“Planting Mums, Planting Bulbs”

November 15, 2015


Isaiah 2:1-6

Matthew 25:31-40


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 actions.

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 care.”

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 and frustration.

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 be us.

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 planted:

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 together.

In short we do things to look like a church.

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 thriving.

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 doing here.

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 real thing.”

It shows.

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.