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The 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 13, 2021

Watch this homily! (Begins at 33:55)

    One of the real joys of my life, after being here so many years, is seeing couples whose weddings I celebrated and whose babies I baptized - and who then moved away from the area - return to the Cathedral years later for a visit, this time with their high school or college kids in tow. I find myself telling them, ‘you’ve got a lot to show for those years!’

     That thought came to mind when I reflected on today’s readings from the prophet Ezekiel and from Mark’s gospel. Both readings speak about planting and growing and bearing fruit – the role we play in bringing that about and, more importantly, the role God plays. Our role is not inconsequential, but God’s role is what really counts. We get to do the planting, but God gives the growth. And it’s a wonder to behold – a little like those kids who, when I last saw them, were squirming and screaming at the baptismal font and who a few years later present as pretty respectable teenagers or young adults!

     A wonder to behold! We witness this wonder regularly, don’t we? Our children grow up before our eyes even if we don’t really see it until after it has happened. 

     In the two little parables from Mark’s gospel Jesus talks about the unfolding of the Kingdom in just those terms. The Kingdom, he says, is like a farmer who sows seed in his field and then goes about his life – eating and working and sleeping each day. All the while the seed is sprouting and growing, “he knows not how,” as Jesus puts it. “First the blade, then the ear, then the full-blown grain in the ear.”  Almost before the farmer knows it, it’s harvest time.

     The parable of the mustard seed gives us a little different look at this wonderful mystery of growth. Here the issue is not the slow, imperceptible, yet steady growth: it’s the wonder that there is any growth at all! The mustard seed is the perfect way for Jesus to make this point because, as he says, it is the smallest of all seeds, so small that it would seem to have no promise at all. Yet from tiny beginnings comes a tree with lots of leaves, big enough for birds to find shade and make a home.

     Do you have any idea how small a mustard seed is? I’ve shared with you before how I once held a little mound of mustard seeds in my hand. They were put there by a Franciscan friar at the monastery high atop Mount Tabor in Galilee, the traditional site of the Transfiguration. As we walked through the grounds, he reached up into a tree, pulled down some seed pods, opened them, and then poured what looked like a fine powder into my hands. He then looked at me with delight in his eyes and said in his broken English, “mustard seeds!”  If I had sneezed the seeds would have disappeared into thin air. That’s how tiny mustard seeds are. And yet, over time, they become little trees with strong branches and lovely foliage.

     Small beginnings, impressive results!  That’s the story of God’s Kingdom. It’s also the story of Jesus. Do you suppose that sometimes Jesus saw himself as a mustard seed – especially on those days when he felt inadequate for the great mission that was his, days when he felt very small before an overwhelming task? And did he feel the same way when he realized how unpromising were those twelve to whom he was entrusting his gospel: that ragtag band of clumsy, unlettered fishermen, tax collectors and sinners - full of questions, full of doubts, dull, and so very slow to get the picture. Most of them were cowards, too, and one turned traitor. Mustard seeds each one of them.

     And, of course, Jesus’ death made him the ultimate mustard seed. But look at what happened to that seed after it died and was buried in the ground….

     My friends, this is the story of God’s kingdom – a story that has been repeated down through the ages and continues in our own: small beginnings, unimpressive beginnings, but anything but unimpressive results. Think of the tongue-tied Moses, think of King David, young and lustful, think of Jeremiah, young and fearful; or think of Mary, the young maiden of Nazareth, or of Peter the fisherman. Think of Francis of Assisi, the romantic, radical dreamer, or of Therese the Little Flower with her “Little Way,” or Matt Talbot the reformed alcoholic, or Solanus Casey, the humble doorkeeper, or of Mother Teresa who, to use her words, did “small things with great love.”

     Each of those unlikely stalwarts in faith prove that the Kingdom is God’s Kingdom, not ours, and that no matter how unpromising our efforts to build it, God can make it work. This is a message that workaholics and perfectionists like me find it hard to accept. We are quite sure that we are in charge and that success ultimately depends on us! Happily, it doesn’t!

     St. John XXIII, the Pope who called the Second Vatican Council, knew only too well how painfully difficult it was to bring about change and growth in the Church. He could well have given into pessimism and gloom, but he didn’t. He knew the parable of the mustard seed! Knew the history of the Church, both good and bad. Knew how much God could accomplish with very little. And so he never lost hope. In calling the Council, he refused to let the naysayers or the prophets of doom have the last word, although they tried. And when he would come to the end of a day, with a mountain of unsolved problems on his desk and on his mind, with a prayer on his lips, he would turn off the light and say, “It’s your Church, Lord, I’m going to sleep.”

     May the Eucharist we now celebrate keep that kind of hope alive in us!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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