Sermon for Oct. 6, 2019 -- TENDING THE GARDEN


Julie Water
October 6, 2019


          While I was out on medical leave this spring, was running a special for Mother’s Day. I ordered the kit, spit into a little vial, and sent it off. A few weeks later, I got the notification that my results were in. Now, I grew up thinking that on my dad’s side, both of his parents were from Finland and immigrated here in the early 1900’s. On my mom’s side, Grandpa Erick was from Sweden, Grandma Ingebord was from Norway; they met here after they arrived in Minnesota. Because of this breakdown, my mom mastered Norwegian cooking as she grew up, lutefisk, which was always a mistake as far as I was concerned, and lefse. So I thought I knew the breakdown: 50% Finnish, a quarter Swede, a quarter Norwegian. I have to say, I didn’t expect to see the actual results! I am 71% Finnish and only 11% Norwegian and 11% Swedish. Somewhere along the line, I also picked up a tiny bit of Irish.

            Now, I don’t know what was going on in Scandinavia back in the day, but the borders were maybe a little loosie goosey. I’ve always been proud of my ancestry and think it’s kind of cool that my people are mostly Finnish in heritage. Until, of course, I looked for things that Finns are notable for. Lots of depression in that line, and a lot of introversion. So, sad and alone, maybe due to the dark and cold winters. I decided to do this test out of curiosity, but my cousin Delbert looked into it because of a strange call he got one day. Out of the blue, as these things sometimes happen, a man reached out to Del on Facebook. Said he wondered if they could talk, he might be a relative. Del, who is in his late 80’s, or maybe already in his 90’s, reluctantly agreed. He wasn’t sure if it was a scam so he was a little nervous, but when the phone rang, he accepted the call. It was a guy in his 60’s who was claiming to be Del’s nephew. Say what? Yes. Del’s brother Junior had apparently fathered a child with a woman who had a chronic, debilitating illness. He helped her with money and securing medical care. He really cared for her. But he moved and, when he did, she never told Junior about the pregnancy and birth. Now in his 60’s, the man was searching for relatives on Junior’s side of the family. Would Del be willing to meet? He agreed to do so at a local restaurant, just to be safe, and the reunion was the first of many meetings they have had. Seeing his grown nephew for the very first time was like seeing his brother Junior all over again. It’s been years since Junior died but this long lost nephew was akin to having a part of his brother back again. Both men rejoiced at this sudden and unexpected family circle, coming at a time they least expected it, but sweeter than honey now that it is here.

            These new discoveries with DNA and the accessibility of these tests and findings are changing our world. Through the wonders of science and genetics, neuro biology and yes, things like Facebook, we are learning more and more about where we come from, what has shaped us, and what makes us who we are. My friend Chris recently told me about a book she was reading that discusses how our bodies, right down to the cellular level, are influenced by the experiences that happened to our ancestors long ago. In the book is a story of a woman who, in her midlife, developed an absolute phobia that presented when she was on airplanes. It wasn’t a fear of flying, nor a fear of heights. It was a phobia of the closing of the door as the plane prepared for takeoff. When she saw it close and heard it sealing up, she would go into a full blown panic attack. She couldn’t figure out why this was happening, and why now. Well, she, too, started researching her ancestry. Unbeknownst to her, she had relatives who had lived in Germany prior to WW II. Jewish relatives. Ancestors who had died in the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Her own body, on a cellular level, had retained a memory of the trauma and, when she heard the shutting of the airplane door, she responded with terror.

            Now I haven’t read this book by Mark Wolynn, It Didn’t Start With You, but it is based on cutting edge research in epigenetics, how the traumas of our ancestors are transmitted through chemical changes in DNA. It is helping people understand themselves more fully, gain insight into where they’ve come from, and move into healing. And for this woman, learning this about her relatives turned her life around. No longer does she have this phobia now that she understands her history and the coding in her genes from the trauma passed down throughout generations.

            I wonder how St Paul would have reacted to these findings. When we revisit his writings today, he shows himself to be an upholder of ancestry. Specifically, an upholder of the faith passed on by him to others, passed on by the mothers and grandmothers to their offspring, passed on by early church leaders and seeders. Again and again in his letters, he reminds people of where they came from, and urges them to remember their heritage and return to their roots.

