When I was little, we sometimes attended the big congregational church near our home. I went to preschool in that church and so my memories of preschool and Sunday School are muddled together, but one memory of Sunday School remains vivid in my mind. At the end of one year (probably on a weekend like this one) when I was around 7 my teacher – I want to say her name was Mrs. Bee – gave each of the girls a necklace. Mrs. Bee was kind, and I have a snapshot in my mind, and even more-so in my heart, of her bending over and with great love clasping the little necklace around my neck. It was a thin gold-colored chain, with a little plastic ball at the end that contained a mustard seed. I TREASURED this necklace. I wore it every day and night for a long time. I am sure Mrs. Bee had shared a great Sunday School lesson about this parable, but my love of this necklace didn’t have to do with my knowledge or rational understanding of scripture. I knew that little seed had to do with Love; with mystery – something bigger was hiding in it… It was quiet symbol (not like a cross that makes a statement) – but more “private” is the word our scripture today uses for parables – between me, Mrs. Bee, and God – a seed of faith growing . Jesus’ parables are like that – better felt, than explained. And so as we walk into these parables today let us go not only with minds, but with our hearts and spirits open to the seeds Jesus may be quietly planting and growing in us…
LET US PRAY: God, may our next steps be with you. AMEN
If you remember, when we started this church year back in September our theme for the fall was “Rooted and Growing Together for Good”. Our fall retreat shared scripture passages of trees bearing good fruit, firmly rooted by living water, able to withstand storm or drought. Our closing song today is one Kayla taught us at that retreat. It is a nice bookend to return to images of growing things today as the year ends.
Today we have at least two distinct images of what God’s kingdom or reign is like- what it is to be God’s people. In Jesus’ parable, he’s playing off this passage from the colorful (strange) prophet Ezekiel. We know that Ezekiel is writing from the dark days of the Babylonian exile. The first wave of Jewish people (incl. Ezekiel) have been exiled from their homeland. The second wave of exile is imminent. Ezekiel’s message here is one of hope, saying, we, God’s people are like a tall, mighty and majestic cedar. And, Yes, we’re being chopped down and brought low – BUT, fear not, God will save a sprig from this mighty, fallen, tree; God will care for it; tend it; plant it and it (we, God’s people) will grow to be strong, noble and fruitful again.
Growing up, when I thought about the mustard seed and the great ‘tree’ it would grow into, the image in my head looked something like that Cedar. In fact, if you Google, “mustard seed tree” you will generally get beautiful images of a lone tree with a strong truck and a lush umbrella of leaves and branches. The truth is, whatever that Google image is, it is likely not the much more humorous, but also apt, image Jesus has in mind. The mustard plant Jesus and his listeners knew well, is far from majestic. I doesn’t have a truck. It is more like a shrub. Although it can grow to massive size, it is more like an invasive weed than a noble cedar. Its little seeds fly where the wind takes them; they attach to boots and plant themselves wherever they fall, even in the most inconvenient places. They grow in a big, messy patch that has no regard for neatly cultivated boundaries, or for our desire to keep things weed free. It hard to get rid of, and it is not well-regarded by those trying to control the land it is in. It is unruly, but it is also wonderfully useful: Mustard leaves can be eaten; its seeds ground into spice or oil – providing nourishment and flavor. It has all sorts of medicinal properties, used to help problems from arthritis to water retention to the common cold – offering comfort and healing; AND as Jesus says, its tangle of branches offers place of shelter for birds and small animals – a sanctuary for the vulnerable. Unruly, resilient, sometimes disruptive; nourishing, healing and a place of life-giving shelter for those in need. It’s a funny image this mustard shrub, a very different picture of greatness – but apt.
We stand at the end of our year, all of us facing this transition from academic and church year into summer – Some of us facing bigger transitions – graduations, moves, loss, growth. Before crossing over into what’s next, the invitation, for me of this parable this week, has been an invitation to STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN (a phrase you may know from the Road Safety PSA or from Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross – either works :).
