Salvation Army, Vuke, and Gardners

Third Sunday in Lent, Year C

Luke 13:1-9

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

While I was growing up my mother would periodically go through the house,

Gather the clothing that we were no longer wearing,

Bag it all up, and give it to the Salvation Army.

Perhaps those shirts or pants no longer fit.

Perhaps they never quite fit in the first place.

Perhaps the sweater or shirt was an unfortunate fashion decision

gifted to you by that out of town aunt.

For what ever reason, these shirts, sweaters, shoes, suit jackets, pants went unworn, unused –

they hung unfettered in the back of the closet,

laid wrinkled in the rear right corner of the bottom drawer,

or gathered dust bunnies under the bed.

And so it was these clothes – these clothes that I had no use for –

that my mother took to the Salvation Army a few times per year,

knowing that the Salvation Army could make use out of something I could not.

They could salvage what I had rejected.

For that reason, I always connoted “Salvation” with “Salvage.”

Despite the overtly religious language in the name Salvation Army,

In my childhood years I had no idea that the Salvation Army

was a Christian denomination,

a spiritual descendant of John Wesley’s Methodist movement.

The word “salvation” didn’t ring religious to me, either

(please don’t tell my Sunday School teachers).

But I devised a definition of salvation by observing the work of the Salvation Army.

Logical, right? If a group calls themselves the Salvation Army,

surely they’re in the Salvation business!

And so I observed that the Salvation Army was a group of people

who salvaged perfectly good clothes and items that folks like me rejected.

So that was salvation to my middle school mind –

being rescued from the uselessness of a crumpled bottom drawer existence

or the lonliness of under the bed dust bunnies

to be used and given to others.

And what was so profound about them was the way the members of the Salvation Army

Put so much of themselves into this work, into the donated items, into giving to others.

Indeed, with the Salvation Army, it’s less about the unused shirts

or the second-hand furniture.

These items, in and of themselves, are unremarkable.

Rather, what’s notable about the Salvation Army is their work, their effort,

Their putting-of-themselves into the tasks of serving, of salvaging, of salvation.

John Vukovich, long-time Phillies third base coach, died this week at the age of 59.

A career .161 hitter, he was known for his fielding, for his coaching, and his passion for the game.

Even though I’m an avid Phillies fan,

And despite the fact that Vuke, as he was called,

spent 31 years with the Phillies as a player, coach or advisor,

I can’t say that I ever knew too much about him,

       until all the press coverage this week.

All I knew is that I liked the guy.

He was the kind of third base coach who would run out to the third base coaches box,

Not walk. Not meander. Not dally. He ran.

He was the kind of coach to get in the faces of umpires to argue blown calls,

And then get in the face of one of his players he felt wasn’t giving his all.

Even as a coach, he got his uniform dirty,

            just as he did when he was a body-sacrificing utility infielder, if only proverbially.

In 2001 he battled brain cancer, missing nearly 40 days,

but amazingly and tenaciously he was back out on the field before the season ended.

Old Veteran’s Stadium roared with hope and celebration,

When Vuke returned to his spot at third base in that year that would witness 9/11,

Giving a standing ovation that not even a Ryan Howard homerun could merit.

Why? Because the hard-nosed fans of Philadelphia knew

that John Vukovich poured himself into this job, into this city, into his team.

He gave all he had to his team, and his team and his fans loved him for it.

It’s the Flower Show this week.

As I’ve taken the R5 home from Center City to Doylestown this week,

I’ve seen plenty of unfamiliar faces.

You see, I’ve been taking this train everyday for six and a half months,

And I know the faces, preferred seating, sleeping and reading habits

Of many of my co-commuters.

There are the iPod listeners, the computer typers, the loud conversationists,

The readers of various genres, the puzzlers – some do Soduku, others the Crossword –

And of course, the sleepers.

We regulars, we know each other.

It’s not Cheers where everybody knows your name, but it is a community of commuters nonetheless.

But our community, our routine, our seating habits

Have been shaken this week, as we’ve been intruded upon by Flower Show visitors.

You can spot them from a mile away.

Amidst the standard sea of formal and casual business attire,

briefcases and computer backpacks,

it is easy to spy a jeans-wearing, Flower Show bag carrying,

gardening book-reading interloper.

Many of these irregular riders seem to be simply having a nice day in the city,

and who’s to blame them? The Philadelphia Flower Show is just amazing.

