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.

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