God's Gardeners

Message for Sunday, September 22, 2019 – First Presbyterian Church of Granville

Genesis 2:4-9, 15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord[a] God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,[b] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

The Word of the Lord

Thanks be to God


In my opinion, the people in this church did WAY TOO MUCH READING this summer! The Session read a book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. Meanwhile, the PRISM adult discussion group to which I belong, read one chapter a week of The Gospel According to the Earth.  OK…so the point that I am making is all this SUMMERTIME READING GOING ON AMONG THE PRESBYTERIANS has resulted in our PRISM class helping with the service and me standing before you today.

In the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, the author maintains that vital churches seem to have five things in common: Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-Taking Mission and Service and Extravagant Generosity! Although I am not on Session anymore and did not read the book, I suspect Karen, Trip, Janice, the church staff and the Session prayerfully considered how many of those practices we perform here in Granville.

The Gospel According to the Earth was written by a former emergency room physician and a full time Christian, Matthew Sleeth, who wrote about the scriptural context of twelve practices we can ALL do to be better stewards of the environment. Perhaps you saw the big white board down in Heritage Hall this summer that listed many of the simple (and perhaps not so simple) habits we could embrace to help the ONE PLACE we all call home, our planet Earth!

These two books and the fact that Karen is preaching in New Albany today sounded like a recipe for a different kind of church service, doesn’t it? Throw together a little “Passionate Worship” with a dash of “Intentional Faith Development”! Help it RISE a little bit with a sprinkle of “Risk-Taking Mission and a smidgen of “Service”! Combine it all into a big “Earth Care Congregation” bowl and add some mysterious secret sauce known as the “Holy Spirit” and there we are! Let’s see what this recipe creates!

Before you think I am ‘half-baked’ consider this disclaimer. I’ve only given one other sermon in my life before today – back in high school when that was an expectation in my family’s church in Akron. In fact at face value, I seem ill-equipped to participate in this “Great Presbyterian Baking Show”.

As I describe these terms, think about how we might fulfill these definitions. The fruitful practices are described as follows: “Passionate Worship” connects people to God, to one another and to the world around them. “Intentional Faith Development” is what happens when people combine scripture, faith and the experiences of life in the supportive nurture of caring relationships.(1)  I would venture to say this has been what we have been doing in this church with our adult discussion groups like Families In Faith and PRISM, our Sunday schools and choirs, Bible study groups, Chloe Wells and Stephen Ministers groups, among others.

This past year or so the First Presbyterian Church of Granville took the initiative to become an “Earth Care Congregation” which means we are committed to being more conscious of what we can do to be environmental stewards. This effort has been inspired by people like Carol Apacki, Judy Farris, Jackie Toothman and others involved in the Caring for Creation Committee. In fact becoming an Earth Care Congregation was one of the reasons that prompted us to read The Gospel According to the Earth in the first place. So can you see that all these factors conspired to inspire the members of the PRISM group to move outside of our typical comfort zones to facilitate today’s worship service. Maybe with a little nudge from Karen!

On a personal level however, many of the chapters of Matthew Sleeth’s book did resonate with me. It concerns me that as he says “There are no more elm trees on Elm Street, no more chestnuts on Chestnut Lane, no caribou in Caribou Maine and no more blue pike in the Great Lakes”.(2) Being concerned is passive involvement however and I have to admit while I am not the worst when it comes to wasting our environmental resources, I am definitely not “Al Gore”.  Most of my eco-friendly habits are really a direct result of my eco-friendly WIFE! I inherited my parent’s love of nature and certainly through Boy Scouts, camping and vacations I have a deep appreciation for our natural world. One of the reasons we moved to Granville was we had the opportunity to buy a home with 3 acres, an orchard, an awesome sled-riding hill and woods, which serve as my personal refuge when the stresses of life get to be a bit too much.

So all these factors have come together through circumstance or perhaps the Holy Spirit’s “secret sauce” to consider what we might do collectively to take the additional step to blend in two other ingredients of the Fruitful recipe: “Risk-Taking Mission and Service” and maybe even “Extravagant Generosity”. This is where Matthew Sleeth’s book led us to consider what we might do regarding our climate.

Perhaps I am much like you when it comes to the subject of CLIMATE CHANGE. It is one of those  topics in our world today that seems daunting and inaccessible. In my personal life, climate change has always been kind of like background noise! It is always there…as a cause for concern but it usually doesn’t make the list of things that “keep me up at night”. Owning a medical practice, being a parent and a husband and all the goes along with forgetting to how to say “no” tend to occupy my waking and sleeping moments. Until of course I needed to think about climate change…for this sermon. Then I experienced what I like to call “THE ROOF PHENOMENON”.

Here’s what I mean: When you are a homeowner and not in the market for replacing your roof, rarely does the thought of the roof over your head enter your mind. To be honest, we are surrounded by roofs and yet we don’t think about them! That all changes however when you get a leak in your house or find a shingle or two down around the foundation of your home. All of a sudden you realize you need to hire someone to replace your roof and it all begins! The estimates and the commitment! It is like “Oh My Goodness…you cannot stop thinking about your roof!” In fact, when you drive around town amongst all those roofs that have unknowingly always surrounded you, it gives a whole new meaning to distracted driving! You notice roofing signs in other neighbor’s yards. “Huh…maybe I should have gotten an estimate from that roofing company!” You are craning your neck to see what color shingles they are putting on their roof! Are those patterned shingles getting installed on Todd’s house? “Boy those look nice! Maybe I should order those instead?” Is that a ridge vent being installed on Susan and Bob’s house? I wonder if I have a ridge vent? Maybe that’s why the shingles blew off! Ultimately you realize how many neighbors are actually replacing their roof, so it just makes you more paranoid that you should have replaced yours a year ago! That is the ROOF Phenomenon.

