16 July 2017
Gardens, growing and growth for
the benefit of future generations
Sunday 16 July 2017,
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity,
9.30 a.m.: Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, Morning Prayer.
Readings: Genesis 25: 19-34; Psalm 119: 105-112; Romans 8: 1-11; Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23.
In the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
With this morning’s Gospel reading about the sower and the seed, I almost feel I should be preaching this morning in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, with that beautiful east window of the sower sowing seed on different types of ground.
When the children come into the church in Rathkeale from the school, I enjoy explaining that window to them. But I never concede or admit that I am not good at sowing, not good in the garden, not good at growing plants or trees, and certainly not good at growing them from seed.
I like to explain this away by excuses such as heavy hay fever since childhood or claiming I do not have green fingers. But to tell the truth, it may be because of a combination of faults: because I expect quick results and because I expect perfection.
I enjoy sitting in the garden, reading, eating in the open, listening to the fountain, but not weeding the flower beds, tending the plants or mowing the lawn.
In short, I do not do gardening, I do not do garden centres.
But during the past two weeks in Crete I found myself unexpectedly appreciating gardens and growing and growth.
Where we were staying, we had breakfast most mornings on a terrace overlooking a taverna garden with tables between the tall, leafy trees and a variety of flowers and plants, many of them over 100 years old.
The family there explain that it has taken over a century to grow these plant, flowers and trees. It is careful nurturing, a gentle and loving task handed on from one generation to the next, with no expectation of immediate, personal reward for any one generation.
We were staying in Platanes, a suburb and resort about 5 km outside Rethymnon in Crete. In the very heart of Rethymon itself, the Municipal Garden is an attraction that few tourists visit or appreciate. But this garden is a welcome, cool and refreshing place in the middle of the heatwaves that Crete has been experiencing during the past few weeks, with temperatures in the very high 30s, and on one day even hitting 40.
The garden is near the city centre and close to the old city walls and the Venetian gates into the Old Town.
This is a green area that includes a playground, drinking fountains, the busts of writers and politicians, and a cafeteria. Originally, this was a Turkish Muslim cemetery. After the Turks left Crete in the 1920s, the city council decided not to build on the site. Instead, they created a garden that respected the dead and gave pleasure to the living.
Now this is a home to rare plants, a place for the people of the town to stroll in the shade away from the summer heat, and a venue for political and cultural events, including a festival that was running all last week.
This garden, dating from 1925, has taken almost a century, more than three full generations, to reach its present mature beauty.
It takes that span of time to plant, grow, develop and shape two gardens like these. The people who had the vision for them, who laid out the pathways, who sowed the seeds and tended the first saplings in their early stages of growth, knew they would never see their work come to maturity, they would never see the fruits of their dreams.
At times, they must have been frustrated. In the old graveyard, inevitably some of their seeds and saplings ended up being sown or planted on stony ground and never grew properly. In the summer heat and drought, many seeds and plants must have found too little water and been burned by the sun. Some must have been trampled on by people dining in the taverna garden or eager to see the new phenomenon of a municipal public garden.
But the planners passed on their vision, and in these past few weeks I have benefitted from their vision, their persistence and their tenacity.
Too often we expect immediate results. And too often we judge whether a project is a success or a failure by asking whether it is producing immediate, measurable, visible, tangible results. If not, we dismiss that project as an immediate failure.
In our Old Testament reading (Genesis 25: 19-34), Rebekah knows about postponed and delayed expectations. She is married for 20 years and Isaac is 60 before she conceives. To add to her surprise after all those years, she finds she is pregnant not with one child but with two, twin boys.
Their father Isaac does not expect Jacob to grow and become his heir.
Instead, Esau is the hunter gatherer, while Jacob seems to be the stay-at-home boy, the ‘Mammy’s boy,’ with a hint that he is good at stirring up trouble, cooking a stew (see verse 29).
Esau expects immediate results, to the point that he is willing to give up his long-term prospects, his rights and inheritance as the first-born son, for the immediate satisfaction of the lentil stew Isaac has been brewing up.
Esau expects immediate results. He lacks the patience to wait and see what may happen, he does not have the ability, the commitment or the endurance to stick with things.
The Psalmist too is challenged to consider his own need for patience and endurance, to see not his immediate predicament but to look to the future. He thinks he is a failure because of his present circumstances, but does the rejection he feels today shape his tomorrow?
Perhaps the dominant theme running through this stanza of Psalm 118 is our need for patience and determination. The psalmist learns patiently in the face of the wicked, in living with deep troubles, insults, innuendoes and immediate risks to his life to remain in awe of God.
He has an inheritance that is not only for the here and now, but for future generations, for ever (verse 111), and for ever and to the end (verse 112).
In the face of adversity, this is his real joy, even though he may not see the fruits of his faithfulness, it will be of benefit to future generations.
Just because something works now does not mean it is right for the future. Just because something does not work now does not mean it is wrong for the future.
It is not the fault of the seed that it has fallen on rocky soil, or landed on the roadway, or been burned up in the mid-day sun. God scatters where he will, abundantly and generously.
On the other hand, we can achieve little by our own innate qualities or abilities. We are all inter-dependent – just like the seed, which depends on the sower and on soil, sun, rain and the right conditions.
Why does some of the seed yield better results? – some of it is immeasurably better than that other seed.
Growth occurs without us seeing or knowing it. Yet we can have such limited expectations of God.
Why does God allow certain people to do this, that or the other?
Why does God allow particular people or nations to prosper?
Why does God seemingly reward the wayward and the careless, those I would prefer to see left on rocky soil or would pass by on the side of the road?
If only God behaved a little more like I do, or like I want God to, would this not be a far, far better world?
Would this not be a far, far better society?
Would this not be a far, far better Church?
And so on.
Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob too, do not see the working out of God’s plans in future generations. Like the sower who sows so that others may reap, how could Isaac and Rebekah know what Jacob’s bowl of lentils would lead to?
Sometimes in the Church of Ireland, we become very exercised about Church attendance figures and with this anxiety comes talk of Church growth, Church planting, and reaching the unchurched. But sometimes, just sometimes, I wonder whether we are neglecting our own inheritance, the harvest of the seeds that have already been planted by previous generations, the promises that were made to past generations.
In our Collect this morning we are praying that as God’s faithful people that we would serve in ‘holiness and truth’. And so success in ordinary parishes like this is not to be judged by business models of rapid growth and charts that track increases in sales and profits.
Our measures for growth must be so different. We are here as salt and light in our communities. True growth may not be found not in quantity but in quality: how we love our neighbours, how we encourage and help them to grow in their faith, how we are faithful witnesses to the love of God and the love of others.
And as we know, love, hope and faith cannot be measures, because they cannot be bought or sold, and their true value bears fruit not in the now and the immediate but over decades, over time.
There is hope. There is hope for our small congregations. If we have hope in the seeds sown in the past, if we pay attention to the potential harvest, if we look with faith and hope to the future, then there is no reason to fret about present figures.
Like the garden planners in Crete who had vision in Rethymnon almost a century ago, we may not see the growth that follows our faithful attention to our own little patches today. But there is no need to dismiss congregations that are small in numbers are small in the benefits that we bring to the wider community.
I like to think of our churches here is this group of parishes as having the real potential to be the spiritual gardens of our wider communities. As Thomas More once said: ‘The many great gardens of the world, of literature and poetry, of painting and music, of religion and architecture, all make the point as clear as possible: The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden.’
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes This sermon was prepared for Sunday 16 July 2017.
Almighty and everlasting God,
by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified:
Hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people,
that in their vocation and ministry
they may serve you in holiness and truth
to the glory of your name;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.