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Sermon illustrations

Gardening/Farming

Accelerated Growth

The inordinate desire in the west to increase productivity, to go faster and faster, especially in business, can actually become counterproductive. In this short story from the Chinese philosopher Mencius we find a helpful reminder that our attempts to speed things up doesn’t always work:

You don’t want to be like the man from Sung. There was a man from Sung who was worried about the slow growth of his crops and so he went and yanked on them to accelerate their growth. Empty-headed, he returned home and announced to his people: “I am so tired today. I have been out stretching the crops.” His son ran out to look, but the crops had already withered. 

Quoted in Michael Steinberg in The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005), 129.

Becoming a Tiller of Soil

One of my favorite sections of Home Depot is the power garden tool department. Even though I have all the tools I need, I still like browsing through Home Depot’s collection of power mowers, chainsaws, and string trimmers (better known as “weed whackers”). Among all of those machines you can find some power tillers. These tools look rather like lawnmowers, but in place of horizontal blades that cut grass they have vertical blades that cut and turn up the soil. In a word, they till.

According to the NRSV, God put the man in the garden “to till it and keep it.” “Till” is a reasonable translation of the Hebrew verb ‘avad in this context…“To till” means to break up, plow, or turn up the soil before planting. Tilling enables hard ground to accept seeds. It aerates soil that has been tamped down. It can help fertilizer to be absorbed into the dirt prior to planting. Tilling isn’t planting seeds, caring for young plants, or harvesting. Rather, it is preparing the soil for fruitfulness that is to come.

There is an element of metaphorical tilling in work beyond farming. Teachers till when they prepare a learning environment. Managers till by seeing that the environments, systems, and relationships in their care will allow those they supervise to work well. Leaders till by shaping corporate cultures, defining core values, and lifting up compelling vision. Often, we have to break up old assumptions and practices for the seeds of innovation to be planted and grow.

Of course, so much more could be said about how our work is a form of tilling. Preparing, planning, and prioritizing could all be forms of tilling. Tilling describes work that prepares the soil, so to speak. It gets things ready for new life and for ultimate fruitfulness. Tilling is a central task of our lives, one that God has entrusted to us so that we might fulfill his intentions for our work.

Taken from Mark D. Roberts, Life for Leaders, a Devotional Resource of the DePree Leadership Center at Fuller Theological Seminary

The Bible has its own Garden Path

The Bible has its own garden path. It runs from Genesis to Revelation. In fact, some of the most important events in the Christian faith take place in Biblical gardens, evens around which Christianity has established its doctrines as great rocks in the sand. Many of us have known these crucial teachings of the Christian faith since we were children-the fall into sin in the Garden of Eden, Christ’s night of sorrow in the garden of Gethsemane, his resurrection from the dead at the Garden Tomb…

God first planted a garden. He is given many names in the Bible-grand names, majestic names-but from the beginning to the end there is one name more illuminating than the rest by which we can know him: God is a gardener. In Genesis 2:8, we are told, “God had planted a garden in the east.” Immediately we get an image of the Deity stooping down from the high heavens to dig a hole in the ground for a maple sapling or an evergreen, eventually dropping to his knees to grub about in the soil.

He is doing the things we do in gardens-or we’ve seen others do: patting earth firmly around the base of a newly planted choke cherry bush, spreading the roots of a petunia, placing carrot seeds, watering. There is mud under his fingernails, mud under his skin, mud streaked under the sockets of his eyes. “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground-trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (verse 9).

Murray Andrew Pura, Rooted: Reflections on the Gardens in Scripture, Zondervan.

By Their Work You have Been Threshed

In this excerpt from a sermon on the Lord’s Supper delivered by Augustine of Hippo to a group of Catechumens, (a Christian believer preparing for Baptism) the great bishop compares the process in which a seed becomes wheat, which ultimately becomes bread, to the process of becoming a baptized Christian. Augustine, following in the footsteps of Jesus, likens the process of sanctification to the threshing of wheat, with the separation of the wheat from the chaff.

Call to mind what this created thing [bread] once was in the field. How the earth brought it forth, the rain nourished it, and ripened it into an ear of wheat and then human labor brought it together on the threshing floor, threshed it, winnowed it, stored it up again, took it out, ground it, added water to it, baked it, and only at that moment made it into the form of a loaf.

Call to mind also: you did not exist, you were created, you were brought together to the threshing floor of the Lord by the labor of the oxen, that is, by those who announced the gospel, by their work you have been threshed.

