As spring approaches, it’s time for me to think tomatoes. As I mentioned last week, it has become a hobby of mine to save the seeds from my favorite varieties of tomato for the following season. Beginning in January, I have carefully sowed and labeled seeds in little peat pods, covered them with a clear dome, and placed them in my laundry room; a place that is dark but quite warm given its location next to the furnace. Over the course of the next several days, I would spritz the pods with water until out of that dark space, a little seedling would emerge; tiny and frail, but steadily reaching up to the top of the dome as it came to life. Out of what once seemed a dead remnant of vegetation, out of the dark place, the miracle of life and the anticipation of an abundant harvest emerges.
When I was teaching, we would spend time learning about life cycles, including those of plants. One experiment involved each student taking a dry and seemingly lifeless seed – usually a larger lima bean as opposed to the tiny tomato for visual effect – place it in a zip lock baggie with a damp paper towel, seal it, and tape it to a sunny window. In only a few days, the seed would sprout, and the students would watch and document their seed’s growth. It was like seeing the secrets of the universe revealed before their young eyes as they watched the miracle of growth; a wonder usually hidden beneath the dark, damp earth, unfold before their very eyes.
Life itself is indeed miraculous, and what a wonder that God has created US to live this miracle in abundance. The early church father Irenaeus, born only a hundred years after the death of Christ, wrote that “the glory of God is [the human] fully alive.” As author Kara Eidsen observes, “Unfortunately, what makes us fully alive spiritually is not in alignment with what the world tells us leads to abundant life. Culture and human nature consistently teach us that whoever has the most toys wins. When we surround ourselves with items and comfort, we give ourselves a sense of safety and success, but this is a vastly different approach to life than the lessons we learn throughout scripture.”
As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we can still recall the panic of the early weeks of the 2020 outbreak. Suddenly, many of the easily obtained things we took for granted became in high demand and short supply. Sure, disinfectant wipes, disposable gloves and even bleach were quickly snapped up. But who would have thought we’d have a shortage of yeast and bread flour? And who would have thought that we would find a sense of security in a closet full of toilet paper and paper towels. I know of people who saw the shutdown coming and loaded up their shopping carts with far more items than they could possibly use; in large part, because that’s what they saw other people doing. In a time of potential scarcity, some individuals looked around and saw people hoarding resources, so instinctively, copied the behavior. Even people of usually impeccable logic, would cave into the hype of panic buying. Individuals were depending on an abundance of material goods for their security. They bought into the myth that an abundance (and in many cases – an overabundance) of possessions would lead to an abundance of life. And while it was blatantly obvious in the ridiculousness of the pandemic hoarding, much of humankind throughout history has always believed possession of material goods are the foundation of abundant life.
Yet, all too often, abundant life in God looks very different from our cultural expectation of how the world should be or has been ordered. In the economy of nature, as well as in God’s economy, more is not always better. As a gardener, there are occasions that I need to do things that seem counterintuitive to the end goal of abundant plant life.
As an example, I spent some time yesterday afternoon transplanting my seedlings. Once they have sprouted, I need to transplant them into a small pot and nurture them under grow lights because they are too fragile to sow and grow in the outdoor elements, not to mention needing to get a jump on our short growing season. However, as I placed them seeds into their original pods, I found myself planting several seeds in a single cell. That’s because not every seed will germinate or grow, but also because they are so tiny, short of using tweezers, it’s difficult to plant just one or two. As such, multiple shoots will sprout up in a single pod, which necessitates the thinning process for optimum growth. That means I have the unhappy task of removing perfectly healthy seedlings to make room for one of the sprouts to grow successfully. Too many plants too close together and with intertwined roots will not result in successful growth; hence, thinning (the prerequisite to pruning) is needed for abundant growth.
