A Perennial Garden: Thoughts on why we have hope, even for the church.

A Perennial Garden

My family has owned a cottage on Edinboro Lake for 94 years.

I spent most of my summers there when I was a teenager.

Those were some good days.

But the cottage was a seasonal residence.

Seasonal because in the winter Edinboro is pretty isolated, and the weather is brutal.

There is always a lot of snow, at least there was 50 years ago.

So, we never went to the lake in the winter.

When school started each fall, we would close the place up.

The boat was towed away for storage.

The dock was taken out and put in the backyard garage.

Shutters covered all the windows.

The heat was turned off.

The water was turned off.

The pipes were drained.

It was always made me sad.

But it wasn’t just the weather that changed.

It was also the people.

In the summer there are many, many vacationers.

Those vacationers included the kids I hung out with.

The lake was packed with boats.

The streets were filled with bikes and pedestrians.

There were lots of activities.

All those folks leave in the fall.

All those activities end.

Snow piles up.

The lake freezes.

Edinboro becomes dormant.

But we would anticipate opening of the cottage every spring.

Up to the lake we would go to reverse all we did in the fall.

And all those people and all those activities return.

It was like a new beginning.

Another Summer at the lake.

Like a perennial garden, Edinboro resumes.

It’s not a resurrection.

Edinboro did not die, it just went through its normal seasonal cycle.

Vibrancy and dormancy.

In my parent’s later years, they made that cottage their permanent home.

They moved there from Florida where they had lived for a while after my dad retired.

One of the reasons they moved back north was that they missed these changes of seasons.

I know that well because my mother took a picture from her chair on the front porch of our cottage of each season.

It was the exact same scene, but in the different season.

She would put them in four frames and hang them on the wall.

It seemed like she wanted to document the fact that the change of seasons … well … never changed.

I think my mother took comfort in that.

Though the seasons changed, Edinboro was still there.

Like a perennial garden.

My mom’s little example of the Kingdom of God.

Which brings me to our scripture reading.

Mark 4: 26-34

26 He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’

30 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Our text today is a combination of two parables used by Jesus to help teach the disciples something important about the Kingdom of God.

But to get that message, we need to understand the illustration.

This parable follows the Parable of the Sower.

Most of us know that one.

The sower is a farmer.

The farmer plants the seeds by throwing them around the property.

The seeds land on four types of soil, only one of which is good for the seed.

This parable is a follow-up about the seed that lands on the good soil.

What happens to it?

It sprouts and grows.

First the stalk, then the head and then the full grain.

And the farmer has no idea what makes that happen.

The farmer just watches it materialize.

Once the full grain appears, it can be used for its intended purpose.

To feed the community.

Jesus says that is what the Kingdom of God is like.

Then there is the mustard seed.

Everything is the same but its purpose.

That small seed grows into a really big bush that feeds and protects and houses important wildlife.

Jesus says that is what the Kingdom of God is like, too.

That’s what we see here at JMPC in our SHIM garden.

Every year we plant vegetables, watch them grow, harvest when that are ready and feed the community.

We also have plants that house and protect important wildlife.

The pollinators which are necessary for most plants, and us for that matter, to survive.

And while we are able to help all these plants along, and know a good deal about them, we still don’t understand how these plants came to be and how they became so intertwined with our world.

Just like Jesus’ parables.

Our little example of the Kingdom of God.

But if I can be so bold, I would like to compare the Kingdom of God to a perennial garden rather than a vegetable garden or a barley field.

For those who don’t know, perennials are plants that come back year after year.

Perennials tend to have fewer flowers than annuals, because their energy is put into developing strong roots, generally called bulbs, instead of flowers and seeds.

They usually only bloom for one season each year, either spring, summer, or fall.

Most then go dormant at the end of the growing season.

They seem to die.

But when spring comes, we don’t have to replant them, they just come back.

We have them all over the place here at JMPC.

Day lilies, irises, lambs’ ear and coneflower, among others.

Take a walk around.

And what is more important, and really fascinating, is that these perennials spread!

They spread wildly!

