Many years ago, in the days when the Czar ruled over Russia, the leader was walking in his palace garden one day. In the far corner of the garden he found a soldier who was stationed as a sentry to guard that particular place. The Czar was confused as to why a soldier would be assigned to such a location in his garden. He asked the man why he was there, but the soldier merely stated that he was ordered by his superior officer to be in this spot. The Czar began to follow the chain of command up through the ranks to find out why this guardian was stationed in that place in the garden. No one seemed to know anything other than orders had come down from above. Finally, the Czar discovered that over one hundred years earlier, when Catherine the Great ruled over Russia, she had planted a rose bush in that place in the garden. To protect her rose bush she stationed a soldier to stand guard over that place in the garden. Ever since a guardian had stood tall and strong protecting that corner of the garden. The only problem was that the rose bush had long since died! What Catherine the Great needed was not a guardian standing tall and strong to protect a rose bush, but a gardener, bending and stooping and working in the soil to nurture the plant as it grew.
Guardian or Gardener? These two images provide a wonderful way for us to think about the church. Is your church more like a guardian or a gardener? During Holy Week you will likely encounter several powerful images which remind us of the love that Jesus had for the world. Let me add two simple images for you to consider this week. Is your church acting like a guardian – trying hard to protect and guard the ministries that were planted yesterday? If so, how is the rose bush doing? Or is your church thinking like a gardener? Are you digging new soil, planting new seeds, pruning back the old so that new growth can occur, fertilizing the old soil so that a strong foundation will bear new fruit? Remember these powerful words about ministry: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6, NRSV) We do the work of gardening – and then we trust in the creative work of God to bring about the growth.
This simple contrast between a guardian and a gardener has helped me in ministry. When a decision came along in the life of the church, I would often ask before deciding, “How would a guardian act? What would a gardener do?” Questions such as these might be helpful in other churches who desire to be healthy. Try them out the next time you are facing an important church decision. (By the way, you may notice from the web site of the Center for Healthy Churches, www.healthy-churches.org, that we really do like the gardening image for healthy churches.)
These days of Holy Week lead us to Easter. The resurrection of Christ puts things into focus. We care about the church because we are Easter people, so I will conclude with a word from Easter. When Jesus was placed in the tomb following his death Roman guards were stationed to protect the tomb. You know the story though. Even these guardians that represented the greatest military might the world has ever known could not keep a dead man dead! So on Easter Sunday morning the stone was rolled away, the guards were rendered helpless, and the tomb was empty. John 20 tells us that Mary came to the tomb, saw that it was empty, and in her sadness and grief stumbled into someone whom she supposed to be the gardener. Some commentaries call this the greatest case of mistaken identity that the world has ever known. Imagine mistaking the Risen Christ for a simple gardener! But what if Mary was right? What if Jesus the servant Lord really is a gardener who bids all of us to take up our crosses, our Bibles, our pulpits, shovels, and hoes in order to follow him?
What about your life and your church? Are you guarding your own agenda and holding on to your own desires? Try the way of Jesus, the gardener. Too many beautiful rose bushes called churches have faded and died because we were faithful about standing guard over them in order to protect what was rather than being committed to gardening what God wants to grow through us. Are you ready to think in a different way – to choose a better image to bring about life and health in your church? What will it be for you — guardian or gardener?