as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 26, 2023
Last Sunday, the children in our religious education program got to harvest some of the vegetables that they have been growing in our garden plot. You have probably seen it. It is on Fannin, right by the main entrance.
This time of year, it is a burst of verdant green full of good things to eat. The kids got to take home kale, mustard greens, carrots, and beets. There is still stuff in the garden too. Even though bolted cilantro does not have the best taste, I admit that I have been admiring it. There is something about the way the herbs grow in strong spidery webs.
I have to talk about the smash of color. There are Black-Eyed Susans with lovely shocks of yellow. And I am obliged to mention the blue bonnets. The beloved Texas flowers have escaped the bounds of the garden, jumped the sidewalk, and made their way to the other side of the concrete.
Today the kids will be at it again. They are in the first phase of transitioning the garden from winter to spring. They are going to plant Cosmos flowers–which will add some nice pink–and zinnias–that will be a bit of red. There will be green beans too, which might have me sneaking out front in a couple of months to munch of some, just a few, at lunch time.
Our congregation is not unique. Churches and other religious community have long had gardens. Indeed, gardens have connected with religion probably as long as some form of organized religion has existed. “Let us begin with the garden–an image of garden,” Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker encourages us in her reflections on the foundations of our tradition.
And more than one hundred twenty five years ago, here in Houston, our religious ancestors did just that. It is as I shared with you on a recent Sunday. The first reported Universalist sermon given in this city asked, “What are we to live for but to make this world a Paradise, a pleasant, happy place for all to live in?”
Paradise has often been likened to a garden. The earliest Christian communities found it in “this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God”–as Rebecca Parker, writing with her friend Rita Nakashima Brock, put it in another text.
Permeated and blessed by the spirit seems to me a good way to describe many gardens. Certainly, our garden out front and our courtyard garden are both blessed by the spirit of this community. In each of them, there is something of presence, the care, the dedication of both those now living and those who have gone before.
Gardening seems like a good metaphor in which to root our annual stewardship sermon. Like stewardship, it is an act of love. Like stewardship, it is an intergenerational activity. And like stewardship, it is a way that we widen love’s circle.
Stewardship is an opportunity to reflect upon what it means to be a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Gardening is an experiential way of connecting with what it means to be human–to be a creature dependent on, part of, and charged with tending to this muddy blue green ball of a planet that is home to all known being. Gardening, stewardship, each a religious activity, coming from that old definition of religion tied to its Latin root–religio, what binds us together.
For us Unitarian Universalists, stewardship is about building and sustaining the prophetic religious community. Paula Cole Jones describes for us some of the dimensions of such a community. She tells us that it “casts a vision that illuminates the way … [and] equips us for the journey, fortifies our courage, stokes our passion, [and] rekindles our flame.”
I like to quote John Wolf, the former minister of All Souls Tulsa about stewardship. An advocate of the prophetic religious community, he built the largest Unitarian Universalist congregation in the world. He wrote, “There is only one reason for joining a Unitarian Universalist … [congregation]. That is to support it with your time and money. You want to support it because it stands against superstition and fear. Because it points to what is noblest and best in human life. Because it is open to … [people] of whatever race, creed, color, place of origin, [gender] or sexual orientation.”
Those words are several decades old. They were true back when he composed them. And they remain true today, though in this dire hour, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is telling us we must act now before it is too late, I would also add that our tradition is calling us to heal our interdependent relationship with the Earth.
And so, this morning, it seems particularly pertinent to choose gardening as our metaphor for stewardship. I like it because, well, gardening, like stewardship, is something that almost everyone enjoys. I have yet to meet the person who, even if they do not like getting their hands dirty and their pants muddy, does not appreciate either a beautiful garden or the bounty of fresh vegetables, the glory of cultivated flowers.
And to be human is to enjoy–and here I mean enjoy in the sense of to benefit from–stewardship. If we are alive, and all of us are, we would do well to remember that each of us is a gift from the ancestors who brought us into being. And that each of us enjoying their gifts all the time–the gifts of the culture they crafted, the gifts of buildings they built, and, yes, the gifts of the religious communities that they sustained.
I will admit that that is just possible that I am eager to use gardening as a metaphor for stewardship because, at the moment, I am a bit garden mad. A few weeks ago, I got access to a community garden plot. And so, I have been doing all the things–consulting with family members about what I should grow, asking my Mom for her expertise, thinking about the best strategies for organically keeping the weeds down and the bugs out, worrying about the tomato seedlings, watching the corn start to sprout, getting excited for the radish shoots, even beginning to wonder if I can turn the whole thing into a no till venture and make use of the gobs of compost we seem to produce, like I said, garden mad.
So, let us dig a bit deeper into gardening as a metaphor for stewardship and consider how both are connected to widening love’s circle.
I am not, by any stretch, a master gardener. I do know enough about gardening to know that there are certain steps in the process.
The first thing, of course, is that you have to figure out what kind of garden you want. I decided on a vegetable garden. Flowers are nice but there is just something about garden fresh vegetables that cannot be beat. I mean, tomatoes right off the vine or some arugula that has just been picked or the possibility of making a big batch of basil fresh pesto…
When forming a religious community, people also have to select its purpose. I have been arguing for the last months that the vision we voted on a few weeks back reflects nothing more than the aim for which the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston was originally gathered: to widen love’s circle. We find that intention in Quillen Shinn’s words from the earliest of our sermons, to create a “happy place for all.”