Karen planted a few Shasta daisies in our front yard a few years ago.

They were a nice small bunch of flowers in our font yard landscaping.

They come back every year.

They spread like crazy!

Without any effort on our part.

And while I do help a bit with fertilizer and weeding and mulching, I let God do what God does.

I don’t really understand how that works.

And I don’t worry about it.

I just wait for it to happen every spring.

And I have no idea why perennials turned out different from the annual flowers that must be replanted from seeds every year.

Like my mom’s comfort with the return of every season, a perennial garden comforts me with the return of those flowers every year.

That’s why I like to think of the Kingdom of God as a perennial garden.

It only has to be planted once and it keeps on going.

Once planted, it survives.

It might go dormant from time to time, but it is always there., ready to come back to vibrant life.

Like Edinboro.

Like a perennial garden.

Like the church.

If we study the 2000-year history of the church, we see pretty clearly that it resembles our two parables.

Once planted, it grew.

And its growth is a kind of mystery.

How did a small group of disciples from a backwater area of the Roman Empire convince most of the world that the Gospel was true?

While there are many suggested explanations for this, the only certain answer is because God planted it.

Sure, the Apostles were the workers in the field, but God was the sole source of their success.

The church flourished for centuries, spreading like perennials.

In the 20th Century, our denomination, the PCUSA, flourished greatly because of its vibrancy and community.

But recently, we have seen some disturbing trends.

The most recent Gallop survey on church membership reported that for the first time in Gallop history, fewer than 50% of the respondents said they belong to a religious community.

The PCUSA can certainly attest to that.

Like other “main line” denominations, if not Christianity as a whole, we appear to be heading into a season of dormancy.

It’s hard not to get discouraged.

But this is nothing new.

God’s people have been there before.

That is one of the reasons I like the Old Testament.

It is a story of a people who rise and fall and rise again from season to season, era to era.

The New Testament is much the same.

That’s why Paul wrote many of those letters.

The churches he planted were getting a bit … well … dormant.

Dormancy to vibrancy … over and over.

Why?

Like Jesus says, we don’t know.

But we can see it happen and be comforted by it.

The kingdom of God, and the church itself is like a perennial garden.

That gives me comfort.

What does that have to do with JMPC?

We, here on this hill, are one of Jesus’ bulbs.

We’ve only been around for 55 years, but we can testify to the change of seasons.

The alternating vibrancy and dormancy of a perennial garden.

Started in a school.

A small church building built.

An education wing added.

Vibrancy.

Then there were financial problems and development stopped.

I don’t know why, but I suspect it was, in part, because of the loss of so many industrial jobs in this area back in the late 70s and early 80s.

Dormancy.

But not for long.

Soon new life.

As a suburb of Pittsburgh, Bethel Park grew.

The congregation grew.

A new sanctuary built.

New missions and ministries.

Vibrancy again!

That season of vibrancy lasted a while but inevitably, JMPC started to return to a dormancy.

Why?

Pastoral changes.

Theology.

Sports and entertainment.

Politics.

Pandemic.

Surrounded by people who think the church has nothing to offer.

The vibrancy returned over the last few years.

Finances were solid.

Our youth programs were exciting.

Missions and ministries abounded.

Then the pandemic.

It would be hard not to feel like I did when we closed the cottage in Edinboro every fall.

Didn’t we all feel that way while we were in exile from our building?

A kind of sadness.

Dormont again.

But not dead.

Just not as visible.

We were a perennial waiting for spring.

Then last week we returned to the building.

And it was joyous.

We were always here, but like perennials in the winter, we were invisible.

Now it is spring, we can be seen again.

Our inevitable return to vitality.

God has planted this bulb on this hill and God will use it, and us, to accomplish God’s purpose.

Our job is to tend that garden.

A little water.

A little fertilizer.

A little patience.

And then the harvest!

A vibrant church again!

What does that look like here at JMPC today?

The water is our financial support for the ministries and missions.

The fertilizer is our missions and ministries.

The patience is to understand that we will go through these seasons of dormancy and vibrancy as long as we are here on this hill.

