One thing I really love about this extended fall we’re having is that I can spend more time in the garden. Several years ago, Cherise and I moved into a house in Bridgeport with amazing perennial gardens. The problem was that, as a kid who grew up in Manhattan, I had absolutely zero experience – I couldn’t tell the difference between a weed and a flower. So I either had to hire a gardener I couldn’t afford… or learn how to do it myself.
As grace would have it, a parishioner in her 80’s volunteered to teach me. And the first lesson had to do with the fact that there is no consistent relationship between the size of a seed, and the plant it eventually produces. In fact, some of the tiniest seeds can produce the most extravagant vegetation. Remember Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed?
It’s a seed like this that makes its appearance at the end of today’s gospel, arguably the most beautiful canticle in the entire Bible, The Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord;” Mary says, “my spirit rejoices in God my savior… Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed…”
And we have. Generations of the world’s greatest artists and musicians have tried to capture Mary’s powerful and prophetic words in gorgeous paintings and exquisite musical compositions, but in the end, the words themselves carry the starkest beauty. And the fact that these words are spoken by one of the few women prophets who survived generations of mostly male scriptural editing, makes them even more extraordinary.
Because the words carry such power, such confidence, it’s easy to forget Mary’s actual circumstance – a very ordinary young teen, betrothed to an older man, who experiences some kind of other worldly encounter with a frightening creature full of light, who gives her what only an extraterrestrial could call good news: “You’re going to get pregnant by some spirit, and have a baby you’ll call Jeshua – he who saves. But don’t worry, I’ll send another extraterrestrial to your fiancée in his sleep to break the news. What do you think? Are you game?”
Well, I’d like you to remember back to your early teen years, and imagine yourself in whichever role would fit best – Mary or her fiancée. Really, how do you think you might respond?
Mary must have felt the same range of emotions we would – including panic. But rather than take one look at this awesome creature and bolt, she apparently focuses not outside, but inside. She accesses some inner wisdom, some strength that allows her to say the words that always send a chill down my spine –
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Because we know the rest of the story, we know what that “Yes” will cost Mary.
The power and inspiration that Mary accesses is the tiny seed of faith, a modest share of divinity planted deep within each of us. That’s part of what it means to be made in the “image of God,” the ability to overcome our egos and the rest of our human limitations, and actually try to make decisions as if we had something in common with God.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t scary for Mary to say “Yes” to God, just like it’s scary for us. French abbot and poet Michel Quiost puts it beautifully,
“I am afraid of saying ‘Yes,’ Lord.
Where will you take me?
I am afraid of drawing the longer straw,
I am afraid of signing my name to an unread agreement,
I am afraid of the ‘yes’ that entails other ‘yeses.’
Mostly we’re unaware of this tiny seed, but it’s there. And because it’s there, it allows us to consider saying “Yes” to the most outrageous invitations God offers.
When have you found yourself, against all odds, able to say “Yes?” Maybe it was the decision to believe in yourself enough to apply to Yale. Or maybe, after a really tough first year, it was the decision to stay. For some of you, it meant coming out to those closest to you, about who you really are. For others, it was standing up for someone or some cause that was really unpopular with your peers. For many of us, it’s when we choose to enter into the chaotic life of someone we care about, no matter how disruptive to our own lives. simply because they needed us.
In those tough moments, how did you find the courage to rise above your fear and do the right thing? Well, maybe the answer lies in the fact that God, knowing we are human, doesn’t stop by simply planting the seed of divinity within us. God also provides the continuous loving encouragement of the Holy Spirit to water and nurture that seed so that it grows and spreads, so that it will be as strong and courageous as we need it to be when the going gets tough.
And the Holy Spirit has lots to work with. For example, she offers you any number of wonderful individuals to be friends with, people who will respect you, support you, and encourage you to make healthy choices. She deepens your faith by giving you the wisdom to choose from among the incredible multiplicity of activities Yale offers, and to pick the ones that will strengthen you emotionally and spiritually. She does it by planting within you a yearning, a kind of unsettledness that neither human relationships nor all kinds of busyness can ever fill. “You have made us for yourself, Oh Lord…” St. Augustine famously said, “…and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
And finally, she does it by inviting you into a community like ECY, fragile, flawed, funny, and foolish, a motley group of souls who commit to loving each other as God loves us, to picking each other up when we stumble, and to helping water that tiny seed of our faith during the times when we feel bone dry.
Face it, we’re all worriers. We especially worry whether we will have enough faith, enough courage to do the right thing when the going gets really tough. But don’t worry, here’s the real miracle of God’s gift of that tiny seed. All we need to do is to develop the habit of looking around every day, seeing all the resources God provides us, take a deep breath, and say “Yes,” to all the little choices we are faced with. That way, when the really tough ones come along, we may just find that they’re a piece of cake.