There is a story in the Jewish Talmud about planting trees. A sage is walking along the road and sees someone planting a carob tree. The sage asks the person, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
“Seventy years,” replies the gardener.
The sage then asks: “Are you so healthy a person that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?”
The gardener answers: “I found a fruitful world, because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise I am planting for my children.” (Talmud Ta’anit 23a)
We drink from wells we did not dig and eat from trees we did not plant (Deut. 6:11). Our physical, intellectual, and religious lives depend on those who have gone before. Following their example will lead us to plant literal and figurative trees for the world of the future.
Trees are on my mind because we’ve just had the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat. This is the “new year of trees,” kind of like Earth Day or Arbor Day on the Jewish calendar. It is usually celebrated by eating fruit. When we are eating the first fig or grape or pomegranate of the season, it is traditional to say the Shehecheyanu, the blessing that was referenced in the poem that we heard earlier:
Blessed are you, Spirit of Life
who has sustained us, enlivened us
and enabled us to reach this moment.
In this moment, we give thanks for trees we did not plant, and we take note of the fruits we have among us and the seeds contained within. In this moment, we give thanks for the opportunity to plant for future generations and for the tools available to us now. In this moment, we give thanks for the people who share the delight of planting and harvesting. In this moment, we give thanks for our combined strength that allows us to lift up a vision for the future, a future where trees shelter people we don’t yet know, a future where fruits we will never taste can bring joy and beauty to the world.
This congregation has a lot to consider about its future. There is a meeting today after the service sponsored by the Strategic Planning Team where we will discuss evocative questions about your hopes and values. I’m having conversations with your leaders about how to have greater clarity and energy for your mission going forward. The Ministerial Search Committee is quietly going about its work, and we send our most fervent, confidentiality-respecting prayers for their well-being and smooth path. This is the phase of the interim period when members metaphorically link arms and get ready to leap into the next chapter as a whole congregation.
Together is the key word. The words you have chosen as your Song of Exultation (“Creative Love, Our Thanks We Give,” by William DeWitt Hyde), set to a new tune today by Michael Holmes, is about people together, not individuals. Let’s unpack it. What we choose is part of what we are. So is the impact of what other people choose. So are the legacies we claim. We contain multitudes. What we are as a community is shaped by many sets of choices. We gather in worship and in discernment to guide our congregational choices.
“What we love we yet shall be.” If we’re lucky, we are called into what “we yet shall be” by the spirit of Love. We will not get to perfection, the “goal may ever shine afar.” We don’t have to be completely finished in our growing and developing before we can take on the work of love, we don’t have to be experts to be on the journey. Yet we fix our gaze on Love. We orient our path toward right relationship, compassion, and acceptance, framed by loving and life-affirming boundaries. We create a space where people can come for solace and challenge and inspiration. We take on the disciplines of open minds and open hearts, so that we can be warm and welcoming to new people who would make this path and this community their own. Because we know the “goal may ever shine afar,” we build a congregation that can continue to carry people forward when we are gone.
“The will to reach it;” the commitment we bring to pursuing the path we’re called to by the spirit of Love; the ways we voluntarily put our whims, our personal preferences, and even our momentary comfort on the back burner so that we can travel this path together–that collective willpower is a sign of our freedom. I will have more to say about freedom and responsibility in a few weeks, here is the short version: In Unitarian Universalist theology, freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever you want, it doesn’t mean ignoring responsibility, it doesn’t mean protection from the discomfort of learning and growth. Freedom means claiming and using our collective power to be co-conspirators with liberation, allies with the forces that create and uphold life.
In the story I shared earlier, I believe that the gardener is a proxy for a community. In my first sermon to you back in August, I told you about my little garden, and my battle with the squirrels. They lost interest my tomatoes, by the way, and I got a nice second harvest. Anyway, I am here to tell you that any garden of reasonable size is probably not the work of one person alone. Last summer, the kids helped with planting tomatoes, carrots, and beans, and they sometimes helped with watering until they got distracted. I maintain our two fig trees, but I didn’t plant them. The compost pile that feeds the garden is a family affair. Anything we grow comes from shared effort. And that’s just a kitchen garden.
In the story, I’m imagining that the gardener planting the carob tree is part of a family or a collective or a neighborhood cooperative working together on a food forest of diverse trees. There is room for people with all kinds of different talents and abilities. They will organize crews for watering and weeding, parties for harvesting, classes for canning produce, rituals to preserve seeds for the following year. The team will need to decide: Is this a community garden? A food pantry project? A teaching farm? A neighborhood park? All of these things work better when people take joy in a shared mission.
This congregation is like the gardening collective with several seasons behind them, and ready to plan the next few years of crop rotations and new beds. You already harvest amazing things from your shared mission. Energetic, varied, heartfelt music brings joy and spiritual grounding to this community. Religious education for children and youth nurtures a sense of belonging and connection with the interdependent web. Lay Ministers help members to feel seen and heard and cared for. Groups like Green Sanctuary, the Racial Justice Task Force, and the new Rainbow Alliance bring people together to raise awareness within the congregation and to transform society at large. These are the fruits, the results of your shared ministry. Contained within them are seeds for the future. There might be other seeds available to you, through organizational partnerships, or new ideas, or surprises yet to come. With gratitude for the fruits of trees you did not plant, what will you grow for the people who have yet to arrive?
I believe that the purpose of a Unitarian Universalist congregation is to connect with, celebrate, share, and expand the reach of the power of Love. Within that broad description of purpose, there are many ways to be a congregation. Every congregation has its own path, its own set of unique gifts, its own way of connecting with, changing with, and sharing the power of love. This congregation has a calling. The task of describing that calling will be ever-unfolding, never completely set, yet always worth exploring.
Let’s circle back to the story we heard in the Message earlier. Rabbi Zusya of Hanipoli, who was a humble man and a kind teacher, was contemplating the end of his life. He said, “When I come before the throne of judgement, I am not afraid that God will ask, ‘why were you not more like Abraham?’ After all, I can say, ‘O God, you know best of all, that I am Zusya, not Abraham, how then should I have been more like Abraham?’ And if God should ask, ‘Why were you not more caring, like Rachel?’ I can respond, ‘Ruler of the Universe, you made me to be Zusya, not Rachel. If you wanted me to be more like Rachel, you should have made me more like Rachel.’ And should the True Judge say, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’ I can respond, ‘O Mysterious One, who am I, Zusya, that I should be like Moses.’ But, I tremble, because I think the Eternal will ask me another question. I believe I will be asked, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’ And when I am asked this, how shall I respond?”
This congregation does not need to be more like another congregation. You do not need to be more urban, or more rural, or smaller, or larger, or full of wealthier people, or more intellectual, or more famous. Figure out this congregation’s unique calling, and prepare for whatever changes come with staying true to that mission. You are loving and beloved as you are, and you are ready to develop into being the loving and beloved congregation you can become. Choose a path guided by love, and it will lead to beautiful places.
We drink from wells we did not dig and eat from trees we did not plant. As a spiritual community, part of our task is to muster the hope and creativity we need to grow beyond the horizons of our current experience. We can only be ourselves as we are now, and yet we can imagine what we will become together, and we can be open to the surprise and transformation that will sprout as we welcome future members and future generations. Let us give thanks for the seeds available to us, and let us collaborate as a team with faith and love in nurturing these seeds into fruition. The congregation you yet shall be awaits. Reach for it together in courage.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.