Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Gospel or Garden, which do people need more?

I wrote this 'essay' last year at garden planting time. I thought it might be encouraging as we have planted again this year. It also reminds me that I need to put some time in with my hands in the dirt gospel.

Planting a Garden
One pastor said to me once, ‘I don’t know why my church puts so much time and energy into feeding a free breakfast to ‘those people.’ I wasn’t sure who ‘those people’ were. Hungry people I guess. ‘They need the gospel,’ he rambled on, ‘more than anything else.’ They need the gospel more than food. I didn’t know whether to find a nice big Bible and whack him with it, or just walk away. I just walked away feeling pretty good that I was a pastor who had flipped pancakes for the poor and the undocumented and the hung-over. I thought that was the gospel. More gospel than most sermons I’ve ever preached.
His comments reminded me of an old labor union hymn that mocked a song sung in many churches; ‘You will eat, by and by, in that glorious land in the sky, when you die.’ Is that what the church stood for I wondered to myself, go hungry now, happily singing of heaven, loudly singing for your soul so as to drown out the sound of your stomach rumbling and your hungry children crying? Is that the gospel? Cotton for our ears to block the pleas of the hungry, a gag for the tongues of the underpaid and the underfed?
What if the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand with a few slices of wonderbread and some fishsticks wasn’t meant to teach a new ritual to be practices or some deep truth about the afterlife or even God? What if Jesus just wanted us to actually feed take care of each other and call that gospel? ‘Feed my sheep’ Jesus says to Peter at the end of the Gospel of John. What if he wasn’t initiating an institution or creating a hierarchy? What if he didn’t mean feed them ideas or platitudes or a system of beliefs? What if he really did mean for us to start flipping pancakes on Saturday mornings, or stirring stew on Sunday afternoon (instead of watching TV)? What if he meant for us to raid our fridge now and again, not for a can of beans that has been there since 1963, but for some tuna or peanut butter or the bread box for a loaf of whole wheat bread?
I learned something new this week. I learned that all of the fancy theological terms I parroted from seminary, terms like disenfranchised, downtrodden, marginalized, terms that peppered my sermons didn’t really taste too flavorful on my tongue. They were oatmeal without brown sugar, not much meaning. I learned that my own judgment of that other pastor was pretty baseless because I thought different thoughts about what ‘gospel’ means, and had different ideas about what feeding the hungry meant (actually doing it) I hadn’t been. Actually doing it I mean. I had this epiphany while I was elbow deep in mulch, hands brown from newly turned soil, and soaking wet. My congregation invited me to help them plant a garden the produce of which will go to help feed the hungry in our community. I learned how little I knew of the gospel until I got my hands dirty. I learned how empty my sermons are until they are built upon an aching back and a sweaty face. I sowed the gospel this week with the very real seedlings of tomato, bean and squash plants. I learned who Jesus was in that garden because I saw him in the people who gave up a beautiful sunny Saturday to plant a garden. I was saved that moment because the gospel changed from words and ideas into action and labor. I found church without walls or organs or committees. Church was time and place of working to make life a little better, easier, more fair for someone else. I found Jesus, the gospel and church in a garden this week. Thank God.

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