“Planting Mums, Planting Bulbs”
November 15, 2015
A couple of week ago on one of those
delightful early November days when the sun was shining and the sky was blue
and the temperature neared 70 degrees, I was walking across the campus over to
the hospital to visit a couple of our members who were there at the time. In
two different places I saw University grounds crews engaged in two similar—and
yet significantly different—activities.
Both were digging in the ground,
loosening the still unfrozen soil. One crew was planting some yellow mums. The
other was planting some very large flower bulbs.
These are great fall activities. Both
are important. And both told me something about our calling as a congregation
and as individuals living our lives before God.
There are times when we try to make the
world look a little more like it should be. We take some mums that are already
blooming and plant them on the campus to create a beautiful autumn picture. We
decorate our homes with bittersweet and gourds and Indian corn, suggesting
“harvest,” suggesting “Thanksgiving” to all who see them.
Twice a year we make a special effort
here to bring food items for the Crisis Center Food Pantry and personal items
for Shelter House. Yes, we provide food and financial support for those
organizations all year long, but in May and June and again in November and
December, we are encouraged to do more—and I encourage you to do more.
We know, however, don’t we, that putting
a few cans of peanut butter or tuna in the box in Rockwood Hall will not end
hunger in Iowa City. We know that a package of socks or a bottle of shampoo
won’t stop homelessness.
But that is not our goal with such
These actions are more like planting
mums. They make the world, they make Iowa City a little more like it should be.
Because of what we provide, people living on the margins get the food that then
need. A girl has a good breakfast before going off to school. Because of what
we give, people living on the edge are brought closer to the center once more.
A man who has lost everything can brush his teeth. A woman who is trying to
rebuild her life has clean clothes.
That’s how it should be.
And we discover, you know this as well,
we discover that in providing these items we become a little more like we
should be as well—generous, compassionate, able to see the image of God in
someone else. Maybe you take your children to the store with you to buy the
food and the items—that’s a good thing to do, maybe you let them fill the boxes
in Rockwood Hall so that they, too, might become a little more like we hope
they will be—caring, giving, respecting others.
In doing these things we are signs
rather than solutions. We don’t solve the problems of hunger or homelessness
when we fill those boxes. But we do become signs—to the rest of the world, to
our community, even to ourselves—we become signs of the love of God. In a small
way we make the love of God visible in the world.
We are signs that this world, as
troubled as it is, belongs to the God of love. We are signs that we as a
congregation, we as individuals, do follow in the way of Jesus Christ, who
tells his followers: “Truly…as you did it to one of the least of these who are
members of my family, you did it to me.” Jesus doesn’t say: “Solve all the
world’s problems.” He says: “Follow me. Give food and drink. Give welcome. Give
If we are honest, we will realize that
much of what is called “mission” in most congregations is similar to planting
mums. It is well-intended and important action that makes the world a little
more like it should be, that improves the lives of some people, that draws us
all closer into our common humanity.
We’ve been doing a lot of work on our
building in recent years. It’s hard not to notice that, isn’t it? It is
important work and once again I want to thank everyone who has given to financially
support the capital campaign, everyone who has pledged to give, and those of
you who are thinking, “Well, maybe I can give more.” I thank the members who
worked on the original campaign, those who have served as Trustees in the
ensuing years, overseeing this work, and those who have monitored our use of
your gifts so that the money has been very wisely spent. The outside of this
building needed a facelift—so we’ve focused on the roof, the parking lot, the
stone foundation, the brick work. We still haven’t got those front doors
right—a problem that has plagued our congregation for decades—but we’re closer
to a solution!
As I understand it, the University is
getting around to doing some deferred maintenance on the President’s house down
the street. We put things off here for many years as well because of other
priorities. But we realized that an inaccessible building in disrepair didn’t
convey to passersby who we really are.
Our outside now announces that there is
something happening inside.
It’s been like planting mums. All of
what we have accomplished, all that is in the works is important. It makes us
look more like how we should look. It allows us to continue to be agents of
God’s love in this place.
Here’s the thing—this is why planting
mums in all the ways in which we do that is so vitally important: it makes the
world look a little more like the kingdom of God, whose coming we pray for
together each Sunday. One church is not going to bring about the realm of God—not
even this church! I hope that doesn’t come as too much of a surprise. Indeed
all of the churches in all of Christendom will not bring about the realm of
God, because ultimately that will only be established by God in God’s time.
But we are still called to act as though
that realm is in the making.
Progressive Christians often seem to be
under the mistaken impression that what they do will indeed bring about the
kingdom of God on earth.
Conservative Christians often seem to be
under the mistaken impression that nothing they do matters and it is best to
simply let the world indeed go to hell in a handbasket.
We are liberal Protestants, bearers of
the tradition that says, yes, it is up to us, yes, our work matters—and that at
the same time our actions are not all
that matter, our actions are incomplete and riddled with the self-interest and
the self-deprecation that are the marks of our sin. And nevertheless our
actions matter and the more that we can do to make the world look a little more
like God’s creative desire for it, the better.
