Orestes Roca Santana, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Matanzas, Cuba, was a guest in the Pullen pulpit. Read more about our congregation’s relationships with Matanzas here. You may alos read Orestes’ original manuscript, prepared in Spanish.
Text: Mark 4:26-29
Good morning my sisters and brothers. It is a great pleasure to be here with you this morning in this beloved church. I bring greetings from your sisters and brothers at the First Baptist Church of Matanzas, who are also at this moment worshiping God and praying for you.
I would like to share with you the reading of God’s word from the gospel according to Mark, chapter four verses 26 to 29:
Jesus also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A person scatters seed on the ground, Night and day, whether they sleep or get up, the seed sprouts and grows, though they do not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain–first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, they put the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
A few months ago, while we were visiting the camp of the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Havana, Cuba, my wife Wanda asked the care taker of the camp about a tree that the youth had planted two years ago. Our brother was very sad because he had taken great care of that tree, but it had not grown. The soil wasn’t very good and the tree had not developed. He was a little desperate because he wanted to see rapid growth, but nothing changed, the tree is still small and weak.
Our two churches, Pullen Memorial and the First Baptist Church of Matanzas, are two very active churches, involved in many projects. But often we feel like the care taker at the camp. We do so, so much, we work so, so hard, and nothing happens or changes. This makes us sad or in some cases it makes us take on more projects to fix the situation.
The best analogy that I can find for this is gardening. Maybe many of you know about gardening. Actually gardening is something that many people don’t like to do or at least it doesn’t appeal to them (it’s not that they don’t like the flowers, they don’t like the work of gardening). Gardening is hard and difficult to understand. People prefer other things than gardening, for example, shopping. Going shopping is easy, well in Cuba going shopping is not that easy. First, because everything is so expensive; second, due to the lack of funds; and third because you can never find what you want. But I am referring to the act of shopping, it’s easy. For example, if you are going to buy food, you go to the store, you have a list of the things you need, you pick them up, you go to the checkout, you pay for them and you’re done. You go home with something concrete in your hands. The day has ended and you have food in your house. This process is something that makes sense to most of us; it’s understandable, it’s logical.
But gardening is strange. You dig a hole in the ground, you prepare the soil with compost, you add a seed, you cover it, you add a little water, and what do you have at the end of the day? A mound of dirt in your yard. That’s a lot of work with nothing to immediately show for it.
A garden takes a lot of work: you have to get rid of the weeds, you have to water it, and you have to scare away animals and birds. All of this hard work that you do, you do so that something else can happen: growth. But what’s complicated about gardening is that you are always working, but you can’t make anything grow. In the end, each garden is a miracle — in other words, a gift wrapped in mystery. Like the sower in the passage that we have read this morning from the gospel of Mark, “night and day, whether they sleep or get up, the seed sprouts and grows, though they do not know how.”
Our churches are very similar to gardens. In them there are always many things to be done. Visit the sick, go to a meeting, prepare an activity, another meeting, lead a Bible study, another meeting, fix a pew or a chair, one more meeting, take care of people…and more meetings. After all of these things, after all of the meetings, after hearing people tell us the same basic problems time and again, we are tempted to say “I know what this congregation needs. If they would listen and pay attention to me, everything would be resolved.” But that never works, because, like in a garden, you can’t make a congregation grow, not in number or maturity. All we can do is promote a culture of truth and grace, listening to people and loving even those that frustrate or irritate us, helping them the best we can.
The great temptation is to imagine that the church is not like a garden but like a repair shop. In a repair shop things are broken and need to be fixed. Normally electric and mechanical equipment must function well. That’s what they were made for. When our blender isn’t working quite right, immediately we know that something is wrong because the blender isn’t supposed to work like that. So then we take it to the repair shop. In the shop there are people that know about blenders. They will fix what is broken, they’ll add a new part and it will be working again. That’s the process in a repair shop; you bring the broken equipment, they find the problem, it’s fixed and you take it back home.
And the truth is, my sisters and brothers, that we don’t need much time to figure out that there are people in our congregations who need to be fixed. And when we realize that, we are tempted to say: “I know what that person’s problem is better than they do, surely I can fix them.” And we do that because we love the person and we want to see them function well. We want to see that person as they were before, doing the things they did. The problem is that the people in our church are not like the blenders. We are not made to function well on our own. We are made to be in community.
That means that we need a garden more than we need a repair shop. Of course, plants get sick just like blenders break. I’m not saying that we don’t have broken people in our communities. We have many people in our churches that don’t function well. What I am trying to say is that people who aren’t functioning well need the same thing that sick plants need. They need someone who will care for the soil around them, someone to give them extra attention, someone to take away the weeds that threaten to choke them and someone to wait with them. I think everybody needs that at some point in their life. But the repair shop can’t do that, because we were meant to live in a garden. And the only way to grow into life in a garden is to have roots in a good place and to stay there.
Just like we are often tempted in becoming mechanics for the members of our churches, we are also tempted to convert our churches into repair shops for society. Our churches are in some ways social, political and economic projects that offer the world an alternative system of government. Not only can people not function well, but society doesn’t function well either. We not only have some sick plants, our problem is that the soil isn’t good; it’s contaminated and uncared for from years of misuse. Like the farmers that want to save the earth with fertilizers and pesticides, our churches can be held captive by our activism. We are exhausted by our work for all of our different causes and projects. We spend a lot of energy in trying to resolve problems, trying to do great things and unfortunately we put very little energy in helping our members to get to know each other well enough so that they can live in a culture of grace and truth.
Like the mechanic in the repair shop, we can say “I understand the problem, I have the resources and I know how to use them. I can fix this.” But that isn’t the work of the church, because, my sisters and brothers, the world does not need a mechanic. The world needs a Saviour, and thanks to God, we already have one. Paul said it like this to the church in Corinth: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away: see, everything has become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Just like God planted a garden at the beginning of Genesis, today there is a new garden in the world. With Jesus something new has come. We can’t fix the bad soil and we can’t fix the broken plants, but the good news is that we don’t have to. Our work is to take care of the new creation that has come, full of grace and truth.
We live in the culture of grace and truth when we get to know one another, when we care for one another, when we serve one another, when we love one another. That’s what we want to continue to happen in our two churches. We want them to continue to be communities of grace and truth, to love and serve each other.
All of this, my dear sisters and brothers, is like working in a garden. We roll up our sleeves and we give it our best effort, knowing that at the end of the day, we may not have much to show for it. But that’s OK, because below the surface, in ways that we will never be able to completely understand, small miracles are happening. New life is taking root and creating an opening to the surface. That is also what we expect of our two churches: that we care for and love one another, encouraging a culture of grace and truth that reveals the glory of God.