Orthodox Commentary on Theology, Ethics, and Culture
Sunday, October 11, 2015
Flourishing and Bearing Fruit in the Lord's Garden: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council and the 4th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church
Titus 3: 8-15
Last Sunday, we focused on the importance of sowing abundantly, of investing ourselves in the life of Christ in order to reap bountifully, in order to bless others as we open ourselves to the holy joy of the Kingdom. Today’s gospel reading reminds us that that will not happen simply by throwing lots of seed on the ground and hoping that they will somehow grow to maturity as beautiful plants and bear fruit. Birds, rocks, thorns, and lack of moisture easily keep many—if not most—seeds from taking root, flourishing, and producing a good yield. No, we must tend and care for the seeds and the growing plants of our souls if they are to have any realistic hope of producing a good crop.
Imagine a gardener who simply puts a bunch of seeds in his backyard, but does not prepare the soil, pull the weeds, guard against pests, or provide adequate water. He is not really gardening, but more likely just feeding the birds and the squirrels. Now, why would someone do that? Maybe he became distracted and thought that he had better things to do than to invest the time and energy necessary to help the seeds grow to maturity; but as a result, his garden would be a failure.
As Christians, there is a parallel truth for us in the spiritual life. No matter how sincere our beginning may be, no matter how much we initially filled our hearts and minds with holy things, we can easily end up giving so little time and attention to growing in union with Christ that we suffer a similar fate spiritually. Few of us will do that because we intentionally decide to turn away from God or formally renounce our faith. Usually, it is not nearly as dramatic as that, for we simply get distracted and make other things higher priorities than maturing in the Christian life. As a result, subtle temptations and worldly cares sicken and weaken us spiritually to the point that our souls seem to dry up and blow away.
We may wonder how it is that we so easily fall prey to such distractions. Perhaps part of the reason is that we so often forget that life itself is a blessing from God that bears good fruit only when we offer it back to Him. In other words, we are not our own creators or saviors, and we cannot bless, redeem, or save ourselves or anyone else by our own power. The things and people which we tend to make into false gods are actually the blessings of the one true God. Like the rest of His good creation, they are certainly not intrinsically evil—no matter how badly we abuse them. No matter what joys or difficulties we face in His world, we may use them in accordance with His purposes for our spiritual healing. But when our own pride leads to such anxiety about anything in life that we forget to offer it to the Lord, we commit the idolatry of trying to fulfill the creation on our own terms. We want to make the world, ourselves, our neighbors, and even God Himself in our own image. That is a heavy burden to bear and an invitation to be so overcome with anxiety that, when we fall prey to it, we will actually think that we have better things to do than to tend our spiritual gardens and bear good fruit for the Kingdom. The truth, of course, is that nothing in creation flourishes unless it is firmly rooted in the garden of the Lord and tended in ways that help it serve the purposes for which He created it. Adam’s original vocation was to be a steward of the Garden of Eden, to be the priest of creation; but ever since he and Eve refused to do that, we have found it all too easy to follow their unfortunate example. And as bitter experience has taught us all, trying to live in this world on our own terms usually does not turn out well at all.
Of course, we all have our excuses for whatever it is we want to do or do not want to do. Perhaps we like to think that our particular circumstances are so special that we are somehow justified in neglecting the way of Christ, Who offered Himself in free obedience on the Cross for the salvation of the world. But that way of thinking is simply a reflection of our pride. Regardless of the particulars, we inevitably make ourselves spiritually weak and vulnerable whenever we do not offer ourselves for the healing of the Lord on a regular basis through prayer, Bible reading, fasting, forgiveness, and service toward those around us. When we put off taking Confession so long that we never get around to naming our sins in humble repentance, we suffer the weakness of struggling in spiritual isolation and depriving ourselves of the audible assurance of forgiveness. When we welcome into our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts those things that inflame our passions and distract us from holiness, we invite weeds into our garden and make it much harder for us to grow in the divine likeness. Just as a lazy or inattentive gardener or farmer cannot expect a good crop, we cannot expect to flourish in the Christian life by allowing ourselves to be distracted habitually from the kind of life to which Jesus Christ calls us.
St. Paul warned in his letter to St. Titus against letting foolish disputes, pointless arguments, or anything else get in the way of what is most important in life: good works, meeting the urgent needs of others, and bearing fruit in the Christian life. In this warning, St. Paul reminds us to turn away from all our senseless obsessions and excuses that tempt us to become so distracted from the Lord and the service of His Church that we end up turning away from the very source of life. Whether in the first century or today, it is so easy for us to take our faith and our blessings for granted and to find just about anything else much more interesting than God.
The problem is not with Him, of course, but with us, for we often simply disregard prayer, repentance, and serving others in the name of Christ. We become content with making our spiritual life a low priority to the point that we become sick and weak because we are too lazy or distracted to fight our passions and accept the healing and strength which the Lord gives us through the ministries of His Church. Too often, we rest content with bearing no fruit at all for the Kingdom. The problem is that, when we live like that, we become as weak and vulnerable as a plant in an un-watered and un-weeded garden; and then we have very little hope of thriving or being of benefit to anyone.
But if we follow St. Paul’s advice to become so busy with good works that we have no time or energy for foolish arguments or other pointless distractions, we will then become like the seed that landed on good soil, got proper nutrition, and produced a bumper crop. And despite the trials, tribulations, and brokenness of our lives, we will know already the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven.
That is the will of the Lord for each and every one of us, no matter the particular set of burdens that we bear or how faithfully or unfaithfully we may have lived so far. Through His Body, the Church, Christ has revealed to us all the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, and we all have the ability to respond to our Lord’s great mercy with repentance, love, and faithfulness each day.
So even if our souls presently look more like a bed of weeds than a beautiful garden, we still have hope because Christ has made us all participants in the blessing and fulfillment that He has brought to our world of corruption. He has conquered sin and death, and invites us to join our broken lives to His great offering through which our ancient vocation to become like God is fulfilled. The first Adam made a mess of the garden of the Lord, of the world as we know it, while the Second Adam has set right the creation for its fulfillment in the Kingdom of Heaven. He calls and enables each of us to live faithfully each day in His blessed garden, playing our role in bringing all that He created to participate in His holiness. In doing so, we will become more truly ourselves as those who bear His image and likeness. And through our faithfulness daily, the world will become more fully what God created it to be. May we all become healthy plants in the Lord’s garden, and bear good fruit a hundred-fold. For that is why He breathed life into us in the first place. As Christ said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”