliation with others. You can’t let a judge decide how reconciliation will happen between you and a friend.

This is the world that we want to live in, where we reconcile with one another, where we prioritize our relationships with others over our money or success. This is the world that we commit to working towards every time we renew our baptismal vows, whenever we say that we will “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”.

And I love this honesty in the baptismal vows, because they don’t say that there is already justice and peace and respect among all people.

Instead, we promise to strive for it. We promise to start again and again whenever things don’t work out. We just promise to keep trying to work towards God’s master plan.

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul?… I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth….”

“For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” We are working in a great big garden, with a Gardener whose plan is bigger than ourselves, than our country, than our moment in human history. So, grab a friend, or two, or five, and let’s keep striving towards a more just, faithful, and peaceful world as we water our corner of this great big garden.

Audio Recording: Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Waldorf, 2/16/20

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