we’re the birds

God has planted the trees and caused them to grow. It’s not all on us.

Homily for June 13, 2021.

we’re the birds

God tells us today, through his prophet Ezekiel, that he will take a tender shoot from the highest branches of a cedar tree and plant it in the mountains of Israel, making a home for birds of every kind and every sort of winged thing. Christ also mentions a tree to us today, a tree which grows large enough so that all the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade. When we read such things, it is tempting to think we are somehow related to the seeds or the trees. For example, we can understand the mustard seed as a seed of faith planted in our hearts so that virtue, represented by the birds, may find shelter in our souls. This is, certainly, a good way to understand the parable. When we put the parable into a greater Biblical context, I think a somewhat different reality emerges: We are the birds.

Credit: El Golli Mohamed, via Wikimedia Commons

We human beings love to do things. We like to build stuff. (Unless we are 3 year old boys, in which case we like to destroy stuff.) We like to be able to say, “I did that!” and maybe slap our name on the thing. It is no different in our spiritual lives. We like to claim that we are in control. That our hard efforts at prayer and asceticism led to us being good Christians. While this is, to an extent, true, we must recognize one very important thing: We are the birds. We aren’t in control. And that’s OK. God has provided a place for us to find refreshment and rest from our labors. He invites us to stay and make our home with him in the shady branches he has provided for us. The tree is the Kingdom of God, and we are invited to live there.

When we look at what God spoke through Ezekiel, we learn that the topmost branch of the cedar refers to the King of Israel. When God says he will take from the crest of the cedar and plant it on the highest mountain in Israel, (New Jerusalem Bible) he is undoubtedly giving us a glimpse of Calvary, where Jesus the Christ, the Anointed One, was planted on Calvary. God tells us that this cedar he has planted shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar. From Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, the Church gushed forth from his wounded side, and she spread through all the world, giving refuge to all the poor ones suffering from the tyranny of evil and sin. God finishes his speech through Ezekiel by saying I, the LORD, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, wither up the green tree, and make the withered tree bloom. God wants us to remember that he is in control, no matter what the political powers of this world might want us to think. Our trust belongs in God.

While we are still on this earth, though, we do not see God clearly, and it can be hard to trust him. Many things block our sight of God; so, we must walk by faith. St. Paul exhorts us to be courageous, and we certainly must be courageous. The Christian life is not easy. We stumble and fall constantly. Sometimes we fall flat on our face and lose the way entirely. We must pray always, asking God to show us the way and to have the strength to continue following him. No matter what sin we fight every day, we must bring it to prayer, surrender it to God, and ask for his help in finding our way back to him. For mortal sins, we bring them to confession so that the gaping wound in our soul can be sewn up and healed.

As we work to find our shelter in the Kingdom of God, let us also remember one more thing about birds. Birds help to scatter the seeds as well. As Christians, we are called to take the Good News and bring it to those around us, so that the Kingdom of God might grow. Most of us do this within our marriages. The love of spouses should be an image of the love of God: fruitful and beautiful. There are many, though, called to spread the Good News in a different way. Those of us called to religious life or to the priesthood are called to love just as fruitfully and beautifully. No matter what your vocation, do no be afraid to follow God. Do not let society deter you. If we follow society, we’ll find ourselves in a dead tree with no shade and recognize that we’re just a whole bunch of angry crows.

Instead, let God be in control. Fly into the branches of his kingdom. Let God lead you to his lush garden, full of beauty and peace.

Cedars of Lebanon from Wikimedia Commons

Today’s Readings:
June 13, 2021
Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B
Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:25-34

Fathers and the Seed of Faith

Father recently planted a garden at the rectory. It looked like a lot of work! First, he picked a good spot. It had to get lots of sunlight, and be far enough from the tree to discourage birds and squirrels from stopping by for lunch. Next, he prepared the ground. He cleared the grass and weeds. He tilled the soil, making it loose and fresh for new plants. Then came the planting. That part is pretty straightforward — you put the plants in the ground. Now, though, it’s up to the plants to grow. No human can tell a plant to grow, or even explain how a plant “knows” to grow. They just do. Father can help those plants. He can fertilize them, make sure they’re watered, put in trellises for the tomatoes, but he can’t make them to grow. He just watches them grow, like the man in Jesus’s parable today. Slowly but surely, the plants grow. Now, Father could also hurt the plants’ chances of growing by not watering them, by letting weeds overtake them, or by planting too many plants in the space, but he also can’t make them stop growing. Such a plant could overcome the odds against it and survive.

