The Optimistic Gardener

Beth A. Faeth  February 24, 2019

Readings (2)

Galatians 5:13-26, selected verses

It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?

My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day.

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. What happens when we live God’s way? God brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.


The Seven Of Pentacles by Marge Piercy

Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after
the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.


I am going to speak to you my truth:

I am so over this weather.

And while I know many of you will resonate, I do know this is not a universal certainty as my social media feeds remind me each day of friends who are simply delighting in this debacle we are calling winter. I have been a Midwesterner all my life. I have endured snow mountains so high so as to potentially lose animals or humans. I have relished many an unexpected cancellation of school or work because it was impossible to leave the driveway. I know how to bundle up, dress in layers, start the car early so there is some heat for the journey, I have a survival kit in my trunk, I know the secret of a candle and an empty can. I know how to barrel through long winter days with no sun. I have done this all of my life. But this year, for some reason this year . . . I have had enough. How about you?

All my angst and frustration comes down to one thing: The shoveling. I can admit very openly that two of the reasons I got married was so I would not have to mow the lawn or shovel show. And I know . . . as a feminist, this statement does not speak particularly well of me, but it is another of my truths. And I own it. I really dislike shoveling snow. And if you know anything about my story, you also know just how well this has all worked out for me—because I am the primary snow shoveler now. Yes, I have a teenage assistant, and her style is to complain incessantly the whole time we are enduring our task or to stand in the middle of the street yelling for anyone to show up with a snowblower, which has not produced any positive results. The only member of my household who is enjoying our current environmental predicament is our dog, our 50-pound Lab–Shepherd rescue, whose alter ego is that of Alaskan Husky champion sled dog. She loves the snow and can’t get enough of it: just don’t yell “Mush” in her presence.

Recently, as I was literally catapulting my shovel back into the garage after a particularly frustrating snow-removal endeavor—like, where do we put it now??!!—grumbling about the disappointed note our postal worker left in my mailbox chastising me for not clearing a wider swath around the mail receptacle, I stopped suddenly and gazed longingly at the far corner, where all my gardening equipment is stored. “Stored” is too fancy of a word. Where all my gardening equipment lies haphazardly on shelves and floor, hastily placed at the abrupt end of gardening season last fall.

What a beautiful mess. I could feel my freezing cold fingers begin to itch as I imagined holding a trowel rather than a shovel, digging in the dirt, rather than digging out my mailbox. Hopeful anticipation began to swell in me, as I realized once again that everything has a season and this, too, shall pass. And while I can no longer even see the top of my azalea bushes, I can already visualize the possibilities of color and blooms, flowers and greenery that could flock my home come summer. All of this dreaming is balm for the soul on a cold winter’s night, after a long snowy commute, tending the soreness that comes with throwing copious amounts of snow over one’s shoulder. And with the dreaming comes the anticipation of the work to be done, for every optimistic gardener knows that in order to appreciate a bountiful harvest, one must prepare and create the space and the place for said harvest to occur. One must cultivate.

As we continue to explore the purposes of the church each Sunday, we have moved from the section entitled “Within” to “Among.” Paula offered us some heartfelt thoughts as we began this section last week, and we pondered together what it might really look like to care for one another in this community and beyond. The heading on the document to describe the purposes which fall under “Among” is “We walk together in covenanted Christian Community,” and the purpose for today is “Cultivate a spirit of gratitude, love, joy, compassion and inclusion.” Whew, that’s a lot for one sermon. We might all agree that to live grounded in these beautiful attributes—gratitude, love, joy, compassion and inclusion—is a spiritual quest. We could share stories about how, when we really focus on living gratefully, joyfully, lovingly, quality of life improves, relationships strengthen, fear lessens, faith expounds. These words are both gorgeous and complicated, because life continues to interrupt our peaceful, easy feelings with real circumstances: illness, conflict, death, despair. A life rooted in faith calls us back to these spiritually grounded words, yet it takes a great deal of disciplined practice to stay focused on gratitude and joy when we are stressed and worried. Or when there is too much snow to shovel. I believe this purpose is less about the achievement of these life-centering concepts and much more about making the space for gratitude, love, joy, compassion and inclusion to happen both in our lives and here, at Plymouth Church. All because of the word cultivate.

