My grandmother was a woman who loved plants. She loved houseplants and wildflowers, gardens and hedgerows, vegetation of every variety. She knew the name of every single green, growing thing on the planet. Pachysandra and pansies, lilies and lilacs, lace-cap and mountain and oak-leaf hydrangea – walking through Longwood Gardens with her was like a masterclass in botany. I spent most of my time with Nana when she was living alone in a little one-bedroom apartment, but even there, her plants were immaculately cared for. Flowering plants were promptly dead-headed, browning leaves trimmed to make way for new growth. The leaves of her jade plant were polished with a damp cloth every week. No plant was ever under- or over-watered; no plant was ever placed in a window with the wrong light or – horrors! – left alone to grow until it was pot-bound. Nana’s apartment was like the Ritz-Carlton for houseplants.
My mother inherited Nana’s green thumb. My dad used to jokingly call our dining room the greenhouse; it was the room with the best light, and so we got used to sharing our meals with great ferns and towering snake plants, mountains of African violets and spider plants laden with babies. There was no plant my mother couldn’t grow to enormous proportions, no plant that wouldn’t flower over and over again under her care. She talked to them when she watered them, telling them how beautiful they were, and as a child I always thought they bloomed just because they wanted to please her.
I’m sorry to say that the Ryan family green thumb seems to have skipped a generation. I can kind of keep a philodendron alive, but more of my houseplants have been buried than have bloomed. And I don’t know the name of anything. The only way I could write this sermon was literally
to google “list of common houseplants” and then click on the ones that looked familiar – you know, that kind of tall, spiky one, and those pretty purple flowery ones. I still hold out hope that someday some latent gift for growing will emerge in me – perhaps in Chicago, where the weather is so, you know, temperate.
I like to think that Jesus, too, was a great lover of green and growing things. I like to think that he used parables about planting and growing not just because he knew that the people he was speaking to were planters and growers but also because he loved the planted and the grown. I like to imagine Jesus as a child walking alongside his mother as she watered and weeded her garden, learning from her that plants will grow a little better for you if you sing to them. I like to imagine Joseph taking Jesus out with him to inspect a grove of trees, showing him which were better for building tables and which were better for carving. I like to imagine Jesus looking down at a tiny set of twin leaves sprouting from the earth and asking Mary in wonder, “What kind of a plant is that?” knowing that, of course, she would have the answer. I like to imagine Jesus with his hands in the earth, nurturing something green and growing.
I like to imagine that when Jesus said the kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, he was feeling the silky smoothness of the seeds in his hand and remembering the joy of discovering those first spots of green in the brown earth. I like to imagine that when Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, he was recalling the sound of the glorious ruckus when the birds came home to roost in the bush by his mother’s front door. I like to imagine that Jesus spoke of green and growing things because he loved them, because he saw his heavenly Father’s handprint upon them, because he saw how beautiful and miraculous they are.
And I like to imagine that Jesus looks at us the same way. I like to imagine that Jesus looks at us and sees something green and growing, something fragrant and fair. I like to imagine that Jesus is filled with joyful wonder when he sees something new sprouting in our lives. I like to imagine that he knows that we do better when he sings to us. I like to imagine that he recognizes that sometimes we are strong and ready for building and sometimes we are soft and supple and ready to be carved out and filled. I like to imagine – no, I know – that he can call us each by name, and that when he looks upon us, he sees his Father’s handprint, that when he looks upon us, he sees just how beautiful and miraculous we are.
Look around you. This is a room filled with the most remarkable green and growing things. You are wondrously made, a garden of infinite beauty and variety. You are planted here in this holy place, where your roots are watered by the Holy Spirit, where you are fed with the richest food and drink, where the parts of you that sometimes dry up and wither are gently pruned away, where your souls are nourished week after week with the sweetest music. You sit here, bathing in just the perfect light, beautiful and miraculous.
The Psalmist writes that when you are planted in the house of the Lord, you shall flourish. And what flourishing there has been here. You have founded a school, welcomed a community of ministry residents, and started a choir and a camp and a Schola so that children and families feel
welcomed and necessary to this place. You have begun caring more intentionally for your neighbors and gathering more intentionally as women or as young adults or as families. You have welcomed more and more people into the knowledge that that the beauty of holiness is matched only by the beauty of serving someone in need. Just this morning we will enlarge the Body of Christ with the baptism of this
precious child Alexander. There has been so much new growth in this place that the air is heavy with the scent of new blooms.
And still there is new life taking root all over this church. Some of these seeds are already beginning to sprout, like the expanding foot care ministry at the Soup Bowl, or the Zoe ministry that will bring bread and fellowship to a church property that has lain fallow for far too long.
Some seeds are still waiting to be planted in this place – on the organ bench or in the Servant Year Program or on the clergy staff. And some of these seeds are still waiting in the darkness, growing quietly underground until they are ready to poke their heads out into the light. All of these seeds, even those tiny ones in your hearts that you aren’t sure will ever come to anything, will keep this church flourishing and growing, will provide space for more and more people to find rest and hope in the shade of your welcoming branches.
I know this is true for two reasons. First, I know it because I have seen that growth in my own life. From the moment that God first called to me when I was an alto in that choir stall right there; to the moment I was baptized in that font right there; to the moment you sent me from here to seminary; to the moment I got that first email from Fr. Mullen asking me if I might be interested in talking about a job; to the moment I first heard the Boys and Girls Choir sing, or first said our Thank you God and Help me God prayers in Schola, or said Mass at our first 20s/30s Simple Supper, or blessed our first ingathering of supplies for refugees with the Fernanda Guild, or took our first flight on the Zoe Project trip to California; to the moment I met this particularly charming tenor on the choir trip to Wells Cathedral; to the moment that tenor and I were married right there; to the moment, to the moment, to the moment, I have seen extravagant, holy, humbling growth in my life. Saint Mark’s has helped me to flourish – you have helped me to flourish – and I am blessed to carry that growth with me as I am planted in a new place.
But there is another reason I know that you are still growing. I know that you are still growing because growing is of God. Growing is what God loves, what God desires; growing is just what God does. Even when the world is toxic and mean, God is growing compassion and mercy. Even
when the Church is riven by discord and politics, God is growing truth and reconciliation. Even when Holy Scripture is used to rationalize unbearable cruelty, God is growing righteousness and justice. Even when our hearts are swamped by grief and sorrow, God is growing joy and
peace. Even when our souls are as dry as the Dust Bowl, God is growing passion and inspiration. Even when a coming change leaves us questioning the stability of our roots, God is growing purpose and mission. God is growing the Kingdom; God will always grow the Kingdom, for God is a great lover of green and growing things. Pachysandra and pansies, roses and rhododendron, daffodils and dewdrops, babies and nanas, fathers and children, citizens of Philadelphia and citizens of Chicago, green-thumbs and not-so-green-thumbs, friends and strangers and foreigners and refugees and widows and orphans and neighbors and newcomers and you. Always you. The Kingdom of God is like a church that knows itself to be a beautiful planting of the Lord, called to grow and to flourish to God’s own glory.
Rejoice! The Kingdom of God is at hand.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
17 June 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia