Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter:
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
24 Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” 26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)
I think, by now, it has been well established that I am no gardener. Andy and Kevin win that contest hands down. I don’t think I could ever plan a sermon series around the metaphor of planting and growing like Andy can. No, I am the proud winner of the brown thumb award – able to kill all living vegetation quickly and quite efficiently.
Honestly, I’m not a big fan of the great outdoors. I’ve hiked some and camped a few times, but the camping was on special occasions – women’s festivals. So, I’ll endure a few bugs, frequent sudden downpours, and port-o-lets if I get to spend the weekend looking at, and getting to hang out with, a bunch of great women! But, all in all, I’m not all that thrilled to spend too much time out of doors, sharing food and/or bathroom space with ants and snakes. No, I’m a big fan of the great indoors with its controlled climate, its sturdy, leak-free roof, its comfy bed and wonderful indoor plumbing that I only occasionally have to share with a cat who enjoys watching the water swirl after each flush. Call me a wimp, but when it comes to nature, I don’t hear the call of the wild, but the call of the mild that invites me to stretch out on the couch with a remote control.
If I ever fancied myself an outdoor person or someone who would enjoy puttering around in a garden watching things grow, that idea died during my first year of college. Now, math and science are two areas where I have never been accused of overachieving, so when I entered college I was looking for some easy science courses. I chose Botany, thinking, “Plants? What can be so hard about plants?” The poor plants wished I had taken geology – or “Rocks for Jocks” as it was known on campus.
Our assignment for the semester seemed simple – grow a series of plants and write a detailed paper on what you did and the results. I swear every time I went into the greenhouse on campus I could see my plants cringe as I approached. I could also hear sighs of relief from the other plants that I was not their keeper. I’m sure a sense of dread filled my plants when I appeared. “Oh, no, she’s here!” they’d begin to sob. “Either we’re going hungry or we’re going to be drowning in water and fertilizer. There’s no middle ground with this one. Isn’t she taking botany? Isn’t she paying attention?” Apparently, I wasn’t. The end wasn’t pretty for my project. You might say it was a mini botanical Armageddon. The results looked a lot like a nuclear winter as once beautiful green shoots morphed into grey, shriveled dead matter. The horror!
So, now, I’m in a jam. My project has gone to that great garden in the sky and I’m left to write a paper outlining the painful details of just how I massacred all those innocent plants. What to do? Being unorthodox even in my younger years, I decided to write a different kind of final paper. No dry statistics, no boring charts, only a great story. My story was about a man who was a “hafta farmer.” Here in the South when there is something that you don’t want to do, but you must do anyway – that means you “hafta.” There’s no choice – you “hafta.” The hero of my paper was Joe, the “hafta farmer.” He didn’t want to grow plants, but you see he was in this situation where important things were at stake – like final grades. In these situations – sometimes you “hafta” do things you don’t particularly want to do – like grow plants for a botany class and then write a paper about it.
I’m sure you’re all wondering how that turned out for me. Well, I know the secret all ten year olds know. No matter how dire your situation may be, even if you’re caught red-handed dipping into the cookie jar, you can get out of almost anything with an entertaining story. Thankfully, the professor found my story amusing enough to award me a “C” for the course. So, I survived botany class even if my plants didn’t.
I honestly believe that my disinterest in plants and nature in general comes from the theological outlook I was given as a child. Being raised a good Southern Baptist, I was taught that we ought to forsake this world for the next. Those of you raised in this tradition will understand this thought – this world is not our true home – no our home is in heaven, where we have a mansion set aside for us and we’ll walk those streets of gold with all those who have gone on before us.
Dreaming of heaven leaves you little time to concern yourself with what’s going on here on earth. I was raised to believe that the earth is more of a necessary evil – a place you have to endure before you get your reward. I was never taught that it is a living, breathing, growing and dying organism that needs tending like any other living thing.
Episcopal priest Rev. Dr. Nancy Bloomer says it took an airplane ride for her to realize this. As she flew over Vermont’s Lake Champlain, she writes:
“Looking down through the plane’s window, I could see no signs of the human footprint – only undulating trees in the glittering lake waters that blanketed the earth. From this particular perspective, I suddenly saw Earth as a living body. The trees appeared as hairs on the Earth’s skin, much like those on my own arm, the watery lake a viscous organ like my eye. I saw its distinct parts – separate, though connected – like those of my own body. I saw Earth as a huge, living being.” (“Earth Body,” Living Pulpit, April – June 2006, p. 16)
The Earth is alive, and like any live thing it needs care and tending for it to grow and thrive. We human beings have been falling down on the job – and mainly because we don’t truly understand our job. I was taught that human beings have “dominion” over the earth – and when we say “dominion” we mean that we have ultimate power over what happens on the earth. That means we can bend nature to our will through clear cutting forests if we want to – it doesn’t matter if we destroy habitats of rare species. We have dominion. That means we can pollute the air just as much as we want to. It doesn’t matter that we’re raising the temperature of the planet. It doesn’t matter that we’re polluting at such a pace that we’re poisoning ourselves. We have dominion! And besides this isn’t our home anyway – we have our true home in heaven. And at this pace we’ll see it fairly soon!
