Being a Mustard Seed
June 17, 2012
The title of my sharing this morning is “Being a Mustard Seed”. But before I explain to you what I mean by that, I’d like to tell you a story when I was a young girl.
In the summer, when growing up (probably between when I was 9 and 11), I would play kickball in the back yard of our house in Xenia, Ohio with my brother, David almost every day. David was a year older than I was. He was a natural athlete with the speed and grace of a gazelle. He became famous one year when he was playing little league baseball because he caught a fly ball, winning the game, even though his hat had fallen down over his eyes and he couldn’t see a thing. He could hit, catch or dodge a ball -- anything. I, on the other hand, would say that I played with the speed and grace of something more like an armadillo. According to Wikipedia, “Armadillos have short legs, but can move quite quickly.” But not as quickly as a gazelle.
I can’t explain to you why I played kickball every afternoon with David, but I did, despite the fact that I knew that the chance of my actually winning a game was pretty much zero. In fact, I am pretty sure that I never won a game against David, no matter how many extra outs he gave me, and I only scored a run if he let me. Our younger brother Dougie was more pragmatic than I was – he would only play on my team under great pressure – usually he would stay in the air conditioned family room and watch tv. Meanwhile, I would be out in the back yard in 90 degree heat and 90 degree humidity, focusing hard, trying to kick the ball over our fence into the Buckwalter’s back yard, smack dap in the middle of their basketball court.
As you may have guessed by now, this story is not one about me winning games. But it is an illustration of what I think of as faith – it’s a story of going out there every day and going what you’ve committed to do, without any guarantee of reward, or perhaps even affirmation.
I have always found the parable of the mustard seed to be inspirational – it talks about small, humble beginnings that can blossom into something much bigger than what we could possibly imagine. I interpret this parable, coupled with the parable of the growing seed, as an encouragement to have faith, and I have longed to find and hold onto that kind of faith – the kind that would blossom and grow into greatness.
It wasn’t until recently that I began to think of faith in a different way. I had been thinking of faith as something “out there” that I wanted to put on, like a new set of clothes or as something that, if done right, would be recognized or rewarded. Or, in the language of today’s gospel, I thought of faith as a seed that I wanted to find, plant in the ground, watch grow, and then enjoy the harvest of all this work. We often think of faith in this way. As a matter of fact, a couple of days ago I was talking with a friend about faith and she described herself as not often feeling the certainty that we often associate with faith. She said that most days “she’s just plowing the field.” Well, I have come to think that this is exactly want being faithful is – we get just as hot and dirty, and maybe even discouraged. But we’ll go out there the next day and do it again. Faith isn’t about reaping the harvest. It’s about plowing the field, knowing that we may not actually be the ones that reap the harvest.
It was while listening to another gospel reading a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that there was another way to think of the parable of the mustard seed – rather than thinking of faith as the mustard seed for me to grab onto, it occurred to me that I should think of myselfas a mustard seed, and that my life story is what can blossom into a visible expression of God’s love – if I abandon myself to God, and let it be so. Here are excerpts from John 15 that opened me up to thinking this way. In John 15, Jesus is recorded to have said:
15 “I am the true vine, and God is the gardener. 2 God cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit God prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. … 5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers.
I hope you can see how the idea of being a mustard seed came to me: I think that it’s easy to converge these two images to imagine Jesus Christ as a mustard seed and his life as an expression of faith that “grew into the largest of garden plants” as the parable about the mustard seed says. I think that it’s also important to note who reaped the harvest of Jesus’ faith – Jesus’ faithfulness paved the path for reconciliation for the rest of us – at great cost to himself. Jesus didn’t enjoy the harvest, we did.
A recent daily meditation from the Inward/Outward Journey emails articulates what I consider to be the reality of faith. It’s called “To Be a Full Human Being” (by Morris West):
It costs so much to be a full human being that there are very few who have the enlightenment or the courage to pay the price.... One has to abandon altogether the search for security, and reach out to the risk of living with both arms. One has to embrace the world like a lover. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence. One has to court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing. One needs a will stubborn in conflict, but apt always to total acceptance of every consequence of living and dying.
Putting these ideas together, I am captivated by the thought that, as a disciple of Jesus, Iam a mustard seed that, planted where I am, can grow into a living expression of God’s love that is large in stature and gives shade to many. I don’t need to have an expression of faith – I need to be an expression of faith. Let’s read again the parable of the Mustard Seed:
30 Again Jesus said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
So now I’d like to take you back to 249 Bedford Avenue, Xenia, Ohio. Like I said, I never won a kickball game. Most games I never even scored a run. But years later, thinking about those sweltering afternoons in the back yard, I am exceedingly grateful for the lessons of steadfastness and tenacity that I learned from my brother David. I am also grateful that I learned to think creatively – what new way would I try to kick that ball to get over the fence into the Buckwalters’ yard? Those afternoons taught me to celebrate the small victories of getting on base or stealing a base and to let go of the setbacks of getting out before running home. I learned to believe in myself and my little armadillo legs, even when up against the natural abilities of a gazelle.
So are you all ready? Let’s all go back to 249 Bedford Avenue; Xenia, Ohio. The air is so thick, you could almost swim in it. Little brother Dougie is doing what any practical 7-year old would do – he’s watch cartoons in the air conditioned family room. My dog Taffy has come out though – she’s panting under a shady bush in the corner of the yard, with a serene look on her face – all will be well, she tells me. It’s your turn at bat. David has that silly grin on his face. The score is 13 to 0. There’s the fence. There’s the basketball court – that’s where you are aiming to kick that ball. David pitches and what do you do? You do what you are called to do, what you have committed to do, what you are destined to do, what you must do. You do what Morris West has suggested we all must do:
You abandon altogether the search for security, and reach out to the risk of living with both arms. You embrace the world like a lover and accept pain as a condition of existence. You court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing. You develop a will stubborn in conflict, but apt always to total acceptance of every consequence of living and dying.
You go forth and you kick the ball.