Paul says to the Corinthians today that “we walk by faith.” This faith is a gift from God. Faith is one of those seeds God plants inside us. It will do its best to grow in us whether we want it to or not, but like a plant in a garden we can nurture it or hinder it throughout our lives. Paul tells us that when we die each of us will “appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” Christ will ask us for the harvest, for the fruits of the faith that he planted inside of us. Our answer decides whether we go to an eternal reward or punishment. Our actions in this earthly life have such an important effect on our eternal life, the stakes are so very high; so, we must do our best to nurture the gifts God gave us. We must let our seed of faith grow into the big mustard plant Jesus talks about, that Ezekiel’s majestic cedars, or into the big ‘ole tomatoes that I hope show up in Father’s garden! To do this, to nurture the seeds of faith in ourselves and let them grow, we must live virtuously and morally; we must pray; and, we must make use the sacraments God gave us. All these things, especially the sacraments, give us grace. Grace is kind of like Miracle-Gro® for the seed of faith that God has planted inside of us.

Nurturing these seeds of faith is a good thing, but nurture is not the only part of gardening. The ground must be made ready. Jesus left these steps out, but he assumes that we will know these things. This leads to some questions. Who prepares us for receiving the first seed of faith? Who clears out the weeds and junk that’s in the way of God planting these seeds in our soul? Who tills the ground in our souls to prepare us for the gifts God wants to give us? Who nurtures our faith when we are too young to do it ourselves, and then teaches us how to nurture it? God certainly plays a part, but these critical activities are entrusted to a couple of very important people in everyone’s life: our parents.

We humans depend on our parents for a long time. Not only do we depend on them for our physical development, but also for our emotional development, for our mental development, and for the development and training of our souls. 1 Our parents teach us not only what is true, but even how to learn. Our parents teach us how to behave properly, to do good things, and how to live in a community. Both our mother and the father have important, but unique, roles in raising us. Each of them contributes in their own special way so that each of us grows to our full potential. Today, though, we celebrate Father’s Day. Since society’s understanding of fatherhood often ignores our fathers’ impact on our faith, I thought that we should take a look at the special ways that our dads contribute to us growing in faith.

Our fathers are providers and protectors, but those are not their only jobs. In nearly every culture that has existed—especially the Roman culture on which western society is based—the father was paterfamilias, the absolute and unquestionable household leader. After two thousand years of Christianity, we’ve figured out that even though our dad is supposed to be a leader, he is not supposed to be an emperor or a dictator. He is supposed to lead as Jesus taught his apostles to lead: with love and kindness, but also firmness and strength. A father’s goal, ultimately, should always be to give life to others, both physically and spiritually. 2 In the oldest stories of the Old Testament, the father was the one who offered sacrifice to God: he was the religious leader. Modern studies have shown that when dad is faithful about coming to Mass and practicing his faith, the rest of the family is much more likely to do so as well. The example of our fathers is powerful, and our dad’s example is one of the most powerful ways that he leads us. In leading us by example, with love, gentleness, and firmness, our fathers teach us. They teach us how to act when the time comes to act. They teach us that force is not the first way to resolve a problem, but they also teach us to be courageous and stand up for ourselves and others. They teach us how to love others. A father teaches his sons how men should treat women, and a father teaches his daughters how they should demand to be treated by men.

A Christian father’s duty to teach is so foundational that it is mentioned in the rite of baptism. At the end of a baptism, the celebrant gives three blessings: one to the mother, one to the father, and another to everyone gathered. The prayer over the father says: “God is the giver of all life, human and divine. May he bless the father of this child. He and his wife will be the first teachers of their child in the ways of faith. May they be also the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The father teaches his children, together with his wife not only with words, but also their example.

All men are called to some sort of fatherhood, either as a biological father or as a spiritual father. Men, do not be afraid of this work. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said that “Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched” 3 How are our hearts stretched? Fathers are called to sacrifice for those entrusted to their care. Fathers are called to purify their lives from all sin. Today, fathers are called into a fierce battle with the sins against chastity. Fathers are called to be courageous and die to themselves in order to teach, to love, and to bring life to their wives, their children, and to the whole world. Men, we are called to follow the ways of our Lord, our Commander in the battle against evil, and our one true King, Jesus Christ. “[T]he ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness.” 4

Sadly, many of us no longer have our father with us—for any number of tragic reasons. If our human fathers are no longer with us, we need not fear. God, our perfect, heavenly Father is always with us. He loves us so much that He became one of us. He showed us what life looks like without sin. He sent his only Son to us to protect us from our enemies and to teach us how we can purify our hearts and our minds. He sent his Holy Spirit to continuously and gently lead us back to him. He sacrificed himself, and willingly died so that we might learn what true, life-giving love is.

Today, let us thank God for planting the seeds of faith within us. Let us thank our earthly fathers for tilling the soil of our souls and nurturing the seed of faith as it grows in us. Finally, let us make a conscious decision to do everything we can to nurture the seed of faith in our hearts and in the hearts of others by living virtuous lives, virtuous lives in which we seek the will of God and do it.

Note: Into the Breach is an excellent apostolic exhortation written by Bishop Olmstead of Phoenix. I read it in preparation for this homily. While I did not directly quote it, it was influential in the development of this homily.

Today’s Readings:
June 17, 2018
11th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B (USA: Father’s Day)
Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34