Homily for the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012
The themes of growing and planting are strong in our scripture readings this week, and they come at the perfect time of year. Many of you, I’m sure, have been getting gardens in during recent weeks and with only a few months of favorable weather here in Maine, the landscaping efforts in our community are in full swing.
Jesus clearly understood and loved the natural world. He may have been a carpenter by trade, but when it came time to tell a parable about the kingdom of God more often than not he used an example from farming or nature, not carpentry.
And I think our Gospel passage today gives us a bit of an insight as to why. Jesus points to the mystery of God’s work in the growth and life that we find in the natural world, a growth and life that is beyond our understanding and our ability to control. You can take a piece of wood and form it with tools, determining exactly what it will look like. A seed, the weather, gravity, these realities are something altogether different. While we can have an idea of what has happened, and is happening and what will happen in the natural world, we cannot control it in the same way that we can control ourselves.
It’s fun to watch a baby figure out the difference, to figure out, for example, that it’s fingers are distinct from the rest of the world. It is an early stage of the natural psychological development of a human being – the recognition of the difference between myself and everything else. Slowly a child discovers that the world is not a blank slate that he or she can simply write on – that there are certain natural forces at work in the world that are mysterious and powerful and must be respected. How many of you have worked so hard to help your children to figure out how to live in a world that is alive with the forces of hot and cold, gravity and momentum, light and darkness, viscosity and density, growth and decay, hunger and thirst, life and death. The world teaches quickly teaches us that we are not in control of everything that happens around us.
This is the lesson of nature, if you will, the less of the natural kingdom.
Now if this lesson is learned in a context in which we don’t know God or of his goodness and that the world is made for us in love, these forces can be viewed as antagonistic. Laws of nature are an imposition and they threaten us. And the natural response to nature when it is perceived as a threat is to do everything in our power to control nature and natural forces and to subdue them. To bring the world into conformity with what we want because we don’t trust the world to care for us. Instead, the world must be tamed and conquered – in our quest for survival against hostile forces we become slaves to the fear of survival.
But Jesus shows us the perspective of faith. When we understand God’s goodness and that when he created the world he created it to be good, rather than our lack of control seeming to be a threat and liability, we understand that a world in God’s hands is in far better hands than our own. And so rather than try to subdue the world and make it conform to what we want, we seek to understand the world around us and with trust we work to cooperate with the forces that are at work in the world. You can only do that if you trust the maker, if you trust that God has created this world in love. And that is why genuine Christian faith should always tend us toward good environmental stewardship.
In recent years some have tried to argue that the Christian emphasis on human dignity and unique role tends to our domination of the natural world, but that is a horrible distortion of the message of Christianity.
In reality, our faith allows us not to be afraid to cooperate with the world because we know that it is good. And this understanding of the natural world as good and as governed by forces that are good and come from God also encourages us to explore the world and learn about it. To seek to understand more about God by seeing his handiwork. To marvel at his creation, to thank him for his providential care, to praise him for the wonders that he works around us.
But there is also a more profound and important teaching in the parables that Jesus offers us today, a teaching that doesn’t have so much to do with the natural kingdom, but with the Kingdom of God.
What he teaches us is that just as the natural kingdom is beyond our control and yet should not frighten us because it is in God’s hands and his control, so it is for the kingdom of Heaven.
In other words, God has put just as much care and effort into the project of our salvation, the work of God to save us and give us eternal life. To the natural laws he has added divine commands –and similarly, they are not to threaten or to control or restrict us, but to give us happiness and freedom.
Just as God has designed the earth to provide us with food and water and what we need to nourish and sustain our earthly bodies, so he also has given us the sacraments and the scriptures in order to nourish and sustain our souls.
And so, just as we should not fear the mysterious forces and natural laws at work around us, so neither should we fear the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Like the natural world, God’s grace cannot be controlled or tamed. And so the response that gives us freedom and peace is cooperation, not fear or antagonism. Jesus teaches us in the Gospel today: the seed sprouts and grows, we know not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. Do we see our lack of control as a threat? Or as an opportunity to turn to God with trust, asking him to help us to cooperate with his grace so that he can give us freedom and peace and happiness, not only in this natural kingdom, but one day too in the kingdom of heaven.