Of Gardeners and Christians

Homily for the Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

One of the earliest memories that I have is of my family camping at the Royal Gorge in Colorado. I was about a year and a half old at the time. And for the longest time I thought this memory was just a nightmare until I learned that it actually happened. My entire family, tent and all, almost blew away. I distinctly remember my dad and oldest brother standing at the corners of the tent trying to keep it on the ground as I snuggled in my sleeping bag and clutched my stuffed Thumper. Another early memory that I have is when my family began a garden at our home in Greendale. I was about two years old at the time. I remember the excitement of the occasion as well as all topsoil that we had to lug from one part of the yard to the other. From that point on, we planted a garden almost every year. My favorite part of the garden, of course, was eating the fruits of our labor. My least favorite part of the garden was the labor. Eating was the job for me; planting, watering, weeding, and picking were great jobs for my brothers and sisters. Although I am a Baumgardner, I am no gardener. I’m a disgrace to the name.

It’s unfortunate, because the qualities that make for a good gardener also make for a good Christian. It’s no accident that Jesus uses examples from gardening and agriculture in His parables about the Kingdom of God. It’s not just because Jesus lived in an agrarian society. There were, after all, a great diversity of jobs and occupations at the time of Jesus. Not everyone was a farmer. Joseph was a carpenter. Peter was a fisherman. Matthew was a tax collector. Paul was a tentmaker. Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth. Jesus uses examples from gardening and agriculture not primarily because they are familiar examples but because they are the best examples.

The growth of the Kingdom of God is more like the growth of crops or a mustard tree than the building of a table or the manufacturing of a tent. A carpenter and tentmaker have much more control over their final product. It’s nothing more and nothing less than what they make of it. They come up with the design, they assemble the materials, and they put them together. Not so with gardening. No gardener designs his crops from the bottom up. Even if he breeds his crops or genetically modifies them, his role in designing the final product is much less significant than the carpenter or tent maker. The gardener also doesn’t cause the growth of his crops in the same way that a carpenter and tentmaker cause the building or manufacturing of their products. The carpenter and tentmaker have a much more direct role in this. The gardener can plant, water, trim, and feed his crops, but he doesn’t assemble or put them together. He can do his best to ensure the best conditions for growth, but he doesn’t cause the growth itself. Every stem, branch, flower, and fruit that grows is due to forces of nature ultimately beyond his control. “Of its own accord the land yields the fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” So also with the Kingdom of God: As Christians, we can provide the best conditions for its growth, but we do not cause the growth itself.

A good Christian, therefore, like a good gardener, is humble. Just like a good gardener knows that it’s the seed, land, air, and sun the cause the growth much more than his own efforts, a good Christian knows that it’s God’s grace more than his own work that causes the growth of the Kingdom. A good Christian also knows, like a good gardener, that his own efforts are still important even if secondary. Fruit will not be produced unless the seed is planted, watered, fed, and cared for. But at the end of the day, it’s about the fruit that’s produced, not about the labor to produce it. If the Kingdom of God is to grow and spread, then the life of Christ has to grow and spread in each one of us. Christ has given us the means for His life to grow and spread in us: prayer, the Sacraments, works of charity. If we’re not utilizing these means, we’re not using every tool at our disposal.

But we don’t just use these tools for their own sake. It’s not about checking the boxes: “Today I prayed—check; Today I went to Mass—check; Today I was kind to my spouse and children—check.” Our own efforts to allow the life of Christ to grow and spread in us are important, but still secondary. It’s ultimately about Christ Himself and His Kingdom. Simply checking the boxes, fulfilling our Christian duties only out of a sense of obligation, is like planting a seed, watering and tending it, but not caring at all about the plant itself or its fruit. It’s like saying, “Hey, look at me, I’m a great gardener, I do all the things that great gardeners do,” but forgetting about the ultimate purpose of gardening. A great gardener cares more about the plant itself and its fruitfulness than his own efforts to produce its fruit. A great Christian cares more about Christ Himself and His Kingdom than his own efforts to bring about their growth and spread.

So where are we at right now with that? As Christians, do we care more about checking the boxes of the Christian life, or about Christ Himself and His Kingdom? If we’re not utilizing those means which Christ Himself has given us to bring about His life in us—prayer, the Sacraments, works of charity—then the life of Christ will not grow and spread in us. But it is Christ Himself who causes the growth of His own life in us. And it is Christ Himself that the world ultimately needs. He is the fruit that can satisfy the hunger of the world. He is the drink that can quench its thirst. He is the tree than can shelter and give shade to its weak and weary. The world needs us to pray because it needs Christ. The world needs us to frequent the Sacraments because it needs Christ. The world needs us to perform works of charity because it needs Christ. The world only needs us if Christ can be encountered in us and if His Kingdom can spread through us. St. Ignatius of Antioch once prayed, “may I not merely be called a Christian, but really be found to be one.” The world will find us to be Christians in name only if we just check the boxes. But it will find us really to be Christians if it finds Christ in us. Amen.