SERMON 6/17/18 Pentecost 4B St. Monica’s Naples, FL
Weed or Seed
In Florida, we live in an environment where you can pretty much plant anything and it will grow. Fruit trees, vegetables, and lawns can be lush and beautiful, but other pervasive plants can move in. Weeds sprout up all the time in our lawns, our driveways, and walkways. Weeds can be pervasive but certain varieties can be helpful. I guess it is all a matter of perspective. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus uses another agricultural metaphor to explain what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. The emergence of God’s Kingdom begins small like the mustard seed and grows into something of unimaginable transformation in people’s lives. Like the birds of the air, which find a place of rest and shade from the harsh sun in the mustard plant’s branches, we find the way of peace and joy when we are nesting in the shade of God’s reign, and we find new possibilities in our lives. In God’s Kingdom, things start out small, and grow into unimaginable grace. Mustard plants begin as the tiniest of seeds, but smallness is not the only metaphor for the mustard plant that Jesus uses in his parable.
Mustard plants, like the weeds in our Florida gardens are pervasive plants that grow wild, and are difficult to eliminate, because once the seed falls to the ground, it germinates at once. For grain farmers back in Jesus’ time, mustard plants were considered a weed that could choke out precious grain. Nonetheless, for some folks, the mustard plant was seen as a something much more than a mere weed. Just like life, not all of us perceive events and circumstances the same. We all see things through the filters of our own history, experience, joys, and tragedies.
For instance, in Greco-Roman culture, according toancient writings, mustard was a plant that had great medicinal, herbal, and culinary value. For many of us, a baseball game hotdog would just not be the same without that pungent, delicious yellow condiment we so enjoy. So, which is it for the tiny insignificant, yet pervasive mustard seed? Is it merely a weed, or is it a plant that can bring healing and serve as a culinary delight? Jesus said the reign of God is like a mustard seed.
When God’s Kingdom bursts forth in our lives in new and unexpected ways, or even when something happens with which, we disagree or dislike, or when things happen that are perceived as tragic, maybe there is another possibility, if we are open and willing to God’s lead. The truth of the matter is when God is involved in our lives, when God’s Kingdom tries to take root and grow in our midst, our perceptions of what God is doing may often be hidden from us in the moment and yet, something bigger and better might very well be coming.
In God’s Kingdom Smaller is Better
God uses the small, tiny, and insignificant, to bring about his reign on earth, and sometimes, we may not realize what God is doing in our lives, because we sometimes think we know what is best, we want things a certain way. I know you’ve seen the advertisements of the local Kia Car dealer who claims his deals are “gonna be HUGE!” In church, we can get caught up in making HUGE plans, developing HUGE projects, and even engaging in HUGE disagreements, and we do so, never once waiting patiently, discerning openly, and trusting faithfully that God is doing something we cannot fathom, even in the small things. In this life, we every day face circumstances outside our control, and these moments may be God opening up with unimaginable possibilities for new life that is, if we can trust God’s reign of grace. I believe, as theologian David Neff says and I quote, “God wants to begin in a hidden way, because he is full of surprises.” (1) Not all things are clear at first. Author William Willimson writes, “To our inadequate perception what is real (the kingdom of God) will inevitably seem at first hidden and mysterious.” (2)
God works differently than we human beings. We want things to be HUGE, but God works in small ways. When life is full of the weeds of tragedy and chaos, those moments may just be the tiny beginnings of new growth in our life. That is exactly when we have to trust God’s work in the small things, the untidy things, and in the unsettling things. “A wise bishop ordered his ministry in terms of the maxim, “What don’t start small, don’t start at all.” (1) I think that bishop got it right.
God does big things through the tiniest of circumstances, but we sometimes follow the pattern of the world, and we think we can only see God present in big, productive, and enormous ways. As Williamson writes, “The church is endangered when we are tempted to derive our status from those forms of power and significance valued by the world.” (2) We the church can do amazing things, even through, what the world perceives as small, trivial and insignificant. We must seek God, discern God’s call, God’s way, and God’s plan and not our own. Do you believe that God is involved in your life in ways you cannot fathom? If so, then you are walking by faith, and not by sight. Not all things are as they appear.
The Unexpected Road we are afraid to travel
William Willimon asserts, “The Lord of the harvest gives growth, though not always the growth we expect, and there will be harvest, though not always at the times or in the mode for which we plan.” (2) A little over three years ago, God’s Spirit began nudging me in some really small ways, trying to plant a new seed of ministry in me. Back then, I was so comfortable, effective, productive, and joyful in my diocesan ministry and I was doing well, but God had something better, new, different, and life altering in store that I could not see at the time.
Early on, during this time of discernment, wise colleagues encouraged me to be open to God’s nudging, to just listen and not be to quick to action, but honestly I rejected the idea of change; I thought I knew best, so I wanted things to remain the same. Five years earlier, I answered another of God’s surprising calls, to engage in a non-parish form of ministry in a new place and a new space. I thought that this ministry was all I was going to be good at, and that God had chosen my permanent path, and I was on it until the day I retired.
I had blinders on, and I closed my heart to God’s nudges, I completely forgot that “God wants to begin in a hidden way, because he is full of surprises.” Eventually, I listened to the Spirit and I engaged in a specific, lengthy, and soul-stirring path of discernment. I asked trusted friends, and others who would speak truth to me, even if it hurt, to help me listen for God’s call on my life, and to do it honestly, I had to let go of my own desires and needs. Soon, God did a new thing and I am so grateful that I saw seeds of possibility, because here we are today.
Sometimes in this life, we try and hold tight to things, thinking we have it all figured out, but if we are not careful, we can thwart God’s amazing grace nudging, leading, and calling us to something afresh. Maybe you are like I have been, refusing to be open to new possibilities. Maybe you are like I have been, dependent your own desires for comfort which has become a prime motivator. Maybe you are like I have been missing the often hidden and small surprises of God’s amazing new gift of ministry, grace, and call. We often forget that God is always making things new.
New Creation – God makes everything New
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Trusting God’s reign, trusting the truth of the mustard seed means we must “live by faith and not by sight.” When life happens, and when circumstances are out of our control, the question is, “do you see weeds, or do you see seeds of possibility?”
Each day we travel down a twisting path and then, we come upon an unexpected road, on which God detours us, so that God can keep making things new again and again. The key to “living by faith and not by sight” is this, as we travel down the road and surprises and deviations come along, and when new things emerge, we have to live in expectation of unexpected grace. Even if you have been a Christian all your life, and you believe you understand clearly how God works, you may miss God’s detours, slight nudges, and mustard seed possibilities. Sometimes without our awareness, change has happened as a result of the tiniest, insignificant, and hidden seeds of opportunity.
My sisters and brothers, change happens. Just wait around long enough and change will come for all of us. I wonder though, when stuff happens, will we see weeds and try and cut them out, or will we see tiny seeds of amazing, incredible, surprising and unexpected God possibilities? If we are open to it, God will continue to astonish us, even if we reluctantly, stay on the path of the Unexpected Road of God’s abundant, surprising, tiny, grace-filled path of new life. Maybe, you can even cast a few seeds of new possibilities yourselves, for others, along the way.
(1) Neff, David. “Small Is Huge: Why Jesus Favors Mustard Seed-Sized Ministry.” Christianity Today, vol. 50, no. 2, Feb. 2006, pp. 72-75.
(2) Willimon, William H. “The Greatest of All Shrubs.” The Christian Century, vol. 108, no. 17, 15 May 1991, p. 547
(3) Schellenberg, Ryan S. “Kingdom as Contaminant?: The Role of Repertoire in the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 3, July 2009, pp. 527-543