Receiving the Seed of Faith

Eleventh Sunday Scripture Readings

In the course of human events, successes don’t just happen. We can’t just be passive observers of life. Who wants to wake up one day only to discover that life has happened without them? If we want our lives to have made a difference, then we can’t afford to be merely passive observers, watching the parade of life pass by. Even in crisis, we don’t want to be the fellow they have to tell, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Doing something significant requires a significant amount of energy. Like building a building, there’s research and planning, design and engineering, preparation and construction, testing and correction, all to assure the progress toward and the achievement of our goals. Sometimes, we’re successful; sometimes not. We imagine that our success or failure depends on how effective we’ve been at controlling the variables of our project. This seems always and everywhere self-evident, but is it?

Let’s take “religion” as an example. There’s nothing wrong with religion. Properly understood, it’s a very good thing. Even the word itself is derived from a Greek root meaning to pay attention or to be mindful. We find that root in the word “diligent,” or its opposite, “negligent.” Every religion sees itself as the path toward awakening to the deeper truths of the universe—without and within. True mindfulness leads to a spiritual experience and a psychic change. As Scrooge declares when confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “Hear me, Spirit—I’m not the man I was!” Is there anyone who could deny the value of that? Once we’ve tasted enlightenment, we look around at those who populate our lives—especially those we most care about—and who wouldn’t want the same for them all? And yet, few would deny that, throughout human history, it has all gone wrong. How could that be?

It’s when we start generalizing our experiences and trying to impose them on others that religion starts to go off the tracks. We look at the steps we took to reach that mindfulness—that spiritual enlightenment—and we assume that, if they do the same things that we did to achieve what we’ve achieved, then they’ll get there too. Our temptation is to generalize our experience and to turn it into dogma. We tell them that if they were only to do things our way, they could achieve what we’ve achieved. Still, when we say those sorts of things, we risk imposing our own will onto others, attempting to control their spiritual experiences. We become critical and judgmental of their attempts to conform, especially when their efforts fail to produce the spiritual experiences and psychic changes we’ve promised them. We then blame them for their failures, suggesting that their lack of progress is somehow their own fault. Is it any wonder that those who have experienced only frustration from our religious doctrines and practices now look on us with contempt? We fail to recognize that it was our own faulty roadmap that led them nowhere.

The careful controls—the research and planning, design and engineering, preparation and construction, testing and correction—that we impose on our human projects are of no use whatever in the spiritual realm. We cannot impose controls on the Holy Spirit, nor can we dictate a methodology to achieve inspiration. That, my friends, is the message of today’s gospel. All spiritual experience is encapsulated in that mustard seed. Jesus calls it the Kingdom—or reign—of God. Like that seed, it’s tiny, buried, and hidden. The farmer can do nothing to force its growth except to prepare its ground and provide it with the environment it requires. It grows from within by its essential dynamism and according to its own laws. Its growth is inexorable and independent of the farmer’s interventions.

The point is that, unlike anything else in our human experience, spirituality is beyond human control and, what’s more, any attempt on our part to create or control it results in failure. God’s presence and actions in our universe and our individual lives are wholly outside of human influence. Spirituality, then, is essentially an individually unique undertaking. All that’s necessary to begin the spiritual journey—that is, in the context of today’s gospel, to plant that mustard seed—is honesty, openness, and willingness. Spirituality is, after all, an honest relationship with reality. It’s necessarily open to the unexpected, and withers in the arid environment of arrogant contempt prior to investigation. The ground in which the reign of God takes root and grows is metanoia—our openness to a change of mind and heart.

What about the Church, then? If spirituality is such a radically individual phenomenon, what role can the Church play, if not to create and control the coming of the Holy Spirit? The Church is a celebratory reality. It consists of women and men who have, by their honesty, openness, and willingness, sought and encountered the reign of God within their human experience and are now ready to celebrate that encounter with others who have shared similar experiences. Our sacraments do not so much create spiritual connections as celebrate them.

Baptism celebrates the honesty, openness, and willingness to undergo metanoia, and so receive the mustard seed of God’s loving presence. Confirmation celebrates our coming to spiritual maturity and the recognition by the Christian Community of the presence of the Spirit of God within us. Penance and Reconciliation celebrates the victory of the mustard seed grown to maturity, overcoming the obstacles of human faults and failings. The Eucharist celebrates the spiritual nourishment that we as individuals and as a community receive from the power of the Holy Spirit alive within us in order to share it with one another and with our world. And, so on for all the other sacraments that celebrate our Christian identity.

I started my comments on today’s gospel by saying that, in the course of human events, successes don’t just happen. But, in the Kingdom of God, in the realm of the Spirit, nothing could be farther from the truth. Like a grain of wheat or a mustard seed, once it’s sown, the seed of faith grows according to its own inner logic. Meanwhile, we can only stand by in honesty, openness, and willingness, while the reign of God grows and matures and bears fruit in us and in our fellows. For this, this morning, in the name of Jesus, our lord, we celebrate his Eucharist, our offering of thanks.

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