Sensing Lent: In the Garden
March 20, 2022 – Rev. Drew Stockstill
Then he told this parable: A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'
Photo by Ricardo IV Tamayo on Unsplash
The resident gardener in our home spent many hours this weekend getting the garden ready for spring. It seems there’s always something to be done in the garden and in the garden there’s always something going on. The book of Lamentations says that God’s mercy and love are new every morning. That’s how it seems with a garden, there are new glories every morning.
We’re in this sermon series through Lent where we are using our God given senses to explore the presence of the glory of God. This week we’re taking a stroll through the garden, a field trip to a place where God’s glory is declared boldly and quietly, with splendor, and also buried in the ground.
The garden is a fully sensory experience. It was God’s idea that we live our lives fully and fully exposed in a garden – the garden of Eden. It was there that God proved to be the master gardener, making us out of the ground. Perhaps because in a garden we are so close to our cosmic womb, and when we sink our fingers into soil we are doing something our ancestors have done from the beginning. Perhaps, it is because we are, in a sense, home in the garden that it stirs every sense.
When God was planting the trees in the Garden of Eden, he said, “Not only are these going to be great for food, but the humans are going to love to look at them.” The garden was a place God loved to walk through. It was a place where Adam and Eve lived naked and unafraid and unashamed. They were more alive in the garden and closer to God in the garden. Our humanity is bound to the earth of the garden. To garden is to kneel on the earth and work alongside the master gardener, our God. And to experience a garden with our senses is to experience the glory of God, to celebrate and enjoy God in the garden.
Obviously, a garden is beautiful to look at. The garden is also a delight to the nose, filled with organic smells: roses, soil, rosemary, mulch. Of course, gardens are well known for the way they taste. Sweet strawberries crawl close to the soil and bitter kale stand bold and flamboyant. Tomatoes and sweet potatoes and climbing beans; even some flowers lend their beautiful petals to complement a plate of salad greens.
And to our sense of hearing, the garden is filled with music – birds calling out from limbs and inside shrubs. Writer, Cole Arthur Riley beautifully describes the music of trees:
“Have you ever stood in the presence of a tree and listened to the wind pass through its leaves?” she asks. “The roots and body stand defiant and unmoved. But listen. The branches stretch out their tongues and whisper shhhhh. Trees make symphonies without their trunks ever moving, almost as if the stillness of their centers amplifies their sound. The tree may appear still, but look closer, you’ll see that each leaf flails with breath.”
The garden is a symphony, filled with music, but that also whispers shhhhh.
The Artist’s Garden at Giverny by Claude Monet, 1900
How many canvases have painters covered with images of gardens around the world? And how many perfumes are formulated to make us smell like a fragrant garden in bloom. And how our bodies crave a healthful garden salad? And how hard is it to walk through garden with your hands in your pockets? And how immediately does your heart rate slow and your body relax when you stand barefoot on the grass? A garden is a full body experience, and our full bodies open to God.
Gardens are a place, a specific place where God does healing work, work that helps us see new possibilities, to see growth. Gardens are a place to experience hope. Creation begins with an empty garden, the bare bones of life. I imagine our garden in winter. A bare landscape ready to burst into life. It’s been said, “a garden in winter is the absolute test of the gardener.” Perhaps because it requires not only imagination, but hope. God asks us, as he asked the prophet Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, “Can this garden live?” And we reply, “Oh, God you know.”
This fall the City of Harrisburg dug up two of our trees and a corner of our garden to repair sewer lines and install new ADA sidewalks. It’s necessary work and I’m glad it’s happening, but we mourned a bit as the digger uprooted our young Red Maple and the Crape Myrtle that I planted to remind me of home. They were careful to keep the root balls intact as best they could, but the trees were out of the soil for nearly two months. We replanted them as soon as we could. This week my neighbor and I were chatting out front and he looked at our bear trees and asked, “Do you think they’ll come back.” Oh Lord you know, I can only hope.
It requires hope to look at a bare landscape, a withering plant, or a garden in winter and imagine what beauty what delight for the senses will spring forth. It takes hope, to look at a baby and imagine what life she will lead, what beauty she will create, what will bring her joy, and to hold at
bay the fear of what may hurt her. It takes hope to look at the rubble of so many towns and cities in Ukraine and see a future where people will no longer cower in basements but cultivate flourishing lives. It takes hope to look at our geopolitical moment and see a brighter future. But that’s what we remember we are capable of when we look at a garden in winter. And when we look at the dry places, the barren places, the war-torn places, the uprooted places, it takes hope to remember what glory God has been able to create out of just such times and situations in the past. Remember, beloved, God has planted gardens in the past and God will remain faithful, and continue to cultivate gardens, and bring new life. We use our senses to remember such things.
