Mustard-Seed Faithfulness

Alice Benson

     I Samuel 15:34-16:13
     Mark 4:30-32

The Old Testament scripture lets us know that the youngest and unlikeliest child can be the one to do great things — not the first-born son as usually expected.  Whenever stories like this have things like “seven sons” they make me think they are being used as a parable — and the other version of this story in the Old Testament has David being the seventh, not the 8th

son.  The names of his brothers here all have grand meanings — but David’s name simply means “Beloved.”

Little things can add up.  God can use small things and small acts to change lives.  God can use a young shepherd boy to become a good king. God can use even you and me and this little 8th Day Faith Community to demonstrate the power of love and God, change lives, and bring about the Reign (or Kingdom) of God.

Mark’s gospel was written before the other three, and today’s reading is part of the parables about seeds recorded in that book, with the focus being the Reign of God.

The Reign of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,
4:27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. …
4:30 He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?
4:31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;
4:32 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.

The gospels of Matthew and Luke were written after Mark, and used much of its material — and those authors expanded upon Mark:

In Matthew 17, Jesus tells his disciples they could not heal a boy “because you have little faith.  I assure you that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

In Luke 13 and 17, Jesus says, “What is God’s kingdom like? To what can I compare it?  It’s like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in a garden.  It grew and developed into a tree and the birds in the sky nested in its branches. …  If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

The Gospel of John is very different from the other three gospels, so it’s not surprising that this same mustard seed parable is not included.  However, in John 14:12-14 it mentions that power:

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Holy One. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Holy One may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

Looking at these scriptures, one question they raised for me was: if I found an old oil lamp and rubbed it, and a genie came out and asked me for three wishes, would I say “move this mountain from here to there,” “Move the mulberry tree into the sea,” and finally, “bring about the reign of God.”  Would those really be my priorities? 

Perhaps Jesus — or the gospel writers — didn’t use examples of something practical here “such as Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” because he/they wanted to make a point:  You (that’s us) can accomplish great things and don’t set your (our) sights too low.

This parable shows how different the reign of God is from our regular understanding.

Three points these readings brought to me about the reign of God are:

  • We don’t really know how it works.
  • We are called to be faithful.
  • We can expect great consequences.

When I was little, this parable — or at least the version that promised moving mountains — motivated my fervent prayers.  We moved from Pittsburgh to Dayton when I was 9.  Cats don’t usually do well with moves, and our cat, Boots (black with four white boots and a white nose and belly), ran away.  I was brokenhearted and prayed. We searched the highways and byways.  We made posters, talked with neighbors.  I tried making deals with God — I would be a better person; I wouldn’t tease my siblings; I would become a missionary or go into “full time Christian service” (though at that age I wasn’t sure what my concept of that was).  If only God would bring back my beloved cat. I knew God could do anything, and that with faith all things were possible.

I knew I had more faith than the size of a grain of mustard seed, so I was certain God would give me what I asked for. Then — a black cat with the same white markings showed up. Hallelujah!  God had answered my prayer! But … while it looked 95% like Boots, it was a different cat.  Even so, I accepted this as an answer to prayer, and the cat was pronounced “Boots!”.  My sister Laura recalls that it indeed WAS Boots that came back. It picked up with our family where Boots had left off. 

I felt I had made a bargain with God and God had delivered — which I think I probably remembered when years later I went to college and became a “Christian Education” major in college.  Did my cat returning have anything to do with making this world a better, more loving place?  Do I really believe that God responded to that prayer at that time and not the ones about ending starvation and war?  I only know that my nine-year-old self was comforted.

  • We don’t really know how it works.
  • We are still called to be faithful
  • We can expect great consequences.

We often think we are afraid of our weaknesses and afraid we will fail at things — and we think that fear keeps us from trying new things.  However, I think we might be even more afraid of the power that lies within us. Do we believe that God has given us the power to change the world? 

In John 14:12, Jesus said “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.”  Do we believe this is possible?  Quite a few people have acted on that premise here at Church of the Saviour and its ministries – and have had lasting impacts on people who need low-income housing, medical care, jobs, daycare, support services, and the list goes on.

Going back to the mystery of the power of prayer:  We just visited my sister, Laura, last week in North Carolina, who has been very sick with diverticulitis. I prayed for her health — but do I believe enough to pray like Jesus did, touch her, and say “you are healed”?  I would feel awkward.  That would feel pretentious.  I know I am not Jesus. I think I am afraid to find out that his power really does live in me — and I have not been using it.  I do believe, though, that her knowing I love her and support her has a healing effect on her as well.  Don’t we all feel better and stronger and healthier when we know we are loved?

