Of all of Jesus’ parables and different passages in the Gospels, today’s is one that probably hasn’t been a personal favorite. And I can trace it all back to third grade CCD class as it used to be called. Yes, being one of those “public school kids” I was one of a group who had to get up early Sunday Morning for an additional day of school. Where this kind-hearted volunteer, who God love her, my respect for her has only grown in the decades since Mrs. Damiano somehow had to deal with 25 of us 8 or 9-year-olds and trying to go over the basics of the Catholic faith and teach us stories from the bible. In this time and age before we had computer anything – so there weren’t any you-tube videos to try to engage us with some educational/entertaining lessons. There wasn’t google for Mrs. Damiano to consult for ideas or amazon to order supplies from. She had to rely on her own creativity to deal with us somewhat less than receptive little monsters.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the 27th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – October 2, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim
Vividly I remember walking in one Sunday Morning and there was a bag of dirt on a little wagon, rolled over a big sheet of plastic with beach shovels, cups, and all kinds of stuff. We had no idea what was going on, but it was a welcome sight from the usual Catholic School classroom with the desks turned around to prevent us from touching the Catholic School kid’s stuff in their desks (not that I’m still bitter about that).
Anyway, you can probably figure out what was this dynamic, innovative and obviously, the memorable lesson was. Mrs. Damiano read this gospel and talked about the reality of how small, how insignificant from appearances the mustard seed was, but with some effort on our end and through God’s design, providence we can see what it will become. We all dutifully filled our now decorated cups with dirt, planted a seed, and had our directions on how to take care of them. Why was this memorable – well A few weeks later, there was mine, just a cup of dirt. Nothing grew. Nada. Most kids had these little seedlings emerging with at least a stem and a few leaves. A couple had something a bit more substantial (which you know their parents put some fertilizer in those things… absolutely did) Here I was, little 8-year-old not yet Fr Jim with his decorated cup of dirt. I don’t know how Mrs. Damiano tried to spin it or explain my cup of dirt away which now undermined her lesson for the rest of the class. Years later, I’ve shaken the bitterness of that moment, well maybe I have.
But I know that for me it left me with the impression that perhaps I hadn’t done something right. Somehow if I didn’t do things in just the right way, prayer wouldn’t be answered. I can remember not long after walking home from school and seeing a tree, I don’t think it was a mulberry one – and it was near a reservoir, not a sea and saying “Jesus I believe in you, so move that tree into the reservoir” – and nothing happened. One helpful friend suggested that it must’ve been because it wasn’t a Mulberry tree and this wasn’t a sea. Growing up that trend continued for sure. Everything from: I believe Jesus, please don’t let that ball that the Red Sox just hit go out of the park to the far more serious Grandma is really sick Lord, please, let her have a miraculous recovery.
The point is, I kind of had this impression that if my prayers weren’t being answered in the way I had wanted, that obviously I was doing something wrong, that obviously, my faith wasn’t strong enough or even big enough as a simple mustard seed.
Which I think happens to a lot of people, of all ages. Particularly when we’re confronted with questions that usually begin with Why –
Why didn’t I get that part or make that team?
Why didn’t I pass that test?
Why did that person break up with me?
Why is this person sick?
Why did this person die?
Why do I feel alone, abandoned?
Why do I feel unloved?
The prophet Habakkuk who we heard from in that first reading was kind of struggling with those types of questions himself. We hear the prophet complaining aloud to God – basically saying Lord -there’s violence, there’s injustice going on all around, and you don’t seem to care, you don’t seem to be doing anything… in fact our enemies who are also your enemies Lord – these pagans who didn’t believe in your power Lord God and in fact mocked you and your people seemed emboldened.
The apostles themselves in the Gospel are in a similar place at the start of this passage. You get the sense that they are exasperated here. Jesus’ talking about mustard seeds is in response to their saying “Increase our faith” – which seems like a reasonable request as they are recognizing just how difficult following Jesus is and just how weak each of them is.
But the difficulty that Habakkuk, the apostles, even 8-year-old Fr Jim with his cup of dirt, or even 48-year-old Fr Jim at times struggles with is that we can miss the point: Ultimately what does it mean to be a man a woman of faith? Because we’ve become more and more conditioned to tie the value of faith with a specific result: I plant a seed, it grows a plant, the bigger, the better the plant, the better job I did. Which is not faith. And not what Jesus was getting at in using the mustard seed as an example.
Jesus is trying to get us to see that when it comes to faith that isn’t something that is tied to size and quantity and expected results. It’s a condition of our hearts and minds. It’s the proper perspective we have about, well everything, from our origin to our destiny.
The apostles and Habakkuk are understandably unsettled by the struggles and setbacks they are experiencing. Totally understandable. They are turning to God, crying out to Him, looking to Him for answers – the perfect response when dealing with those things. But God is telling Habakkuk to stop being so downcast and just focus on what is happening right there and look up, see and remember that He’s made promises before and fulfilled them, and that hasn’t changed even with this present sorrow and trial. Jesus is telling the apostles the same thing. Stop being in their heads where they are still trying to imagine who’s the greatest among their group evaluating themselves and their relationships; even judging the effectiveness of their preaching the message Jesus has entrusted them with if things didn’t go the way they wanted or expected. Jesus tells them to stop that and just look up and look at Him. If they just had an ounce of faith that He loves them… If they just had the simplicity of trust that He was listening to them and was with them… If they just had the humility and submission to those things and got to the place where we said the words “thy will be done” and truly meant that, without the fingers crossed behind the back with “but, what I really mean is my will and my will is this…” we would find the peace we desire, we would be able to see past the present situation and remember the goodness of God that has brought us into existence, sustains us and calls us into eternity with Him. That is the very seed of faith. If we had, we would be able to see just how many other miracles, just how often prayers are answered, and just how loved and cared for we truly are.
To get there, St. Paul gives sound advice on what is expected of us in this letter to Timothy today. To remember God doesn’t simply call us to faith and trust but has equipped us with His very Holy Spirit. So we’re to remember that and tap into that as Paul says “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice – but rather of power and love and self-control”. Let those words resonate – because that tells us what we have to do as we navigate difficult times, and seasons, experience setbacks and wonder how to find God. We find Him in our remembering His presence and action. We respond to Him by acts of love and self-control. So knowing what it is we have to say Yes to and No too. Turning away from sinful things, destructive forces, and influences that constantly try to undermine the Lord God, picking away at our faith in Jesus, and being selfless, sacrificial, and loving so that we imitate Jesus and are cooperating with His spirit within us.
One quote that Pope Francis offered over 6 years ago that I’ve found worth going back to over and over was when he said: “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light. In Christ, God himself wishes to share this path with us and to offer us his gaze so that we might see the light within it. Christ is the one who, having endured suffering, is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2).”
In other words, we’re not supposed to have Faith in our desires – rather Faith in God and believing that He works – sometimes He works in incredible miraculous ways, sometimes in small mustard seeds that won’t be able to be appreciated for some time – but we have to come back to believing that he works with us, through us and all around us. With that, my cup of dirt could have still glorified God when I recognized He made the dirt, the seed, and that even though mine didn’t grow, others did. He’s moving. He’s acting. His will be done – not mine.