Sunday, May 10, 2009

Blessing the Garden

Here's my Mother's Day homily. It's not one of my favorites, but it does what it has to do. My primary goal when I preach on Mother's Day (which I've done a lot) is to reach out to people for whom the holiday's painful, to get past the Hallmark pieties that can be so grating to those of us who have complicated family relationships. And, really, who doesn't?

My relationship with my father was very difficult for decades, and I used to have a devil of a time finding a Father's Day card that reflected any recognizable form of what I felt for him. Hallmark just didn't sell cards that said, "I love you even though you're the reason I've been in therapy half my life." (A lot of the time, I went with blank cards.) It got much easier over the years, and finding a Mother's Day card was always a snap, but I know that for a lot of people, it's not.

And don't even get me started on the various insults, subtle and otherwise, Mother's Day dishes out to those of us who've chosen not to have kids. I am, of course, talking about the sentimental fluff-fest Mother's Day has become in contemporary America, not the rousing peace proclamation issued by Julia Ward Howe in 1870.

So, yeah, anyway. It's an annoying little holiday, but one that preachers ignore at their peril.

The readings are Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21, and John 15:1-8.


About a month ago, I sat in on a workshop for medical students about to begin their residencies. The workshop facilitator asked them to draw a tree with their non-dominant hand; in other words, to draw with their left hand if they usually wrote with their right, or vice versa. Afterwards, we put the trees in a circle and admired them. There were short trees, tall trees, bushy trees, elegant willows, trees laden with fruit and trees whose branches sheltered birds. The facilitator lavishly praised each tree. Only afterwards did she say, very gently, “Have all of you noticed something? None of these trees have roots. They only exist from the ground up.”

She proceeded to remind the students that to get through the infamously brutal process of residency, they’ll need to remain grounded. “Remember your roots,” she told them. “Protect and nurture what feeds you, even when other people can’t see it.”

This past Thursday, I helped my friends Katharine and Pamela bless Katharine’s garden. Katharine scattered dried flowers on the soil around the plants, while Pamela sprinkled them with fertilizing ash and I gave them water. We made our way from potted shrubs, to bright blossoms, to the two saplings Katharine planted when her granddaughters were born, to the vegetable garden she’s just planted. Each plot of earth received the same blessing, even if no growth was visible. The vegetable garden looked like mere dirt, but Katharine has faith that in a few months, it will produce delicious food. She loves her vegetables even though she can’t see them yet.

To paraphrase -- very broadly! -- today’s lesson from 1 John, Katharine learned to love vegetables she can’t see by loving vegetables she can. And she learned to love vegetables in the first place because God first loved her, and all of us, by creating the fertile earth and the countless things that grow on it: carrots and eggplant and tomatoes, not to mention flowers and trees.

This is the progression described in the Epistle: God loves us into being, and we learn to love the people we know. If we’ve mastered that first lesson, we can then begin to love people we can’t see and don’t yet know, including God, and far-flung neighbors, and maybe future versions of ourselves, grown from humble sprouts into the fruitful branches Jesus admonishes us to be. None of this would be possible, though, if God hadn’t first loved us.

When I was researching this homily, I learned an interesting fact about vines. In the 19th century, a plague of insects called phylloxera decimated the vines used to grow wine grapes in Europe. American vines were immune to the pests, but the wine made from their grapes wasn’t nearly as good. Someone solved the problem by growing American vines and grafting the European plants onto them. The European vines produced excellent fruit, but only because the American roots remained untouched by the phylloxera.

“I am the vine and you are the branches,” Jesus tells us. “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” We are charged to bear good grapes, but we must also remember and honor our roots, the God who nourishes us even when others can’t see him, and without whom we would wither and die. Prone to countless pests and plagues, we need God to nourish us into fruitfulness. But God needs us to bear fruit.

Because today is Mother’s Day, it’s easy to think about these ideas in terms of parents and children. Parents, and other caring adults, love children into being. Unloved children all too often wither as adults; loved children are much more likely to become loving, fruitful people themselves. Most mothers love their children even before they’re born, and continue to love them when they’re out of physical sight. By the same token, if we have loving relationships with our mothers, we continue to love them long after we can no longer see them.