  • We don’t really know how it works.
  • We are still called to be faithful
  • We can expect great consequences

It seems some people are able to act on their faith more easily.  I’m reading the late Congressman John Lewis’s book, Across That Bridge which includes much about the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.  It’s easy to put people like him up on a pedestal and think that perhaps faith and bravery were easy for him — thereby giving ourselves a pass at what we, too, might be able to accomplish. Things definitely weren’t easy for him or the Civil Rights struggle in general.

He said they “studied, strategized, organized, trained and prepared – and it grew out of years, decades, and even centuries of groundwork laid” before most of them were even born.  He states, “We did all we could by the power of grace and it was enough to create transformation.  Our poise was not founded on money, breeding, or education, but rather on our spiritual lineage and unbreakable connection to the Divine.”

Gordon Cosby said,

The bigger the vision the easier it is to get discouraged.  No matter how hard you work, you can’t pull it off.  Only God working through a lot of people can pull it off. Only through a community. Therefore, it takes a lot of faith and hope.  The more deeply you care, the more likely you are to be discouraged.”

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Any vision that is worth living by cannot be accomplished in a lifetime.”  We definitely know this is true for the Reign of God that Jesus spoke of.  Here we are, 2000 years later, and we still have many of the same societal issues they had back then.

Sometimes when I’ve heard stories of the early days of Church of the Saviour and the faithful living of people who felt called to change lives in specific ways, I’ve gotten the feeling that miracles abounded.  Stories of coincidences, the right amount of money being given to meet a specific need, of how the Potter’s House or Dayspring became what they are today; stories of many different mission groups and how they created long term organizations that are still operating and changing lives today.  When Carol Bullard-Bates shared her spiritual autobiography not long ago and spoke of the beginnings of Bethany — when they needed I think it was $3,000 and that was the exact amount someone then wanted to give her — I got goosebumps.

  • We don’t really know how it works.
  • We are still called to be faithful
  • We can expect great consequences.

How do we see the Reign of God? How do we live faithfully?  How do we pray?  We’ve had recent lessons the last few of weeks on different types of prayer. How do we allow the seeds of our faith to grow?  In this parable, the sower didn’t know how they grew but was still faithful in planting and in harvesting. The earlier seed parable in Mark says the seeds are the Kingdom/Reign of God — unlike the other gospels which connect the mustard seed with faith. We cannot disconnect the Reign of God with faith. The sower acted.  “Faith without works is dead,” as stated in James 2.

This past year I began looking up more family connections on — and thinking about the chain of love that has gone back throughout the generations before me. (Here’s another type of family tree:  My mother taught me piano, as did her mother — who had a list of her piano teacher who had another piano teacher, who had a piano teacher, and so on — back to Beethoven.  Yes, I definitely need to practice!).

Studying this parable has caused me to look back at the spiritual family tree we have had as Christians — and how people living faithfully and telling stories of Jesus throughout these last couple of thousand years has caused us to be here at 8th Day today.

There are people who have planted seeds of faith into your life — into my life.  I thought, since Jesus had 12 disciples, I’d try to identify twelve people in my life:  Certainly my parents.  A Bible professor I worked for at Wheaton College.  Both Gordon and Mary Cosby here at Church of the Saviour. Some of my spiritual directors. Some writers like Marcus Borg. Some of you here in this room. Others.  Some of them/you helped my faith grow by waaaaay more than just a mustard seed’s worth.  However, some of these people might not know they had a major influence on my life after all these years. They were simply living faithfully.  Perhaps you have people like this in your life also.  Maybe we should let some of them know of their impact.

  • We don’t really know how it works.
  • We are still called to be faithful
  • We can expect great consequences.

I think most of us don’t know the consequences — either positive or negative — of how we have lived and influenced others.  Can we think of the lives you and I have influenced?  I ask myself: have I shown God’s love — or a mustard seed’s worth of faith — to bring joy and hope in the lives of other people?  Again, I started thinking about possibly twelve people whose faith I might have helped grow in the past. People I knew years ago (perhaps when I was a counselor), people I have worked or worshipped with, even my own two children. I’m sure you can think of people in your own lives who you have touched.

Then I started thinking about what is next?  Who are the people (will that number be 12? 42? 1658? 2025?) God has … or will … place in my/your lives where we are called to love and faithfully represent Jesus?  Am I looking for who these people might be — or open to meeting them? Am I embracing opportunities to make those connections?  Faith is not something only to look back on, but rather to think how we might further God’s reign into the future.  God isn’t done with us yet.  I challenge you, also, to consider where God might want to use you next — and how you can bring about the Reign of God.

  • We don’t really know how it works.
  • We are still called to be faithful
  • We can expect great consequences.

I hope we can hold each other accountable to living faithful lives – and that we, as followers of Jesus, can expect great consequences to grow from this faithful living.