[Homily delivered on June 30, 2019]
1 Kgs 19:15–16, 19–21
Gal 5:1, 13–25
One of my favorite things to witness is a seed sprouting. As a sometimes hobby, I have sprouted many seeds and acorns over the years, oaks and maples and even oranges. Sometimes I will save my apple and avocado seeds from the grocery store and sprout them in the window just to watch the miracle of life unfold. It is truly a wonder how something that seems dead can become a flourishing, striving and beautiful creature.
Every time I watch a seed sprout, or see a tree leafing out for first time in spring, I am reminded of grace. Growing up, I did not understand grace very well. It wasn’t until much later in my life as a Christian that the wonder of grace really sunk in. In our readings today, I think we find an abundance of God’s grace, and can see how grace, like a seed, is always patiently waiting for the right conditions to germinate.
In the first reading, from 1 Kings, we read about the call of the Prophet Elisha, who was chosen by God to be the successor of Elijah. Elijah as you may recall, was suffering from deep loneliness and depression over his encounter with Ahab and Jezebel and the Priests of Baal. So God invited him into friendship. As far as we know, Elisha didn’t do anything special to deserve God’s call. He also appeared to be quite well off (he had 12 oxen to slaughter). But Elisha gave everything away to follow God (after an enormous BBQ.) Each of us is called into relationship with God, through the scripture, through prayer, through the sacraments and through service.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul insists that the fledgling churches follow the Gospel as he has preached it, and not capitulate with those early branches preaching adherence to the Law of Moses as a pre-requisite to accepting Jesus as the Messiah. It is in this letter that we get Paul at his most fierce. Paul even recounts calling the Apostle Peter out to his face for hypocrisy.
Believe it or not, I would say that Paul’s fierceness comes from his experience of grace. This grace is what prompted Paul to preach a Kingdom which was germinated by Jesus through his death on the cross and resurrection, included both Jews and Gentiles. The comfortable, enclosed seed coating of law and tradition had been broken wide open, and something new was growing.
Paul is a master of paradox. So in his letter, he is insisting on Gentile inclusion, but he is not saying that the rules no longer apply to Christians. Rather than pointing toward a new purity code, Paul’s ‘Works of the Flesh’ in Galatians 5 are a way of calling out the Christian community from the world and into God’s Kingdom. These Works are the ways in which we routinely block out the light of Christ from shining into our lives.
In my own life as a Christian, for many years I looked to the Works of the Flesh as ‘the rules.’ Do not misuse sex, keep your thoughts pure, be honest, don’t abuse substances, do not manipulate people to get what you want, control your anger, do not fight, resolve conflict. Knowing the rules and attempting to keep them meant that God would love me and bless me. I assumed grace was like a reward for good behavior, or a band aid to be applied to the wound of sin after it had been committed. In this mindset, it was all too easy for me to start to believe that if I sinned too much, I didn’t deserve God’s love. That my wounds were too deep for a band aid to heal.
In Dante’s portrayal of Satan in the Divine Comedy, he is a massive, winged demon. But he is not surrounded by fire, rather, he is completely immobilized, frozen to the waist in ice. He is so self-absorbed that he no longer even notices the world around him. This is where Paul’s Works of the Flesh lead. They are how we get in our own way on our inevitable path toward the New World of God’s loving Kingdom. They are things that we try to substitute for God.
Paul insists that Christians are called to freedom. But how can a letter about freedom include a list of rules? This is where, as always, Paul returns to the Cross. Saint Thomas Aquinas mused that the beatitudes and the noblest human virtues were embodied on the Cross. The crucified Jesus was the icon of a free and happy man. But how can that be? Look at this cross. That is anything but freedom, he cannot move. That is anything but happiness, he is filled with sorrow. That is anything but pleasure, he is in excruciating pain. And yet, that is what fully surrendering to God looks like.
The Works of the Flesh are not just broke rules, they are great obstacles that shade out the light of Christ. This is why Paul then goes on to name one by one, the green shoots that inevitably emerge from letting go of our sin, vice and self-absorption. The Fruits of the Spirit: Love, kindness, peace, goodness, self-control. These are the inevitable fruits when we allow grace to germinate in our lives. These are the harvest when we give our whole selves over to God. These are the fruits, and the seed is grace.
In the Gospel reading, we hear some very good excuses for not following the way of Jesus, for keeping the seeds of grace from touching the soil of our hearts. The Samaritans reject him based on past ethnic strife, others have more pressing matters to attend to, even very important matters such as attending to a funeral. We all have our own “well, first let me…”
One of those pithy one-liners of Jesus captures the pervasiveness of how sin gets in the way of our relationship with God. He says to the man who asks permission to bury his father before he would follows Jesus: “Let the dead bury their dead.” This curious phrase resonates well with what I think Paul is getting at in Galatians with his contrast between the works of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit. Like Satan in Dante’s hell, sin is a kind of spiritual death, stagnation and complete self-absorption.
Like the motif of the sudden call in scripture, there is no better time to follow Christ into deeper communion than right now. But like any seed, grace needs favorable soil to grow in, it needs light from the sun, and it needs nourishment. A life of daily prayer, attending to the sacraments are not merits we are saving up. Avoiding sin is not just ‘keeping the rules.’ The Christian life is the life of a humble gardener, preparing the soil of our hearts for the seed of grace. We cannot germinate the seed ourselves; but grace patiently waits. Like Elisha, like the Apostles, like the disciples who left everything to follow Jesus, all we can do is say yes to God’s call in each moment, and then watch in wonder as grace transforms the rocky soil of our hearts into the garden of God.
 I am indebted to Bishop Robert Barron’s work for this analysis of Paul and Aquinas.