When as catechumens you had to wait [for your baptism], you were stored up in the granary. You had given your names [put them on a list for baptism], and you began to be ground by fasting and exorcisms. Later on you came to the water, and you were sprinkled, and you were made one. When the fervor of the Holy Spirit came upon you, you were baked and you were made into the loaf of the Lord.

See what you have received. Just as, therefore, you see that the loaf which has been made is one, so you also are to be one, by loving one another, by keeping one faith, one hope, and undivided love.

Taken from Augustine of Hippo, Third Sermon: Sermon Denis 6, 1–3.

Creating a Healthy Food Supply

Eating does not need to follow this commodified, industrial way. It can occur in contexts where people take deeper notice of and accept responsibility for what they eat. To appreciate what this sort of eating looks like and what it entails, we should consider the example of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. Salatin’s chickens do not stay cooped up or crammed in a dark barn. Nor are they force fed and pumped up with antibiotics to keep them from collapsing. The stress and anxiety that is the life of an industrial chicken clearly indicates that this is not how chickens are meant to live.

This is why Salatin’s chickens live outside, on grass, often following his cattle herd. Chickens are free to forage through the grass and cowpies, looking for bugs and grubs. As they move through the fields they disperse cattle manure and leave behind their own, thereby contributing to the fertility of Salatin’s soil. Their eating also helps keep down the bug population, keeping Salatin’s cattle much healthier and happier (they don’t spend all their time swatting flies).

The end results are healthy animals, vibrant soil, and really fantastic eggs.

What makes this farm in Virginia so unique is that Salatin has tried to be intentional about respecting his animals as creatures. They are not “things” or economic units that have been forced to fit a business plan (even though they do clearly factor into such a plan) or maximize meat volume on an industrial assembly/disassembly line.

Because they are living beings with integrity of their own, they require Salatin’s attention and sympathy. Salatin tries to be attentive to the multiple dramas of life and death on his farm, dramas about soil and sunlight, worms and microbial life, chickens and rabbits, and pigs and cattle. He has observed that the land and his animals each have particular needs, limits, and potential that are worthy of respect. He understands that as a farmer, his work and energy are implicated in their well-being. What chickens need is not the same as what cattle need.

Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

The Curious Incident of the Fig Tree

My mom studied horticulture and could make a dead stick grow leaves.  I do not have her genes.  So what I am telling you know comes from sources who do know about fig trees.  Here’s what they tell me.  Fig trees have a pattern in how they produce fruit. First, they sprout baby figs that have a bad taste and are really inedible.  After these baby figs sprout, then the tree grows leaves and as the leaves develop, the baby figs mature and become sweet and delicious…ready to be eaten by anyone, including a hungry Savior.

This botanical lesson is important because when Jesus sees the lush and leafy fig tree, what does he expect to be on it? Figs.  The leaves would mean that the tree was fulfilling its purpose, but in effect, all it was doing was looking like it had fruit on it.  It was pretending.  It was acting like a fruitful fig tree when in fact it was barren and not a single hungry person would be fed by it. Now here’s why this is important on this Fig Monday of Holy Week.  Jesus knows that he is going to die and then be raised to new life.  But he also knows that after his resurrection, he’s not going back to the way things were, continuing his ministry of walking around Israel teaching and healing.  He’s going to hand this mission over to his followers and they need to know what the mission is and how to go about it.

The mission for followers of Jesus is to actually bear fruit.  In Jesus’ words in the gospel of John, he tells us that if we abide in him…if we live in union with him, then his life will flow through us into the world as we speak his words and walk in his ways.  One thing Jesus is trying to teach his disciples is that looking like you’re a follower of Jesus is just that – looking like, but not really being it.  As the Texans say: All hat and no cattle.

Submitted by Eunice McGarrahan

Developing Deep Roots

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I made the long drive from San Antonio, Texas, to Pasadena, California, where we now reside. We passed through hundreds of miles of southwestern desert, most of which was filled with dry soil, colorful rocks, and scraggy shrubs. Every now and then, however, we’d see ribbons of bright green trees flourishing in the midst of the desert.

What was their secret? Inevitably, those trees grew next to a water source, even a seasonal one. Their roots grew deep into the nearby soil, which allowed them to survive in a harsh climate and even to bear fruit.

I want to be like those trees. I want to be fruitful in life, making a difference for God’s kingdom in everything I do. But I know there will be hard times, times of turmoil, stress, and suffering. In these times, I want to be a “tree” whose leaves do not wither. Even if I’m not bearing much fruit at the moment, I want to be remain vital. I expect you feel similarly about your own life. You want to be a “tree” in the mode of Psalm 1.

