Someone commented to me a few weeks ago that I’ve been giving better homilies over the past few months. How one comes to that judgement in any objective way, I don’t know, but, reflecting on my own experience of preaching over the last few months, I have noticed a difference. Whether the homilies have been “better”, I’ll leave to others, but I can say that it has been easier for me to hear the word of God in recent times and to discern what God is saying to me in my daily life. His word is the seed of what then bears fruit in the homilies and in the way I live my life. I’ve thought about why this is so. What have I done differently in these past months? I’ve not spent any more time than usual reading biblical commentaries. I’ve not taken any seminars on preaching or practiced preaching techniques. Perhaps I’ve had some more quiet time to pray, to reflect on the Word of God, and to prepare than usual, but I really have not done anything differently. The big difference is what is happening in the world with the pandemic and the cultural and political unrest all around us. I’ve been shaken not only out of my normal routine, but this stuff shakes us deep down to be more in touch with those questions about what life is about. What matters? What is most important in life? This situation makes us seek for meaning. I find that when I am shaken up about something – bothered, upset, or disturbed – and I take it to prayer with the scriptures, the scriptures come alive – the scriptures speak to me in a new way, and I hear a word that I have not heard before. That “word” is not so much a specific direction – “You should do this…” but the awareness that God is speaking to my situation and that Jesus, the Word of God, is present in my life. When things get turned upside down in life, it is then that we often become most open to God’s word and his presence. Jesus uses the image of the seed and the sower to teach about receptivity to the word of God. The fruitfulness of the seed is dependent on the quality of the ground into which it falls. The “richer” the soil, the more fruit the seed bears. Anyone who has worked in a garden or on a farm will tell you about the all the work necessary that goes into make “rich” soil. The soil needs to be cared for continuously. The soil is turned over by plowing or tilling. This work breaks up the crust on the surface, disrupts the weeds, mixes in the nutrients of the fertilizer, and loosens the soil. This is what prepares the soil or cultivates the soil so that the seed can be planted and the crops can grow. Deacon Lou, who spent many a day in his youth working on the family farm, told me that they would have to cultivate the plot three days a week. The regular hoeing of the soil removed the weeds and agitated the soil to keep it loose. If the soil is loose, it absorbs the water more easily and the nutrients get to the roots of the plant. So there is something analogous to our ability to receive the seed of God’s word and have it bear fruit in our lives when the “soil” of our lives is agitated, turned over, and things get rooted up. Without being “broken open” in some way by the events of life – without the routine being disrupted in some way – the word of God has a hard time penetrating. It is very easy to live on the “surface level”. A hard “crust” can form over time that makes it hard to hear the deep need of our hearts. Often it takes some event to shake us – to loosen the foundations which we have built – those things we have put our trust in – to break through that crust and to expose the root of who we are as human beings. St. Paul describes this “root” of what it means to be human in the passage of the Letter to the Romans we hear today. “Creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility… all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now… we groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” We have a deep longing for God – for God to reveal himself. We are longing for eternal life – a new and greater life. We are longing to be “adopted” and the freedom that comes from this divine embrace. There is a futility of our own efforts to satisfy this longing for we are made for something greater than this world.
But the event that shakes us up, in and of itself, does not allow the word of God to penetrate our lives. It is not something automatic. This is where our “work” comes in and where God respects our freedom – not forcing himself on us. What do we do when we experience that groaning in our hearts? Do we ignore it? Try to distract ourselves from it? Reality is like a parable that is designed to provoke in us a question. Jesus teaches in parables for this reason. The parable is meaningless and makes no sense unless we allow it to question us and then seek answers to the question the parable provokes. The disciples are provoked by this method of Jesus and approach him with the question, “Why?” What distinguishes them from the crowd is that they are actively following Jesus. They have a personal relationship with him. They are “in the boat” with him. They are not standing on the side-lines of life like spectators watching life go by. They were seekers in touch with the question “what are you looking for?”, so when Jesus came into their lives, they responded and followed. They recognized in him the answer to what they were longing to see. This is what they “have” that enables them to grow richer in faith. The crowd hears the same words – the crowd experiences the same “event” – but do not want to see what it means. They are not interested in listening to what is being revealed in the event. With reference to the words from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus implies that there is an active resistance on their part. “They have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes … and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them.” It is not comfortable to listen to the groaning or the restlessness of our heart because it reveals the futility of our efforts to satisfy it. But this desire is not a defect or something to be reduced or confined but the path to conversion and healing.
The beautiful thing revealed in this parable is that God sows his word – he speaks his word to all of us – no matter the condition of our “soil”, and we’ve all been aptly described by those different soil types at different times in our life. The Lord doesn’t stop sowing. We all ought to hear because we all have ears. In other words, we were made to receive his Word. But our desire to hear can be covered over if that desire is not cultivated. Perhaps what is shaking us up now is how the Lord is “preparing the land” and “breaking up its clods” so we can be more open to his saving word. My guess is that my homilies really have not gotten much better, but the person who made that comment, like myself, has been shaken up by the circumstances we are living now and has become more open to hearing God’s word. Let’s not be afraid to listen to our hearts, ask questions, and approach Jesus in faith that he is teaching us and desiring fruitfulness in our lives. The more we engage life with Jesus, the richer it becomes and the more fruit we will bear.