Jun 13, 2015

11th Sunday: The mystery and promise of growth

Ez 17: 22-24
2 Cor 5: 6-10
Mk 4: 28-34

As our school year closed the other day we celebrated the last weekly Mass of our school year.  I said to the students, generally ages 4 – 10, that one thing was sure about this past year: “I bet you’re all taller than you were nine months ago.” 

Our fourth and fifth grade students in particular nodded their heads in agreement, as did the teachers and the parents who were present.  I said, “I bet the pants you’re wearing or the skirts, or maybe even your shoes, are new because you’ve grown a bit larger than you were when you started nine months ago. Your parents spend a lot of time and money on your clothing.”  The parents in particular seemed to agree wholeheartedly.  Growth is inevitable and predictable.

All things start small, “like a mustard seed” Jesus reminds us today in the Gospel from Mk 4: “To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God . . . it is like a mustard seed that . . .is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants.” There is no doubt that the potential for life, growth, and change is deeply and mysteriously imbedded in every living thing from plant to animal to human being.  Jesus’ comparison with this obvious process is used today to explain the fundamental inevitability of his Gospel – the Way, the Kingdom of God to develop, albeit mysteriously and at times without quick notice.

At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the concept of the “Kingdom of God.”  He refers to this in many parts of the New Testament, yet it seems a bit unclear or ambiguous.  What is the “kingdom?" Isn’t it a bit archaic from our modern American democratic viewpoint?  This nation began for the purpose of overthrowing centralized power in any one heir to a royal throne.

Before we go farther with that, scholars have implied that to see this familiar phrase of Jesus as reference to a “kingdom” is much better understood as a reference to God himself.  So, we might rephrase to say: “God is like . . .” The Kingdom, therefore, is a person more than an earthly organization.  Jesus himself is “the kingdom.”  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says such in his series of books on Jesus. 

So if the kingdom is really a person, Jesus Christ, then imagine the possibility for growth and change if we “plant” ourselves in him and his Church.  As imperceptible as growth can sometimes be, as slow or impatient as we may become, if we “walk by faith and not by sight,” as Paul reminds us today in the second reading from Corinthians then growth is promised.  Our lives can be profoundly changed if we place our faith in God; if we root ourselves in him. 

But, what kind of change will we see and how can it be measured?  This, I think, is the crux of the issue.  How do I know when I’m becoming more holy?  How would I know when I’m growing in virtue and the grace of God?  How do I know when I’m a saint?  Isn’t’ that what we’re all called to become due to the grace of our Baptism? In the end, though, is that for us to know or for God to produce? I would be deeply suspicious of anyone who says, “Now I’m a saint.”  Hmmmm

Our growth in virtue, our change to become a more holy person, more Christ-like, is the mysterious work of God’s grace.  Our work is to respond to that grace in the many ways it is available to us.  His work is often hidden, so the parables today imply, yet we know by faith that his work is guaranteed for those who place their trust, who plant themselves, in him. There is a very good reason why the Church does not formally canonize living people.    

So, today’s readings, on this first green Sunday in several months, reminds us of the mysterious yet guaranteed work for God’s grace and our responsibility to respond in humility and trust to what life and spiritual opportunities come our way: for example, a consistent, not occasional prayer life, participation in the sacramental life of the Church, active involvement in the good works of charity. God plants the seed and we water it through our response but he provides the growth.

However, lest we become too self-absorbed in our spiritual pursuit for holiness and saintliness, we must also see this concept of the kingdom as spoken to Jesus’ own disciples directly.  The idea of Israel as the kingdom of God was an early Jewish analogy.  Israel was the vineyard of the Lord governed by Kings, which God reluctantly allowed and often the prophets railed against, save the legendary King David, who certainly had his human flaws.  God will provide growth and expansion for his kingdom, his chosen people, but his full plan is hidden from us.  In the end we don’t know because we don’t need to know if we are to grow in his grace.   

Yet, in context of Jesus and his Church it was reassurance that the new community of faith, the new people of God (Church) will expand and grow through the operation of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ ascension.  The gift of the Spirit and the expansion of the new Way of Christ beyond the Jewish confines out to the Gentiles was an undeniable proof of the Spirit’s work.  The Apostles and the early missionaries of the Church were astounded that the Gentile world began to show signs of acceptance and inclusion.  The mustard seed planted in Israel is now producing new life, new branches, for the new birds in which to build their nests.  What began with only twelve flawed men has become a community far beyond what was imagined.  It is all God’s work. 

So personal growth and corporate growth in the ways of holiness, virtue, and population is the end and continued result or our full trust in the Lord.  So much remains a mystery and continues to puzzle us at times about the good news of the Christian gospel and what we see in the reality of our lives and that of others.  Yet, once again, we are called to trust that God is ultimately and constantly in control.  All we see is the tiny mustard seed yet an enormous forest of the Spirit’s work surrounds us. 

Called to find our proper soil, our Eucharistic celebrations invite us to receive the very source of our life, the person who makes all the difference now and for eternity – Jesus Christ. 

O God, strength of those who hope in you,
graciously hear our pleas,
and, since without you mortal frailty can do nothing,
grant us always the help of your grace,
that in following your commands
we may please you by our resolve and our deeds.

(Collect for Sunday)