On Friday, I went to the Post Office to Express-Mail a Mother’s Day card to my mother in Philadelphia. “I always send cards late,” I told the clerk, “and I want this one to get there on time. This may be my mom’s last Mother’s Day, and I don’t want to regret a late card.”

I was embarrassed at paying the outrageous $17.50 Express Mail charge to send a measly greeting card, but the clerk nodded. “I understand completely,” she said. “This is my first Mother’s Day without my mother. I don’t need to send a card, though, because I think about her every day, whether it’s Mother’s Day or not.”

Another clerk, this time at the grocery store, told me that every Mother’s Day, she releases a balloon to float up to heaven. “I know mom’s in a better place,” she told me simply.

This can be a very painful day for people who have lost, or who have strained relationships, with mothers or children. Sometimes it feels as if those branches have been thrown away and withered. Faith that our dead loved ones are in a better place doesn’t change our yearning to have them with us here and now, where we can see and hear them. Sometimes the pain from broken relationships -- with loved ones who could see and speak to us, but don’t -- can be even more difficult. But we are an Easter people. We need to remember that God will always nourish us. We need to remember that seeds can sprout from seemingly barren ground.

And we need to remember that there are many ways to bear fruit. The famous verse from Galatians tells us that “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” On Mother’s Day, this may be especially reassuring to those of us who, either by choice or necessity, have no children. Galatians reminds us that we don’t need to have biological offspring to be fruitful and multiply. We don’t even need to be gardeners: a great comfort to me, since I’ve always had a black thumb.

Galatians doesn’t include hope or imagination on the list, but it seems to me that those gifts are Fruit of the Spirit too, and that the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts illustrates them admirably. Physically unable to have children, he is nonetheless a man of great faith. He invites a stranger, someone he has never seen before, into his chariot to guide him through the Scriptures. He questions what he reads, and when Philip explains the passage to him, the eunuch says, “Look, here is water! What is to stop me from being baptized?”

The eunuch moves gracefully from something he can see -- the water by the road -- to something he has only just imagined, his own baptism. He moves from what is real to what is possible, and then, in turn, makes that possibility fact, stopping the chariot so he can be baptized right there and then. He becomes one of Jesus’ branches, a grafted limb ready to produce wonderful fruit. The eunuch reminds us that questions can be a sacrament, the first step to making God visible in the world. We follow his example when we pay attention and take action.

“Look, here are my neighbors! What is to keep me from loving them?”

“Look, here is injustice! What is to keep me from correcting it?”

“Look, here is the Kingdom of God! What is to keep me from sharing it with the world?”

This Mother’s Day, may we bless all our gardens: those we can see and those we can only, as yet, imagine. And may we always remember, and rejoice in, the roots that ground and nourish us.



  1. Anonymous9:10 AM

    I hope you don't mind, but I e-mailed this to my mother for Mother's Day. You captured so much more than I've ever been able to say to her, and infinitely more than I'll ever find in a pre-printed card (horrible sentimental tripe, most of them!)

    But my mother knows I have my faith because she first gave me her faith -- and that is, we both agree, her greatest achievement as a parent. You just helped me give that idea roots.

  2. Thank you. Well done.

  3. I haven't visited here in a while, I think my link was broken and I couldn't figure out where you'd gone to, only hoping that all was well with you. Then by coincidence (as if!) I found the site again by the most randomness of routes. I've been having my own spiritual re-awakening this past year in a wonderful spiritual community I found and reading your blog is always very affirming.

    This post is just wonderful. Keith at Digital Doorway wrote a nice little post about what it means to "mother", but I'm glad you included a shout out to Julia Ward Howe-mothering, no matter how you define, should always be a little radical. Thank you mothering your reading audience a little today.


  4. Anonymous6:52 PM

    Just to report back -- my Mom said receiving this post made for the nicest Mother's Day message she's ever gotten.

    I can't tell you how much it meant to give her so much pleasure and validation through your words.


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