Like a Mustard Seed…

At the church I served in Texas, we lived about seven miles out in the country. Out my kitchen window I could see the parish hall of the church about fifty paces to the east. A rock fence, painstakingly put in place by the first Norwegian settlers surrounded the perimeter of the church and cemetery. Over the years, parishioners and former pastors had planted all sorts of beautiful trees and flowering shrubs on the church property. There were two pear trees to the north of our house, two beautiful mimosa trees in the front yard – the boys loved to climb those – grape vines, climbing roses, and honeysuckle wound their way around our front gate, and directly outside our back door, there were two mulberry trees. Once I found out what they were, I wondered if some former pastor had planted them with a chuckle, like if he wondered if someday some pastor who followed him would look out their kitchen window now and then and see those trees and remember the verse from Luke in our gospel today and say out loud to the tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea…” just to see if anything might come of it that day. I admit I did it a few times.

In today’s gospel, the disciples ask for more faith. We, like the disciples, like the idea of more faith. Often we feel like that would be a good answer to times of trouble or doubt – if we just had more faith we would be better off or at least feel better, right?

What is faith? In Marcus Borg’s book, The Heart of Christianity, he talks about four different meanings of the word “Faith.”  He refers to them by their Latin names and they are the primary meanings of the word faith throughout Christianity. 

The first meaning of faith is referred to by the Latin word, “assensus”.  Its closest meaning is assent – and this is faith being synonymous with “belief.”  This is the predominant meaning of faith in modern culture. 

There are two main reasons it is the prominent meaning in modern Western Christianity.  The first is the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation produced many new denominations – each defined itself by their distinctive doctrines or confessions.  Lutherans believed certain things, Catholics believed certain things, etc.  Of course, some things overlapped – but it was during this time that Christian faith became about believing right things – having the “right” beliefs instead of “wrong” beliefs.

The second development happened in the Enlightenment when truth was identified with what was factual.  And over time, for many, Christian faith began to mean believing questionable things to be true.  Faith is what you turn to when knowledge has run out. 

While thinking of faith as belief is certainly valid in many ways, the difficulty is then we think if we have doubts, we don’t have much faith. 

A Carmelite nun who was the mother superior of a cloistered convent was interviewed. The interviewer asked her what was the hardest thing about her job. 

“I thought she was going to say the hours were terrible or the food was bad,” he said.  “Instead she said the hardest part of her job is the doubt.” She says she has great doubt – she struggles with it every day.

As Marcus Borg says, “When you think about it, faith simply as belief is relatively powerless.  You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage.  You can believe all the right things and still be miserable.  (Understanding faith to be simply) Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.”

The second form of faith is expressed in the Latin word, “Fiducia.”  Fiducia is a radical trust in God.  Not trusting a set of statements about God – but trusting in God.

Soren Kierkegaard describes it like this – “Faith as trust is like floating in a deep ocean.  If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink.  But if you will relax and trust, you will float.

This is the kind of faith we display whenever we take a leap of faith – to go where God calls even when it seems to make no sense, to live the way Jesus teaches us even when it is contrary to everything the world will tell us.  It is doing the scary, uncomfortable, upsetting, often disturbing thing – but knowing God is big enough to catch us if we fall.

The third face of faith is known by the term “Fidelitas.” Fidelitas is fidelity, loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at the deepest level, the commitment of the heart.  It isn’t faithfulness to statements about God – it is faithfulness to God. 

Fidelitas is like this – we may not always feel God’s presence, yet we continue to come to worship.  We may not understand the mystery of the sacraments, yet we share in them because Jesus asked us to do so.  We may have questions galore about faith – yet we continue to turn to Jesus with our asking and seeking and knocking.  Faith as fidelitas isn’t swerved by the winds of emotion.  It is steady. 

Fourth, there is Faith as Visio.  Faith as a way of seeing.  We share God’s worldview and compassion for others. Our faith is expressed in sharing Jesus all-encompassing love.

So faith has many shapes and forms: belief, trust, commitment, vision. In the Gospel today, Jesus shows that it’s not the size of our faith that matters, because God is able to do a lot with even the tiniest bit of faith. Even though our faith is small, the One in whom we have faith is magnificent and all-powerful.

In verses 7-10, after Jesus talks about the mustard seed, he mentions that when a slave comes in from the field, the slave then serves the master before the slave himself eats. What is this all about? Well, servants aren’t invited to the table with the landowner; they eat when their work is done. They don’t expect thanks for doing their job; they just do it. That’s what faith is like, Jesus seems to say –the willingness to do what needs to be done. The people Jesus called faithful were not illustrious or noteworthy – a centurion concerned for a sick servant, a woman who was grateful for being forgiven, a leper who turns around just to say “thank you”, the blind beggar who asked Jesus for sight – these were the people Jesus called, “faithful.”

Faith is found not in the mighty acts of heaven but in the ordinary and everyday acts of doing what needs to be done, responding to the needs around us, and caring for the people who come our way.

Do you realize, people of God, all the ways you show faith? In small and great ways each day, you display it. When you show up for worship. When you bring a can of food for the food shelf, when you arrive at your job each morning and do your work honestly and to the best of your ability, when you take care of the family God has entrusted to you, when you honor your parents by listening to them and doing your chores, when you pray for your neighbor who is going through a hard time, when you send the condolence card, when you show up to vote even when you feel the field of candidates is discouraging.

We may tend to dismiss all the small acts of faith and wonder what good they really do. But imagine if none of these small acts of faithfulness that each us did this last week had never happened. Life and faith – it’s made up of all the small things, ordinary things. God blesses the ordinary, small things. Even as small as a mustard seed.