You see how damaging this theology is not only to the earth, but to ourselves. It gives us permission to run roughshod over the earth. We have misunderstood God’s demand for us to have “dominion” over the earth. It doesn’t mean domination. We are not to abuse the earth, instead, having dominion means preserving the order and the goodness of what has been made. It means being caretakers of the precious gift of a home that God has given us.
For those of us who are ignorant of how to take care of the earth, like me, we’re forced into a position of having to learn a thing or two about God’s creation. We have to begin to look at it through new eyes, like Rev. Bloomer did on her plane trip, and understand our home is a living, breathing organism that needs our love and care. In short, we become “hafta” farmers who must learn about the earth and how to exercise proper dominion over it.
Right now, we as a society haven’t a clue about how to exercise proper dominion. We pollute with impunity, we drive gas guzzling, carbon dioxide belching cars, we strip mine our resources, we drill for oil in pristine preserves. We run over Mother Nature with bulldozers, build huge brick and mortar buildings and call it progress. We don’t venture outside much anymore. A lot of people are like me, preferring the climate controlled comfort of indoor life to the potentially dirty and sweaty environment of the outdoors. We don’t commune with nature much anymore, and it’s to our detriment. We forget our intimate connection to the earth and how important it is that we honor the earth. Instead of honoring it, we tear it up and fight wars over who owns it.
Despite all abundance of real estate agents in the Yellow Pages, not one of us owns any piece of the earth. Leviticus 25:23 reminds us who the true owner is:
“The land is mine,” says God. “With me you are but aliens and tenants.”
In other words, we’re hafta farmers. Just like tenants, we hafta take care of where we live. We can’t destroy a rented home and expect the landlord to keep letting us live there! At some point, we’d be evicted. And if we’re not evicted, at least the home would become a place that is unfit to live.
And so it goes with our planet. Unless we accept our responsibility as hafta farmers and begin to truly care for God’s creation, then we face the possibility of destroying our home to the point where it can no longer sustain life.
What this means is that we are all connected. Not one of us can live on this planet without affecting someone else. The choice of car that we drive doesn’t just affect our own pocketbook in terms of gasoline or repairs, but it affects the entire population in the form of carbon dioxide emission.
Do you know how much trash a person throws away, on average, per day? Four pounds. This waste includes substantial amounts of paper and cardboard (40%), as well as yard waste (18%), metals (9%), plastic (8%) and other products. Where does it all go? The answer: more than 70% of this material is buried directly in the ground-in disposal facilities known as landfills. Just throwing away your garbage everyday affects other people on this planet.
If you want to know how your way of living in this world as a consumer impacts those around you, I urge you to take a quiz at earthday.org. This quiz tells you your “ecological footprint” in the world, measuring the impact of individual or household consumption choices in the areas of food, shelter and mobility. I took the quiz and I believe it was my hybrid car that saved me from a completely failing grade – but like my botany class – I came dangerously close. According to this test, my ecological footprint is 22 acres. At least, I am below average for this country where 24 acres per person is the average. But, worldwide there exist 4.5 biologically productive acres per person. So if everyone lived like I do, we would need 4.9 planets to sustain us all.
What you do in this world – how you choose to live your life – has a great impact on the rest of the world. Jesus’ disciples understood this. Our passage from Acts showed that they lived in community. They owned property together and shared whatever was needed. The result – no one in that community needed for anything. Think how the world would be if we could live like the disciples did in Acts. What would the world look like if we understood, at a deep level, our connection to everything else? There would be no need for social programs and welfare because there would be no poverty. There would be no need for war, because we would all share our bounty. There would be no need for stealing. There would be no need for lying and cheating. In short, we would realize Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom on earth simply because we realize, at a deep level, that we’re all connected and we either rise or fall together.
Y’know, Wanda always reads my sermons before I deliver them and after she read an earlier version of this one I asked her, “So, what did you think?”
She replied, “It’s good, but …”
She was having trouble understanding the overall point I was trying to make. I told her I understood her criticism and I think the problem was that I didn’t really believe what I was saying in the earlier version of this sermon. I was trying to put a nicer face on the troubles that plague our planet by using the rest of the sermon to give you all some steps you can take to save the planet by recycling or whatever. But, it just didn’t ring true since some of the steps I would recommend are steps that I’m not even taking.
