By now, the gardens that people planted in the spring have begun to bear fruit. Into the wet, dark earth went the little seeds, some of them looking like what they would be when they grew, like the beans; others almost too small to see, like the lettuce seeds. A profound gesture of hope, the planting of seeds: a vote of confidence in the orderly and predictable power of life. Put those little brown specks in the ground and add water, and you'll get plants.
Of course, they don't all make it. When they're a couple of inches high, you have to thin them: pull about half of them up by their tiny roots and discard them, so that the ones remaining have a better shot at the nutrients in the soil. The birds, who were watching you as you planted the seeds to see where you put them, did some of that thinning for you. Maybe a rabbit did some, too; in fact, maybe you got a little more help from the rabbit than you really needed, so now you really don't have as many growing plants as you wish you did. The life is strong, but a lot can happen along the way. Growth into fruit-bearing maturity is not a sure bet.
God as a farmer: not an image we think of right away. We're used to God as a mighty ruler. God as a father. God as a judge. Those are images we've seen and heard a lot. But God as a gardener, investing love and labor in us, God placing us here in the garden, with everything we need in order to grow, sowing us into the earth, from which we spring into out season of life under the sun: to think of God as a farmer offers us an aspect of the divine character we usually miss. It gives us a glimpse of God as one who hopes for us.
The God who hopes. The God who hopes for our good. The God who longs for everything to go well with us. A very different image from the one many people carry, that image of a God who rains down trouble on the bad and prosperity on the good from a distant heaven. This God of the garden is on our side, cheering us on, hoping that we will stretch and grow. God the gardener is invested in us.
We remember when we were young. We remember all the hopes we had for ourselves -- grand hopes, some of them: we would be famous movie stars, famous baseball players. We remember that it seemed, when we were young, that nothing could get in the way of our hopes. We just wouldn't let it. Oh, we knew that people sometimes had reverses of fortune, that people sometimes didn't see their dreams come true, but that was other people. That wouldn't happen to us. When we were young, we felt that almost everything was within our power. And now? What do we think now?
By now, most of us have found out that human hopes require continual adjustment. Most of us have experienced things in our lives that we would never have chosen. Most of us have found that the power of which we felt so certain in our youth really wasn't ours. We used to think we could do just about anything we wanted to do; now we know that there are many things beyond our control. We used to feel outraged if something didn't go our way. Now, we are not surprised. Life is harder than we thought it would be when we were young. A lot can happen. Put in a few decades, and you come to understand that.
And yet, we have also come to understand something else: it has been those times of trouble, those times when things decidedly did not go our way, it was in those times that we grew the most. We get strong from trouble -- not from the trouble itself, but from surviving it. We learn and grow from being challenged. The thinning that goes on in our lives, the losses we sustain, the wrong turns: these things form us powerfully. We are rather like the plants: we grow from being pruned. It's how we get strong. We might never have chosen some of the things that have happened to us, but we cannot deny the growth we have known because of them. That's just the way it is with people and plants: growth has a cost, and sometimes it's a high cost. We may not be able to choose everything in our lives, but we can always choose whether or not to allow ourselves to grow from it. It is that choice for which God the gardener hopes in sowing us here: "Let me put them out here on the earth, and let life happen to them, and let them find the path of strength in their lives. It is there for them to find. I have endowed each of them with the means by which to find nourishment and growth." And from God's open hand we spill forth, each of us landing somewhere in the garden. Ready to go. Ready to grow. Ready to begin growing.
If we think of God as the gardener, rather than as the stern, removed dispenser of human joys and sorrows, what have we lost? What would be different if we thought of God in this way? Prayer would be different, for one thing. You may have had the experience of praying mightily for something you wanted very much. "Guess it's just not God's will," you may have said to yourself when things didn't work out as you had hoped, and you set about remaking your plans and dreams to accommodate the new reality. But what if God were not far off, deciding whether or not to grant your request? What if God were right beside you, instead, watching your life grow, helping you to respond with growth instead of bitterness to the setback you have had? Then your prayer would be different, wouldn't it? It would be less desperate, more watchful, quieter: a prayer of willingness to be shown what pathway opens when another closes. We would not have unanswered prayer; we would see that there is no such thing.
God the gardener. The farmer. The sower. Close to us, not far away, and full of hope for our good. When Jesus used this metaphor to help his hearers understand God's love. He spoke to people who knew all about planting things. It was the most natural metaphor in the world for an idea of God that was really quite new: in Jesus, God came close to us and shared our experience. Our experience. Our experience of pain, yes, and of death -- but most of all, our experience of hope.