Today’s Gospel comes at a very appropriate time of year, when everything is growing as fast as possible. Michigan has a relatively short growing season. So, everything has to grow fast. It is truly amazing; the landscape up until pretty much the beginning of May looked completely barren and dead, and now everything is green and growing.
Jesus uses a couple different parables related to seeds and growing things as a way of describing faith. In doing so, he teaches us that faith is something organic; it can and should grow and produce fruit, i.e. more faith. I believe that that is the symbolism represented by the furnishings in our sanctuary: the altar, the ambo, the candlesticks, the tabernacle stand: they all are designed to look like tree trunks, something growing and alive. That should represent our Christian faith on not only a universal, global scale, but also faith at the personal level.
At the universal level, we can see how the Christian Faith has grown. Jesus chose just twelve men to be his apostles. They were simple, uneducated men, not influential or wealthy members of society. This is what he built his Church upon. And when he ascended into heaven, he entrusted his Church to his apostles. And he left a group of perhaps no more than a few hundred followers at most! They had a lot stacked against them. They were persecuted by the Roman and Jewish leaders – the secular and religious leaders alike. Sometimes that persecution turned violent and many Christians lost their lives. The only apostle who was not martyred was John; all the others were killed for their faith in Christ. To be a pope in the first centuries of the Church usually meant dying as a martyr. And yet the Church grew and spread throughout the world – first the Roman Empire, and then further afield. Today Christianity has reached almost every country. What started as a tiny mustard seed has grown into an enormous tree.
And these parables can also describe faith at the personal, individual level. When He created us, God planted inside each one of us a seed of desire for the infinite and the transcendent – the desire for something more, always more than what we have or feel right now. No one is exempt from this; everyone experiences it. In this life, we are never completely satisfied, are we? You can work for a long time to earn enough to buy a nice home, or a nicer car, or a nice vacation, or whatever, but once you’ve got it, eventually you’re going to be thinking about the next thing. The things that we desire and then acquire soon just become part of the background, taken for granted – and eventually they often end up in the trash.
That is just one way that the desire for the infinite manifests itself in our lives. This desire also often plays out in relationships – thinking that this or that person is going to bring me fulfillment. Perhaps some of you remember that corny line from “Jerry Maguire” when the guy says to the girl, “You complete me.” It’s not true! If anyone ever says that to you, your response to them should be, “No, I don’t. If you really think that, you’re going to be really disappointed.” We cannot completely fulfill anyone else, and nor can anyone completely fulfill us. Only God can do that.
But He’s planted that seed within each of us that makes us desire what only He can give. That can be described as the seed of faith. It starts out imperceptibly small, but then it can and should grow. And oftentimes, that seed grows inside of us in such a subtle way that we are not even aware of it. Do you ever feel that you are not really growing in faith, that you’re not making any progress? Do you ever feel that you commit the same old sins again and again? Do you ever think, why don’t I feel like I’m becoming a better person? Why haven’t I been able to kick this or that old habit? Don’t let your feelings and emotions fool you: God usually works behind the scenes, and over time – maybe over a very long period of time – He is working in you and changing you.
What this implies, and what the parables in our Gospel imply, is that most of the work is done by God Himself. We might think that it’s all up to us, that if we can just try harder we can just do it on our own. “I’ll read this spiritual book; that will change me.” Or, “I’ll go on this retreat or that mission trip; that will be what I need to change.” Then afterwards, we feel like nothing has changed. It seems like we’re still the same. What’s wrong with me?
In those moments, we have to trust that God is still present; He’s still with us, and He’s still working in us in his behind the scenes way. Over time, when we look back, we should be able to see the hand of God at work in our lives. We should be able to look back and recognize that we are not the same person we used to be. If you don’t see that yet, be patient.
However, none of this is meant to imply that we have no role to play, that we just sit here passively while God does His thing. That would mean that we don’t really have free will, that God’s grace is like magic. We do have a role to play, but ours is one of cooperation with God’s effort – also known as God’s grace. We have to realize that, even if it seems that we are doing all the work, the real work is being done by the Lord. So how do we cooperate?
First, you already are, at least to some degree, because you are here today. Coming to Mass on Sunday is necessary, because this is the highest form of prayer that God has given us. Whatever your motivations for coming may be, there is something inside you that tells you that you should be here, even if you feel that you don’t “get anything out of it.” Unless you’re a teenager and your parents brought you here against your own will. Maybe you feel resentful that they did that, but trust that this is an act of love on their part and that they do this because they know that it is a good thing for you. They bring you here for the same reason that they put food on the table for you.
And we can cooperate through prayer, because when we pray and spend time with God, we are opening ourselves up to receive the grace that He wants to give us. We also cooperate by acting on the promptings of the Holy Spirit. And the more we pray, the more we can become aware of how the Holy Spirit is prompting us. What are these promptings of the Holy Spirit? Our consciences can be an indicator. For example: you see someone who is suffering or in need, and you sense that you need to do something to help. That’s the Holy Spirit working in you. Sometimes people come to confession for the first time in years, and they say they just felt that they needed to come. That’s the the Holy Spirit. Sometimes people feel a desire to pray – guess what, that’s the Holy Spirit. The more we pray, the more we open ourselves up to these promptings of the Holy Spirit. But be aware, not every feeling that we have comes from God. Our feelings and emotions can and do deceive us. If we feel that we should do something that goes against God’s commandments or what the Lord teaches us through His Church, then that’s not coming from God. Prayer can help us discern, as can seeking the guidance of a spiritual director.
The more we listen to the Lord, the more we let Him work in us. We do have a role to play in our sanctification. But we have to remember that it is God Himself who is secretly doing the work in us. We cooperate, but we cannot control it or hasten it. So be patient with God and with yourself if you feel that you are not changing or growing fast enough.
St. Gregory the Great used the first parable about the seeds planted by the farmer to describe the process of growing in holiness and in virtue: first, the seeds sown by the farmer are our good intentions, the desire to change or to be a good person. Then, a little of blade starts to grow out of the earth: this is repentance or sorrow for our sins. Next, the blade produces an ear which in turn produces grain: these are works of love and charity. And when the grain is ripe, the farmer harvests it: when we are spiritually mature, we are then made ripe for God’s harvest.