God gives the growth

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul offered his perspective concerning the growth and development of the community: "I planted the seed and Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. This means that neither he who plants nor he who waters is of any special account, only God who gives the growth" (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).

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Eleventh Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92
2 Corinthians 5:6-10
Mark 4:26-34

Ezekiel, in today's first reading, was reminding his contemporaries of the same truth: God is in charge. Just as God had called the enslaved forth from Egypt and made of them a people with a land of their own, so had God been at the heart of every aspect of Israel's history. Interpreting every high point ("I, the Lord ... lift high the lowly tree") and low point ("I, the Lord, bring low the high tree"), Ezekiel urged his people to remember they were rooted in God and to live in reliance on their Maker.

With the first parable of today's Gospel, Mark has made a similar point. Farmers sow seeds and do all that is necessary to foster their growth. The seed sprouts, grows and ripens to harvest because it is God who gives the growth.

Mark and Ezekiel shared their parables not to offer lessons in agriculture, but to remind believers that God is at the heart of all we are. We are not the center of the universe; rather, God is at the center of all that is. When we fail to realize this truth, we lose our roots and cannot grow. We bear no fruit.

But what can bring us back to our centeredness in God when we are off-kilter or lost in navel-gazing? For the Israelites, suffering was often the factor that led them back to God. Because they attributed everything that happened, both good and bad, to God, whatever they suffered (losses in war, disease, famine, the exile) was viewed as a punishment for their sins and infidelity. Through the ministry of their prophets, they were able to accept suffering as a pruning of sorts to make them better and more fruitful servants of God.

I am reminded of a sermon once given by the Rev. Henry Emerson Fosdick at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He related the experience of a friend who visited an apple orchard in Maine. There, he saw apple trees so laden with fruit that their branches had to be propped up to keep them off the ground.

When asked about it, the orchard owner told his visitor to look at the trunks of the trees near the bottom. When he did, he saw that the trees had been wounded with a deep gash. "That is something we have learned about apple trees," said the owner. "When the tree tends to run to wood and leaves and not to fruit, we wound it, gash it, and, almost always, no one knows why, this is the result: It turns its energies to fruit."

And so it could be with the church and every individual believer. While we do not believe that God, the author of life, wounds us or causes us to suffer, those occasions of suffering in our lives can be opportunities for growth and development -- as persons, as church.

These times are also graced moments in which we grow closer to one another and to all of the human family. In our unity, we become strong and able to bear the good fruits of justice, peace, harmony and truth. In one of his many eloquent speeches, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "A man has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."

The sacred texts this week and every week call us to grow, both individually and together. Like the mustard seed in today's Gospel, we may start small. We may take baby steps that seem imperceptible. But day after graced day, in communion with the Lord and one another, we can become a force to be reckoned with -- a transformative force, one so much needed in our world.

Day by day, spurred on by the catalyst of suffering, however it comes, we can become a community whose witness draws others to God. However, as Paul has pointed out in today's second reading, all of our growth will depend upon our firm faith in God, who gives us the courage we need in every circumstance.

[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]

This story appeared in the June 5-18, 2015 print issue under the headline: God gives the growth .

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