Giving Gardens

Giving Gardens at Buechel Park Baptist Church, Louisville, Ky.(Photo courtesy of Suzanne Shepherd)

A Look Ahead: During September, leading up to the Feast Day of St. Francis, a growing number of congregations adopt the alternate lectionary Season of Creation. Throughout August, Working Preacher will host essays treating Year 3 Wisdom Series of these readings, featuring creation texts from Job, Proverbs, and Psalms, and passages from Luke and the Epistles. Look for these posts starting Aug. 1 in the Craft of Preaching section. 

One Sunday last fall I was preaching for a friend, the Rev. Don Rogers, pastor of Buechel Park Baptist Church in one of Louisville’s near suburbs. The large church sits amidst 1960s homes and apartment buildings with increasing immigrant populations.

After worship, Don showed me the congregation’s latest project: they had tilled a large patch of their spacious grounds to grow vegetables to give to nearby food pantries. That first summer — in the blazing drought of 2012 — volunteers had picked more than half a ton of zucchini, beans, tomatoes, greens, broccoli, and kale, supplying food pantries on both sides of the Ohio River — and then laid plans to double their garden’s size.

Later I contacted Suzanne Shepherd, the retired geographer who had organized the project. She said a recipient of their fresh broccoli had called it a “luxury item” she couldn’t believe she had the good fortune to receive. Suzanne offered numbers: 1261 pounds of produce valued at $1662.90, a 1100 percent return on their $150 outlay. Biblical teaching sown at Buechel Park Church had fallen on good soil, yielding a manifold harvest of team work and generosity.

Suzanne told me that the project was rooted in her own grandmother’s deep, unalleviated poverty during the Depression. “It begins with empathy,” she said. When her pastor had preached, “What is your passion?” the garden sprung up in her imagination.

One day this spring, a Nepali refugee saw the gardeners working. Having spent her prior life raising vegetables, she had found confinement to an American apartment very depressing. The congregation gave her a small plot. She planted it and then began helping the volunteers. Her son thanked them, saying she had finally found hope and home.

Scripture’s many agricultural stories and images resonate with gardeners and farmers. Like the life of faith itself, growing food is not easy work, but it is rewarded by creation’s abundant help — sun, rain, fertile soil, and the seeds themselves, miniscule factories of nourishment and promise — and with bountiful returns in health, grace, and sharing.

So many congregations are surrounded by hunger for spiritual food, and for physical, living food. So many congregations possess the resources — lawns, skilled members, retirees who enjoy conversation and pea-shelling under cool summer trees, hearts warmed by fragrant plants and opportunities to give.
Several passages in August reflect agricultural themes and imagery. Most of these concern social justice as well:

  • Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 (August 11, semicontinuous) reminds contemporaries of the acceptable offering: rescuing the oppressed, defending orphans, pleading for widows. Only then will all eat the land’s abundance.
  • Psalm 50 (August 11), though attenuated by the lectionary, proclaims God’s ownership of every animal, domesticated and wild — the “cattle on a thousand hills” — and demands worshipers’ thanks in acts of justice.
  • Isaiah 5:1-7 (August 18, semicontinuous) portrays God as a vintner expecting good growth from Israel, God’s “pleasant planting,” but finding disappointment: bloodshed instead of justice, despair instead of righteousness.
  • Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 (August 18) similarly describes God as having “brought a vine out of Egypt” and planted it: “The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches.”
  • Jeremiah 1:4-10 (August 25, semicontinuous) describes God’s call “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
  • Isaiah 58:9b-14 (August 25, complementary) foresees that a city offering food to the hungry will become “a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”

Several other passages boast economic themes:

  • Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 (August 4, complementary) portrays busyness for economic gain as pure, wind-chasing vanity.
  • Psalm 49:1-12 (August 4) likewise portrays trust in wealth as pure folly.
  • Psalm 107:1-9, 43 (August 4) presents God as savior of the thirsty, filling the hungry with good things.
  • Psalm 82 (August 18) depicts God excoriating other gods for failure to defend the weak, orphans, lowly, and destitute.

All the Lukan passages concern economic justice:

  • In Luke 12:13-21 (August 4), Jesus tells of the rich fool who built bigger barns to hoard his grain, and died that very night.
  • In Luke 12:32-40 (August 11), Jesus instructs disciples, “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out.”
  • In Luke 12:49-56 (August 18), Jesus warns hearers to heed the signs of the times in the same way they interpret the weather.
  • In Luke 13:10-17 (August 25) Jesus sets the standard for compassion, healing a crippled woman, instructing hearers to set those in bondage free.

Other passages reveal touches of the natural world:

  • Hosea 11:1-11 (August 4, semicontinuous) imagines God not only as a tender parent, but as a lion roaring, making God’s people tremble like doves.
  • Genesis 15:1-6 (August 11, complementary) promises Abraham descendants as numerous as stars.
  • Psalm 33:12-22 (August 11) portrays God watching from heaven over all earth’s inhabitants.
  • Jeremiah 23:23-29 (August 18, complementary) reminds hearers that God fills heaven and earth.
  • Psalm 71:1-6 (August 25) portrays God as rock and refuge.
  • Psalm 103:1-8 (August 25) depicts God as one who satisfies worshipers with good, renewing their youth “like the eagle’s.”

Finally, the Epistles contrast heaven and earth in a way that must be clarified. They do not disparage God’s good creation, but counsel resistance to social temptation and offer comfort for those persecuted in human society:

  • Colossians 3:1-11 (August 4) counsels readers to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
  • Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 (August 11) describes faith as “the conviction of things not seen,” and those who had died in faith as “strangers and foreigners on the earth.”
  • Hebrews 11:29–12:2 (August 18) describe heroes of old who endured persecution in unjust societies.
  • Hebrews 12:18-29 (August 25) anticipates divine justice as “the removal of what is shaken — that is, created things — so that what cannot be shaken may remain.”