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.