So we plant some mums.
That’s good work.
That’s important work.
And we also plant some bulbs.
We do some things, the results of which
won’t be seen for some time.
We have, as you know, started a new
adult literacy program here.
For me this was born out of both hope
A year ago in September, the United
Church of Christ announced a new literacy “emphasis.” It seemed like a good
idea. Members of our congregation read and discussed Hotdogs and Hamburgers: Unlocking Life’s Potential by Encouraging
Literacy at Any Age, Rob Shindler’s account of helping his son struggling
with serious learning differences and working with adults suffering from low
literacy levels. We explored the connections between literacy and justice and
economic well-being. We thought that in this UNESCO City of Literature there
should be at least one congregation working on this issue—and it might as well
So I called the people at the UCC
offices in Cleveland who were promoting this literacy initiative and asked what
resources they might have to help us get a program going. Their answer was
basically: “Well, we don’t have anything,
but please do let us know if you start something.
So we started something.
We discovered that our congregation has
not only writers but also those who know about teaching reading. We partnered
with Kirkwood Community College. And we’ve started a program of adults working
with adults to increase literacy.
Learning to read takes time.
And the results—better employment,
higher wages, greater self-esteem, the joy of being able to read to your own
children or grandchildren—the results might not be seen for years.
A few people sitting in Rockwood Hall in
the evening are kind of like bulbs that have been planted—out of sight, unknown
to the world.
We have been an ally of the Eastern Iowa
Center for Worker Justice for a few years now. We’ve given them a significant
amount of financial support. We’ve joined in their rallies. Victims of wage
theft have had their earnings restored. Many workers will see their minimum
wage increasing. But that work, too, is mostly a bulb planted, waiting to shoot
forth and bloom.
One final instance of bulbs being
On Wednesdays at noon a small group of
Congregational UCC members has been meeting here in the sanctuary to pray. And
I know that in this congregation, that’s probably the most unusual and
controversial thing we do. Protest wars, support same-sex marriage, rally for
worker justice, teach people to read—no problem. But just what do you think you
are doing gathering to pray? What’s
going on in there?
Well, not much, really. Some reads a
brief scripture lesson. Then we sit in silence for twenty minutes. Call it
meditation. Call it mindfulness. Call it prayer. It is a group attempt to be
still and know God. Everyone is welcome—and if noon on Wednesday doesn’t work
for you, let me know. We can add another time.
Prayer is hidden. Prayer is a mystery.
Who knows what’s going on? Who can say what the results will be or when the
results will be made visible?
Bulbs are planted in faith.
Bulbs are planted in hope.
Bulbs are planted in love.
The final result waits to be seen.
We plant mums. We plant bulbs. And
occasionally we do both at the same time.
When we gather here on Sunday morning,
the robed choir comes in. I, too, put on a robe and stand in the odd but
beautiful space that is this pulpit. We light some candles. We stand to sing.
We sit to pray. With increased frequency and some regularity, we break bread
In short we do things to look like a
And I like to think that on most Sundays
we look like a pretty good church. You do.
And, you know, an increasing number of
studies seem to suggest that young people want a church that looks like a church. So here we are,
looking a little like what a church should look like—a mum planted and
But those same studies also suggest that
while people want a church that looks like a church, even more, they want authenticity.
And that’s the other side of what we’re
Each person brings to this place, this
hour, not a certain faith, not an unshakable faith, not a perfect faith—each
person brings an authentic faith to
this place. It is faith that is sincere in its belief and sincere in its doubt.
One of the best compliments this congregation has received, I think, came a few
years ago when Bob Abernethy was here to
film our worship for part of a story on PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. Do you remember that Sunday? After
worshipping with us, he said to me, speaking of this congregation, “This is the
You come here and my guess is that
occasionally you ask yourself, “Well, am I getting anything out of this?” I
know I ask that.
And I don’t know. Maye you are. Maybe
you aren’t. Maybe not this week, but maybe last week—or next Sunday. Maybe the
choir is out of tune, or the candles don’t get lit or the sermon falls flat, or
the hymns are unfamiliar rather than glorious.
But your neighbor on such a Sunday—the
person right in front of you or right behind or next to you—your neighbor
leaves restored and renewed, in part because you were here today.
Your presence here matters. It matters
to others. They are delighted to see you here, delighted to see a familiar
face, delighted to see a stranger they’ve yet to meet. And when you are not
here, do you know what? You are missed. People ask about you. They are
concerned about you—as you are about them.
And in being here—today, next Sunday,
week after week, year after year—in being here we are planting bulbs, the
flowers of which will bloom in kindness, in peace, in justice—in their own time
and place, often unseen by most of us.
Mums and bulbs
Keep on planting.
Do what you can to make this world look
a little more as it should be.
And continue in those things that will
shoot forth in surprising ways at surprising times.