St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel—Mark 4:26-34, Ezekiel 17:22-24
As I look at my Facebook feed, there’s a quote that I see at least once a week, it seems. It’s attributed to St Teresa of Ávila, and it goes like this:
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
As I mentioned, it’s a very popular quote, and it’s not difficult to see why. On its face, it just seems to make sense, and it’s quite inspiring; it makes you want to get out into the world and do some good in the Name of Jesus. So it’s with some trepidation that I’m going to take the opportunity this morning to be the skunk at the garden party, the curmudgeon everybody wishes would keep quiet. I’m going to make a case that this quote, whether or not it actually comes from St Teresa, runs smack dab up against the two parables in today’s gospel.
The first of these parables is about a farmer. He does what farmers do: plants seeds, waters them, presumably fertilizes and pulls weeds around them. He also does what all people do—get up in the morning, interact with others, eat and drink, work, and go to bed at night. In the meantime, his crop grows. He doesn’t know precisely how. He certainly does not make it grow. But grow it does, and eventually it’s mature, and he takes out his sickle and harvests it.
That was a simple parable, as parables go, but the second one is even simpler. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is a very, very small seed. Yet, when the mustard plant is mature, it’s a shrub that dominates the garden, large enough that even birds find it attractive to perch on its branches.
The theological and spiritual takeaway from there two parables is that God gives the growth, God gives the increase. Now, if you’re hyper-attentive to everything about the Diocese of Springfield, you’ll know that this is the historic Latin motto of our diocese: “Deus dat incrementum,” God gives the increase. And we ignore that at our peril. The parable about the farmer does everything it can to downplay and minimize the activity and effort of the farmer—he sows, he waters, he eventually reaps—and to highlight and magnify what God accomplishes—God is responsible for the actual growth of the crop.
When we forget that it is God who gives the growth, or when we ignore our knowledge that it is God who gives the growth, we assume that it is then all up to us, because, of course, Christ has no body but ours; no hands, no feet on earth but ours. We find ourselves consumed by frenetic activity toward the end of confecting, conjuring, ushering in, what we suppose is God’s plan, or even, as some express it, fulfilling God’s “dream.” When this happens, the Church becomes just another social service agency, not much different than the local food stamp office or the Rotary Club, except that we pray before meals … and even the Rotary Club does that, last I checked.
Perhaps we miss this point of these parables because we have a tendency to wander off from the company of those to whom Jesus explains his parables. To the public, Mark tells us, Jesus spoke only in parables, but to his closest disciples, he explained them. In other words, those who were closest to Jesus had the benefit of understanding the deeper things of God, the more profound mysteries of God’s presence in the world. Those who kept Jesus at a distance, those who only heard him as he addressed the crowd, did not have that insider’s advantage.
It is our relationship to Jesus that most dramatically influences how we perceive what God is up to in the world, what God is up to in history. But it’s not what we might call the “historical Jesus” that I’m talk about here; that is, the man Jesus of Nazareth who walked among the towns and countryside and villages of Roman Palestine two-thousand years ago. We don’t have access to that Jesus the way those who heard his agricultural parables from his own lips did. The Jesus to whom we have access is the risen and ascended and glorified Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. The Christ to whom we do have access—and here I’m going to ask St Teresa to let me bend her words to my purpose! —the Christ to whom we have access is available in the life and ministry of his holy Church. Christ has no body but the body of the Church. Christ has no hands but the hands of the Church. I said in the context of some confirmations a few weeks ago that these hands of mine are not important because they’re the hands of Daniel Martins, but because they’re the hands of the Bishop of Springfield, and, through them, the touch of the Apostles, which passes along the touch of the historical Jesus, reaches across the centuries, right into our own lives today.
The disciples were privileged to have Jesus explain his parables to them because they were close to him, they were in a vital relationship with him. The way you and I can put ourselves in the way of a similar advantage is by abiding in Christ, remaining in close connection to him through the community of the Church—through the Church’s scriptures, through the Church’s worship, through the Church’s sacraments, and through the Church’s people. We have another botanical image today in our first reading, from Ezekiel, which describes a massive cedar tree, grown from a mere sprig, so large that innumerable birds find a home in its branches. We can understand that tree to be a figure for the Church, which is large enough to offer a home to the variegated diversity of human beings who are called by the risen and glorified Christ to faith and discipleship.
I see many mottos and mission statements from parishes and dioceses that include the words “change the world,” or something like them. I think I understand the charitable intent behind those words. People who speak and write them really do want to be agents of change for the good, even to do God’s work. But I hope no group of Christians, or any other human community, ever entertains the notion that we are or will, with sustained effort, even over several generations, ever be able to fix the world. And for that matter, speaking internally, we’re not, by our own efforts, ever going to “fix” the Church. Fixing the world, fixing the Church, is up to God. Deus dat incrementum. God gives the growth. The most we can do is do a little bit of planting, a little bit of watering, and, if we’re at the right place at the right time, a little bit of reaping. I, for one, take great comfort from that.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.