            We do this too, don’t we? I was with a woman the other day who was in tears about her son’s addiction, his seeming self-centeredness, the way he was so mean to her earlier in the week. “What did I do wrong?” she asked. “How did he turn out this way?” A part of me wanted to encourage her by saying that she raised him right and one day, hopefully, he will return to those early teachings. Right now, he is lost, but the seeds of kindness and compassion are planted deep within him. Remember that Bible verse from Proverbs 22? “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” In those middle years when they tend towards their own prodigal ways, it is hard to have faith that this promise will hold true. And yet, there is something to it. At age 18 they believe their parents are the dumbest human beings around. By 25 or 30, they’re coming home for advice. By their 50’s they look into the mirror and see their own father or mother’s face staring back at them.

            In the lesson today, Paul expands our ancestry as he says “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” And then, “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” He looks, not only to his own teaching and faith that he has passed on (he can be a bit full of himself, right?), but at each person, created in God’s image, born with seeds of power and love and self-discipline within our very beings, given to us by God. In a different letter, he encourages us to keep our thoughts and actions on whatever is honorable, and just, pure and pleasing, commendable, excellent and praise worthy. These, too, are seeds that each of us is born with, seeds along with inherited memories of unresolved trauma or bad behavior, depression or fear.

            In my years away from you, as I practice a different form of ministry in my therapy office, I’ve been exploring these things in new ways. A lot of time the work is in uncovering what happened in early childhood that set the stage for someone’s present day problems in their relationships, or their intrusive thoughts and frightening nightmares, or their habits of feeling such self-criticism and self-hatred. Increasingly, I find myself also trying to help people uncover the times and places and memories of peace and beauty. Even in the most horrific childhoods, something kept them in the game. Someone offered a kind word, a book appeared at the right time to offer an alternate view of the world, a tree offered shade and shelter, the waters of a lake offered buoyancy and play.

            So it is with us, here in the church. As I enter this sanctuary again after a long absence, I am struck by memories of the people who filled the pews. The older women  and men who sat front and center, or near the back and off to the side; Sally and Arline, Delores and Al, Patsy, Kathleen, Sharon, Diane, Inez and Helen. So many names, so many stories, so much faith. On this world communion Sunday, we are mindful of the saints beyond these walls, in places near and far, who share a common faith that manifests in countless different liturgies and practices. And yet, at the center of it all, is a goodness planted deep within each of us, our original goodness, there from our birth.

            Tell me, what will you do with these seeds? Jesus tells us that no matter how tiny the seed of faith may be, it is within us, and it is sufficient, and it can move mountains or a mulberry bush into the sea. Thich Nhat Hahn tells us to tend to our gardens, watering the seeds of goodness and love while being mindful of the other seeds of garbage and hatred. The ones you care for are the ones that will grow. The onerous and thorny ones that are offered compassion are the ones that will be healed. Paul tells us to tend to love and self-discipline and things worthy of praise.

            What would a life of self-discipline look like if we were to become better gardeners of our own souls, better care takers of our beloveds’ garden? Increasingly, I find myself exploring the power of pause. Pausing to breathe, to heighten awareness of the ocean of calm or the pocket of peace that is just a breath away. I’ve been seeing posts on Facebook from one of your members here who is taking a photograph a day. What a beautiful way of pausing, of taking in the beauty of a dragonfly or a sunset. Others post inspirational phrases or links to thoughtful articles. Some of you read daily devotionals every morning, or turn pages in the book you’re reading as a group. If you are doing so, I want to affirm you in your nurturing of the seeds planted within you. If you’re not disciplined in this way, it is an opportunity for you to revisit this and inwardly “tidy up” the corners of your mind. We can talk about prayer and meditation, but if we don’t actually do it we won’t know the benefits. We hear the disciples say, “increase our faith,” but only when they step out in faith and follow him do they feel it grow and expand. In closing, here is a poem which captures what awaits us, and how to discover this new way of being as people of faith, following our Lord.

The Clearing by Martha Postlewaite

Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create
a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worth of rescue.




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