But I’ve spied a few of these Flower Show visitors who stand out to me –

They have an attentiveness, a look, a seriousness about themselves and their gardening.

Perhaps their jeans are not crisp, but rather show signs of years of crawling in soil,

And they wear their sun-faded rim-all-around hat

Even though it was 20 degrees and snowing outside on Wednesday.

        It’s just part of their daily attire, I imagine.

It’s what a true to the core gardener wears.

       (Well, not that I know too much.  I’m the kind of guy who can kill a plastic plant)

It is these Flower Show visitors that I interpret as serious gardeners,

Toiling for hours with their plants and trees and flowers,

Doing all they can to nurture and grow and sustain their garden,

Pouring themselves into their craft in the same life-giving way

That they pour water into the rich, sustaining soil.

These are the kind of gardeners who,

If faced with a tree that had been without fruit for years,

Would keep at it, dig around the tree, apply manure, nurture it.

“I’m not done with this tree yet,” they say with a fierce determination and dedication.

“Give me another hack at it. I’ll get something out of it.”

The Salvation Army. John Vukovich. Serious gardeners.

They all invest themselves into something else –

An old sweater, an underperforming ballplayer,

A fruitless tree.

They tirelessly give of themselves, they take responsibility for something that had failed,

They intervene and put themselves on the line.

Don’t give up yet, Master. I’m not done with this tree.

Terry Francona, who first met Vukovich in the ‘80s as a player

when Vuke coached third base for the Cubs

And who later sat alongside him in the Philadelphia dugout as Phillies manager,

Said, “I was the worst player on the Cubs team

and Vuke treated me like I was a good player.”

That’s what they do, isn’t it?

They treat that slightly worn shirt originally from TJ Maxx

as if it were a brand new Armani,

That career minor leaguer as if he were a major league all star,

That fruitless tree as if it were the Tree of Life.

That’s what they do, folks.

In the account of the Resurrection told in John’s Gospel,

Which many churches will read on Easter Sunday,

Mary Magdalene mistakes the resurrected Jesus for a . . . gardener,

Was he doing anything that looked like gardening to Mary?

We don’t know. John is tight-lipped about such details.

But perhaps he was planting a tree, or tilling soil, or fertilizing an ailing shrub.

Regardless, I love that image, of Jesus as gardener.

There was something about him, something nurturing, something life-giving,

that led Mary to think of him as a gardener.

Perhaps his hands were dirty, his jeans covered in soil, his hat faded by the sunlight.

“Even if I knew the world tomorrow would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree today.”

This quote is attributed to Martin Luther,

Whose hope and faith and sense of service to others

is expressed in the image of planting a life-giving, fruit-bearing tree

for the good of creation and God’s people.

Plant a tree, look ahead, there is always hope,

Even, as Luther says, if he knew the world would go to pieces tomorrow.

Well, I for one do not know if the world will go to pieces tomorrow.

Some might suggest that that’s already happened.

And I’m not about to say that we’ve got only one year to start bearing fruit,

That the owner wants to cut us down now for wasting soil by being fruitless.

I can’t say these things with any particular certainty,

just as Jesus was unwilling to attribute someone’s suffering to their sinfulness

The Galileans slaughtered by Pilate?

The eighteen crushed under the weight of a falling tower?

No, Jesus says, this is not the work of God sending down divine payback for sinfulness.

Rather, rather God responds as a gardener to an ailing tree –

With nurture, care, love, tending.

Parables, stories, they are open-ended streams of consciousness that invite us in.

They are not closed, crisp, tight, finite mechanisms or mathematical equations,

But are rivers of meaning-making sustenance,

And like a tributary that pours into a greater river,

We join in the stories of Jesus’ life and the parables that Jesus told,

Getting caught up in the God-story that is in, with and under

The stories of the Salvation Army, John Vukovich, or a true-to-the-core gardener.

For in these stories, as in an ordinary tree, we see, touch, experience –

we participate in –

the stuff of God.

So . . . how do you flow in these stories,

Where are you? To what do you most strongly respond?

Is it the gardener or the tree?

Vuke or with his players?

With the old shirt or the Salvation Army bellringer?

Or is there something else that catches your attention

and imagination in these tales?

Whatever that seed of inspiration is, plant it, nurture it, let it grow.

God, in that font, provides the water.

Chris Duckworth

St Matthew Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA

March 11, 2007

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About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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