Parables and Promises (a sermon from June 14, 2015)

Well, it is summertime – and summer means all sorts of things.  It means Bible School and there are beautiful days to be out on the lakes, it means family vacations and time with friends, it means mosquitos and woodticks, and it means that we are to the season of Pentecost in which we get to hear Jesus speaking in parables.

A parable is a short story that teaches something.   It is different than a fable because fables usually have animals or plants or inanimate objects or forces of nature as characters, but parables usually have human characters.  A parable is similar to an analogy.

Let’s take a look at some parts of the parable of the mustard seed.  In the gospel of Mark it says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds but when it is sown it grows to become the greatest of the shrubs.  Similarly, in the gospel of Matthew –  first, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its’ branches.  And the Kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

I have to admit that for much of my life, I’ve read these parables as something like a proverb: “big things sometimes have small beginnings” or “don’t judge something based on its size.” Makes sense on a superficial level, as each parable talks about something small – a mustard seed or a bit of yeast – growing into something big.

Until we remember, however, that actually – neither mustard seed nor yeast was viewed positively in Jesus’ world. Mustard was a weed, and farmers loathed it. It starts out small, but before long has taken over your field. Similarly, In Jesus’ time, yeast or leavening was something that people understood as unclean or evil. Unlike the handy packets of dried yeast we have today, leavening was done by letting some bread rot just enough in order to leaven a new batch of ingredients.

So…why would Jesus compare the kingdom of God to a weed or something that is seen as unwanted or unusable in everyday life? Well, it may be because both mustard seed and yeast have this way of spreading beyond anything you’d imagined.

And God’s kingdom is like that!  The Holy Spirit is far more potent than we’d imagined and it usually spreads in surprising ways, always in ways that are not controlled, oftentimes even in ways that disturb us and far from the way we think it should be. 

Think about it – a rag tag group of disciples, most of them probably teenagers, none of them professionally trained or educated – chosen by Jesus to be the first to go and share his word and make disciples of all nations.

Think about it – we could listen to the best public speaker in the world give a carefully crafted sermon about the deepest meanings of a text, but it would most likely not be as moving as when we hear the words of scripture being read out loud plainly and simply by a young child.

Think about it – of all the books written over time and distributed by great publishing houses – books written by great minds and backed by powerful corporations and lots of money to distribute them – still, it is the Holy Bible that is most printed and most quoted book by far.  Even people who claim to be atheists can quote scripture – because there is something about this Word that sticks, that captivates even those who want to call it hogwash.

It doesn’t make any sense and it never has and yet we who have experienced it know it to be true.  God’s Word isn’t just words. 

It reminds me of a book called How to Do Things with Words, – it is by J. L. Austin who makes the claim that words don’t simply describe things but actually make things happen. In other words, words aren’t merely descriptive but are evocative, even creative. When two persons say, “I do” in a marriage ceremony, for instance, they are not merely describing the relationship they are entering into but actually creating it. And when some says “I love you” or “I hate you” we don’t only hear those words but actually feel the force they exert upon us. Words, in short, are powerful. For this reason, Austin contends that you ultimately know what a word means not from what it says, but from what it does.

David Lose, president of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia expands on this – he says, “Jesus’ parables remind us that the faith we preach and the kingdom we announce finally isn’t an intellectual idea but an experience, an experience of the creative and redemptive power of God that continues to change lives. And sometimes the only way to get beyond our head and into our hearts is to, as Emily Dickenson advised, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” And so parables come at us sideways, catching us by surprise to take our breath away at the beauty and depth of God’s promises.”

Words can do that!  And always and especially, God’s Word.  I’ve had that in my mind all week.  We could take all sorts of time to dissect what each parable means and the imagery Jesus used – but he used images and experiences people could understand in these parables so that we would know that the value to be found in these parables isn’t something we have to dig deeply for – rather our understanding of them comes from how the words fall on our ears, how we experience them.   

And perhaps mustard seeds and yeast and treasures buried in fields were great images for the times in which Jesus was teaching, they probably are still, but for those of us who love words, and I am one of those people, I wondered how it would be if we were to take a cue from Jesus and construct a few of our own parables.  How would that sound for each of us to try to describe those moments we have glimpsed the breaking in of God’s own kingdom into our daily lives?  I thought I would try my hand at that this week.  How’s this:

The kingdom of God is like a little boy who cannot sit still and is infinitely more interested in his red balloon than listening to the lesson or singing the songs in Vacation Bible School –and yet, when you ask him to tell you the Bible stories from the week, he knows every one of them in order.

The kingdom of heaven is like a small group of people gathered at the graveside of their friend.  Ancient words of scripture are read and as hot summer breezes move like a brush through the grass and the trees, they whisper that even in death, all things are being made new.

The kingdom of God is like when you are dead tired after a three days of Bible school but then you hear a small child as she walks by you in the grocery store singing the words to one of the songs she learned and the lyrics are, “My heart will sing no other Name, no other Name, Jesus.” 

Or one more:  The kingdom of heaven is like the people of God gathering together – and some are happy, and some are sad, and some are angry, and some are full of faith, and some hardly believe, and some are tired, and some are old, and some are young, and some are rich and some are poor, and some are stressed out, and some are content – they all come together hungry for different things, but they come to Jesus’ table, and all are fed.

Prayer for today:  Dear Lord, be near to us this day and in all our days.  Inspire us with your Word, give us strength and energy to serve You and love one another.  Help us to trust you are with us always in all ways.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.