Homily for 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time Year B 2018
Ezekiel 17:22-24 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 Mark 4:26-34
In January 2003, I was installed as a Parish Priest of in . I was four and half years a priest. And this was the first time I was becoming a parish priest. As you can imagine, I was very happy.
As is customary for such occasions, at the handover, I planted a tree seedling to mark the beginning of my ministry. This tree seedling would be a metaphor for my ministry as Pastor of this parish. After all Jesus had described the Kingdom of God, as being like a mustard seed, “the smallest of all the seeds on the earth, which once it is sown, springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
My new parish community of 12 outstations and about 4,000 parishioners had had no Parish Priest for several years before my arrival. It was a small parish, with poor church attendance, few recipients of sacraments and low collections. But I had volunteered for this assignment, because I wanted a challenge and I thought that I could make some changes and help people to grow in their faith and love of Jesus Christ, especially in the way they lived out their faith.
Sadly, three years later when I left this assignment, the tree I had planted had not grown much; in fact, it was no taller than me, and as you can see I am not a very tall person. And just the like the tree, the parish community had also only grown just a little, in the numbers of people attending Mass, in the numbers receiving the sacraments and of course in the amount of the collection.
I had to ask myself; what had happened to all my fertilizing, weeding, watering and pruning of the tree and of the community? Where was the large mustard tree that the Lord promised, again both the tree itself and the parish community?
Scripture and Theology
I think that my problem was that I had read only the second parable, the parable of the mustard seed, and yet today we have been given two parables. I had not listened to the message of the first parable. The two parables of today’s gospel have to be read together. For while both use the image of tree planting, they focus on different aspects of building the Kingdom of heaven. The parable of the mustard seed rightly points to the end-result of the planting process, the fairly large tree that is the Kingdom of God. The first parable points to the process, to what happens between the planting and the maturation.
Let us listen again to this first parable where Jesus says: “This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.” This parable reminds us that although we do the planting, the actual growth of the seed happens without our awareness and really even without our effort. That is why this parable has been given so many names by scholars of the bible.
- Some call it, “the Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly”; in other words, the seed grows secretly without the farmer even being aware of what is going on. If you compare this idea to my work as a parish priest, this means, that although I was the one preaching, saying Mass and baptising children, I really did not know the work that God was doing in his people. The seed of the faith was growing secretly.
- Others call this parable, “the Parable of the Patient Farmer.” In other words, the farmer has to be patient, because he does not really control how fast or how fruitfully the tree grows. In the same way, as a parish priest, I have to be patient and not expect the numbers of people coming to Church to double, the number of marriages to triple and the collection to quadruple overnight. I have to be patient as God does his work quietly.
And so, while both parables urge us on to be diligent gardeners and give us the hope that our ministry will bear great fruit, they also remind us that only God makes the growth of his Kingdom happen and we are only poor instruments.
In fact the story of Christianity and especially of the Church is really the story of these two parables about the seed growing quietly into the large mustard tree. Today the Catholic Church has more than a billion members, to say nothing about the other Christians as well. And this began with 12 apostles, many of whom were really not that sophisticated; some were fishermen, others tax-collectors – what did they know about running a world-wide organization? And yet from their small beginnings, today we have the large mustard seed of the Church! Moreover, how we have gotten here, we really cannot explain, especially given the many weaknesses of the Church, including of its leaders and of its members! The Church is really the story of the mustard tree growing silently.
Since we are in a convent and a house of formation, let us also look at examples from religious life. When St. Anthony of Egypt went into the desert, when St. Benedict went into the cave, when St. Francis of Assisi left home, when St. Dominic began preaching, when St. Ignatius of Loyola underwent his conversion, did they know that their small beginnings would produce great fruit?
- Today we have thousands of hermits like the Carthusians and others, who are the mustard tree that has come out of the work of St. Anthony of Egypt.
- Today we have thousands of monks and nuns, who follow the rule of St. Benedict and other monastic rules as well, all coming out of the small beginnings of the work of St. Benedict and his followers.
- Today we have hundreds of thousands of friars, Franciscan, Dominican, Carmelites and others, who have taken the small seed, planted by St. Francis, St. Dominic and made it the mustard seed of these orders today.
- And from these orders, we have many third order congregations of sisters and brothers like you who are here today, all following Jesus Christ most radically in the evangelical counsels. The small seed has become the mustard tree of religious life throughout the world.
And moreover, all this great growth has happened, yes, through the work of men and women, but really it is the work of God.
Besides religious life, let us also look at our own local example here in . Two weeks ago we celebrated Uganda Martyrs Day (led by my home Archdiocese of Tororo). What St. Charles , St. and their twenty colleagues did was like the small mustard seed, that today has grown into a large tree. We can see this large tree in the large number of people who come to every year from all over the world. Last year I saw two buses that had driven all the way from Malawi, passing through Tanzania, Kenya to reach here; and then you have people who walk all the way from Kenya to here. But most of all, you can see the mustard tree in the large number of Catholics in this country, people whose faith has been sustained and strengthened by the example and the prayers of the martyrs.
Recently, I was back in in my former parish. And I visited the tree that I had planted so many years ago. Fifteen years later, it is now a large tree. In fact, when they celebrate Mass outside, they use it for shade.
And similarly, the parish is now more vibrant. For example, nowadays about ten to twenty people come for daily Mass, while at my time it was just me and the seminarian. Surely, the mustard seed of faith in that parish is growing into the mustard tree. And who is making it grow? It is not Father Deo or the priests who came after me, but it is God working through our weak efforts. May we always dispose our efforts, however small, so that God can work wonders with them.