Tending the Garden

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.

— Jeremiah 31:12

For 11 years, the church yard has been my garden. We have a yard service, and many volunteers have chipped in, but I have brought in hundreds of plants, digging up seedlings at the fence line and bringing them into the center garden, tucking orphaned orchids here and there in the trees, rooting philodendron and sending them climbing the oaks, turning bald spots into gardens and weed patches into mulch beds.

This effort has been random. Rather than looking at a spot and asking, “What kind of plant would look good there?” I find interesting plants and ask, “Gee, I wonder where this might grow?” I do like the garden, but the big hurdle to making it great is all those plants. I love each plant, individually. I love their sprouts and their seeds. A plant might not look good in that spot, but if it’s a plant that can’t be transplanted, I just leave it be.

I love each plant, even those that pop up where they don’t belong; that crowd out other plants; that don’t do well; that do too well; the ugly ones; the hard-to-please ones.

It dawned on me this morning that God might have a similar perspective. The garden’s a mess, and the problem is the plants. But God loves each little plant! God loves the pretty ones, the ugly ones, the hard-to-please ones, the over-achievers, the under-achievers …

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 waisting 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.’”

— Luke 13:6-9

In Palm Beach Gardens, we have a love/hate relationship with trees. When the church was built, they designed an opening in the overhang to accommodate a great live oak, because that was easier than getting a permit to cut it down. When they expanded the fellowship hall, another huge oak stood in the way, so they had to transplant it. If it died, they would have to plant a couple dozen more trees. So there was a weekly prayer meeting for that tree!

More recently, we were planning park lighting around a huge, expansive live oak. Then a windstorm hit and a huge, soaring branch was blown out of the tree. Church fathers stood on the ready to come in with leather gloves and chainsaws to clear not just that massive branch, but the rest of the tree as well. I called in the city arborist, hoping that he would help me protect that beautiful tree. He noted the disease that made the limb weak, then said that it was up to us. We could cut the tree down if we wished, or we could leave it standing.

So I called in a tree surgeon buddy I know, who filled the hole in the tree with rubble and cement, and trimmed limbs off of other threatened limbs to lighten their load. That was almost 10 years ago, and the tree still stands, surviving hurricanes and sporting a beautiful healing scar that will one day encase the cement.

Jeremiah said that with God’s blessing and mercy, our lives could be like a watered garden. Jesus said that he would work on the fig tree for another year – but eventually, that tree had to bear fruit or make room for something more productive.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

— John 15:1-2

Jesus is a shepherd who loves every sheep. Jesus is a gardener who loves every plant. Sometimes, he tends to the garden. Sometimes, he tends to the plant.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).

— John 20:15-16

The Bible starts with the story of the Garden of Eden. It ends with a restoration of the Garden and the return of the Tree of Life. He is the vine, God is the vinedresser, and we are the branches. Or, God is the owner and Jesus is the gardener. Either way, when Jesus starts digging around to fertilize our lives, or when God starts pruning us to bear more fruit, let it happen. And if you don’t love this garden we’re growing in, remember that God loves each and every plant, the roses and the weeds, and that doesn’t lend itself to an orderly landscape. Lastly, know this: One day, that Garden will be perfect! No one person or plant will crowd another out. Each person or plant will be where they can grow and bear fruit. May our lives become a watered garden that bears fruit. May we all find our place in the restored Garden of Eden.

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Know the Fruit, Know the Tree

When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was not always talking about heaven or the afterlife. The Kingdom of God is something we should strive for now. He told the people of his day that the Kingdom of God has come to you, has come near to you, has come upon you, is among you and can be taken away from you. It is like a mustard seed, like yeast, He seemed to be talking about something that starts here and now, when we make God king.

Regardless of how we see the Kingdom of God, I think we can agree that it is something we should strive for. God decides who it belongs to, and Jesus told us that God can and will take it away. In Matthew (21:42-44):

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is amazing in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

So there it is. Whatever the Kingdom is, it will be taken away from those who do not produce its fruits, and given to those who do. The early church certainly saw this as the Kingdom being taken away from the Judaism and given to Christianity, but does the Christian church always produce fruits of the Kingdom? If not, it will be taken away. We need to understand what the fruits of the Kingdom are.

Jesus never answers the question directly, but he does talk a lot about fruit, which is clearly a metaphor for good works generated by our faith in Christ. Earlier in Matthew (7:16-20), Jesus says of false prophets, “You will know them by their fruits. … A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire.” That might not tell us what the fruits are, but Jesus does go on to tell us what they are not.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me you evildoers.’” (Matt. 7:21-23)

Fruits are not deeds of power. Preaching or prophesy in the name of Jesus is not a fruit per se. Even casting out demons is not fruit. None of this is fruit unless it is the will of God.

I think we fall into that trap. I’m told that I’m a pretty good preacher, but I know that God can make anyone a good preacher. The fruit that Jesus is looking for is not preaching skill, or Bible knowledge, or church success. I do think that these things are in the Kingdom of God on this earth, but they are not its fruits.

The book of John quotes Jesus on fruit. In John 15 Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.” Stop right there – we can be a branch in Jesus, and yet bear no fruit, and be removed. “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2) Again, we can be a fruitful branch and still be pruned, but only so we will bear more fruit.

Some of you will recognize this as being in Jesus’ priestly prayer for his disciples, and for all believers. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,” he says. John 15:12 says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Is that a fruit? It is a condition of abiding in Jesus’ love, as bearing fruit is a condition of being in the Kingdom of God, so I think it is a fruit. “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”(15:16b)

So, the kingdom of God will be taken away from those who do not love one another and given to a people who do love one another.

We are more familiar with the words of Paul and the fruit of the Spirit. Remember those? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.(Galatians 5:22) Paul contrasts those with the works of the flesh: Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealously, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. “Those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21) Now these are fruits, good fruit and bad fruit. So the Kingdom of God will be given to those whose fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

In Ephesians (5:5-9), Paul writes, “For once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” Again with the fruit. Again with abiding in the Lord.

Remember when Jesus said the Kingdom of God belongs to children, and we can’t enter into it unless we become like children? We worry about a lot of lofty and important things. Sometimes it feels like we are fighting for the survival of the church. But if the Kingdom of God belongs to children, and it’s given to those who produce its fruits, then we should look to children to decide what’s most important to God.

Even a child can produce the fruits we’ve found in scripture. Love one another. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If our efforts not generate that fruit, then we’re doing the wrong things. If our efforts lead to idolatry, enmities, strife, jealously, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions, then we’re doing the wrong things. Jesus said you will know the tree by its fruit.

Brothers and sisters, I say this with all sincerity: We must love one another. We must live in peace with one another. We must be patient, kind, generous, gentle and self-controlled. We should be joyous and bring joy to others. These are the fruits that we must produce. If we do not, the Kingdom will be taken away from us and given to those who can produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity and self-control.

In the name of Jesus I pray that I have shared his teachings today. Amen.