How can we be such “trees”? By letting our roots grow deeply into God’s living water. And how can we do this? By delighting in God’s truth and meditating upon it. The more we allow the biblical words of life to fill our minds and hearts, the more we are anchored to God’s revelation, the more we draw sustenance from God’s perspective and promises, the more we will be bear ample fruit in good times and hang in there during hard times.

Taken from Mark D. Roberts, Life for Leaders, a Devotional Resource of the DePree Leadership Center at Fuller Theological Seminary

Digging Down Deep

I’m more of an aboveground type of girl, as in, I like the stuff you can see. Flowers, trees, and vegetation symbolize life, growth, and transformation. The problem with focusing on external manifestations, though, is we don’t see what is beneath the topsoil. If a root structure is shallow, nothing will stand. And when the topsoil is stripped dry? There’s very little in the way of tangible life.

To survive and even thrive in the desert, plants must send their roots deep to push into hidden springs to find life-giving water. Humans are no different. In the desert seasons of life, we must root into the goodness of God, into being known and loved by God. We need to be rooted in our identities as the beloved creations of a merciful and divine Creator. We store these truths, allow them to spur growth, to deepen our roots, to bring us to bloom in even the most trying terrain.

Bianca Juarez Olthoff, Play with Fire, Zondervan, 2016, pp.40-41.

The Evolution of the Rose

A couple years ago I got to take a tour of the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California. The name is a bit misleading because what they are most known for are there amazing gardens. And so we were on this tour and I got to learn something about the history of roses. And it goes something like this.

There have been roses since we have been on this planet, but the wild roses in Europe, while all different colors and quite beautiful, would only bloom once a year, and so for most of the warm months you would be looking at a bunch of ugly green canes with thorns, no flowers. But then, some botanists in the late 18th century began experimenting by grafting the Chinese wild rose, which was only green, but bloomed all summer, with the European rose, and after a bunch of testing, created what we know to be the modern rose, which blooms from June through October, but not only in green, but in a myriad of colors. 

Isn’t that interesting, so roses as we know them are really a modern invention, and because of the grafting of the wild Chinese rose with the roses of Europe, we have this stronger, much more beautiful flower than we ever had before.And that is what Paul is getting at, but instead of it being one wild rose and another, we are grafted into Christ, God incarnate, and our lives should therefore look different than they used to.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Gardeners and Failure

All the accomplished gardeners I know are surprisingly comfortable with failure. They may not be happy about it, but instead of reacting with anger or frustration, they seem fairly intrigued by the peony that, after years of being taken for granted, suddenly fails to bloom. They understand that, in the garden at least, failure speaks louder than success. 

By that I don’t mean the gardener encounters more failure than success (though in some years he will), only that his failures have more to say to him – about his soil, the weather, the predilections of local pests, the character of his land. The gardener learns nothing when his carrots thrive, unless that success is won against a background of prior disappointment. Outright success is dumb, disaster frequently eloquent. At least to the gardener who learns how to listen. 

Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (New York: Delta, 1991), 143–144.

God’s Abundant Provision in Genesis 2

There is a tendency among readers and scholars of Genesis 2:16-17 to focus on the prohibition of verse 17: “but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.”

…I want to pause to consider with you verse 16: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden.”

We have already learned in Genesis 2 that God “made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (2:9). Now we hear that the man, and by implication all human beings, may eat the fruit from every single tree in the garden, save one. God is giving us all kinds of fruit from all kinds of trees, inviting us to enjoy it. The Hebrew phrase which could be rendered literally as “from all the trees of the garden to eat you may eat” underscores the opportunity and freedom for human beings. We may “freely eat” the fruit of every single tree, with one exception.

I’m struck here by this picture of God’s generosity. God did not give us just one kind of tree with one kind of fruit. God did not provide just what we need to survive. Rather, God created a great variety of trees with a great variety and quantity of fruit. If you’ll permit me to read into the text a bit, God created apple trees and orange trees, lemon trees and pineapple trees, cherry trees and plum trees, almond trees and coconut trees, peach trees and pear trees, pecan trees and olive trees. (If I have missed your favorite fruit tree, please add it to the list!)

God made all of this variety and then said, not, “Eat just what you need” but “Freely eat” from all of this. “And as you enjoy the taste and benefit from the nutrition, enjoy the beauty of the tree as well, not to mention its shade.”

Many Christians were raised in homes and churches in which God was not seen to be generous. God was stingy, giving us only what we really need and no more.

Moreover, God was the rule maker, who formed our lives principally by telling us what not to do.

