The Theology of Gardening

“The Theology of Gardening
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
July 10, 2022

Genesis 2:4b-9, 15
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed a human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there God put the human whom God had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The Lord God took the human and put it in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

John 12:24-25  The Message
“Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”

– – –
Whether you consider yourself a gardener or not, there is something special about a garden – the sights, the smells, the feeling of peace, the sheer aliveness of so many growing things. It could be a magnificent public garden with huge beds of professionally-tended blooms, a tiny strip of pollinator-friendly flowers between the sidewalk and the street, or a container garden on an apartment balcony – being in the presence of a garden – for it certainly has a presence – brings us closer to God. As the poet Dorothy Frances Gurney wrote,

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,–
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Bible is full of gardens. As we heard about in our Hebrew Bible reading, the prophets likened the doing of justice and the return of God’s exiled people to a lush and watered garden; the psalms and Song of Songs both use loads of gardening imagery; Jesus tells stories about and uses imagery from gardens, including the parables of the mustard seed and the fig tree; and of course, there’s the garden of Eden; the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prays before his trial and crucifixion; the garden where Jesus was buried and resurrected and where Mary Magdalene mistook him for the gardener; and the heavenly garden in Revelation where the tree of life grows for the healing of the nations.

We might say life began in a garden – and began again in one, too.

That’s really a garden in a nutshell: a place where life begins, and then ends, and then begins again, with the cycle of the seasons, a place where seeds die and fall to the ground so that they can sprout up something new. And we, if we spend time in gardens or especially if we tend one, will find ourselves shaped by that rhythm, by the nearness of our hearts to the heart of the One who helps us let go of what needs to die and then brings new life out of the remains.

– – –
As you heard this morning from our Hebrew Bible text, we were created to be gardeners. In the first creation story in Genesis 1, where God works for six days and rests on the seventh, humans are charged with “subduing the earth” and “having dominion over the every living thing”; but in the one we heard today, in Genesis 2, humans are created to “tend the garden and keep it,” or, if you look at the Hebrew words, “to serve the garden and protect it.” As Tina Gramm said, “humans have a tendency to dominate, to bend things to our purposes, often to the detriment of other species and forms of life.” But Genesis reminds us that we have a choice to think of ourselves as part of creation, “not to dominate it, but to sustain and support it.”

Tina showed me around her lovely flower gardens and her fruit and vegetable garden of raised beds, sharing what gardening means to her. Learning what each plant needs, how to take care of it, realizing that if you simply put this “tiny little seed in the ground and it has its nutrients – look what you get! You can explain it with science, but there’s still that element of the miraculous,” she says, “of something greater than our understanding. It’s good that we don’t understand or control everything,” she shared. Both with that miracle of a seed sprouting and by our failures, the things we can’t magically fix, gardens remind us that “we are not God.”

Beverly Miller spoke to those failures as well: “There’s something very satisfying about gardening even if it’s not always success – or frequently not a success – when you have something come right it’s really rewarding.” You get to be a part of life flourishing; we may not be God, but we can be co-creators with God.

The best book on plants I’ve read is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, in which Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi tribe, highlights the intricate relationships between people and plants. One of my favorite chapters talks about the “three sisters” – corn, squash, and beans, which, when grown together, produce a higher yield per square foot than when grown in monoculture. The corn grows high to provide a natural trellis for the beans; the broad squash leaves retain moisture on the ground and prevent weeds from growing; and the beans fix nitrogen in the ground to fertilize the other two sisters. This powerful combination, Wall Kimmerer writes, only exists when humans are there to plant them together. We are so often accustomed to thinking of humans as separate from nature or as disruptors or dominators of it – but gardening helps us realize that we can actually help it (and, in turn, ourselves) thrive. As Tina puts it, “Nothing gives me more joy than to see how birds, bees, birds, and other critters come around” the garden she’s created – how they respond to the life she’s cultivated with even more life.

