Growing up in the Maryland suburbs, I had the blessing that my grandparents lived just a few miles away from me in Washington DC. As a teenager I spent many weekends with my Nana at her house just a few blocks from Catholic University. My Nana had gotten into the habit of waking every day at 4am throughout her married life to my Pop Pop. As a kindness to him and his insatiable sweet tooth, she got up before the sun and made a fresh baked dessert for him and packed it in his lunch for work every day; and after he died she continued to rise before the sun and bake or simmer pots of soup or whip up a batch of her infamous piccalilli (which she never used a recipe for) and give them to neighbors and friends. And in the late spring and summer months, before the day got too hot, she would always tend her garden.
When I stayed with her on the weekends it was never an expectation that I get up to cook with her at 4am, but there was always an invitation to be with her and help in the garden and one that I accepted – although begrudgingly most of the time. “We’ll just give it time and attention,” she would say about our trip to the backyard. And when I would raise my eyebrows with a bit of defiance she would counter my emerging angst with a gentle reminder that usually went something like, “God has blessed me and wouldn’t it be selfish now not to share it.” And even with my less-than-enthusiastic attitude about cutting rhubarb on an August morning, my heart would always soften a bit when I would see the garden in full bloom and how beautiful it was. In the tiny little backyard behind Nana’s “bungalow of dreams” that backed up to an alleyway was an oasis. Two grape arbors bursts with concord grapes, rhubarb stalks climbed towards the sky, lettuce of every variety landscaped the ground, carrot tops slumped like mops, cucumbers even grew in the shape of a smile. Onions, garlic, eggplants, squash, peppers, all pushed their way through the soil and rested on vines. One year she even accidentally grew peanuts. “God is funny”, she said. There were lilac bushes and roses, and hyacinth, and hydrangeas that took my breath away. Nana’s method of “time and attention” bore great fruit.
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus speak in two different tones. First, we hear harshness and urgency about repentance. And second we hear the parable of the fig tree and the gardener. The fig tree hasn’t born fruit for three years and the landowner wants it cut down. The gardener convinces the landowner to give it one more year and he will tend to it, cultivate the ground, and fertilize it. In this parable, Jesus is the gardener who longs to give each of us time and attention so that we may produce fruit in the world. In the same way my Nana knew that rhubarb stalks grew better with eggshells around the soil, Jesus knows what each of us needs to thrive and blossom. He knows what vices need to be pruned and cut back in order for us to grow again. He knows how to till the soil or stir our hearts into places of discomfort so that we may respond to injustices and be moved into action. He provides the nourishment we need in the Eucharist and in sacramental life and prayer so that we may draw strength from His unabashed love for us. It is His desire that we live and thrive, through Him, with Him, and in Him. St. Hildegard of Bingen says these words in her poem, Call Upon the Strength of the Gardener, “I ask that when my growth is complete, I remember how it felt to be without proper soil and light. How desperate we can be for the water another can so freely give. Let me become the caretaker of your Garden, O Mighty Creator.” May this be a prayer for us all. That in allowing Jesus the Gardener to tend to our souls, the fruit that we bear glorifies our Creator and builds the Kingdom of God here on earth.