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The lections today are particularly apt because, it being mid-June, I am gardening furiously. Living in the Northeast as I do, the growing season feels cruelly short. No one–this year was an exception–is supposed to put anything in the ground before Memorial Day because it could still freeze or snow, and often June is uncomfortably chilly, witnessed by all those little boys on baseball fields running extra hard to keep themselves warm. From May to October every waking moment is spent outdoors, crushing Japanese beetles and slugs, cursing the darkness, and praying for rain. This year, with the weather turning to summer in May, lots of things grew more furiously than I have been able, in my matching fury, to keep up with–and some things have died.

And death, well, it always lurks. It is always there waiting in the shadows. This year it was another rose and the delphinium I so gloried in last year. And the fading clematis that the stupid trumpet vine keeps attacking. All we do is tear out trumpet vine–over and over again. It’s so pretty and so terrible.

Meanwhile, all the baby birds are being shoved from their nests by their anxious parents, sometimes at the most inopportune times. A couple of days ago, Matt stopped our car, miraculously, on a dime because a little fledgling was sitting in the middle of the road, dazed and confused. I got out, as cars backed up behind us, and gently shooed it to the sidewalk as its poor parents shrieked from the electric wires above.

Thus, I find that the lectionary weavers have woven the thread of the tree, the birds, the seeds, and our groaning mortality all tied together inexorably. Though how I feel in the groaning feels very far from sure.

This weekend, the ladies…

…let me just pause and say that I know there is some linguistic and cultural dispute about whether it is better to say “women” or “ladies.” Social and class inclinations might lead you to favor one over the other. If you are a Barbara Pym fan, your favorite novel is probably Excellent Women, that delicate species found in every church hall sorting jumble and brewing not quite hot enough urns of tea amidst gossip and good works. But there are also the Church Ladies mocked by the hilarious Dana Carvey in SNL’s Church Chat, who pinned the trop mercilessly to the wall and made every Gen Xer shudder. In my church, we have been erring on the side of Ladies for no particular reason. The cadence of it just seems to work…

anyway, this weekend, the ladies of the church indulged themselves in the first gathering of the resurrected group that used to be called Anglican Church Women–ACW, and before that ECW when we were still Episcopalian. This used to be the bedrock of church functioning. For everything that needed to be done, there was some female-identified person putting it on a list and either accomplishing it herself or enlisting the help of another, sometimes even a man. These were the women of the guilds who built hospitals, who rescued lost children, who showed up for each other and their communities with material aid, ingenuity, and spiritual wisdom. To bring it back is the work of this perilous hour.

Our first meeting was to redress the dismal “landscaping” around the church. Though we have been in our present location for longer than a decade, we have not had the wherewithal to do very much except to keep the front flower bed sort of tidy and the lawns mowed. Every year some mulch goes around a few trees and some hedges are trimmed and that’s it. And I, even I also, am grateful that we have this building at all. And yet, I marvel at how very plain and austere is the brick and the three rust-colored trees that compose our temporal adornment.

What does it take to build a church? I know I keep circling around this question. When I was a child, the church was already built. In every town, it sat on every corner bearing the signs of wisdom, stability, and faith. The church of my grandparents had the word “Baptist” actually printed on the sign and nobody thought anything about it. The pews had been there, seemingly, always, though I suppose someone must have put them in. The organ and piano, on either side of the podium, the immersive font behind, were staid, comfortable, welcoming. When I wasn’t in my grandparent’s church, I was at boarding school, in a chapel built by generations long gone before me. Or, even better, at home in the low-slung cement CMA church of my village–the women on one side, the men on the other, all the children on mats in the front. And, for brief, bright moments, an Episcopal church full of incense, organ, and choir filled the well of all my liturgical longings. Every church was like this–built, settled, full of the rhythms and assumptions of true faith and godly self-sacrifice.

And here I am, twenty years on, in my current church situation, and the work of the Church is like that, and, yet, not like that. The actual gardens haven’t been planted because the desperate work of flinging gospel seeds across the barren God-forgotten landscape takes every single waking breath.

The Kingdom of God, said Jesus, “is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” And this, if you labor in the work of the kingdom of God, is certain to make your heart sink. For who wants to be there when everything is small? Who can endure when budgets are tight and the sick season lasts the whole winter? What will sustain the congregation of God’s faithful people when it is staggering under the weight of institutional failures and cultural disintegration?

The point about the mustard seed, of course, is that it is inexorable. It is sowed in obscurity, in groaning, in death, in the kingdom of not having enough time or enough resources. It is so tiny that when it falls into the ground it could not possibly be recovered because it is the same color as the earth. The person who drops it in goes away and despairs. But God, because he does not go by half measures, because he was the grain of wheat that fell into the ground, the shepherd who laid down his life, the man who drained the cup of God’s wrath down to its dregs so that no one who loved him would ever have to taste that bitterness, his glory, his entire kingdom is contained within that seed.

And so, necessarily, it grows. It is inexorable. It is imperishable. It is so true and sure that eventually the frail, anxious birds alight and rest in its branches.

And, out of the rubble of a dying and diminished culture, an age where institutions have faltered and failed, Christians still get up in the morning and go to church. Men and women spend little bits of money on things that matter–on coffee for after church, on a new chalice because the lining of the old one is thinning too quickly, on a few bulbs or even a hosta to soften the hard line of grass against the sharp angle of brick, on the family a few pews over for whom inflation and discouragement have made affording milk an anxious chore.

“With many such parables,” explains Mark, “he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.”

So anyway go to church, and find me on substack.

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