The point of this is to remind us that in our lives we may need to do some thinning and pruning, whether it be in terms of our dependence on material goods or detrimental relationships with people or things. It may involve a realignment of our expectations in order to align with God’s. As we read in our scriptures this morning, Abram and Sarai were asked to realign their personal and cultural expectations with those God had for them. Hebrew tradition did not maintain a belief in the afterlife. There was the consistent belief that success in life meant an abundance of offspring; that people would live on through their many descendants, a belief that was held by our forebears in faith. Being barren, they began to believe that they would never know an abundance of life.
And then God called to Abram. Despite having lived their lives in a tribal society, and the dangers of leaving were great, Abram obeyed that call from God, and took that leap of faith, a drastic move in that culture. They left behind all that they had ever known in hopes of living into God’s promise of numerous descendants. Even after entering into a covenant with God and being renamed Abraham and Sarah, they continued to age without children of their own. And eventually, they had to realign their perspective on abundant life; accepting that even just one heir would fulfill the promise. When Isaac is born, they discover that they have indeed found abundant life, in the birth of their son and in realigning their perspective on what constitutes enough.
Another way of finding abundant life is found in the paradox of giving away one's abundance. Jesus spoke of this when he taught his disciples, “… those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it”. Or as Eugene Peterson says in his idiomatic translation, “Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, of saving your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?”
Many who toil in gardens do so, not so much for their own consumption, but to give their abundance away to others. How often do we see home-grown produce end up on church tables and in local food pantries; preserves from home-grown fruit given away to grace other peoples’ tables. Sharing out of the abundance is living into the paradox that it is more life-giving to give than to keep everything for oneself.
To close, I’d like to share with you the summary of Oscar Wilde’s short story, “The Selfish Giant”, the story of a creature who learned that sharing his possession was the way to finding happiness and an abundant life.
The Giant’s garden was very beautiful. It was large and filled with lovely flowers and peach trees. The children loved to play in it. Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, they would enter and play on the trees and among the fragrant flowers.
But the Giant who owned the garden was selfish. One day when he returned home after seven years of staying with his friend, the Ogre, he saw the children playing in the garden. He shouted at them angrily and they ran away. The Giant decided he wanted to keep the garden for himself and not to allow anybody else to play there. So, he built a high boundary wall around it. He also put up a notice that outsiders entering the garden will be punished.
The poor children were sad. They had no other place to go. They didn’t like to play on the dusty road full of stones, which was the only place left after the giant made them all leave.
Soon it was springtime all over the country. Except in the garden of the Selfish Giant, it was still winter. No flowers bloomed and no birds sang. The only visitors were the snow and the frost which painted all the trees silver. The north wind roared there all day. It also asked the hailstones to come.
The Giant wondered why the spring had passed by his garden. It was always winter there.
Then, one morning he heard the lovely music of a linnet outside his window. He jumped out of bed and looked out. He saw a wonderful sight. The children had crept in through a hole in the wall. They were sitting on the branches of trees which gladly welcomed them with flowers. Except in one corner, it was still winter. He noticed a small boy wandering all around a tree and crying. He was too small to climb up.
The Giant’s heart melted. He went out in the garden. The children ran away on seeing him. The garden became winter again.
But when he put the small boy up into the tree, it broke into flowers. The boy threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. Other children noticed the change in the Giant’s behavior. So, they too came back. The Giant knocked down the wall and started playing with them. He looked for the small boy whom he had put up into the tree. But he had gone away.
Years went by, and the garden thrived while the children’s children came often to play with the giant in his garden. As he grew older and weaker, he had come to realize that the children were the most beautiful flowers of all. And he always wondered what had happened to the little boy.
One winter morning he looked out to see a tree covered with lovely white flowers and silver fruit. Under it stood the little boy. He came running, close to the boy. He noticed two nail wounds each on the boy’s arms and on the little feet. He declared angrily that he would kill the cruel man who had injured him. At this, the child told him that those were the wounds of Love. He further told him that he had come to take him to his garden, which was paradise. And so it was that in the afternoon the Giant was found lying dead under the tree, with a smile on his face.
Jesus was the ultimate example of the paradox he taught. In giving up his life for us, he returned to the glory of the father, and gave to us the gift of eternal life. Let us give thanks for the abundant life that is ours in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Amen.