June 13, 2021 at Saint Peter and Saint William Churches in Naples, FL
Ezekiel 117, 22-24 + Psalm 92 + 2 Corinthians 5, 6-10 + Mark 4, 26-34
My father was born in what we would today call “poverty”. In the middle of seven children, he never went beyond 8th grade in a tiny village on the Mississippi River. He left home before he was 15, got a job in Saint Louis sweeping a stock room, and 40 years later retired as a top executive of the same company. He firmly believed in the old saying that you had to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. He also believed that the more you work, the more God will love and reward you. We sometimes had serious discussions about those ideas which ultimately run contrary to Mark’s Gospel. I once said to him: “Your idea may work if you have boots, but there are a lot of people who have no boots.” On another occasion, I suggested that working for rewards might not be the best reason for working because it might be better to work for the glory of God without expecting something in return. Any one of you who may have had similar conversations with a parent probably know how it ended. He rolled his eyes and muttered something like this: “This is what I get for paying for your education!”
I spent 5 wonderful years as pastor of a small town in central Oklahoma right in the middle of the wheat country. I watched those farmers year after year plant that seed. One year it would come up and then the rain would stop and it died before harvest. They would plant again the next year, and it would come up, the grain would form, and a hail storm would come and beat it into the ground before they get into the fields. Again, they would plant, and no rains came, then it would rain torrents and wash the grain right out of the field. Sometimes it would all work just right. The dry winds would come and dry the wheat leaving that golden field ready for harvest. What I learned from them is that their job was to plant. That’s all, just plant. The rest was up to God.
Mark reminds us today that we don’t make the sun rise or the seed to sprout. The way God works is unique to God. There are limits to what we can do, and St. Paul reminds us that we walk by faith, not by sight. Do not be distracted from this hard truth by the image Jesus uses in this episode. Comparing a tiny seed to some wonderful plant misses some humor that I suspect had Jesus smiling as he used this comparison. Mustard bushes were invasive weeds. No farmer would sow mustard in their field. It would be like giving a two-year-old a roll of toilet paper to pay with. Jesus is describing complete chaos. He’s joking. This is not about mustard plants or mustard seeds.
This Gospel was written for a people who were anxious, disappointed, troubled, and discouraged. Their hope for a Messiah had gone sour as their faithfulness was rewarded by persecution, death, and fear. They wondered to themselves and aloud why God was allowing all of this. And today this Gospel is just as relevant and important for us who, enduring suffering, wonder why so many people do not believe in the gospel of love. We do not understand why people leave our lives, why careers do not turn out the way we expected, why life is so complicated, dangerous, and sometimes painful.
Paul describes the only attitude we must have in the face of all this and more. We walk by faith and not by sight. In a culture hostile to the gospel of life, we base our decisions not on what is popular and convenient, but on what God has revealed through his Church. In a society that devalues the dignity of human life, we work to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and visit prisoners.
We are reminded by Jesus Christ who speaks this Gospel to us that God’s Kingdom is silently growing because that is what God’s Kingdom does. We will not see that Kingdom in full flower until we enter our heavenly reward. But we can be sure that just as the flower is more beautiful than the seed from which is grows, so God’s Kingdom will be far more glorious than anything we can imagine. Until then, no matter how dark and hopeless our world may seem, we live, we work, and we pray with trust that it is all going according to God’s plan. We have to keep planting. That’s what we are here for.