Sunday, June 16, 2013

Tending the Garden of Our Heart

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 16, 2013

Year C: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 6
1 Kings 21:1-21a
Psalm 5:1-8
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3
Tending the Garden of Our Heart
            One day about a month and half ago when I was beginning to move some of our things into the rectory, I spotted one of our parishioners watering the straw that’s lined up outside the church.
            I had been wondering why the straw was there and now I was curious why it was being watered.
            So I went over and introduced myself and asked what was going on.
            To my surprise, he explained that seeds had been planted in the straw. So, when he was watering the straw he was, in fact, tending this unusual garden.
            Who knew?
            Well, over these past few weeks it’s been fun and amazing to see the straw garden sprout plants and also to see the little garden in front of church grow. Of course that health and growth hasn’t happened by accident. All the rain has helped but also the care that many of our parishioners have taken to tend the garden.
            They’ve spent long hours digging, and fertilizing and mulching and removing branches and pulling out weeds. They’ve tended the garden to remove what’s unhealthy or dead and to promote health and well-being. And, now, we can see the beautiful results outside.
            Well, what’s true for our garden is even truer for our heart.
            We need to tend the garden of our heart – to remove what’s spiritually unhealthy or dead. We need to tend the garden of our heart to promote spiritual health and well-being. We need to tend the garden of our heart to grow a beautiful, blooming soul inside of us.
            And, the way we live our lives reflects how well – or not so well – we tend the garden of our heart.
            For example, take a look at some of the characters in today’s lessons.
            In the lesson from Hebrew Scripture we heard an ugly tale of greed, dishonesty and brutality.
            Despite military success during his rule in the 9th Century BC, King Ahab of Samaria is presented very negatively in the First Book of Kings.
            In the story we heard today, King Ahab wants to buy the vineyard next door to his palace. As it turns out, Ahab wants to buy the vineyard to transform it into…a garden. Now, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. But, when Naboth, the vineyard’s owner, refuses the king’s offer, when Ahab doesn’t get his way, the king pouts like a child, lying on his bed with his face turned away and refusing to eat.
            And then there’s Ahab’s wife, the famous Jezebel. She was a gentile, a non-Jew, from Phoenicia, a land north of Israel. She not only worshipped the pagan god Baal who we heard about a couple of weeks ago, but she encouraged others to worship Baal instead of the God of Israel.
            As you can imagine, the Bible has absolutely nothing nice to say about Jezebel!
            In today’s story, while Ahab is presented as childish and passive, Jezebel is cunning and ruthless. She arranges for false charges to be brought against Naboth the vineyard owner. Those false charges lead to Naboth’s execution and King Ahab is able to take possession of his precious vineyard.
            But, Ahab learns that he’ll pay a very high price for what he and Jezebel have done. The Prophet Elijah announces to the king, “Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you.”
            Now, all of this happened a long time ago in a faraway place. And at first glance the story of Ahab and Jezebel would seem to be pretty alien to our experience. But, then again, how often do we put our needs and wants front and center? How do we react when we don’t get our way? How well do we take “no” for an answer? How often do we treat other people as things for our own pleasure or use, forgetting that they have their own hopes and dreams – forgetting that God treasures them as much as God treasures us?
            The story of Ahab and Jezebel reminds us to tend the garden of our heart.
            We need to dig out the selfishness in us. And we need to strengthen our roots to withstand set-backs – even if that set-back is simply rejection, just taking “no” for an answer.
            Now, let’s take a look at the characters in today’s gospel lesson.
            Today we heard Luke’s powerful story of Jesus eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee. There, an unnamed sinful woman bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries his feet with her hair, kisses his feet and anoints his feet with oil.
            This was a very unusual scene to say the least – that kind of public contact between a man and a woman would have been scandalous no matter who they were but even more so for a man who some claimed was a prophet and a woman who was known to be a sinner.
            No surprise. Simon the Pharisee is shocked, but he keeps his thoughts to himself.
            Jesus, however, knows his thoughts and challenges him. And Jesus reminds Simon that he has failed to show hospitality to Jesus – not greeting him with a kiss, not anointing his head with oil.
            It would seem that Simon the Pharisee has some more work to do tending the garden of his heart – to dig out what ever makes him judgmental to uproot whatever prevents him from being hospitable to strangers and to guests.
            And then there’s the unnamed sinful woman.
            Here we finally have an example of someone who has done the hard work of tending the garden of her heart. She has recognized her own sinfulness, has begged for God’s mercy, and has received and felt God’s forgiveness.
            And how does she respond to God’s mercy and forgiveness?
            She responds with overflowing love and generosity – not caring what judgmental people like Simon the Pharisee think – crossing all sorts of cultural and religious boundaries – bathing Jesus’ feet with profound devotion and gratitude.
            So, all of the characters in today’s lessons – greedy and childish Ahab, cunning and ruthless Jezebel, judgmental and inhospitable Simon and the loving and generous woman remind us to tend the garden of our heart.
            And, what would that look like? How exactly do we tend the garden of our heart.
            Well, the answer will be a little different for each of us.
            But, certainly, tending the garden of our heart begins by being here week after week – hearing the old stories, singing the hymns, asking God’s forgiveness, extending our hands in love and friendship to one another, taking the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts, and finally, going out into the world determined to love and serve the Lord.
            Tending the garden of our heart includes setting aside even just a few minutes to pray, to take stock of how we and God are doing, to give God a little opening to get through all the noise and busyness of our lives.
            Tending the garden of our heart includes asking forgiveness from those we’ve wronged and offering mercy to those who’ve wronged us.
            Tending the garden of our heart includes giving away our lives in loving service to God by taking care of one another, bathing Jesus’ feet by providing food for the poor, drying Jesus’ feet by reaching out to people who are different from us or who we really don’t like, anointing Jesus’ feet by sitting with people who are frightened, sick, alone, or dying.
            This is hard work. But, of course, it’s God who gives us the strength and will to do the hard work of tending the garden of our hearts.
            But, I think any gardener will tell you, the end result of a beautiful, blooming garden makes all the hard work worthwhile.
            And the powerful example of the sinful, forgiven and much-loved woman bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, reminds us that the end result of a beautiful, blooming soul makes all the hard work worthwhile.
            May we all tend the garden of our heart.