The year was 1957. The “space-age” began when the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite into earth orbit. The same year General Motors produced the classic “57 Chevy” – more properly known as the Bel-Aire. It could be yours for $2,400. The price of a new home averages between $12,000 and $20,000. You could rent a home for around $100/month. A week’s worth of groceries was under $20. Gasoline was about $0.24/gallon. A pack of cigarettes cost… well, that doesn’t matter, you shouldn’t be buying cigarettes anway. A top-named TV star was Roy Rogers (the cowboy, not the restaurant). Gunsmoke and Perry Mason were top-rated TV shows. Rock Hudson, John Wayne, Kim Novak, Marilyn Monroe, James Stewart – to name a few – were the top stars in Hollywood. And here was the menu at McDonald’s: hamburgers: $0.15 ($0.19 for a cheeseburger) with french fries and drinks, $0.10 each. The year was 1957 and St. Francis of Assisi parish was founded in Triangle, VA.
The first building was the auditorium where the first Mass was held in September 1957. The school opened with 143 students. The current church building was dedicated in 1984. In 1996, an administrative wing was added to the Church, and in 1999, an additional wing was constructed for use as a pre-school and nursery facility. The school expanded, the parish center was added, families came, the parish grew from 90 families registered in those first years to now when we have some 2,500 families registered.
It’s rather like the image In the first reading. Ezekiel describes the lopping off of a tender shoot from the top of a cedar. Planted on a high mountain, it sank roots and grew into a majestic tree. Hold that image and add to it, the insight of the gospel when Jesus tells us “Without his knowing how it happens,” the seed grows – the parish grows, steadily and surely, until it has become a great crop, ripe for the harvest. How are we to understand Jesus’ parable and Ezekiel’s imagery? The key is to realize exactly who is responsible for the growth of both tree and seed. Answer: God. While lots of pastors and parishioners have made a definite contribution, no one of them is so absolutely necessary that the kingdom will fail in his or her absence. The kingdom will grow and develop “without our knowing how it happens” and in spite of all our faults and foibles because it belongs to, originates in and is ever attended by God.
I am sure we can reconstruct a detailed history of who did what and when, but is that really the point? Imagine yourself visiting this property every ten years starting in 1957. Each visit you take a snapshot. When you view the 7 photographs side-by-side, perhaps the gospel verse from today will come to mind: “Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe… the harvest has come.” You step back from the details of who, what and when – and it is as though we “sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, [we know] not how.” We see the work of many hands, but now we can see the mystery of God’s plan unveiled in part.
Some of us here were in elementary school in 1957. But all of us at that young age come face to face with the mystery of God. At home or at school, we’d place a seed in a little paper cup filled with moistened soil, wait a few days, and watch. Poof, like magic the seed turns into something else: something green, thriving, perhaps even spreading over the rim of the cup. We’d ask our parents to plant it outside. It grew and spread.
I remember helping my dad plant an oak tree in our front yard in 1961. It was a spindly little thing not much taller than me. It didn’t have a branch for a bird to sit on and couldn’t shade a bug. You should see it now. I am reminded of the first reading and the image Ezekiel offers us: a small shoot planted on the top of a majestic mountain growing into a majestic cedar, a giant redwood – a tree with branches and shade galore.
But at the same time, you have to wonder about the mustard seed parable. Yes, it is one of the smallest seeds, but the mustard plant is best described as a bush. It didn’t need to be planted, it spread like a weed. It didn’t offer much shade to speak of and not much in the way of branches. Yes, it attracted all kinds of birds. While we might think of a robin, wren or chickadee – it also attracted the crow, the mocking jay, and more. The mustard plant is scruffy compared to the cedar, but unlike the cedar it relentlessly spreads everywhere. Each gives us a glimpse of the kingdom of God: mountain top majestic and relentlessly growing attracting all kinds of birds. Both firmly planted in the here and now.
Maybe in that here and now, your life is like the mountain top cedar. Maybe your life is a little scruffy. But the here and now is just one snapshot of the long arc of your life. Maybe we all need to go home and look at a long arc of images of our lives. We need to take in the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, and sit with the mystery of God’s kingdom playing out in our lives. Maybe we are still seeds in the ground. Maybe the first blades of growth have appeared. Maybe you are blossoming and spreading your tendrils and producing lots of fruit. Or just maybe we see all of those things in the seasons of our life.
Be assured of this: no one person built this parish. You didn’t build your own life. The parish and the person was the work of many hands. But as the Psalm says, “in vain does the builder build, unless he builds in the Lord.” That is just the mystery of it.
Things have changed since 1957. We have changed. But God is the constant. The mysterious web that weaves it all together. The mystery we honor and glorify in every prayer and every Mass. The Eucharistic seed we plant in the soil of our life that we might grow within us and from us, the kingdom of God.