The prophet Isaiah had the honor to minister to the people of Israel in their time of hopelessness, in the winter garden of their lives, amidst war and despair. He said, “Do not fear, for I am with you,” “Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears!” He is gathering a people who need hope, whose senses have been numbed and so they are losing hope. They have eyes but they can’t see a way forward; they have ears but they can’t hear sounds of joy. Then God proclaims, “I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator, who makes a way in the sea, who extinguishes wars…I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43).
What God is promising is to be faithful, to replant a garden. He will revive our senses that we can perceive it, that we can see the buds forming, feel the grass sprouting, smell the blooms, and taste and see that that lord is good. God is the master gardener and looks at what appears to be dead and says, “Wait and see.”
Jesus told that story about the man and the gardener. The man, well, he wasn’t much of a gardener himself, though he planted a fig tree. Maybe he was like me and the peach tree I planted in the wrong place in my back yard and that is leaning and crooked and sometimes blocks traffic. Maybe he also found his fruit tree in the after-season discount area of Lowes and maybe he thought, like I did, I like fruit. I’ll just plant that tree and next year have more fruit than we can eat. I can relate to that guy. He wasn’t a gardener. He planted his fig tree in a vineyard, which isn’t where you grow figs, its where you grow grapes. Bless his heart. And then after three years of having no figs he’s ready to cut it down. I’ve had my peach three for four years and have yet to taste a peach from its branches. I’m ready with my saw.
But then the gardener appears. “Hold on, he says.” Let’s give it another year. Let’s tend it, give it some care, some manure, some love, some time, and let’s wait and see.” Now Jesus doesn’t tell us how the story ends, but I think our gardeners may know. I had to look up fig trees, but when I did, I learned that it often takes a few years before a fig produces its first fruit. It can often take four years. The man doesn’t know what the gardener knows. He sees a barren tree, he’s lost patience, he’s ready to be done. But the gardener, he has hope, he has wisdom, and he has experience that tells him, wait and see. Jesus is a bit like that gardener, he sees the potential in all people, he doesn’t count anyone out. He encourages us to create communities of care that nurture people so they can in time bear fruit, not be cut down before their time. Jesus is the son of the master gardener after all.
The garden is the place we learn we shouldn’t count out a plant just because its branches are still bear in May, because come July it will bursts into flower. A garden is a place where we can also learn that some people are like that, we shouldn’t count somebody out because of what they look like on the outside. Wait and see what God can do. We shouldn’t lose hope in somebody because they are a late bloomer, they haven’t found that career, or partner, or faith. Wait and see what God can do with some time, some nurturing, and nourishment. A garden is a place we learn that even a place that has been bombed to kingdom come, has deep roots and life that will reemerge often better and stronger than before.
Sarah Davidson is an amateur gardener in England. She went blind when she was two. And the garden became her safe space. Because a garden is a delight to all the senses, it’s accessible to everyone, if they may not be sighted, lack hearing, or are nondivergent, or have mobility concerns. Sarah said that when so much of the world was full of barriers for her the garden was the place where she felt free. Her family helped her appreciate the fullness of the garden. When she was young, traveling with her family in France, they were driving on a road surrounded by towering
sunflowers. Which she could not see, though her parents and brother tried to describe the awe of their height. Then her brother made them stop the car. He led his sister into the field so she could feel how tall the stalks were. The garden was the space where her brother could show kindness, and find ways to help her experience the beauty. To this day she grows sunflowers. I’m guessing it has as much to do with remembering the love of her brother on display in the garden. Sarah said, “because I have to go around touching my plants individually to find out what they’re doing, by the time I’ve gotten to the top of the garden my mood’s a whole lot better.” “There’s nothing like seeing a seedling pop up to give you a little hope. It always amazes me and puts my faith back in gardening again.”
There you have it, hope and faith, awe and amazement born in the garden.
A famous British gardener, Monty Don teaches a garden, is like a body. What you do in one place in the garden effects another. Paul says the church is like that, like a body, made up of many members who all offer different gifts, all necessary and valuable. So, in a sense, the church is like a garden. The church is a garden, a place that welcomes all and helps them appreciate the beauty, helps them find a place to grow and flourish. The church is a garden because its also a special place of healing. The church is a garden because here we celebrate and enjoy the glory of God. The church is a garden because here we respect and value the time it takes for flowers and fruit to grow, and it is a place to be nurtured and nourished.
And this is the value of the Lenten season, it is a garden of time. What is growing in you this season? What needs to be pruned back? Where do you need to have patience with yourself or someone in your life to give time for fruit to grow? And what fruit are you excited to bear? What hope is waiting to be discovered? Let your senses explore as you become aware of the glory of God and the new things God is doing when we perceive it. Amen
 Cole Arthur Riley, “This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us,” 2022, pg. vii