A sermon by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Text: John 15:1-8
Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A funny thing has been happening to me. It’s been going on for several years now, picking up more and more steam each springtime that passes, growing as the seasons of my life have given it more room and better soil. Now that I’m here in North Dakota, it’s finally grabbing me for good and not letting go. And so, as funny as it seems, it’s true: year after year I’ve found myself wanting more and more to plant a garden and tend the earth.
I suppose it’s the most natural thing there is, although it hardly seems that way to a city boy like me. In my youth, there were few things I detested more than mowing the lawn. You can ask my dad: visiting the dentist was a walk in the park compared to getting me to mow the lawn. It was hot, I’d complain. Or the lawn was just mown a couple of days ago! Or I had so many other things to do, it could certainly wait just one more day. Or whatever other desperate excuse my teenage brain could think of. Dad heard ’em all. Strange thing is, he never bought ’em. I guess he was smarter than I gave him credit for, because I’d always end up out behind the accursed lawn mower in the end, sweating and grumbling about what a wretched thing lawn work was.
Only years later did I start to think seriously about the fact that, right from the very beginning, God made human beings to tend gardens.
And now, as I’ve grown older and settled down both literally and figuratively, the garden bug has begun to bite.
Back in college I was delighted when first an aloe vera plant and then a philodendron managed to survive me for a whole year. Then, at the seminary, I planted my first flower garden in the little patch outside my living room window, and marveled at the heartiness of impatiens. Now, for the first time, I’ve got a lawn of my own, and dad’s helping me plan flower beds all around the house and in the yard. I’ve got more houseplants now than I ever would have believed, and not only are they surviving me—they’re actually thriving. But you want to know the most shocking change to me? The other day, I drove into Jamestown and dropped a bunch of money on a lawn mower, of all things. The arch-enemy of my youth. And I was excited to be doing it! Who would have believed it even just a few years ago?
It’s funny to me, but as I’ve learned to care for plants, I’ve discovered how deeply satisfying it can be to get my hands dirty. I’ve realized how what a delight it is to see something that you’ve planted and tended grow over time and become big and beautiful. I’ve come to understand how much better life is surrounded by green, growing things.
Sometimes I wonder how my plants would see the care I give them, though.
I think of my African violet, for example. I’m really proud of that little plant, because my mom’s friend Jason (who has more plants in his house than is probably healthy for a single man!) warned me that African violets are hard to care for, and that I might not have much luck with one. But my violet has bloomed from the very first day for me, and I have to admit to gloating a little bit at that fact.
Part of the care for my violet involves trimming it back every once in a while. As the old blooms start to droop and fade, I need to take my scissors to the plant and clip them off to make room for the new blossoms. To the violet, this has to seem like a violent, awful crime against it. Imagine! You’re minding your own business, trying to bloom and look nice, and along comes some evil man and lops off a few of your flowers! It hurts! It’s scary! If my violet could talk, I’m sure it would call me the worst kind of criminal for the things I’ve done to it. Yet it’s all necessary to keep my plant healthy and producing the flowers it was meant for. It needs a little help now and then, as painful as that might be.
I also think of the bush in my back yard. It had been rather dead-looking when I first moved in, but that was March and I didn’t think anything of it. But as its neighbors around my yard began putting forth leaves, it remained, by and large, a bunch of dry sticks poking out of the dirt.
I had planned on having it pulled out of the yard and tossed in the garbage heap, until some of you pointed out to me that it was still alive, way down at the bottom. As we checked it out, I could see those leaves close to the ground and knew that you were right. So instead of uprooting that bush, we got the clippers out and chopped it down almost to the very bottom, leaving just some thin little stumps and the living stems. What I knew, and what you reminded me of, was that whacking off the old, dry, dead tops of my shrub might just cause it to grow back. It’s not much to look at now, but if we’re right, that trimming will produce all kinds of new shoots, reviving my shrub and giving it the kick in the pants it needs to start growing again.
For its part, the bush probably sees us as butchers. Those branches may have been dry and dead, but at least they were something! How could we come along and chop it down into this pathetic, humiliating little patch of stubble? What we’ve done to it is cruel; we’ve utterly destroyed it, the bush would say. But give it some time, and we’ll see…if we’ve done our job as gardeners well, my shrub should be looking much better before the summer’s out.
I even think of my golden pothos, the pride of my little “greenhouse.” It’s growing like crazy, and its vines have stretched out across my dining room table just like I hoped they would. But even so, last week I took the scissors to my pothos and clipped away some of its best branches. If I’d bothered to ask it, it probably would have complained that I was destroying it, taking away its size and beauty for no reason at all. But those branches are now enjoying the sunshine in another room, sprouting roots of their own and starting new golden pothos plants that will grow up to be just as big and beautiful as their parent in my dining room already is.
Perhaps the reason God first made people to be gardeners is because tending the earth teaches us so much about ourselves. We’re pretty much like my violet, or my shrub, or my pothos or any of the other plants we tend, when it comes right down to it.
There are things in our lives that are dead or dying, much like the dried out branches of my back yard bush or the old blooms on my African violet. Those things keep us from growing the way we’re meant to grow. They get in the way and block new growth in our souls, and they hide our beauty in an ugly husk. They prevent us from becoming the wonderful things God intends for us to be.
Even worse, they’re killing us, slowly but surely. As much as we cling to our dead branches because they’re comfortable and familiar, they’ll be the death of us if nothing is done about them. We struggle to bear them, devoting all kinds of precious energy to the task. As much as we’d hate to lose those dead branches, they’re wearing us down every day, until they finally overcome us.
That’s why it’s good that God trims us like a gardener trims his plants. From our perspective it seems harsh or violent or cruel when God cuts and prunes our lives, and it hurts, without a doubt. In the short term, we might find God’s handiwork humiliating, like my shrub that was cut down to nothing, or unnecessary, like my pothos that was healthy and beautiful even before I cut it. Every time God starts coming around with his gardening tools we plants tremble and hide, because we fear it’s going to hurt.
But the kind of temporary hurt that comes from God at work on our lives is intended to help us to bloom and grow in ways that we just couldn’t with all that dead stuff crowding us out. Like a good gardener, God knows how to trim and clip the only things that are holding us back and are killing us. He’ll root around until he finds the broken and sinful spots in our lives and take care of them, while leaving only healthy, growing branches behind. It hurts, but it’s the best thing for us. As Martin Luther wrote: “Christ wants to teach us that we should look at trials and suffering very differently than the way it appears and feels to us in this world. Suffering doesn’t occur apart from God’s will. It’s not a sign of his anger, but of his fatherly love. It will serve for the best.”
That’s probably a lousy word of comfort to someone in the midst of suffering. But it’s the deepest kind of truth, too. Jesus wasn’t speaking as someone offering a word of cheerful, pastoral support, but as someone sent to tell the truth about God’s great love for us. Christ wants to remind us of God’s love in caring for us so that when its our time under the knife we might remember that God knows how to help us bloom.
God never desires for us to suffer. Let’s be absolutely clear about that. He never wants us to be in pain. But God allows us to go through times of pain because he can see what we will be on the other side of the pain. God’s got a wonderful plan for all of us who are part of his garden, and we can trust that he’s going to do whatever it takes to make that garden bloom and grow just the way he planned. And if you thought the garden of Eden was something, just wait until all of God’s people come to flower. It’ll knock your socks off. Amen.