Acts 2: 1-12
This long weekend is the traditional kick off to gardening season. I know we have many gardener’s at Parkminster. Some of you have shared with me how gardening brings you closer to God. The poet May Sarton says of gardening, “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” When you slow down and consider the miracle of it, it really is incredible that from a tiny dried up seed you could get a tomato, a cucumber or a Forget Me Not. That is the analogy Paul uses in his letter to the church at Corinth, to talk about God’s transformative power in bringing life from death; “We…have a parallel experience in gardening. You plant a “dead” seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike.”
That is Luke’s experience as the author of the book of Acts. When Luke looks around at the Christian community of his time the evidence of the Spirit is everywhere, they are reaping a harvest of love. What attracts people to this new movement isn’t their beliefs, it is the lives and the community of these Jesus followers. There was is a depth of caring–widows and orphans who are often left to fend for themselves and live in poverty are cared for. There is a radical equality before God—although men and women, Jew and gentile, slave and free live apart on the outside, in the worshipping community they are equal. There is real community—a sharing of possessions, a sense that everyone as a member of the body of Christ has something to contribute to the community. Luke sees a complete transformation of human relationships based on love.
At some point, he wonders how a tiny, vulnerable seed of Jesus followers had grown into a thriving community, despite the criminal execution of Jesus and the persecution of his followers. I imagine him looking back, to the beginning and trying to speak of the source of this movement, this movement whose success was out of proportion to the power and influence of its leader and its followers. So, Luke writes a story of something strange, beyond imagination, miraculous even, to explain the existence of the early church, a story of the Spirit’s power to transform and re-order human relationships in the shape and direction of love. A story that uses vivid images of wind and fire, of miracles, prophecies fulfilled, things coming loose and breaking open to tell a great and marvelous truth. The coming of God’s Spirit—a Spirit of love unleashed on the world that changes how people understand and how they relate to the Holy and to each other. Luke is trying to communicate that there was a power at work, something beyond their own resources. The most they did was cooperate with it, not get in it’s way. That was enough; in fact, it was what was needed.
Gardening is like that I think. You do everything you can to tend to it, but ultimately gardening is an act of surrender, which makes it a good metaphor for the spiritual life. There is a balance between tending and just getting out of the way and letting the life force within the seed take over. Perhaps, there’s a lesson for us in the witness of the early church and the rhythms of gardening as we seek to cultivate a harvest of justice and love in our time and place.
Parkminster, like most United Churches I would say is a community of doers. That is great, our ministry is vibrant in so many areas because of this ethos. The downside is there is little time for noticing and reflection. When this happens, our work can lose it’s spiritual foundation. We can begin to think that this work of loving, compassion and justice seeking is all up to us. In the face of difficult, entrenched, and complex issues like racism, like right relations with Indigenous people, like poverty and homelessness, doers with a heart get anxious. An anxiety that often is driven by guilt, by self judgement or the perceived judgement of others. Because these are uncomfortable feelings, we look for something to do that alleviates those feelings.
But actions motivated by relieving anxiety and guilt are about us, aren’t they? Those kinds of actions are more about serving our purposes and not always the people we purport to help. In liberal Protestant denominations such as ours these actions usually fall into two categories: charity and study. Charity and study have their place, they can be important components of a church’s response to complex issues, but they are inadequate as the only response. While these responses can alleviate our anxiety and guilt, charity fosters dependence instead of empowerment and endless study is often a substitute for the much harder work of building relationships with people with which we aren’t normally in relationship.
Faith calls us to a more nuanced approach. Faith tells us that the work of healing is God’s work, that the Spirit is active and engaged in this work. We are called to act not from a place of guilt and anxiety but from a place of faith. Sometimes we need to stop tending the garden, step back and notice what God is already doing. This waiting on the Spirit is an active waiting where we look around and ask ourselves, “where is God’s Spirit moving?”. “Where is the growth happening organically?” With these questions as our guide our actions will no longer be driven by alleviating guilt and anxiety but rather cooperating with what the Spirit is already doing, with where the Spirit is leading. Some questions that help us recognize the presence and leading of the Spirit are,
- Where are we being called to connect with others, to build bridges between people and to deepen relationships?
- Where are the opportunities to be involved in God’s work of love and healing?
- Where are we being challenged to grow in faith, to take risks in the name of love? This can often be accompanied by feelings of discomfort.
- Where are the opportunities to act that speak to our deepest values as a church that proclaims the good news of Jesus?
- Does the work before us make us feel liberated, lighter with a new sense of freedom and a sense of possibility, or does the work before us feel burdensome—full of “shoulds” or “oughts”?
“Don’t do anything, wait in the Spirit and the Spirit will come” theologian Jurgen Moltmann says in our video. Then the work is not just our work, but God’s work and the harvest will be beyond imagining. The Pentecost story is usually seen as a story of beginnings, the beginning of the church. To use the garden analogy, it is seen as a story of planting. I would say it is also a harvest story. Pentecost is the culmination of Holy Week and Easter. Holy Week was the planting, the dying of the seed. Easter was the sprouting. Pentecost is the harvest. That harvest is love and community, the result of Jesus’ surrendering his life to Love.
Any good gardener will tell you that tending needs to be driven by what you notice, by observation. So it is in the life of faith. To live by the Spirit is to know that we are not alone, that it’s not all up to us. The garden is not ours, it’s God’s. God is active and alive amongst us. Thanks be for this grace.
Rev. Joe Gaspar