11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
A young priest decided he wanted to be a police chaplain; so he took the written examination at the station.
One of the questions was, “What would you do to disperse a frenzied crowd?”
He thought for a moment, then wrote he answer: “I’d take up a collection.”
Sometimes, we know just the right answer to fix a problem we’re having! But sometimes, the trick to fixing a problem is letting those with greater expertise or knowledge tackle it for us, or to instruct us how to work with them in solving it. In our Gospel for today, Jesus discusses one of the perennial problems of the church: how to get the seed of faith to sprout in individuals and how to get that faith, once sprouted, to grow and flourish and become a real witness to the world of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. As his disciples, we need to take our guidance from our Savior and Redeemer and allow him work through us, to further spread the Kingdom of God.
The first guiding point Jesus gives us, is that we can’t force a person to believe. Belief is a gift, a blessing, a free offering from God. There is no one formula, no one way of doing ministry, no one cookie-cutter approach that will speak to everyone and make them believe in Christ and accept his free offer of salvation. We all come from diverse life experiences and family histories. We all have unique parents and personalities which have developed over many years. We all have particular vantage-points based on our educational level, personal interests and occupations. Jesus understood that. What Jesus did, in his own lifetime on earth, was to value and respect every person with whom he came into contact and to get to understand what made them tick—what their passions and interests were, what images and stories they could relate to, and what doubts and misgivings they had, about what he was saying and doing. He listened to their hurts and their sense of isolation.
He observed their self-righteous attitudes and feelings of superiority. He invested time in hearing their questions, observing their behaviors, evaluating the outside forces which may have influenced their lives, and loved them as his neighbor, even if they chose to follow a different path than the one he presented.
In this way, Jesus demonstrated to us that the way to begin evangelizing, the way to begin planting the seed, is to enter into relationship not just with persons like us, but also with persons unlike us, with persons from whom our own prejudices and judgments can be challenged and grow from that interaction, in the process.
Starting a new relationship begins from where we are, ourselves. We can only speak about what we know. We don’t have to speak like a theologian or like some biblical scholar. We don’t have to think we have to have all the answers to why the Catholic Church teaches what it does. No, there are plenty of human and informational resources to which we can refer persons more adept at answering those questions than ourselves. If we like, though, perhaps we can share a significant aspect of the church that has helped us spiritually or perhaps share our favourite story in the bible, if we think that might help.
What we need most surely, is a willingness to open ourselves up and share with others the ways in which God’s grace has blessed our own lives and how that grace is still active and outpouring upon our daily living. This is especially powerful when we’ve experienced something really sad or tragic, and yet are still able to show how our faith helped us through that dark place and brought us out into the light, spiritually.
Jesus demonstrated this form of evangelization during his lifetime on earth, time and time again. He preferred to spend time with those unlike him. That’s why Jesus reached out to the tax collectors and prostitutes.
That’s why he healed lepers and those whose family history or personal lives were blamed for their isolating disability. That’s why he had female followers who often were on the fringes of society. That’s why he would go wherever he was invited, even if it might result in criticism. He spoke in terms and about subjects that he knew well. Coming from an agrarian society, Jesus spoke so often of seeds, planting, harvest time, farm animals, and how to tell the weather and seasons of the year. Having spent time with his fishermen disciples, he could also talk about boating, casting nets and collecting fish of every kind. If Jesus were walking among us today, he might be speaking about the results of the latest hockey game in his tweets and how that game reveals an aspect of the Kingdom; he’d have his own facebook live videos speaking about raising children and managing the stresses of work and play; he’d speak about God using scientific terminology and images of the cosmos made available by our space satellites.
The point is….Jesus wanted to find connecting points to persons’ everyday lived experiences and to use his own lived experience to enter into a journey and dialogue with them, and to identify with them, in a personal way. This was how he planted the seeds of faith and invited them to let God’s Spirit produce the growth and the bountiful harvest.
Jesus assures us, in our work of spreading the faith to others, that we’re not responsible for the growth. The growth is the Holy Spirit’s domain, and the Spirit will not force her way into another’s life. A person has to welcome the Spirit in and commit to letting the grace that God gives, to seep into the cracks and crevices of one’s brokenness. We don’t have to know how God’s Holy Spirit does this— only that the Spirit does because we’ve experienced it ourselves and can offer assurances to others that God knows how to heal and bring them back to the vision God has for their lives, if only they will take that leap of faith.
That being said, unbeknownst to us, the Holy Spirit may use us as his instruments; she may use a church service or an inspirational song to motivate someone to embrace faith. The Spirit may use a chance encounter while on a walk, a particular passage from the Bible, a sacramental celebration, the persons sitting around us right now, or a person in our homes to communicate the words that we need to hear to open our hearts and souls to the saving message of the Gospel! That’s the great thing about God’s Holy Spirit! She can’t be contained, can’t be harnessed, can’t be controlled, can’t be explained fully. What’s more, the Holy Spirit demonstrates that God’s offer of salvation isn’t limited to just a few. The Kingdom of God is big! Really big! It’s getting bigger each day! The question is: Are we willing to help it expand by following the example of evangelization given to us by our Lord, Jesus Christ? Are we willing to plant a mustard seed and foster its growth into the greatest of all shrubs capable of offering nesting and shade to all who are in need?