Two weeks in a row now, the Gospel has ended with this haunting phrase, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” So what are we supposed to hear? Each of the past two weeks we have heard a long and complicated parable in which our Lord explains what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about. Last week, it was the sower and his seed, which fell on different kinds of soil and bore fruit according to the quality of the soil onto which it fell. We – our Lord taught us – are supposed to be good soil, and if we are, we can be assured that God will do incredible things in our lives. I hope that you’ve thought over the past week about the ways that God is calling you to be good soil, about his call precisely to you to be the soil that bears fruit one hundredfold.
This week, our Lord continues these agricultural parables. Isn’t it great that we are in a place that still has such a strong agricultural tradition so that we can more readily understand what our Lord is saying? There are many different aspects of this parable upon which we could focus. “Who,” we might ask, “are the weeds?” “Who are the wheat?” “Who will be gathered into the Lord’s heavenly barns, and who will be thrown into the fire to be burned?” These are pretty urgent questions! After all, we all want to be the wheat in God’s heavenly barns, and not the weeds in the fire! But instead of talking about the wheat and the weeds, I want to talk about the mustard seed.
I love mustard – French’s yellow mustard, stone-ground mustard, Dijon mustard, wasabi mustard – you name it, I love it. But that’s not why the mustard seed is important. The mustard seed is important because it shows us that God doesn’t need much – He just needs a little seed, the smallest of seeds. The mustard bush – one of the largest of plants – comes from this tiny, almost invisible seeds.
The growth of the mustard seed into this great bush is about the spiritual growth that God desires for each and every one of us. We tend to think of spiritual growth as being something only experienced by a few, extraordinary people. But that is not the case! The growth experienced by the mustard seed is meant for all of us. You, my brothers and sisters in Christ, are called to be holy. Actually, that is not quite right. You see, you are not just called to be holy. You are called to the heights of holiness – you are called to be a saint, a person of heroic virtue whose life is a beacon of light to the world. Holiness of course, is extraordinary – it is beyond the realms of what we are naturally capable of according to our fallen human nature. But Christ died on the Cross and rose from the dead so that the extraordinary (PAUSE) might become the ordinary.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we should be striving to build up a parish and a world in which it is not extraordinary to be holy – to be a saint. Rather, this should be our expectation of what it means to be normal. God wants everyone to have this kind of faith that grows into the largest of bushes. Think about our Lord’s metaphor of the mustard seed. The growth of the mustard seed is not really extraordinary at all. It takes place by a natural process. We expect that the mustard seed will grow into that big and sturdy bush. So why should not we expect that holiness – a living, active, and vibrant faith – would be a normal part of the Christian life?
The problem, though, is that holiness has gotten a bad rap. For most of my life, I thought that holiness meant being boring. Hopefully I will not wade into waters in which my advice is unwelcome, but I think this has its roots in the way we raise our children. A good child – a “well-behaved” child, we tend to think – is a quiet child. He is a child who does not make a mess, does not make his siblings cry, and – most importantly of all – leaves his parents alone for just one blessed moment of peace – please! (I imagine most of you have “been there.”) (This, incidentally, is what often leads people to placate their children with electronic media devices, a trend that a growing body of psychological research shows is already having devastating consequences for our culture. However, the problem has its roots not in tablets or smartphones but in the Victorian era 19th Century ideal that “children should be seen and not heard.” We have been dealing with this for quite some time.)
Like I said, this is all very understandable, but just because something is understandable does not mean that it is not problematic. You see, each of us who were raised to think that being a good boy or girl meant being quiet and out of the way instinctively import this same idea onto what it means to be good in the sight of God. But God, my brothers and sisters in Christ, does not want a bunch of good little boys and girls who are seen and not heard. He wants rambunctious, joyful children, who are ready to go out into the world and, in the famous words of our Holy Father, “hacer lío” – make a mess.
If holiness is not being a good, boring little boy or girl, then what is it? The problem is that it is really hard to say. Holiness looks and feels differently in each person because each of us are so different. For some people, holiness is that stereotypical image of the person kneeling in church and praying the rosary, because some people have been given the charism of interceding for others in prayer. In others, it looks like leading a Bible study, because they have been given the charism of teaching. In others, it looks like having coffee with a fallen away Catholic friend or relative to invite them to be a part of a church activity, because they have received the charism of evangelization. Each of our mustard trees is going to be different, because each of us is different. The important thing is that we are out there in the world making a mess, shaking things up for Christ.
What is it, though, that makes that tiny mustard seed grow into the largest of plants? Like the yeast that our Lord also mentions in the parable, we are talking about a living organism. I remember when my grandmother used to make bread at our house. She would work up the dough and then leave it in a chipped, enamel bowl, covered with a towel, in order to rise. One time, I asked her how it was that the bread went from being a clump at the bottom of the bowl to filling it up and even pushing up the towel. So she explained how the yeast worked, and how it was a living thing that ate sugars and expelled carbon dioxide. “Wait,” I thought, “you mean it’s crawling around in the bread like a bug? Yuck!”
Like the yeast and the mustard seed, for our faith to grow, for us to grow in holiness, we must have a living faith. However, one of the paradoxes of growth and life is that it actually comes through death. Remember the words of our Lord in the Gospel of John: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” At our Baptism, we were initiated into Christ’s death by going down into the water (or having it poured over our foreheads), so that we might also participate in the new life of His Resurrection. Something similar happens with the mustard seed.
I mentioned that I really like mustard. When I was in college, I had a professor who was a mentor for me. He taught me a lot about philosophy and literature, but he taught me even more about life. Mark had a serious interest in food, and he had some particular theories about food. One of them was about mustard, specifically, stone-ground mustard. Mark – who had no objection in theory to spending money on expensive condiments – thought that stone-ground mustard was ridiculous. You see, the hallmark of stone-ground mustard is that it contains whole mustard seeds. Mark would point out, though, that you could only get flavor from a mustard seed by grinding it. In order to give flavor, the seed has to be broken and ground. So what, Mark contended, is the point of eating whole mustard seeds? If you want the flavor of mustard – you need to grind the seed up! (Incidentally, I feel similarly about chunky peanut butter. The whole point of peanut butter is that the peanuts are ground up. But that’s just my take on it.)
Our parish is a jar of mustard seeds, just waiting to be broken up and ground so that it can flavor the world with the richness of the Gospel – which is far better than even the best mustard (even for a mustard fanatic like me). Sometimes, I, your pastor, will be the one doing the grinding. I will have to preach some difficult homilies, to call you away from sin, to make you feel uncomfortable, to challenge your way of thinking. I would hope that, likewise, you would also be the stone that grinds my mustard seeds, that tells me when I am lacking or when I should be more devoted to your spiritual welfare. Regardless, though, it is the Holy Spirit who will be the one who is ultimately grinding our mustard seeds, convicting us of sin in our hearts and calling us to new life and spiritual growth.
A similar thing happens when a seed grows into a plant. It cannot become a plant and remain a seed – it has to burst through its shell, which is ruined in the process of the growth. It does so when it is watered. The seeds of our faith have been watered by our Baptism and given all the nutrients necessary to burst into life. They continue to be watered by the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ, bathing us in that sacred flood every time that He forgives our sins in Confession and every time that we approach His sacred altar worthily to commune with His Body and Blood. This is the nourishment most desperately needed by our seeds of faith in order to grow into the full bush of Christian holiness.
God does not need much – just a little seed. Be ready to be ground and watered so that you can burst forth into life.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist
XVI Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXVII