I love that this Gospel reading comes right in the middle of our growing season. ““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 through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”
Some might object that this is a primitive, pre-scientific way of looking at things. Sure, the growth of plants from soil looked like magic and mystery 2000 years ago, but today we understand about photosynthesis and nutrient transport. I say: quite the contrary. The more you know about chlorophyll, I mean the actual molecule and how it works, and the cellular mechanics and all the rest we’ve figured out about plant biology… it makes it all the more astounding. Show me someone who thinks science makes the world less wondrous and mysterious, and I’ll show you someone who knows virtually nothing about science.
Just this Thursday morning out at St. Patrick’s for Mass, I couldn’t believe how that corn had shot up in a week. And it’s no accident, there’s a lot of genetics and technique and chemicals and hard work that contribute to that. But you tell me: if you add all that up, have you totally accounted for the marvel that is a maize plant? At the end of the day, it’s as true today as it was in Jesus’ time: after all his work, eventually the farmer goes to bed, and wakes up, and the crop has grown.
And Jesus says, this is how it is with the Kingdom of God. You can do all the preparation and groundwork and set things up for success, and it’s still not the same thing as making the plant grow. The plant just grows. You create the conditions, and that’s vitally important, of course it is! But at the end of the day, you go to sleep and wake up and the growing happened.
This is how it is with the Kingdom of God. You can create the conditions, and that’s vitally important, and you’ve heard and will continue to hear lots of sermons about that work of ours and how we can create better conditions. But this parable reminds us of something we should never, ever forget: the Kingdom grows of it’s own accord, by some life-force unseen by us, even while we sleep, even without our seeing or comprehending.
Can I pick one way that this matters immensely? This matters immensely in your prayer life. So many Christians approach prayer as though it is their work that does the growing. They think that it’s up to them to find the right technique or frequency or posture or words, or to squint their eyes and furrow their brow and press their hands so tightly together… like a farmer who tries to make his beans grow by physically squeezing them out of the ground. No farmer does that. He creates the right conditions and then he trusts the plant to grow. Just so, the Christian creates the right conditions and trusts the Spirit to grow.
Creating healthy conditions for prayer calls for care and cleverness, for sure. What time of day is most conducive for you? What posture? What prayer forms? That’s all worth paying attention to. Try things out, tweak your technique just like the farmer is always trying something just a bit different. But don’t confuse working the ground with the actual growth. There comes a time when you have to rest from your work and let it grow. Just let it do its thing.
Because Christian prayer is not the work of the praying Christian. Christian prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit. God will do the work. God will produce the growth. You just have to plant a seed.
That’s a great image, a powerful metaphor, but here’s what it means very practically: give time to prayer and trust that it’s working. That’s so basic and simple but I know so many Christians need to hear it! Give time to prayer and trust that it’s working. And never give up or cop out or avoid prayer time because you don’t think you’re doing it right, or because it hasn’t been feeling the way you think it should, or because you aren’t confident that it’s working. Of course you fight distractions, maybe a ton. Of course you don’t necessarily feel like you ‘did it right.’ It’s working. I promise. Open your heart to God, to really change you, and He will. Change is hard, and real change is almost always slow. Do not quit. You might not see change happening, any more than you can stare at a corn field and see it getting taller. You trust it’s happening.
Give time to prayer and trust that it’s working. Do not give up. It is working.
Jesus concludes with one more angle on this idea, and it’s so good. Because how many of us would say, “Who am I to get all spiritually ambitious? I’m the most regular person, when it comes to religion… I’m not the extraordinary one, the super holy one. I’m not the one who always knows a Bible verse, or can come up with a beautiful prayer.” What you’re saying there is that your spiritual seed is small.
If that’s you, I have some bad news: it’s no excuse! It’s no excuse to be spiritually lazy, to have no real prayer life, to never meditate or contemplate, to never read your Bible. Which is, of course, really amazingly good news. There is no better starting place than small. You are, in fact, God’s very favorite thing to work with. Give Him your smallness. He’s not just willing to accept; He thirsts for it. Never ask “Who am I to get all spiritually ambitious?” when the real question is “Who are you to tell God He can’t work with you?” Give him your smallness.
I want to respond like Mary. “He has looked with favor on His lowly servant.” She wasn’t faking or putting on airs; she really felt like just a lowly servant. She gave her smallness. But she magnified God, she understood what our God can do with smallness, as she continued on: “The almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name.” He wants nothing less from us, and He wants nothing less for us… to do great things with our smallness.
Whatever faith you feel like you do or don’t have, you’ve got at least a mustard seed, don’t you? A mustard seed: something so small you squint to see it, so small you can easily lose sight of it altogether and wonder if it’s there at all — but it is, just barely… you’ve got that much, don’t you? If you’re here today I believe you do. Give that to God and let it grow.