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Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Bookkeeper Who Planted Azaleas in an Asylum


A Sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
and Broadcast via Facebook Live: Sirach 26:10
Easter VII - May 16, 2020

“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into theworld.” Jn 17:19


On May 15,1813 the Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason was founded in Philadelphia. It was the first private mental health hospital in the United States. 


The Asylum was founded by a group of Quakers, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends, who built the institution on a 52-acre farm. It is still around today. The name was changed to Frankford Asylum for the Insane but for many years it has gone by the name Friends Hospital.


At the time that Friends Hospital was founded, mental illness was widely misunderstood and treated as criminal behavior. Mentally ill people were tied up, put in chains, isolated, or beaten. The Quakers wanted to model a new type of care. 

They wrote out their philosophy in a mission statement for the hospital: "To provide for the suitable accommodation of persons who are or may be deprived of the use of their reason, and the maintenance of an asylum for their reception, which is intended to furnish, besides requisite medical aid, such tender, sympathetic attention as may soothe their agitated minds, and under the Divine Blessing, facilitate their recovery."


This was 1813.

In 1831, they instituted “Pet Therapy” bringing small bunnies and lambs onto the property, allowing the patients to tend to them which they found reduced anxiety and helped to lift depression. They also established a greenhouse in 1879 where patients worked. In 1889, the first institutional gym was built and included as part of the therapeutic program.

And, in 1922, when some asylums were lobotomizing patients, Friends Hospital established an alternative hydrotherapy unit, using water and swimming as part of their therapeutic approach. Today, Friends Hospital specializes in adolescent and adult psychiatric care and crisis intervention.


The group purchased the original 52-acre farm for less than $7,000, and tried to create a beautiful place with gardens and lots of outdoor space. Today, the hospital occupies 100 acres, which include flower gardens and about 200 varieties of trees.


Much of this was the work of one man who started out at the hospital as a bookkeeper in 1875 and ended up working there and managing the grounds until his death in 1947.


One day, he found an azalea that a family member had brought for a patient and someone had tossed out. He tended it in the greenhouse until it was healthy again, took cuttings, and planted those, and from that one plant more than 20 acres of the Friends Hospital are now planted in azaleas.


I love that story about the bookkeeper who saved and planted azaleas in an asylum. I have loved it since I first read about it in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac about 10 years ago. I’ve not been able to find his name but I figure, well, he joins millions of women throughout history whose deeds are known only as having been accomplished by “anonymous.”


I love the story as it not only says something about the Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday and honor today, but it also is a wonderful illustration of the High Priestly Prayer which we hear from Jesus in this morning’s Gospel from St. John.


The Ascension was once a major feast in the church, and still is although because of the demands of our modern lives, it is the rare church which celebrates it on the 40th day after the resurrection. Besides, say modern minds, the Ascension just isn’t logical. Heaven really isn’t ‘up’ they say. We don’t know where heaven is, exactly, they say. Or even if there IS an actual place called ‘heaven’.


And, ‘they’ may be right, but one can be right and still miss the point. And, the point is that, after making the point that Jesus was, in fact, resurrected in the flesh, He now has to leave, to return to the place from whence he came.


The point is that Jesus is now delegating the work of continuing His ministry of reconciliation and healing and miracles to us. He is entrusting this work to us.


The point is that Jesus is sending the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to guide us and continue to teach us so that we might become the Body of Christ here on earth. This is what we hear Jesus pray in this morning’s gospel.


Jesus ostensibly prays what is called “The High Priestly Prayer “for his disciples, encouraging them to confidence and hope in the face of his imminent “departure” from them. 


Although the narrative is ostensibly set prior to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death on the cross, it well placed for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. It is transparent in its presentation as the words of an already resurrected Lord who now encourages a company of disciples, including modern hearers, living today, in light of the resurrection promise. 

As Easter people, we are encouraged not to dwell in feelings of abandonment or despair, but to hope in the assurance of Jesus’ continuing presence, now that the work for which he was sent has been accomplished.


And that work can feel much like the work of an anonymous bookkeeper who planted azaleas on the grounds of an asylum among the humans whose lives had been deemed without beauty or worth. 


The azaleas, no doubt lovingly plucked from the family garden of one of the patients and brought to them at the asylum, were tossed out. Who knows why? Was it too much a sign of hope in the midst of despair? Did it bring back painful memories of home? Perhaps the patient or one of the other patients or staff were allergic?


No matter. Something of fragile beauty was disregarded. That proved to be too much to bear for our friend, the bookkeeper who became a gardener. So, he rescued and saved it, tending to it until it was healthy again. He took cuttings, and planted those, and from that one plant more than 20 acres of the Friends Hospital are now planted in azaleas.


I can’t think of a more apt description of the role of the church, the Body of Christ. In this week’s class on an Instructed Eucharist, I talked about the role of the priest in the liturgy of Word and Sacrament. For me, it is about being a vehicle of transformation.


The role of the priest is to listen carefully to your conversations and even more intently to the Prayers of the People. These are the discarded elements of the world in which we live, where everyone is supposed to live perfect lives and have perfect jobs and come home to perfect houses and be perfectly happy. 

Except we know that that is a perfect load of hooey. No one is perfect. No life is perfect. We all come to church carrying the burdens of our own brokenness, our own sorrows, our own neurosis, and all the things which can make us feel crazy in this life. 

In church, the priest then bundles together all of the concerns, all of the struggles, all of the pain – expressed in words on human lips or in “sighs and groans too deep for words” (Romans 8:26)– and  presents them on the altar of God, along with the other offerings of a tithe of our wages and the bread and the wine to be blessed by God. 


And, through the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” in a moment of kairos – of God’s time, when past and future fold into the present, together with those who have come before and those yet to come join us in the now – we believe that all of these things are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the real, living presence of Jesus.


I know. I know. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? That God would find enough value in our suffering to transform it? Makes us sound like crazies and fools! And, you know, maybe that’s exactly right. Maybe that’s the essence of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.


At the end of his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”


For some of us that means carrying on His work of prayer. For others, it means some other specific work of ministry such as being a teacher or a member of the medical profession, or a lawyer or a bookkeeper or accountant, or a musician or an artist or an engineer or mechanic or a jeweler or baker or chef or wait staff or small business owner or student and/or a spouse, parent, sibling.


Whatever that work is, we are to do it with an understanding that we have been sent into the world by Jesus to “seek and serve the Christ in others,” to treat everyone with “dignity and respect” and to work for “justice and peace”. 


In a world that is beset by turmoil brought on by greed and disinformation and burdened by religious wars and terrorism, domestic and foreign, being a Christian can make us look like crazies and fools. Not to mention believing in the Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.


Indeed, being a follower of Jesus can make us look as crazy as a bookkeeper, rescuing an azalea from the trash and planting it in the yard of an asylum among humans whose lives had been deemed as being devoid of beauty or worth, and one day, finding yourself surrounded by 20 acres of beauty.





Bex said...

Mary Magdalene was absolutely right when she identified Jesus as the gardener. We think of that as a mistake, but all the references to gardens and gardeners in the Bible. and the examples of gardeners like the bookkeeper should give us a clue.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for that insight, Bex. I hadn't made that connection.