To cultivate means to prepare, to foster and to encourage growth; to improve by labor, care or study. The optimistic gardener will spend much time, as this morning’s poet Marge Piercy reminds us, creating the right environment for beauty to blossom. What does our cultivating look like at Plymouth so as to prepare and encourage a spirit of gratitude, love, joy, compassion and inclusion? We have welcomed new members this morning into our covenanted community. They came here for varying reasons but something, or someone, compelled them to stay, to join this endeavor of life and faith, to help continue Plymouth’s mission as well as create new possibilities. We would do well to get to know these folks and learn from them what they see here, experience here, hope here. For those of you who reach out in welcome to new guests each week, that is cultivating. For those of you spending countless hours working on a board or committee to create programs, tend to financial issues, form new ways to make connections, that is cultivating. For those of you who organize art shows and pay attention to our building needs and care for the property inside and out, that is cultivating. For those of you who have ever invited someone new to join your fellowship group or One More Chair, that is cultivating. For those of you who teach our children or lead a Spiritual Exploration series, that is cultivating. We can go on and on here—you already know this. But perhaps what this purpose is calling us to do is to notice the places, the spaces, the opportunities that are not being cultivated right now. The places and times at Plymouth where gratitude, love, joy, compassion and inclusion might be missing. What are we noticing, and how can we nurture, encourage, prepare, foster and improve?

In our scripture reading this morning, the Apostle Paul is speaking to the young church of Galatia, where there is much debate about the right way to do things, the confines of the law and what makes one a “good Christian.” As a community, they were focused much more on needs of the flesh than living in relationship through Spirit. Paul presents the difference between cultivating community based on divisiveness and one based on inclusion. While the Spirit grants us freedom, Paul admonishes, this does not mean we are to live selfishly, meeting our own desires. When we immerse ourselves in conflict or competition or use anger to communicate, what we have left is, as our translation this morning states, an “ugly parody of community.” Instead, when we center ourselves in the gifts of the Spirit—affection for others, exuberance about life, compassion of the heart, and a “conviction that a basic holiness permeates all things and people,” we have then cultivated fertile ground upon which true community and transformation can take place. When we choose to cultivate life in the Spirit, it is, as one biblical commentator suggests, an engagement in a call, a holy vocation. Carol Holtz-Martin writes, “This call carries obligation to neighbor as well as to God, to invest ourselves in the community of faith, to put up with the sandpaper of fellow congregants’ wearisome ways against the rough edges of our own unholiness. That call impels us to prepare our hearts for worship, so that we must be fed or know sharp hunger; to exist in community with such openness and generosity that our neighbor’s well being is part and parcel to our own.” (Carol E. Holtz-Martin, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p. 189)

Many of us are feeling the anxiety around the embroidery conversations and our racial justice work. We know there will consequence to any action we decide to take, and it worries us. We have had difficult interactions fused with grace, yet we have much left to be resolved. How might we cultivate the right kind of environment to speak our truth to one another with compassion, to recall together than even when we disagree we are bound by covenant, to be willing to really listen to the pain of the other, no matter what outcome is believed to be right? Paul includes in his list of gifts of the Spirit a “willingness to stick with things.” Perhaps that is one thing to which we can commit.

The work of racial justice and inclusion is not short-term. The commitment to take “one step each day towards racial justice” will last long after any decision made about the embroideries. And I believe in order to be a community of gratitude, joy, love, compassion and inclusion, we must do intentional work to embrace the conviction that a “basic holiness permeates things and people.” This will require patience, a willingness to look at issues from other perspectives, an honoring of the other, a desire to work on our individual relationship with and understanding of God, and a strong adherence to our covenant so that indeed we can recognize how God will reveal Godself to us in a blessed word of truth. We must intentionally create space for these things to take place. Marge Piercy seems to offer us the key to cultivating a community of hope-filled possibilities: “Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen: reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in. This is how we are going to live for a long time.”

In spite of the barren earth that winter brings, the optimistic gardener can vision past the mountains of snow and know it will not always be this way. She also realizes there is work to be done, presently and in the days to come: the decisions about layout, the gathering of the seeds, the preparation of the soil, the loving nurture of the tender plants, the consistency of the water that nourishes and food that sustains; the pulling of the weeds, the unexpected pest with which to reckon. Some of that work will energize and uplift, and other times it will feel more like drudgery and menial task. But the optimistic gardener will persevere and persist “for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”

May we cultivate here at Plymouth with purpose. May we cultivate here with hope. May we cultivate well. For in doing so there are many more blessings to sow, and the harvests of gratitude, joy, love, compassion and inclusion to reap.