Once you have settled on a purpose for your garden you have to select the spot. I was lucky in that there were a few plots to choose from in the community garden. So, I got to pick one that was got lots of sun and was situated near a waterspout. It is also close to the communal tool shed and the compost. I do not have to walk all that far for the things I need to keep cultivating it.
The same thing is true with congregational life. We have to select a site where we think our vision will best be nurtured. And here, we have committed, in the words of our mission, to “the city’s diverse urban center.” We have decided we can best steward our vision of widening love’s circle by making a place for Unitarian Universalism and Unitarian Universalist’s in the center of Houston.
After we have a site, we have to make a plan. You can see the wonderful intentional plan that has been made by the religious education program for our front garden. They have been thoughtful but what goes where and what gets planted when. Some of the time, they even have labels out for you to see.
If you have a garden, how have you approached planning it? In my case, I drew up a grid for part of my plot, and with the benefit of my mother’s insights, have thought through where the tomatoes go, succession planting for the salad greens, locations for some herbs, the placement of marigolds to keep pests away, and when the peppers and other seed starts can be put in.
Gardens do a lot better when there’s some sense of intentionality behind them. If you crowd the plants they are not going to do so well. Space is limited. Some things grow more quickly than others. Right now, there are radishes where in a month or so the tomates will be vining.
Religious communities also do better with a plan. We only have so much focus. One of the reason why First Unitarian Universalist has done so well over the last few years is that we have been intentional in sticking to our developmental goals. Rather than trying to do everything all at once, we made a decision to tend to the issues that were most vital for our religious community: developing a clearer sense of mission, improving governance, making a commitment to anti-racism, and membership growth. To be good stewards of our institution, like being good gardeners, is partially about knowing how much can be accomplished when and where–when it is time to focus on this aspect of the life of the congregation and when it time to center that aspect.
So much of our work in the past couple of years has been organizationally focused. In gardening terms, we have been spacing the tomato cages, laying out the trellises, tilling the soil, and now it is time to turn from that work to starting to really grow things again. In the coming program year, we will be centering spiritual practice and connection more than we have been able to in this last portion of developmental effort.
With a plan in place, first comes the work of planting and then the slow steady work of stewarding the garden. This is some of the work I enjoy most. If you garden, is it the same for you? Visiting my plot almost daily I get to watch the earthly miracle of its growth. Give it some water, pull the odd weed, and the greenery steadily expands. A few minutes each day doing so keeps me centered. It is also a thing that keeps the folks in my household and family connected to each other. We talk about the garden, tend to the seed starts, and engage in a bit of collective work together.
Stewarding a garden is really a spiritual practice. It keeps us linked to the natural cycles of the planet, aware of what it is happening with the climate, and conscious of the ways in which we are dependent and interdependent on, and with, the sun, the rain, and the good earth.
If you are a gardener, or if you have ever benefited from a garden, and this is something we try to teach the children through our religious education program, you have probably learned that the more you put into its stewardship the more you get out of it. This, of course, is the stewardship kicker to the sermon. The part, I have been leading to where I hope to inspire you, as Bob Schaibly used to say, to give until it feels good.
I have found over the years that the more people give to their religious community the more they get out of it. And the more fully the community is to live out its vision.
Here, though I am talking about the always uncomfortable subject of financial giving, I am also discussing sharing your time and talent. If is your gifts of all three that empower us, collectively, to work to widen love’s circle. And the more devoted we are to stewardship, the more we can give, the more capacity we have to realize our vision.
There is so much we do for each other and for the larger community. We proclaim a message that each and every human being has inherent worth and dignity in a state governed by the politics of cruelty. In a place where the evil of the ruling political class–for it is evil to inflict suffering on others–is so often targeted at women, people of color, the undocumented, and those who are queer and gender fluid. It is a region where what seem like basic decencies in other parts of the country–access to abortion, gender neutral bathrooms, gender affirming case, maternal health care, and so many other things–are anathemas to people who pretend to speak words inspired by the spirit of God.
In such a place, this state of Texas, committing to steward the vision of widening love’s circle is a radical and rewarding act. It is radical because it challenges us to uproot the politics of cruelty and replace them with love. It is rewarding because it calls each of us into the work of community and the challenge of caring for each other and all being. It reminds us of the fundamental truth of life, spoken of so eloquently in our poem from Adam Lawrence Dyer:[It] … is love that reaches beyond,
That holds one to another
And every other to one.
No matter the color
Or where we’re from.
This is now.
This is we.
This is Love.
This is God.
And this is love beyond God.
Love beyond God, this morning we launch our annual stewardship campaign. We are encouraging those of you who are members to renew your pledges. And we are encouraging those of you who not yet members to consider making a financial commitment to support the vision of this community. It costs a little over a million dollars a year to do all we do, and we can only do so with the dedicated stewardship of so many of you.
Let me not leave the sermon there, instead let us return to the garden. For it reminds us that when we good and generous stewards we find the rewards of beauty and sustenance not just for our own generation but for future ones. That is, after all, how we hope to inspire our children through our garden out front: the lesson that there is beauty and sustenance to be found through widening love’s circle. And it is what we hope to inspire each other through our collective stewardship.
So, that it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.