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Isaiah 5.11-10

John 15.1-8

Listen to Your Garden Grow

Fifth Sunday of Easter

My Italian grandfather loved his vegetable garden.  Every spring he would go out in his yard, turn over the soil from last year’s gardens.  He would recall a mental map of what vegetables he had planted where the year before, careful not to plant the same variety in the same place two years in a row.  He planted a few different varieties of tomatoes and peppers, he always had eggplant and beans – bush beans and pole beans - and of course zucchini in abundance.  I have many fond boyhood memories of helping him on those warm lazy summer days.  I could help with the easy chores:  planting the beans in neat tidy rows, picking ripe tomatoes, aerating the earth around the eggplant, pulling out some random weeds here and there.  And when our chores were done, he would set up two lawn chairs, pull out a beer for himself and a root beer for me, fire up his near-ubiquitous cigar, and we would sit in the sun and talk about nothing in particular, and listen to his garden grow.

I also worked in my Dad’s garden growing up, but unlike my grandfather, my Dad made me do some actual work.  I turned the garden over by hand every spring, and every spring it seems the garden grew longer and wider to accommodate our family’s expanding appetite.  And once the garden was turned over, I covered it with fresh chicken manure from my great-uncle’s egg farm. Tell me: have you ever worked with chicken manure?  Dad insisted it was superior to cow manure, and it certainly was in the department or pungency… its ordure is forever engrained in my olfactory.  I staked the tomatoes,  lined the supports for the pole beans and somehow kept the zucchini from taking over the neighbor’s yard.  But still, I remember both experiences fondly, and it is the reason why, in my adult life, I have always had a vegetable garden.  I dug one up in the yard of our first home in Calumet, I dug one in the back yards of our parsonages in Bridgewater and Beverly, and finally last year, after two years of construction, I started a garden in Old Lyme.

And it has always been an Italian garden.  I’ve planted tomatoes, peppers, pole beans, zucchini, eggplant, peppers and onions; my herb garden includes oregano, basil, parsley – Italian flat leaf parsley, of course – and chives, although come to think of it, I haven’t tried planting garlic or mozzarella yet.  So naturally, with the season of spring maturing once again, I’ve begun thinking about what this year’s garden will look like.

Jesus told a lot of parables about gardening and planting and growing.  In fact the largest subset of parables he told are parables about growth, and I’m sure you can name a handful:  the sower and the seed, the mustard seed, the seed that fell on rocky ground and the seed that fell on fertile ground, the parable of the vineyard, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard; the list goes on.  The passage Pat read this morning from John, while not exactly a parable, still works like one.  When Jesus talks about branches that do and don’t bear fruit, when he talks about pruning the branch and tending the tree, we can picture what he is describing in our mind’s eye.  “Those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit… and the Lord our God is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”  We know what Jesus is talking about: if we plant something and tend it carefully, if we water and fertilize it, if we trim it back, if we pick off the suckers and stake it just so, we will enjoy more fruit than we could ever have imagined.  If the seeds of faithfulness have been planted in us, or if we plant them in others, and we tend to them carefully, if we feed and water them and pick off the suckers that draw the nutrients away from the heart and if we plant our stakes just so, then our faith will flourish like the fruit in our gardens, like proud trees in the forest.

But there are also times we want to put out a couple lawn chairs, pop open a cold one, and just sit there and listen to our gardens grow.  I know that for every garden I’ve planted, when it is finished and the seeds are gently covered and watered and the plants are standing straight just so and the stakes and tomato cages are in geometric sync and I’ve fertilized the whole lot of it and I’m already imagining the meals I’ll be making in two or three months’ time, I do allow myself the pleasure of just sitting there admiring it, or as my grandfather would say, listening to my garden grow.

Because what happens if you don’t listen to your garden?  Let me tell you about my garden in Beverly.  When I first started it, all fresh virgin soil where no garden had been before, I planted all my favorites, all the veggies and herbs I’ve already described for you.  But the results were disappointingly mixed:  the eggplants never really took off, the peppers bore fruit but the fruit did not mature very well, and while most of the others grew as expected, one thing that did not grow in my Beverly garden was zucchini.  Zucchini!  Anyone can grow zucchini!  I could throw a few seeds out the church window this morning and by the time the service is done we’d probably have a few googootz to pick on the way home.  Whoever heard of a gardener who cannot grow zucchini?  What is wrong with him?  Mind you, I got zucchini flowers aplenty and when I realized they were not going to bear any fruit I picked them and made squash-flower pancakes.  But I was stubborn.  The next year I planted them in a different place, hoping for better results, but at the end of the day… Yes, we have no zucchini.

