HOMILY for the 11th Sunday per annum (B)
Living in cities as we do, few of us may have had much experience of the life of a farmer. And yet people seem to long for it, or at least a sanitized version of it. An internet phenomenon called ‘Farmville’ took the urbanized digital world by storm a few years ago. At its peak in 2010, 85 million people were playing ‘Farmville’, in which people ran an online farm. Either through their desktop computers or on their smartphones and iPads, housewives, students and city professionals looked after ‘animals’, and ‘planted’ and ‘harvested crops’. Depending on the type of crop, a plant would grow to maturity and could be harvested and sold within minutes or several hours. And if you didn’t want to wait, you could pay to have the crops grow instantly. But these digital farms were never struck by harsh weather conditions or disease or any other ambient variation. The ‘plants’ simply grew like clockwork, and you, the farmer, had absolute control.
Which is why this artificial experience of farming can never teach us what true faith is like.
In a similar way, people seem to long for faith, or are fascinated by it. I’ve had friends say to me that they wish they could believe. But what many seem to want is a ‘Farmville’ version of faith: a faith that is controllable, and that produces results; the quicker the better. In this understanding of faith, prayer becomes like coins that we put in a slot machine; if we insert the right amount, we get the desired result. The Christian moral life then becomes less about imitating Christ than about bartering with him. And if we don’t like aspects of the Gospel, we’re tempted to shop around and find something that fits our taste. None of this, of course, is what faith is really about.
St Paul says that “we walk by faith, not by sight”. This implies that faith, in some way, involves a certain degree of non-seeing. And so it is that a farmer “scatters seed upon the ground” and he does not see, he can not see what is happening to it underground. But he trusts that the seed will sprout and grow. He doesn’t know how it happens but he knows from experience that it will. Faith is like this. In Greek the word translated as ‘faith’, pisteu, also means to believe or to entrust, to commit your trust to Another. So, the farmer entrusts the seed to the ground and to the work of nature. And we are called, in faith, to entrust ourselves to God and to the work of his grace, and to the teaching of his Word.
But our faith is not entirely blind. Like the farmer who knows from experience that the seed will sprout, so we can know from our collective experience – the experience of the communion of saints, of the Church, of our own family – as well as our own experience, perhaps, that faith is rewarded and bears fruit, and that ours is a faithful and loving and trustworthy God. But like the farmer, we also need to be patient, and weather the storms and droughts. Often we can become impatient in our spiritual life, impatient with our moral growth, impatient with the imperfections in God’s Church. We become impatient with ourselves, and with God, and the temptation, if we don’t see results, is to disbelieve, to pour concrete over the ground. Because like the Farmville farmer we want plants that grow with clockwork precision, crops that we can control absolutely, and can hurry along with an “Instant Grow” button.
But, as today’s readings stress, God is in control, and only he is in absolute control. It is he who sowed the seed of faith in our hearts. It is his grace that causes faith to grow and develop imperceptibly, gently, unobtrusively until suddenly, it breaks through the ground and is visible through good works and acts of love. But it happens slowly, mysteriously and unseen, rather like falling in love. And it’s just as well that God is not as impatient as we are. For he is infinitely patient, waiting for us to be truly ready for the seed of faith to bear fruit in our lives. And often he is working his purposes out, explaining them to us, so to speak, in the course of our entire lives, so that the story of our life with its ups and downs becomes a parable of God’s grace. Our life, then, tells the parable of a faith that germinates and sprouts over a lifespan, and the end result is only harvested at our death, when we “must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ”.
This should not be a source of anxiety, for, like the farmer who trusts in nature to run its course, so we trust that the faith given to us by God will also, in God’s goodness and mercy, run its course. We trust and hope that God will be God and do what God does, which is to save us and bring his good work, which he has begun in us, to perfection in Christ. Then, the Lord will be true to his holy name, Jesus, which means “God saves”.
However, these days, it is not unusual for parents to fret about their children because they no longer go to Church or practice their faith. I can think of my own teenage godson who is in that position. But Timothy Radcliffe, in his latest book Taking the Plunge, says that this is a test of our faith in our God who is with us, “opening ways forward where there seem to be none, never giving up”, and always risking himself to seek the lost sheep. We’re called to trust that faith is growing invisibly in their hearts. But at the same time, I think their seedbed of faith will also need to be watered by our love, our tears and our prayers, to be tended by our Christian witness, and our prudent and gentle encouragement.
Indeed, each of us needs support, prayers and encouragement in our lives of faith. Consider birds who take off into flight: what a leap of faith! But just as birds need rest and support in the middle of their flights, so we, in our flights of faith will also need to come to roost in the tree of the Church, supported and sheltered by its many branches. For here we can come together with others of faith, and we help, encourage, and pray for one another. For it is through our communion with one another, through the example of others, as well as by the sacramental grace of God that is working within us, that we will be strengthened to continue our flight of faith.
And that faith journey, encompassing the parable of our entire lives, finds its goal in heaven, with God. Like the great cedar, our faith reaches to the heights because, with humility, we trust in the Lord who has said: “I make high the low tree… I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.” Indeed, he has, for God’s saving Word, Jesus, has been spoken in our world and sown in our hearts, and through this Eucharist, now, he sows in us the seed of glory.