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Third Sunday after Pentecost: “The Mustard Seed”

 

Mark 4:26-34

 

I went out to dinner with three friends Wednesday night, and we quickly heard a theme around the table. Not in our orders, but in what we hadn’t ordered: major changes in all our lives. Not the ordinary drip-drip-drip kind, but the tsunami kind.

 

Big changes: In our employment. In our living situations. In our families. In our health. How are we going to get through this difficult season of transition, we asked?

 

I was reminded of the way I felt in childhood when my family moved around a lot. Each transfer was like a shock wave. When my father announced, “We’re moving to Miami,” my sister and I shrieked, “What’s Miami?”

 

We didn’t understand where we were headed, but we knew what it meant: A new house. A new church. A new school. A new playground—the epicenter of social anxiety for kids. And new tensions in the family as we all scrambled to readjust.

 

In those days I hung on to this little bracelet for dear life. Maybe some of you remember these from the 60s? A tiny mustard seed encased in glass, hanging on a circle of imitation pearls.

It was meant as a Bible verse reminder: “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20.

 

Well, I didn’t want to move a mountain. I just wanted to survive another sudden change. What kind of faith would that take? And did I have enough?

 

Maybe you’re asking the same questions in your life—the ones I asked back then, the ones my friends and I are asking right now. What can we hang on to when the world shifts under us? When we lose our jobs, or we risk a new career? When our kids leave us with an empty nest, or our elderly parents move back in? When our latest lab report is troubling, or we lose the health insurance to even pay for one? When close ones die, or disappear from our lives?

 

I’ll tell you that, in these situations, the charm bracelet approach to faith doesn’t have much power.

 

Well, it never did. Even back then, these were truly worry beads for Little Me. It helped to have something familiar to hang on to, but repeating a Bible verse like a magic spell just didn’t deliver.

 

I was still scared inside. I wasn’t sure I had enough faith, resources, or courage—even a mustard seed amount—to get from the present moment into the next unknown. Perhaps you’ve been there too.

 

But I think this little bracelet is still in my hand for a reason, and that it may have something new to teach about mustard seeds and about facing change. A lesson that comes directly from our Master Teacher, Jesus.

 

The Mustard Seed parable we read this morning from Mark is one of the very few that scholars believe was authentically one of his. In fact, it’s the only one that appears in all three synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke)—and also the Gospel of Thomas, which you may not have heard much about.

 

Thomas’s Gospel—composed before the other three, only two or three decades after Jesus’s death—is a collection of “wise sayings, proverbs, parables, and prophecies attributed to Jesus” with almost no narrative story line. In the words of the Jesus Seminar experts, “Thomas exhibits far less editorial activity than do the canonical gospels.”[1] Discovered in full only in 1945, this Gospel sometimes appears to be closer to an original version of a saying or parable—without added interpretation.

 

Here’s Thomas’s  Mustard Seed parable: “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘Tell us what Heaven's kingdom is like.’ He said to them, ‘It's like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.’”[2]

 

All the hallmarks of Jesus’s unusual teaching style. Unlike the “faith moving mountains” maxim I quoted from Matthew—which was probably a popular saying of the day[3]—this parable is vivid and strange. Jesus simply sets two things side by side to be compared, without specifying how; letting them stand in tension and resonate for the listener.

 

Heaven’s kingdom is like a mustard seed. There’s no conclusion; no explicit explanation of how this metaphor should be understood.

 

The comparison, although taken from a common scene in nature—a growing weed of black mustard—was no doubt shocking to the disciples. They were really asking:

 

·         What will the new social order look like?

·         When will this turmoil in our lives settle down so that we can be in power?

·         How will we get from the present moment into the next unknown?

 

And Jesus tells a story of transformation. One of the most simple in nature, and yet also mysterious. The story of a tiny seed coming to new life, new form, new purpose as a mature plant. An image so memorable, so precise, it has stayed in memory for close to 2,000 years.

 

If the disciples in his presence were perplexed, what is the message for us today? Our skillful Teacher wants us to stop and wonder.

 

As I read this parable today, Jesus is saying, Living in Heaven’s kingdom—living close to God—means growing into wholeness. Like the mustard seed, you have a sacred potential in your soul to grow large, to expand into a unique shape and meaningful role in the world. As you move through life, you are meant to do more than just deal with change. You are meant to transform.

 

What does this transformation look like?

 

From our tiny seed beginning, Jesus shows us a humble but inspiring picture of what we will become. Not a majestic cedar, which the disciples would have easily recognized from the Book of Ezekiel as an image of the people of Israel.[4]

 

No, he shows us a lowly, wild plant with large branches spreading outward, big enough to shelter the birds of the sky. Living in Heaven’s kingdom is not gaining stature and power, Jesus teaches. It’s growing into a compassionate being.

 

But I think for many of us, our potential for transformation into new life can become trapped—like the mustard seed sealed in this glass.

 

Change frightens us, even though it’s our living reality. We want to stay locked in the forms we know—work, family, physical state, even faith—when they need to be renewed. Our seed of the soul becomes encased in doubt, in resistance, in habit, in fear.

 

Break out, Jesus says. Enter Heaven’s kingdom by giving your soul the freedom to grow. It’s up to you.

 

Even and especially in the most difficult times, give your inner seed what it needs to become a greater you. Three essential ingredients:

 

·         First, the water of clear awareness about the reality of your life. This is the opposite of blind faith. With God’s help, look at your life as it really is—compassionately, honestly. And in the words of the Serenity Prayer, pray for the serenity to accept the things you cannot change; courage to change the things you can; and wisdom to know the difference.

·         Second, the light of good relationships. Bring friends and family around you who will listen, who will warm you with compassion, and who will help you break habits of fear or avoidance that resist change.

·         And, finally, the rich soil of spiritual practice. Times of change are times to wake up and open up with the help of meditation, prayer, and time spent in God’s presence—whether that’s hiking in nature, listening to music, cooking fine foods for friends, or sitting in silence.

 

By cultivating awareness, good relationships, and spiritual practice, change will not be something that happens to you. Change will be something that happens within you.

 

Time to let go of your worry beads, Jesus says. And grow. Amen.

 

~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Associate for Parish Life

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

June 14, 2015

 

 



[1] Robert W. Funk, Barnard Brandon Scott, James R. Butts et al., The Parables of Jesus: Red Letter Edition (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1988), p. 11.

[2] Logion 20, The Gospel of Thomas, trans. Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer [http://gnosis.org/naghamm/gosthom.html].

[3] Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say/ The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 211.

[4] Funk et al., p. 34.