Vespers Sermon: “The Common Field”

Originally published on the Marsh Vocation Blog, a publication by the interns in the Marsh Associate internship program at Boston University’s March Chapel.

This past summer, I attended the Wild Goose Festival, a progressive Christian festival that happens in the mountains of rural North Carolina. There were many interesting things that happened, including cornbread communion, moonshine mass, and an event called “Beer ‘n’ Hymns.” But the one I want to talk about tonight was called “The Body and the Earth.”

It was a panel with speakers who do work with gardening and farming ministries. One woman was the leader of a farm called The Lord’s Acre. The Lord’s Acre is a community project where volunteers grow organic produce for those in need in the community–a beautiful concept.

Susan, the director, told us a story about Annie. Annie was a local homeless woman. She had some mental instabilities and would often amble past the garden, but would run away whenever they invited her to join in.

Well, pretty soon, the people at The Lord’s Acre started noticing something. It was high summer in North Carolina, and the beautiful watermelons they had been cultivating started to go missing. They’d be there in the evening, then, the next morning? Gone.

This was disappointing. Those watermelons were supposed to go to the local food bank, to help the needy. So one of the dedicated volunteers swore to get to the bottom of this mystery. He staked himself out the entire night to find out where the watermelons were going.

And who did he see, sneaking in late at night after everyone was gone, except Annie the homeless woman?

So Susan, the director, went and found Annie the next day, out at the outskirts of town behind an abandoned barn where Annie liked to sleep. She spoke gently to her. And, at long last, Annie brought her inside the barn and showed her the her secret stash–a heap of big, fat watermelons.

Annie started to cry. She had been so scared, she said. She had been scared that the volunteers in the garden–the nice people volunteering from the local churches (and you know what she meant–middle-class people with houses and cars and nice clothes)–wouldn’t want her in the garden. She couldn’t always control what she said. Sometimes she acted strange. They wouldn’t want her. Especially now that she had stolen all those watermelons–but she just hadn’t been able to resist. They were just so big and juicy and beautiful.

Susan stayed with Annie while she cried. Then she loaded Annie and the watermelons up into her truck, and they brought it all back to the Lord’s Acre. After Susan explained the situation to the volunteers, they hugged Annie and brought out knives and sliced open the watermelons and ate them right there in the garden, together. You can just feel it, can’t you? Hot Southern sun and crisp, cool watermelon and the sticky smiles on everyone’s faces.

Susan told this story to us at the festival, and she told us that Annie still volunteers at the garden. People know her quirks and moods and tics and accept her anyways. This is the power of a garden, friends.

Laboring together in a garden is a powerful thing–it brings us together over the glory of nature and creation, growing food that we can share together.

The Bible knows the strength of the garden, and that is why it uses it so often as a metaphor. In today’s reading from Corinthians, we hear that “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

This is interesting, isn’t it? According to this passage, we are the servants working in the field–but we are also the field, also the building. It’s a holistic idea of engaging in communal work and common purpose together–but what we are fostering is ourselves. It’s our brothers and sisters around us.

So what I’m talking about here is not just physically working in a garden. Though if you can find one to physically work on here in Boston–more power to you.

I’m talking about having the mindset of seeing the world around you like a garden, of which you and your fellow beings are the gardeners. For it’s not just about what you do, but how you think about it.

We see this in today’s gospel. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”

Jesus is telling us that love extends to more than just our actions–it is also about thought. So you don’t murder someone. But thinking bad thoughts–that’s still pretty damaging for your soul.

And so we must cultivate good thought, just as one cultivates a garden. We need to water the good thoughts and weed the negative ones. We need to grow love, and we need to do it together.

You know, gardens can be good for more than just food. One of my friends visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina on a mission trip, and can you guess what their project was? Planting sunflowers. Yes, that’s right, planting flowers.

Sunflowers have the incredible property of purifying the soil they’re planted in. My friend and her team planted them in New Orleans in the toxic muck, full of chemicals and dangerous debris, as a part of cleanup.

You wouldn’t think it, right? Those big, beautiful, yellow flowers doing double duty as toxic waste cleaners. It’s pretty–I’ll say it–miraculous.

So, my friends–think about it, hard as it is when it’s full-on winter outside. Grow your sunflowers. Plant your crops. Share your watermelons. Remember that we are the servants in the field, but we are also the field. This world is our shared project, and it is up to us to cultivate love and healing in it. Be a good gardener. Amen.

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