The seasons of winter and summer come and go, but the garden remains.

The seasons of the church come and go, but the church remains.

Now is the time for us to tend this garden and prepare for the harvest.

We are still here.

We always have been.

It’s springtime at JMPC.

Exchanging Vows: Thoughts on the sacraments and what they mean.

Exchanging Vows

On June 26, I will conduct the wedding of my niece Alyssa and her fiancé Eric.

As with every wedding, there are three principal parts.

They will first publicly declare their intentions to live together in a particular way that we call a marriage.

Next, they will exchange vows of love, loyalty and support that will bind them together as a married couple.

Finally, they will exchange rings as a visible sign of an invisible truth.

When those words, “with this ring, I thee wed” were spoken, two became one.

But the wedding is not a one-off moment in time.

It is an event that should be celebrated at least annually.

To remember our vows and the moment two became one.

Some of those celebrations are more than just flowers and a card, though flowers and a card are good.

Two weeks ago, my son’s in-laws celebrated their 40the wedding anniversary.

It wasn’t just a party; it was a reenactment of their wedding vows.

It was both reminder and celebration.

A reminder of their vows they exchanged 40 years ago and a celebration of their continued determination to keep those vows.

All this wedding stuff seems almost sacramental.

But weddings are what I call a secular sacrament.

Why secular?

Because we in the PCUSA don’t consider marriage a sacrament.

We define a sacrament as a symbolic act instituted by Jesus that he commanded his disciples to continue or observe.

These sacraments are practices of faith in what God has done for us.

They are our symbolic testimonies of our faith.

Symbols of what we believe.

And there are only have two.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Which brings us to our scripture readings.

Matthew 28: 18-20

18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Luke 22: 14-20

14When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Why is baptism a sacrament?

In our scripture reading this morning, Christian baptism is something Jesus defined and ordered us to perform.

 [Baptize] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and [teach] them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Instituted and ordered.

So, baptism is a sacrament.

Why is the Lord’s Supper a sacrament?

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus defined the meaning of the Last Supper and ordered us to continue.

 [Take] a loaf of bread, [give] thanks, [break] it and [share it] saying, “This is [Jesus] body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of [him].” And [then do] the same with the cup …, saying, “This cup that is poured out for [us] is the new covenant in [Jesus’] blood.

Instituted and ordered.

So, the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament.

So why did Jesus institute and command baptism and the Lord’s Supper?

How are they symbols of our faith?

Baptism first.

Listen again to the words we use in our ceremony.

Obeying the word of our Lord Jesus, and confident of his promises, we baptize those whom God has called.

In baptism God claims us and seals us to show that we belong to God.

God frees us from sin and death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection.

By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of the church, the body of Christ and joined in Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice.

Baptism is a gift to those whom God calls.

It unites us with a community of faith, a church, the body of Christ.

It unites us to all  the others who are baptized in the ministries and missions of Jesus.

Today God called Gracelyn Joy to be baptized at JMPC.

That we baptize babies symbolizes to us our faith that God calls us as his own before we even know it or could possibly understand it.

But even when we baptize an adult who confesses faith and asks to be baptized, the water symbolizes their willing acceptance of that same call of God.

While I do love baptizing babies, my two favorite baptisms were of adults.

On both occasions, tears were shed when the water was poured and they felt the connection to God.

Babies maybe feel that, too, but they can’t tell us about it.

Baptism is one way our faith is carried down through the generations.

We bring the next generation of disciples to the font where the water is poured and they receive God’s great gift.

And while the water dries, the invisible truth it leaves on the head is that this person is not part of the body of Christ.

It is much like the ring at a wedding.

The Lord’s Supper does much the same thing, but in a different way.

Jesus shared his last Passover with his disciples and gave them symbols of his mission.

Bread symbolizes his body.

Wine symbolizes his blood.

Both symbolize an act by Jesus creating a new covenant between God and us that we are reconciled to God forever.

And we are told to continue this symbolic act in order to make sure we remember that.

So we invite believers to the table regularly.

We recite the words Jesus used to establish the custom.