Honestly, I despair over our world. I despair over the direction that we’re going not just politically, but ecologically. And honestly, I don’t know what to do about it. I feel pretty helpless and preaching a sermon about how you can help the earth feels a tad hypocritical on my part because I can tell you some things to do, but I don’t even want to do them. I know I hafta, but I sure don’t wanna.
I’m not like Thomas in our scripture today. I haven’t seen or touched the wounds in Christ’s hands, but still I believe in Christ. I would do anything for Christ. Nothing can shake my faith in the resurrection of the Christ. I have however, seen and touched the wounds in our earth. I have witnessed the wanton destruction of our world, but instead of instilling in me a tireless faith to work for the renewal and resurrection of that earth, it overwhelms me to the point of paralysis. I have no idea how to stem the tide of global warming or pollution or the depletion of natural resources. What in the world can I do to help save the world?
I can give you some tips about driving less, consuming less, turning off the lights in rooms you’re not in – but what does that do, really?
Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” That quote makes me think of that small group of thoughtful people who gathered together in the week after Jesus’ death and resurrection. They changed the world! They had a vision, the determination, and the faith, the change the world, not so much because they wanted to, but their faith compelled them. In short, they were hafta farmers, spreading the seeds of God’s redemption and grace – seeds that have taken root in the hearts of believers right up until today.
That seed is in each of us. As 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote:
“That seed of God is in us. Now, the seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree; and a hazel seed grows into a hazel tree; a seed of God grows into God.”
Reading that quote lessens my despair a bit, because it makes me realize that the seed of God is in each of us. Those who fight to preserve the earth and those who would pollute and destroy it – every single one of them has that seed of God inside and that seed ultimately grows into God. Unlike my botany plants, however, that seed of God cannot be destroyed, no matter how much we may neglect it, over or under water it – God continues to grow in the lives of each person on this planet.
Our task as hafta farmers is to tend to our own seed of God, because that is truly the only thing a hafta farmer can grow – that seed of God within themselves. When we tend to our own seed of God within ourselves, then that seed blooms and we begin to show forth God into the world. Then we can begin to water the other seeds of God around us through how we live, and how we present our seed of God to the world. We remind others that they too are hafta farmers who need to water and nurture the seed of God within themselves. They in turn water the seeds of others and our Garden of Grace grows wild and beautiful in the world.
That Eckhart quote comes from a used book that recently arrived in the mail. Inside that book was a sticky note from the previous owner. I almost threw it away, but luckily, I read it first, and it watered the seed of God within me. It read:
“By creating a sacred Garden we can increase our awareness and respect for the spirit and interconnectedness in all of nature. The pursuit of beauty in all things and the creation of beauty in our daily life is a sacred act. It is a way of life that connects us to the divine.”
I think much of my own desperation about the state of the planet is that I take for granted much of this planet’s magnificence. The sunrise doesn’t seem to move me anymore. The beauty of the world doesn’t seem to touch me anymore. I get so wrapped up in looking at what’s wrong with things that I forget to stop and notice what’s right, what’s beautiful. I forget to revere God’s good creation. I forget to create beauty in my daily life.
It is only in creating a sacred garden that we can increase that awareness and respect for the spirit and interconnectedness in all of nature. It’s only by stopping and marveling at God’s wondrous creation can we ever hope to stop our communal pollution of the earth. Those who marvel at the wonder of creation cannot fathom destroying it.
But, it begins right here – inside ourselves – with our own seed of God. This church is a Garden of Grace – that means we hafta nurture that the seed of God within each of so those seeds can take root and grow so large that it can be seen by the whole world. That seed of God within each of us is our proclamation of Christ’s living, resurrected presence in this world.
So, instead of giving you advice on recycling or turning off lights let me give you advice on watering that seed of God within each of you. Find something of beauty to appreciate each day, whether it’s a flower, the smile of a friend or a stranger, the embrace of a loved one, the wetness of your dog’s kiss, the thrill of your partner’s touch, the caress of the breeze on your face. Do things that nurture your soul. Sing, paint, read a book, write a book! Whatever makes your soul sing, do it – do it on a daily basis – and you will feel that seed of God take root and begin to grow in your own life. That’s all hafta farmers can do – grow their own seed of God. The power comes when a community of hafta farmers, tending to their own seed of God, comes together. That’s what the apostles did and we are just one offshoot of the growth that they nurtured.
That is our legacy as hafta farmers – to grow our own seed of God so that it can grow and nurture still other seeds. We hafta be concerned about the state of our world, and we hafta work to improve it, but only by tending our own seed of God can we overcome the paralysis that would keep us from working for the good of all creation.
This is how our garden grows, when our very way of life grows that seed of God within each of us. This “is a way of life that connects us to the divine.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.