When applied to the climate change which has always been surrounding me on the fringes of my awareness, all it took was a meditation and a book about environmental stewardship to make me realize that there is a lot of conversation about it everywhere you look and listen.

Now that climate change has been elevated to a level in my consciousness to where I am thinking about the debate as opposed to just noticing it, I can honestly say it is the most divisive issue society faces today. More so than health care financing, more than gun legislation, homelessness, war in the Middle East and more than world hunger. The reason is because IF climate change is even a remote possibility, it will make all of those problems individually much worse. Over the past several months as I have read about it, thought about it and talked to climate activists and climate denialists, it discourages me to see how polarized people have become about it. Yes…I would suspect the majority of us fall somewhere in the middle of the bell curve but I honestly liken the discussion to what I would guess a conversation would be between a born-again Christian and an atheist. Both are absolutely, without a doubt confident that they are right…just as the activist and denialist are. My concern is that there is only one way to prove who is right between the Christian and the atheist and short of death, there is no way to definitively prove who is right. In regard to climate, the evidence will become more apparent over the next 10, 20 or 50 years (the activists would maintain the evidence is already before our eyes) yet the people who are doing the arguing today will not be around to see who is most right, but their children and grandchildren will.

The reality is that climate change IS a topic that engages both our emotional and analytical brains, but the statistics, the speculative nature of the research and the immensity of the problem can result in many of us just becoming paralyzed.

Yet as the scripture reading from Genesis reminds us:

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

Even if we were to set aside the controversy of climate change and instead focus on what we ALL can do today to collectively IMPROVE our living conditions on our planet, perhaps we might just live in a better environment all the way around. The list of things down on the white board and listed in the back of each chapter of Matthew Sleeth’s book are really pretty basic steps to being healthier, more eco-friendly and more spiritual. Seems like a win-win to me.

Which brings me to the grove of trees that grace our sanctuary this morning. Here is where I will take the easy way out and read a passage directly from Dr. Sleeth’s book:

“In Genesis chapter 2 verse 15, the original Hebrew [translation of “dress and keep” has been altered in other biblical versions as “protect and serve” and “tend and care”]. Although slightly different, the meaning is clear. We are the earth’s chosen gardeners. It is the work of our lives. It is our job. There is no expiration date; God never rescinds this first commandment.

Trees play a critical role in the Bible just as they do in our lives today.” Dr. Sleeth goes on, “This summer my wife and I went walking through the city fifteen miles north of our home. It was hot, the middle of the day with the sun high overhead. Our stroll took us through a well-to-do neighborhood. It is a nice place to be. What made the area so pleasant were [not the large, century old houses] but the canopy of towering oaks, poplars and [maple trees]. They provided a parasol of oxygen-producing chlorophyll that not only cooled us but gave the birds a place to nest and the squirrels a commuter byway.

An hour later we were in another part of town. Some refer to it as the wrong side of town. It was not a pleasant place. The sweat ran down our backs. The temperature on the pavement was easily ten degrees higher than the first neighborhood just two miles away. What made this place “poor” and the other neighborhood “rich”? Is it that the homes are small? I don’t think so. I am a fan of small homes. It was not the modest homes that made us want to return to the first neighborhood. What was it then?

Poverty. This place is poor, but by a standard other than that of mere money. It is deprived because it has no trees. No trees mean no squirrels, no birds, no oxygen rich air, no shade. No dappled light. No beauty.”(3)

A University of Washington study published in 2010 looked at the relationship of city trees and vegetation and crime. There are, on average 3,800 crime victims per 100,000 population in the US each year. Public housing residents with nearby trees reported 25% fewer acts of domestic aggression and violence, 48% fewer property crimes, 52% fewer total crimes and 56% fewer violent crimes compared to buildings without trees or had low amounts of vegetation. (4)

Did you realize that one large tree can supply a day’s supply of oxygen for four people and can store 13 pounds of carbon each year. (5)

An acre of trees can store 2.6 tons of carbon dioxide. Interesting when you consider one gallon of gasoline burned produces almost 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. (5)

For every 10,000 miles you drive, it takes 7 trees to remove the amount of carbon dioxide produced IF your car gets 40 mile per gallon. Ten trees if your car gets 30 mpg; 15 trees at 20mpg and 25 trees at 12mpg. (5)

Quite frankly, trees are one of the single best solutions to improve our communities and our environment!

So what might First Presbyterian Church of Granville do to promote environmental stewardship in our corner of the world – Licking County? What might First Presbyterian Church do to improve the world for our children’s generation and our grandchildren’s generation? The thought occurred to me two weeks ago when we baptized the granddaughter of Don and Debbie Haven at the 11am service and we committed to support Laura Eleanor as a congregation. She lives in England but yet we can support her and everyone in her generation thorough “Risk-Taking Mission and Service” and “Extravagant Generosity”.

What if our church committed to a mission project where community members donated money to plant a tree in honor of each of their children and maybe their grandchildren? How many trees might we be able to plant? Five hundred in five years? Is that too large of a goal or possibly is that too small of a goal?

Friends…we are all creating the recipe of a fruitful congregation – Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-Taking Mission and Service and Extravagant Generosity – in a time when our world will only HUNGER more for examples of environmental stewardship and caring for each other. AMEN



1.      Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. Schnase, Robert, p. 50 and 77.

2.      The Gospel According to the Earth. Sleeth, Matthew, p. x (Introduction).

3.      The Gospel According to the Earth. Sleeth, Matthew, p. 4-5.

4.      “Green Cities: Good Health”, https://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_Crime.html.

5.       “Trees of Strength”, https://projects.ncsu.edu/project/treesofstrength/benefits.htm.