And we pray a Great Prayer of thanksgiving that includes these words:

You are holy, O God of majesty,

and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.

In Jesus, born of Mary, your Word became flesh

and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

He lived as one of us, knowing joy and sorrow.

He healed the sick,

fed the hungry,

opened blind eyes,

broke bread with outcasts and sinners,

and proclaimed the good news of your kingdom to the poor and needy.

Dying on the cross,

he gave himself for the life of the world.

Rising from the grave,

he won for us victory over death.

Seated at your right hand,

he leads us to eternal life.

In this prayer, we proclaim our faith.

In the sharing of the bread and cup, we remember what Jesus did and why he did it..

We remind ourselves of God’s great gift and how we are united with God.

It is much like a celebration of the anniversary of the new covenant.

Both sacraments are to be done publicly, so that anyone who happens to be present can see them.

Such a person might be compelled to ask, “Why do you do this?”

At which point we can tell them.

We tell them that these are our ritual celebrations of our vows of love, loyalty and support that God gives us and that we return to God.

And all of this is what Jesus instituted and commanded us to do.

We proclaim to the world in these acts what we believe to be true.

We are loved.

We are forgiven.

We are thankful.

We are obedient.

We belong to God.

Forever.

So, in a sense every time we observe or participate in these sacraments they are like anniversaries.

Celebrations of our commitments – dare I say vows? – to God.

When we baptize, we are reminded that we belong to God.

When we come to the Lord’s table, we are reminded that we are loved and forgiven.

These sacraments are acts of reverence, homage, thanks and praise.

They are our testimony that we love God and God loves us.

Thanks be to God who has given us these symbols of our faith.

And we are celebrating both today!

Which I think is appropriate for the occasion of our reentering the sanctuary after our 14 months in exile.

What better way to commemorate this day than to celebrate the sacraments?

To be reminded that God has called us to be God’s own.

To be reminded that God so loved us that God gave his only son so that we might live.

To proclaim these truths in this public space so that all here and all streaming this worship service may see or hear what we believe.

And to recommit to God our love, loyalty and support for the missions and ministries we have undertaken to know, glorify and serve God.

The exchange of vows with God.

So let us remember our baptism!

Beloved people of God, our baptism is a sign and seal of our cleansing from sin and our being grafted into Christ.

Through the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, the power of sin is broken, and God’s kingdom entered our world.

Through baptism we were made citizens of God’s kingdom and freed from the bondage of sin.

Let us celebrate that freedom and redemption through the renewal of the promises we made at our baptisms.

I ask you, therefore, once again to reject sin and profess your faith in Jesus Christ and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we were baptized.

So I ask you these questions:

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?

I do.

Who is your Lord and Savior?

Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love?

I will, with God’s help.

Remember your baptism and be thankful and know that the Holy Spirit is at work in you.

In a few moments, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper as well.

And we will remember.

And now join me in a prayer of thanksgiving for our church.

When I say, “We give you thanks…” please respond by saying, “We give you thanks, O God.

Eternal God, in whom we live and move and have our being, hear our prayer.

For the Church universal, and for this congregation, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For this place in which we gather for praise and prayer, witness and service, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For your presence among us whenever your word has been proclaimed, your sacramental gifts of bread and the cup shared, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For those who have been made your children by the waters of baptism. we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For disciples young and old who have been nurtured here in faith, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For all who come here asking your blessing on their marriage and seeking to love with your love, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For deacons and elders and pastors who have led and loved us, and by the offering of their gifts equipped us for ministry, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For faithful stewards among us who have supported this church with generous tithes and offerings, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For all the saints who have stood among us, whose memory still enlivens our faith and emboldens our witness, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For the ministries of worship and mission, nurture and fellowship, and forall whose lives have been touched by them, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

Receive our gratitude, O God, for the years through wich you have led us, and open our future to your promise.

In the years that lie ahead, grant us your encouragement in the work of ministry, your consolation in our troubles and your challenge to our complacency.

Give us such trust in your abiding Holy Spirit that we may find joy and peace in our common life, strength and courage to live in the world of your reign, and hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

AMEN