It’s good to be back here with y’all.
I feel like I should ask you how your summers have been?
[really chat this one up]
And how have you changed since the beginning of summer?
[answers, probably way fewer]
Interesting how summer isn’t the same season of infinite possibility
it was when many of us were kids—
it’s got pockets of rest and possibility,
but for a lot of us summer is the same as not-summer.
It’s been a bit different for me this year,
since I’m returning from three months of sabbatical.
A whole bunch of people have asked me what I’ve been up to and what’s different after some time apart. I’ll tell you: rest and recalibration. I also feel like I should lay my cards on the table and say I’m excited for the next years of ministry at UC and with you—I love this job and I’m not leaving any time soon.
This summer, I’ve been weeding. All of the things. I haven’t really focused on my garden for a couple of years so, even though the structure is there and there are a ton of beautiful flowers, the weeds have settled in for the long-haul. You know those ones you try to pull up but only get the top, and you know the root is lurking down there, biding its time and getting even bigger and harder to get out? Those ones. I weeded my back-yard flower beds, re-dug and planted my vegetable garden, removed five overgrown bushes from the front, pulled out piles of poison ivy and English ivy, turned my compost, and was attacked by rose bushes—did you know they’re carnivorous? It’s true! It’s all hot, sweaty work. I imagine there are some of you who think that sounds like torture or the opposite of what a restful season should be. I love it.When the soil is just moist enough that you can pull things up by the roots easily, or that moment when you’ve been struggling with a particularly difficult root and it suddenly releases and you’ve got this massive root in your hands? Makes me feel like I could do anything! I also find weeding to be extraordinarily meditative. It’s just me and the dirt, my thoughts slowing down and lingering. Y’all know I’m an intense and immediate kind of person, so taking the time to breathe and just be out there in Creation is a gift. One of my favorite things to do was just to sit on a bench out there and appreciate the garden for itself, partially weeded, blooming, shady, a work in progress.
You know I’m not just talking about plants here in church, I’m talking about souls. There are plants in my garden that never should have been planted and which, once rooted, are almost impossible to remove. English ivy and xenophobia, wild violets and greed, false indigo and lust—we could all do with a little weeding and pruning.
This summer, I worked in my interior garden, reshaping the edges, pulling out things that take up resources but don’t give back, fertilizing things that bear fruit and flowers. Did you do any of that work this summer? I said back in the spring that sabbatical isn’t just for the one taking it—it’s for the whole community. We all need to rest and look at our lives from a wider angle. Resting from our labors for a season—fallow time farmers call it—is also about discernment. It’s the “so what” moment—this is what our lives look like, this is what the world looks like, so what? What is the next good thing God is calling us to? What are we doing with this one wild and precious life?
Three days in to the sabbatical, Leighton and I were laughing in the kitchen about something and he said to me, “Oh, there she is,” like I’d been living in the shadow of a huge branch that had just been pruned. It wasn’t an accusation from my loving husband, not a finger-wagging judgment, just an awareness. I wondered, “Where haveI been?” Friends, where have youbeen? What branches are shading you from the light of community and connection and God? What’s keeping Good Shepherd as a whole in the shadows?
This reading from the letter to the Ephesians seems to be a laundry list of things to do to make our garden flourish. The writer is intent less on an accusation to the church in Ephesus and more on reminding them that they’re part of the same body, if you want to continue the metaphor, part of the same garden. They won’t be perfect, they and we don’t live up to the standards there—be angry but do not sin, do not grieve the Holy Spirit, forgive one another. I mean, sometimes, yeah. But not always, not as much as we want. Not even in the very moment when we want, sometimes. But it’s not a demand or an ultimatum, it’s a plea, or, maybe more accurately, an invitation. “Walk in love,” the writer says, “as Christ loved us.” Some translate it “live in love,”—it’s about your motivation, your ground of being. For ancient Jews, walking with God meant faithfulness, attention, intention. And not in the “road to hell is paved with them” kind of way, not the surface, “Bless her heart.” Walking in love is a way of being that doesn’t rule out mistakes or hurting each other. Walking in love is about the art of attention and the art of the possible. What is good in your inner garden for building up rather than tearing down? What couldbe?
I came back briefly this summer for Judy Herman’s funeral. I sat up in the corner of the balcony and sang and listened and wept. I had a moment during that service—maybe because I’d come directly from my garden, maybe because I hadn’t seen y’all for a while, maybe because God just knew I needed a little push—when I saw the transcendent. Perhaps it was a vision. It’s something I’ve experienced before, but rarely. I looked around at all the beautiful people there—all the people who’ve come to my classes, who’ve cooked for NOSH, who’ve been grumpy with me for a sermon or with each other for whatever sins we commit, who’ve struggled with addiction or self-righteousness or depression, all of you beautiful people tall or short or dark or light—it was the briefest of moments that felt like deep water, a moment of sudden love and connection for everyone in this room, whether you were in that room or not, if you follow me. And it expanded beyond this room for just the briefest of moments, a span of time I couldn’t really define, to include all of the church—traditional and progressive and evangelical and Pentecostal and American and African and the past and the future—I saw for just a moment the great cloud of witnesses and the created, physical bodies of us, the church, and indeed it was very good. It was unapologetically a “kumbaya” moment.
We will sin against each other again. We will deny our own needs and the needs of others. We will allow our vision to be clouded with partisanship and fears of scarcity. We are not perfect, but we are perfectly-suited to love.
I am aware of the trite endings of things like Harry Potter where the big twist is that love saved the day. Spoilers. It doesn’t always. The absolute love of God protects us from nothing—the bad things still happen to presumably good people. BUT, but. Love is what allows us to live with those things, what encourages us in the middle of them to keep going, what invites us in the face of deplorable situations to look for possibilities. Love, the love that is God and the love that comes from God, is about curiosity, welcome, spaciousness. There is no border for that love.
The letter to the Ephesians could be read as a checklist of who’s in and who’s out, but that is such a narrow, unChristlike way to read it. Just as the flowers in my garden unfurl themselves towards the sun, opening up to receive, so Ephesians invites us to unfurl our selves, our souls and bodies towards God.
Theologian and mystic Jim Finley writes, “Let’s say you are sitting in prayer and using your breath as the prayer. As you inhale you listen to God saying I love you. When you breathe out you exhale I love you: you give yourself to the love that gives itself to you.”
“This is not saying that you are not in pain, that you are not sad or confused; nor is it saying that you don’t need to deal with these things.” Instead, “we are grounded in the courage that empowers us to touch the hurting places.”
We are part of something bigger than ourselves, bigger than what we can see, whose architecture and purpose is love and connection. We will perpetrate violence of all kinds against each other, and yet we are members of one another, leaning like plants towards the light of the sun.
I’ll leave you with a poem by Dame Julian of Norwich, a mystic and woman of great wisdom and faith who died in 1416:
“Be a gardener.
Dig a ditch
toil and sweat,
and turn the earth upside down
and see the deepness
and water the plants in time.
Continue this labor
and make sweet floods to run
and noble and abundant fruits to spring.
Take this food and drink
and carry it to God
as your true worship.”
May it be so.