Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 5, 2023
As a child, I loved gardening with my mother. From the time I was very young, I took delight in the whole process. Mama taught me how to push a seed into the soil, to water and watch it grow.
I caught on from an early age to the idea that you could take the seed of a fruit or a cutting of a plant and put it in the soil, and it would take root. There were times when I was a bit over zealous with this. I would plant peach cores, apple seeds, small toys, dog bones, blooms from flowers—always hoping for great things. I’d watch, but nothing would come up. I’m not sure what I expected, but I was ever the optimist. You might say I showed promise as a church planter from an early age. My problem was not being a gardening minimalist. I was trying to be helpful, but my methods did run the risk of choking the life out of the plants I surrounded with all my additions to the primary garden.
Eventually, we got a cutting—a very special cutting—of the fig tree from my grandmother’s yard. This one, my mother did not leave to chance—once it was in the ground, she impressed upon me the importance of not planting all manner of things around it. It needs room to grow, she told me. Room to take root. Don’t crowd it. Tend it. Those were her messages.
That cutting did, in fact, take root and became the source of much joy to me for all my growing up years. It was a small sapling at first—but by the time I was old enough to pick and prepare the fruit with my mother, it was a strong young fig tree.
My grandmother gave us the cutting when she was moving out of her home to live with her daughter, my aunt. In retrospect, I realize it was a hard time for her, a time of grief and loss. The tree, too, was stressed in a yard that had seen neglect as her health began to fail. Still, it had life in it. She knew that and got the cutting to us so her beloved tree could see a new season.
In one of my favorite images from the musical, “The Secret Garden,” which I shared with you all at our first Convention together, the young gardener Dickon sings to Mary about the garden the grownups had left to seed. When Mary saw it, she thought surely it was dead. But Dickon taught her to look deeper. “When a thing is wick, it has a life about it,” Dickon sings. “Now, maybe not a life like you and me. But somewhere there's a single streak of green inside it. Come, and let me show you what I mean.”
That is the sense we had about that fig tree. If not dead, it surely looked depressed. We were not sure it’s future. But then, with loose soil and a lot of care, it blossomed again.
Gardens where death and life run side by side are central in our Judeo-Christian tradition. In fact, our journey with the struggle to survive death begins in a garden we call Eden. The tree of life and the tree of the cross have become two facets of one truth for us. Death, suffering, and the seed of new life are inextricably intertwined in our Christian story.
Gardening is a central image of God’s work to transform the suffering of this world into the garden of Eden once more.
The idea of the garden as a place of healing and new life runs through Hebrew poetry and prophecy. This morning’s text from Isaiah is set about a hundred years after the Jews’ return from exile. They had returned home from exile to a desolate land. Not unlike the desolation we’ve seen recently in Ukraine, in the holy land, around our world, and even right here in our diocese.
But the garden of Israel was not dead. It was, as the character Dickon says to Mary in the beloved story of the Secret Garden—wick. That is to say, it had a life buried deep inside it that would come back into full bloom with proper care. And so the passage we just heard ends with this beautiful piece of poetry:
“…You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
This renewal will occur, the prophet says, if the people loose the bonds of injustice, if they let the oppressed go free, if they share their bread with the hungry, welcome the poor, and honor their own kin.
God says the way they will be able to do all these things is through their own fasting. Fasting is something the people did not just do as an act of self deprivation or exertion of will power—rather, it was something the people did to give outward sign to their grief. The Israelites fasted when they mourned. The fasted when they experienced loss.
The fast God requires makes us hunger with those whose bellies ache from starvation, makes us freezing cold and despondent with those who have no place to lay their heads, makes us burn with anger with those under the rod of oppression.
So, then, the question becomes, what do we do with all of this visceral connection to suffering? Self righteousness has a short shelf life. And, simply naming the problems is easy–we all can do that on a bad day.
Isaiah has a pretty clear answer. We stop pointing fingers; we refrain from speaking evil. And we act. Listen to the verbs he uses…loose, undo, free, share, break, bring, cover, offer, satisfy, repair, restore.
Our distress becomes the seed of our ability to let our light shine in this world, as Jesus calls us to do—or, as the prophet writes—our ability to do justice, to be the watered garden for those in need.
I do not believe it an overstatement to say that the grief we bear, when we allow it room, when we pull off the layers, becomes the strength by which we loose the bonds of others and free them, like the wick plant becomes a source of green, growing life. Our own pain is the seed that grows to be the bread we break and share with others. By these actions, we repair and restore the world around us.
I’m not glorifying suffering. I don’t wish it on any of us. But it is simply a fact that through our wounds, we can help to heal others.
You, dear people of Okatie, have sustained losses in this community. I’ve seen how you tend to one another, letting the roots deepen. I’ve seen that and heard it since the first time I came to visit you. Your love for each other is tight knit; it is strong; it is enduring. And, it is your gift to this world.
The love you have built here is the gift you have to offer beyond these walls, to the people in this community. It is the fruit that can be shared.
This week is the year anniversary of the loss of our beloved nephew Max. A number of you reached out to me during that most painful time. Max was very dear to me and close to us. It is still hard to believe he is not here with us. It is a pain I carry every day. I know some of you carry such pain each day as well.
This terrible loss has left me with a pain I wish I did not have. And yet, I have also come to understand during this year, as more people than I can count have asked to speak to me about their own similar losses, that is a pain from which I can help others—a pain that lets me tend the needs and wounds of those around me. It is the wick planting that bears fruit in my life.
When we tend the parts of our lives that seem almost gone as a worshipping community—when we bring to the altar those places where we struggle just to make it through another day, then, through our life together, those places in us become the green, growing shoot from which the fruit of the Spirit can grow.
Back when we planted the fig tree, Mama got an idea. There was a friend of the family named Mrs. Cheney who was a renowned cook in our home town. She had published cookbooks and was something of a local celebrity—and a fine Episcopalian, I might add. So, Mama asked her if I could go to her kitchen and learn to make fig preserves. She agreed to teach me. I still remember it like it was yesterday—boiling the bottles, stewing the figs with the lemon and sugar. Thereafter, each season, Mama and I would make preserves to share. From that first little cutting from my grandmother’s distressed tree, we shared joy with many households over the years.
Thank you, Okatie, for letting your roots with each other go deep—deep in grief, in mourning, in hope, in healing. The love you know here in this small but mighty beloved community might just be the fruit that someone beyond these walls is hungering to taste.
For you are wick; you have a life about you. You are the holy shoot in the watered garden. May the deep roots you have planted here nourish fruit you bring to your neighbors beyond these walls—in ways simple and profound, for years to come.
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Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The Rt. Reverend Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was elected by the Diocese of South Carolina in May 2021, and consecrated as a bishop on October 2, 2021.