The prophet Isaiah delivers a related message from God to the people about this: that if we do justly toward the oppressed and are in right relationship with God and with others, particularly the poor, we will be like a well-watered garden. We know from studies of urban areas that neighborhoods that are poorer (and, correspondingly, that have more residents of color) have far fewer trees and therefore poorer air quality and higher temperatures in the summer. If we literally tended to those neighborhoods in a just way, our world would have more thriving green space – our concrete jungles would become gardens, and more of God’s people would enjoy the gift of a garden’s greenness. 

Gardening is good for the people who do it, too – there are studies that when we put our hands in the dirt, one of the microbes our skin comes into contact with actually boosts dopamine, filling our brains with a sense of pleasure and well-being. Cindy Manson, another PACC gardener, put it this way: “Humans have evolved to be happy when we’re working in the soil – it makes evolutionary sense.”

I dealt with some mild depression after I graduated from college, and I remember showing up one night on a friend’s front porch in tears. He took one look at me and said come on, I have some plants that have overgrown their containers and need to be re-potted. He must have known that in taking care of a plant, I would not only be able to get out of my own head by caring for something outside myself, but that I would literally feel better. It was one of the most compassionate, Christ-like things someone has ever done for me.

If you are a novice or even non-gardener, three-sisters level of gardening might seem like it’s beyond your touch. Mike Rich shared a story about his first – and maybe last? – gardening adventure as a Gardening trainee at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx for a work-study program. He was given some tools and told to “go out and weed the beds.” “How do I know what’s a weed?” he asked. “Oh, just anything that isn’t like the plants around it,” they said. Well, three hours of hard work and one uprooted bush later, he was on his lunch break near the truck that picked up all the plant rubbish when one of the botanists walked by and said, “What’s this lupisorae axillaris doing in the trash??” And that’s why, says his wife Betty, he became a lawyer. On the upside, it was the first time he spent a summer outside and became comfortable with bees.

But Cindy Manson has encouragement for anyone who, like me, tends to categorize the world into “gardeners” and “not gardeners” and fears they are in the latter camp: “Nobody has a black thumb!” she insists. “If you want to be a gardener,” she says, “don’t be afraid. Just dig a plant up, plop it in the ground, and give it some water.” Many plants are indeed fragile, but there are quite a few that are like babies – tougher than you think. Try “native plants that can figure out what to do by themselves,” she says. 

I can attest to this. Before the pandemic, my mother-in-law gave us some of her ever-expanding bee balm, and I accidentally left them in a paper bag in the garage in the scorching heat for two days. I was almost sure they were dead, but I planted the wilted, sorry results anyway and three years on, they and the milkweed are taking over the area by our driveway fence, much to the delight of our local pollinators. We are made in the image of our Creator God, meant to be co-creators, but we will miss out on all of that dopamine-inducing glory if we are too scared of failing – or too sure that what we have is dead and useless – to give it a try.

Speaking of dead and useless, one part of gardening where I really shine is composting. If you were to look up on the internet the “right” way to compost, there are a lot of rules – but I am too lazy to follow most of them, and it turns out that nature has a way of decomposing and creating new life with pretty much anything you throw at it. We put pretty much anything plant-based in our compost, plus eggshells, and maaaaaybe I remember to turn it over and aerate it once a year. Peeking into our backyard compost is not an impressive experience – you can see all the odds and ends of stuff we tossed in there, and it looks like nothing is decomposing. But as I showed our young people this morning, if you dig down underneath, you will find what gardeners call “black gold” – the nutrient-rich good stuff that is just bursting with life, both in nutrient form and in discarded seeds that might just start growing a tomato and a cantaloupe in your rosemary pot.

I think that’s part of where God works on us when we garden. Away from screens and constant artificial stimulation, surrounded by bird song with our hands buried in the dirt, there is room for our troubles and heartaches to work themselves out, for God to prune away some of our stubbornness or bitterness, for the Spirit to take the lost dreams and dead bits inside of us and turn them into the black gold of healing and growth and regeneration. In gardening, with each failure – or “learning success” as a friend calls it – we become more humble; with each happy plant we become more awed by God’s creation. 

After all, the God who created the Garden of Eden and whom Mary Magdalene mistook for the gardener at the tomb, is perhaps first and foremost a gardener. Thanks be to God for the wonderful variety of life God coaxes forth in each of us. Amen.