First… The Invitation to STOP –to STOP and remember that maybe we don’t have to work so hard – an invitation to Sabbath. The parable Beth read just before the Mustard Seed, is called the parable of the seed that grows on its own. The guy in this parable doesn’t do anything and yet the seed still grows “he knows not how.” This theme is in the Mustard Seed parable too – mustard seeds aren’t cultivated and tended to like a crop; they grow and spread like weeds. God takes care of it – sometimes in ways we find inconvenient and messy, that we’d like to reign in and put some boundaries around, sure – but it is God who does the growing and the planting, in God’s own time – not us. There’s a great children’s story – It’s a Frog and Toad story, and we shared it during the teachers meeting last weekend –Toad decides he wants to grow a garden as beautiful Frog’s – and so Frog gives him some seeds with the warning that gardening is hard work. Toad plants the seeds, waters them, then becomes increasingly frustrated and desperate in his attempts to make them grow. He yells at them, plays music for them, reads to them, shines light on them in the darkness so they won’t be afraid. Yet they still won’t do what he wants them to and so, deflated and frustrated, he goes to Frog, who suggests that Toad step away and rest, sleep, which he does. Of course, when Toad wakes up the next morning, the seeds on their own, have begun to grow. The funny part is that while our man in the parable acknowledges the seeds grew, “he knew not how” – Toad remains convinced that he does know how his seeds grew, and that it was all his hard work, singing, reading, yelling that made it happen.
As a parent; as a person who cares deeply about the work I do; this can be a hard reminder. I like to imagine that the singing, running around, yelling, coaxing, cajoling, planning, doing, is ALL valuable – necessary – for things to grow as I hope they will. And much of it is, I know that. Parenting is hard work; what we do (all of us together) in ministry here; in our own homes and places of work IS good and needed. Yet, I am grateful for the invitation also, to step back, rest, look where God is growing things, where God hopes things will grow. Because I know that not all I do – especially as parent – comes from a place of total trust in God, but rather from my own fear; anxiety; a desire to control; wanting my life and my days to look more like the majestic cedar than the unruly, unkempt and messy shrub it sometimes is. That messy and unkempt can be its own special kind of holy, with its own special kingdom purposes; is a bit of a relief. I wonder where we are called to rest and trust more, to do less, to let go and let God this summer?
SECOND, STOP LOOK AND LISTEN: THE INVITATION TO LOOK. In this parable of the mustard seed, Jesus gives us beautiful description of what the kingdom looks like, so that we can know it when we see it. As we are invited to STOP, rest, trust, perhaps we are also invited to look with intention for where we see the kingdom in our lives and the world around us. It grows in unexpected, sometimes inconvenient or surprising places– we can miss it if we are too busy and not on the look-out, and so we are invited in our Stopping, to LOOK with some intention for glimpse of it in our days, schools, vacations, walks on the beach, by the offices, in relationships, at home. We know it by the characteristics of the mustard plant: the kingdom is life-giving; nourishing; healing; a place of safe rest and sanctuary. We are invited to walk this summer with open eyes for where we experience those things – for there we will find God’s kingdom (and may be changed by it).
Our Clarity around what the kingdom looks like can also help us know what the kingdom does not look like, which, at times like ours; with noise and news the world like ours – is useful. My heart (like many of yours) has been breaking over what we know is happening at our border. In the midst of the heartbreak it is heartening and hopeful to see people of faith (of all political stripes) coming together as they rarely do. The the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Associations of Evangelicals; the Catholic Church; almost every branch of mainline Protestantism; Orthodox, conservative; reform and reconstructionist Jewish communities, many more – are all calling for us to do better – all rejecting that what we are seeing is any way Biblical or reflective of God’s Way, Reign or Kingdom. As we LOOK for places of healing, nourishment, life-giving shelter in our lives and in the world, let us also notice where those things are absent, share what we are seeing, and share what seeds of love, healing, nourishment and sanctuary we can.
And Finally, we LISTEN: We know the kingdom of God when we see in the world, and in our experiences, because it is growing, not only where we can see it, but deep in each of us. And these moments of transition, in the rest of Sabbath, we are invited not only to STOP, and Look, but also to LISTEN to the still small voice of God in our lives; to notice those little seeds hidden, or maybe starting to sprout and grow in us. Little places of life, healing, sanctuary and call in our souls. John O’Donohue’s blessing for New Beginnings starts by saying: “ In out of the way places of the heart
Where your thoughts never think to wander
This beginning has been quietly forming
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.”
God has planted or been growing seeds in each of us, and in our congregation this year – we know not how. Maybe in the out of the way places, maybe in inconvenient, already curated places we’d rather not have weeds and messiness; or maybe in out in the open already providing life-giving food, healing and shelter. It is good now to stop a bit – to Trust that God will tend to the seeds of our souls, and the seeds in families, lives and in our community – to Look and listen for the sprouting of tiny seeds, kingdom growth in and around us. May your summer be a nourishing, life-giving, healing, sanctuary place of rest for each of you.