What do you think of when you hear the word Afghanistan?
Probably you think of soldiers, bombs, the Taliban, ruined buildings, dust and barrenness, noise and conflict. What you probably don’t think of is gardening. That’s why one of the projects which will benefit from the Diocesan Poverty and Hope appeal really caught my attention. Some of the money we donate today will go to a project which helps Afghan women to plant gardens – what could be more appropriate for Harvest?
It’s a project which is run by one of Christian Aid’s partner organisations locally, which particularly focuses on working with Afghan women – last year’s harvest appeal went partly to work they were doing teaching women to read and write. Under the Taliban education for girls was banned, so many women are illiterate. This year, though, it is the garden project that is the focus. STARS, the partner organisation, has helped women set up kitchen gardens, to grow food for their families. It provides them with seeds and equipment, and most importantly with training and encouragement. Seven million Afghans – a quarter of the population are still dependent on food aid, simply because of the effects of decades of conflict. People have been displaced, their homes destroyed. Life has been so insecure that no one has known what is round the next corner – everything has been hand-to-mouth. That’s no good. If Afghanistan is to have a secure future, people have to be able to feel they can provide for themselves.
One of the beneficiaries of the project, Maynour Sultani has been able, with the help of STARS to establish her own garden, growing food for her family of eight – like all of us who grow things, she sometimes finds she has too much all at once, so, again like us, she is able to share that excess with her community – rather like those bags of apples and beans and so on that have been appearing by magic in the church porch over the last couple of months! It’s not just been about the food for Maynour, though. It is also about self-respect and independence, the sense that, for the first time she and the other women of her community, have a bit of their own power to help themselves and their families. She said this. “From the beginning, the women have done it all ourselves. We learned how to grow the plants, we watered and weeded them and we pick the vegetables for our families. The men are away from home working all day- labouring in the fields or helping with the harvest. The situation in the village now is getting better than it was. In the past we faced many difficult times and experiences, and these days are more peaceful and plentiful.”
As the quote from her daughter which I included in the service sheet reminds us, this project also helps the next generation to grow up healthy – I’m sure many parents here wish all children sounded as enthusiastic about vegetables. She knows what she has missed and the variety of tastes, the sheer sense of plenty is clearly a delight to her.
What struck me about this project is how diverse and how deep are the effects of something as simple as growing some plants. Who’d have thought that putting some seeds in the ground – one of the simplest things we can do – could be so important?
Of course to those of us who are enthusiastic gardeners this shouldn’t come as any real surprise. We know why we enjoy it. We know the thrill of seeing that first little shoot come up from the ground, the first buds appearing on the fruit trees. We know the sense of fulfilment when you get to pick and eat your own food from your own patch. It may not be as perfect to look at as something cling wrapped from Sainsbury’s, but the sense of satisfaction, of connection with the earth is unbeatable. It usually tastes better too.
Of course there are also the plants that fail. Every gardener knows that for every seed that germinates and makes it through to maturity there will be many more which don’t. Pests and diseases, high temperatures, low temperatures, drought and flood – the number of threats that little seedling faces is huge. It can be hugely frustrating when a plant you’ve nurtured turns up its roots and dies. But we still carry on. We keep trying.
There’s a traditional saying that “those who plant a garden, plant hope”, and it’s perfectly true. Putting that seed in the ground, knowing all the obstacles it will face, is a profoundly optimistic statement. It’s not that you think that everything will go your way, but that you believe it is worth the risk. It’s worth taking a chance on some of your efforts failing, because the rewards when they succeed are infinitely precious. “Those who plant a garden, plant hope”. Gardening is a commitment to the future – it requires an attitude of hope, hope which is strong enough to sustain you as you wait, because in gardening nothing happens instantly. Sometimes it can take a very long time indeed to see the fruits of your labours. Sometimes you know that you will never see them at all – but the work you do will bring blessings to those who come after you. Another gardening proverb says that "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in."
Gardens and growing things teaches us a lot about ourselves, so it’s not surprising that in the Bible they are often used as ways of helping us think about life and God. In today’s Old Testament reading we heard a beautiful, but sad elegy to God’s love for his people. They are like a vineyard that he planted. He put in endless labour, but the vines yielded wild grapes, small and sour. All his work seemed to have come to nothing.
The people who first heard these words would have thought about God rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, bringing them through the desert to the Promised Land. Truly God had been with them, had chosen them, had planted them. But now everything was going wrong. They had been conquered by the Babylonians. Jerusalem had been destroyed and the people taken into exile thousands of miles from home. The image of the overgrown, ruined vineyard would have been a vivid reminder of the reality of their experience. Rather like the images of Afghanistan we have been so used to from the TV news, everything seemed to have been devastated. Isaiah links the physical devastation to the moral disintegration he sees around him. “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
God mourns profoundly for his people here, and if all we had was this passage, then we would be entitled to feel rather hopeless. If even God can’t make the world work right, then what hope is there for us? But the good news is that this is just one snapshot of one moment. Later on in his prophecies, Isaiah speaks of a time when the people will be once again planted in their land, and that is exactly what happened. All seems bleak now, but this is not the end of the story.
It is not the end, because God is a gardener, the original gardener, who planted that garden in Eden. Like all true gardeners he just can’t help hoping, trying, re-planting, pruning, weeding, coming back for another go. However ready he sounds to give up on his people, actually he doesn’t.
The Gospel story echoes Isaiah’s words. Again there is a vineyard which is heading for disaster. Those who are supposed to look after it for its owner refuse to share its produce. They have come to believe that it is theirs to do with what they like. They beat the owner’s slaves and kill his son. But the truth is that the vineyard does not belong to them; ultimately the owner has control. He will take it away from them, says Jesus, and give to those who will look after it properly.
The Christians for whom Matthew is writing would have heard this parable as a message of reassurance. Many of them were originally Jewish, but were gradually finding themselves cut off from their community of origin, accused of betraying their inheritance by following this man whom Jewish leaders had crucified with the help of the Romans. Others were Gentiles – they had come from pagan backgrounds and were vulnerable to the accusation that they weren’t really entitled to be counted as children of God. What right did they have to share in the inheritance of his love? Jesus’ words told them, though, that it wasn’t your tribal identity, your historic sense of belonging that mattered – the fact that you had been on this land since time immemorial - it was how you treated the gifts that you were given.
Our circumstances are different, of course, and we need to be careful not to use this story as an excuse for anti-Semitism. It isn’t a case of Jews, bad, Christians, good. If we think that we simply repeat the same failing that the parable highlights, of believing that God’s kingdom is ours to own and to control. But however we apply it today, this story still contains a powerful message of reassurance. It tells us that God is not defeated by human sin and failure. Even when the slaves have been beaten and the son is killed, the future still belongs to the owner of the vineyard, not the tenants. We don’t have the last word – and that’s a very good thing. This parable, grim as it seems on the surface, is about hope. What you see now is not necessarily what you get it tells us. The wreckage of selfishness and greed and violence which we are often so aware of is not the end of the story.
The women of Afghanistan, as they plant the seeds that your offerings will fund, are living demonstrations of that hope. In a land wracked by decades of trouble, where hope must often seem absurd, they believe enough in their future, in the support of God, in the love of others, to sow a new beginning. As we give what we can to help them we are privileged to share in that hope, and maybe to find some for ourselves too when the fields of our lives seem barren and bare.