After a while, it occurred to me:  I had forgotten my grandfather’s advice.  I was not listening to my garden.  It was telling me what would grow and what would not, but I was bound and determined I was going to get eggplant and zucchini no matter what.  Until I didn’t.  Until I listened to my garden and decided to only plant what it would produce.  I had that garden for seventeen years and it treated me well, but only because I learned to stop making demands on it and began to listen to what it was telling me.

I think there is a lesson for the church in all of this, an important one:  before the church embarks on any new endeavor, it needs to listen.  I cannot count how many church visioning activities I’ve been a part of, in my local church, in the Association and in the Conference, when we gather all our big ideas and decide on exciting new directions that we feel the church needs to take.  And almost always the answer is the same:  we want to be bigger, we want more people, we want a more robust budget, we want to be new and shiny and the place everybody wants to go. Yet, I can count on one hand the number of times the church or judicatory decided to listen first, because it has happened so seldom.  The question for the church in any age is not, who or what do you want to be, but rather, what does our community need from us?  In other words, any vision, any plan, every new direction should not be about the church, it should be about the people, the families and the neighborhoods we serve.  Every time a church says to itself, “We need more people.  We need more money.  We need the latest and the newest and the trendiest,” we have unconsciously left the most important factor out of the conversation.  As Jesus was once asked, “Who are my neighbors?”  What is their need?  Are they asking for something bigger, better, shinier and newer?  Is the community served by hymns projected on our walls and a peppy band and high-tech production values so the Sunday morning broadcast can capture the preacher’s jagged profile just as he is making his pithiest point?  Is this what our garden is telling us?

But everybody’s doing it!   Or at least everybody wants to be doing it!  Well, everybody thinks they can grow zucchini too, and we saw where that gets us.  We need to listen to our garden.  We need to pay attention to what our neighbors need.  I was talking to a teacher the other day who moved from a school in a region much like our own to an inner city school.  While her former school had the latest tech and the newest ball fields and administrators with PhDs running the place, and while the school she is at now has kids who are busy being parents to their siblings and teachers working a second job to buy classroom supplies, she has the sense that her present setting pays a lot more attention to the lives and the on the ground needs of the immediate community, because this is what is necessary to make the schools work.  In her experience, there is a greater integration of schools and neighborhoods in the city than the suburbs.  It comes down to What do the kids need, and not What does the district want.  What do our communities need? 

Well, they need to be fed and they need to be connected for two things, and I am so pleased and grateful that the Shoreline Soup Kitchen and Pantry here at the United Church is resuming in-person, in the building sit down dining once again beginning this afternoon.  I know a few of you worked to make that happen, because you listened to our garden.  Thank you.  And because we listened to our garden, we are expanding the backpack program because the need does not end when the school year does, the need is year-round.  Because we listened to our garden, our church Outreach has plans to begin collecting children’s clothing items, which I know Sue Germini Humble will be telling us about in the weeks to come.  Because we listen to our garden, we have given our minister both the permission and the time to move office hours out of the church and into the community.  Which is where my encounter with the teacher took place just the other day.

When we remember Jesus’ parables of growth, we remember vivid stories.  What we may not remember, because it seems so inconsequential, is the word he used to introduce so many of them.  “Listen!” Jesus said.  Listen!  A sower went out to sow.  Listen!  Consider the mustard seed.  Listen!  A landowner planted a vineyard.

Listen to your garden.  If the soil won’t support zucchini, grow tomatoes and let somebody else grow the zucchini.  That way you can trade tomatoes for zucchini and there is enough for everyone.  As a church we want to keep paying attention to what we do well, to where our strengths meet the world’s deepest needs.  It only helps to feed or clothe or house or educate our neighbor if this is what they need the most.  Some times all we need to do, and this is a lot, is to love our neighbor.  We know what we do well, and we are pretty good at it; just last week I was talking to one of you about how, for a small church, we get a lot done, and I loved your reply:  We are a force to be reckoned with.  And I think we are, and I think a good part of the reason is that we have listened to our garden.  And if we listen to our garden, then we can listen to our garden grow.


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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


From the North: Take CT Route 9 South to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn left; we are 1 mile on the right.


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