Taken from Mark D. Roberts, Life for Leaders, a Devotional Resource of the DePree Leadership Center at Fuller Theological Seminary

Oaks of Righteousness

In his excellent book, An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling contrasts our overly busy lives with a vision of the kingdom from Isaiah chapter 61:

Isaiah envisioned a kingdom in which those people in need of grace become, over time, solidly rooted in God’s grace, enough so as to be able to extend his grace to others. He envisioned a kingdom where we would experience favor, comfort, blessing, honor, new perspectives and deepening roots that enable us to do the rebuilding, restoring, renewing work in places, structures and persons who have long been ruined (Is 61:4). These characteristics of oaks of righteousness are the fruit of apprenticeship.

Further, we, as these oaks of righteousness planted by the Lord, put his splendor on display, a display quite different from human excitement, enthusiasm and thrills. Splendor is quieter, stronger, less hurried and more deeply rooted. Oaks take a long time to grow. A newly planted acorn can take between two and three decades to provide significant shade, and these slow-growing oaks can live more than two hundred years. One reason for their longevity is the taproot they send deep into the earth that makes them very drought-resistant.

Oaks are indeed solid, stable, reliable, majestic trees—but it takes them a while to get there. Do we take that same long view of growing in Christ ourselves and helping others do the same? If so, what can we do to help others become attentive and teachable apprentices to him so that one day they will shine with his splendor and flourish in the fruit of his Spirit? Whatever it is that we do, I believe it will require a less hurried, longer perspective approach than we have commonly taken.

Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Paradise: A Set Apart Place

The first garden (Eden) was perfection. In it was the possibility not only for the purest fulfillment of the human race but for all of creation. It was meant to be a paradise, which is, in fact, no different from saying it was meant to be a garden-both words mean the same thing.

Our word paradise comes from the Greek word paradeisos, “garden,” which comes from the Persian pairidaeza, an enclosed area, a wall around. Our English word garden finds its root in the Old French jardin and the Old High German gart, both of which mean “enclosure.” So a garden is a place that is set apart, a place with unique boundaries, an area that is protected and distinct from that which is without. It’s meant to be something special.

Murray Andrew Pura, Rooted: Reflections on the Gardens in Scripture, Zondervan.

The Perfect Soil for Winemaking

My first call to ministry was in Eastern Washington state. It turned out to be one of the most prolific winemaking regions in the country. One of the things I learned from a local winery was really quite fascinating. But let me back up for just a moment. When it comes to soil for growing things, whether it be flowers or vegetables, trees or shrubs, generally speaking you want a rich, fertile soil. Lots of organic material like compost or manure provide the nutrients necessary for the plants to grow in abundance.

But apparently, with wine it is quite different, if not the opposite, from other plants ideal growing conditions.

The perfect soil for winemaking is actually quite low in nutrients. In our area, there was a vinicultural heritage site, in other words, a place set apart as an ideal location for growing wine. Interestingly enough, it was almost entirely made up of sand, which as any gardener will tell you, is devoid of the kinds of nutrients we would expect to create the perfect grape for wine.

But just as interesting is why wineries prefer soils with such low nutritional value: when this is the case, the majority of the nutrients go, not to the vine, or the leaves, but straight to the grapes. What a great metaphor for our lives.

Sometimes we need to go to desolate places, not the lush, green landscapes of an Eden, but rather, to the wilderness, where there is so little life, where pain and suffering are intrinsic to the experience, in order to really “bear fruit,” if you will allow a little pun. It is often in the wilderness that we learn the most about God, about our own sinfulness and need for repentance.

But it is also out of such a place that the best of us: a newfound humility, a greater capacity for compassion and love. A deeper reliance on the “vine,” that is God’s sustaining us over the comforts of this world can take place. So perhaps, when God plants you in a desert, devoid of most nutrients for healthy production, he is actually doing something spectacular to help you grow a deeper understanding of yourself, and more importantly, a deeper love for Him.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Settling Accounts

The story is told of a farmer in a Midwestern state who had a strong disdain for “religious” things. As he plowed his field on Sunday morning, he would shake his fist at the church people who passed by on their way to worship. October came and the farmer had his finest crop ever–the best in the entire county.

When the harvest was complete, he placed an advertisement in the local paper which belittled the Christians for their faith in God. Near the end of his diatribe he wrote, “Faith in God must not mean much if someone like me can prosper.” The response from the Christians in the community was quiet and polite. In the next edition of the town paper, a small ad appeared. It read simply, “God doesn’t settle His accounts in October.”

William E. Brown, Making Sense of Your Faith, Victor Books.

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