“Faith Like a Mustard Seed”
A Sermon by the Rev. Jay Lawlor
4th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 4, Year B – June 17, 2018
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Richmond, IN
[Jesus] said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:32-33)
Our lectionary offers us a sample of how Jesus taught people in his day. He offered them stories they could relate to based on their culture and experiences. Farmers, fisherman, merchants. Women baking bread to help feed their families. And with each parable, Jesus does something interesting – he speaks of how the kingdom of heaven as something that is to be found or discovered. Jesus doesn’t say the kingdom of heaven is like this big shiny object flashing before us like a neon sign. Perhaps this is why our increasingly secular world often misses it. We tend to go for the latest shiny object. And we want it now, maybe even yesterday. We are in perpetual motion toward the next, newest, shiniest.
We’re all guilty of this is one way or another. And don’t get me wrong, I marvel at technological advancements and nifty new devices as much as anyone. Have you ever tried on a pair of Oculus Prime or other virtual reality goggles? Pretty amazing stuff. The list could go on. In, and of themselves, these things are not bad. In fact, they are marvels of human ingenuity. But, if we are not careful, they can be distractions to dizzying effect. Before we know it, we are so distracted from most everything else that we lose sight on focusing on those things which matter most.
Distractions to take us away and entertain are fine things. They can add to the human experience. So they are not bad things. Most things have a place. But Jesus wants us to know that the kingdom of heaven – the reign of our creating, loving, redeeming God is not a shiny object. If it were, it would probably lose its meaning. It would cease to be special – it could get lost among the glare of all the other shiny objects.
God doesn’t want us reaching for it because it is so big and bright that we are only attracted to its glow. God invites us to experience the kingdom of heaven for all of its depth and breadth. A depth and breadth that is loving, justice-seeking, and peace-making.
And this is good news. Jesus tells us from something even as small as a mustard seed, the kingdom of heaven grows. As Jesus said: “[It] is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
So the kingdom of heaven is both ever present and waiting on us. And it takes time to cultivate. It is a journey and a process. It is what Jesus is inviting us to participate in as his followers, disciples, and apostles. It doesn’t require faith as high as a mountain. No, faith as small as a mustard seed will suffice. And it is not linear, either.
Faith can ebb and flow. There are times our faith is strong and other times where it may seem rather weak. Times when we feel insufficient to the task. Times where even offering a simple prayer is an effort. But recall Paul’s words to the Church in Corinth: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Cor. 5:17)
With faith even as small as a mustard seed we begin to encounter the new creation in Christ. God is always at work in and through us. Even interceding on our behalf in moments when we feel we cannot offer anything on our own. We have an awesome God, my friends.
There are surely times of trial that test us. As individuals, as families, as communities of faith. But one thing is clear – even all else may be foggy, God’s love never fails us. God’s love never leaves us. God’s love invites us forward and through whatever we may be dealing with which seems to point us away from the kingdom of heaven and our ministry as followers of Jesus Christ. It isn’t just shiny objects which can make it heard to see the kingdom of heaven. There are any manner of distractions, issues, and events which can offer us pause, concern, and challenge. But in the face of all which is a challenge, even a struggle, we can always rely on the love of Christ to provide a way forward.
In Christ there is a new creation. And that new creation is the he heart of Jesus which points toward the kingdom of heaven. God loves us – each an every one of us– and this community of faith, with an unconditional love. Nothing will ever change that. And it makes all the difference in the world.
There are times when we, as people of faith, know and see clearly the Spirit of God at work and it can bring joy and excitement. There are other times when we struggle – sometimes we struggle because of forces not of our own making or choosing.
When we see children being separated from their parents, not because of abuse or neglect, but because people in power choose to exert authority and the ‘rule of law’ over human decency, the struggle for the love of God to be realized at the center of all life continues. And it must continue. We must continue to proclaim God in Jesus came for love and to liberate the oppressed from their oppressors. And when we so those in power distorting and abusing scripture to try to justify their actions, we must call them out.
While not in our lectionary this morning. Romans 13 is in our news. And being distorted. This cannot stand. It is bad theology in an attempt to justify inhumane policy. St. Paul was not giving justification for governments to oppress. Paul was writing to the oppressed Christians living in the slums of Rome. Christians who were persecuted. He was warning them to keep their heads down; to not raise the attention of the Roman government who would quickly crush them. He was instructing them on how to survive. He was instructing them how to keep their families intact. In the Bible, it is Pharaoh, it is Herod, it is Caesar, who separates children from their parents. It is Pharaoh, it is Herod, it is Caesar, who mistreats refugees, separates, and enslaves them. And we know God is not on the side of Pharaoh, Herod, or Caesar.
God is on the side of love. God is on the side of the oppressed in the face of their oppressors. God is on the side of justice for all God’s people.
In the face of oppression. In the face of blaspheme against the God of love, God looks to us to take our faith and grow the kingdom of heaven. If you doubt that, just look to Jesus’ example of a mustard seed growing into the mightiest of trees. Out of it all God advances the kingdom.
God didn’t give us Jesus for nothing. We are called to discover, know, and experience the kingdom of God which is rooted in God’s love. Evelyn Underhill,One of the greatest Christian writers on mysticism and the spiritual life, has a wonderful piece I would like to offer in closing. While it is directed at the spiritual life and prayer, it resonates with our lessons and speaks more broadly to this day. She writes:
A spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the centre, where we are anchored in God: a life soaked through and through by a sense of His reality and claim, and self-given to the great movement of his will. […] This longing, this need of God, however dimly and vaguely we feel it, is the seed from which grows the strong, beautiful and fruitful plant of prayer. (Evelyn Underhill)
Jesus invites us to know the kingdom of God, which is our center. May we be soaked through and through by God’s reality and claim, and given over to the great movement of God working in and through us. No matter the moment in time, no matter the challenges we may face, God has given us a longing for God. It is a seed from which grows something strong, beautiful, and fruitful, because nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Amen.