Sunday, June 18, 2006

Mustard Seed Moments

House of Prayer Episcopal Church
Year B: Proper 6
The Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 18, 2006

Ezekiel 31:1-6, 10-14
2 Corinthians 5:1-10
Mark 4:26-34
Psalm 92

Mustard Seed Moments

Being a city person, sometimes the farming examples in the Bible leave me a little confused and scratching my head. I mean, in Jersey City the closest I ever get to a farm is the produce section at Shop Rite!

But in today’s gospel Jesus describes the Kingdom of God using a farming example that even us city people can understand.

What is the Kingdom of God like? It’s like someone scattering a tiny mustard seed on the ground and miraculously it grows into a plant, ripe for the harvest. It grows into a plant big and sturdy enough to hold a bird’s nest. These tiny seeds eventually provide food and shelter for many.

I think we can understand this seed image because if we think about it we are here in church because we have experienced people planting tiny mustard seeds in our own lives. We have experienced simple acts of kindness and generosity. Acts of faith and hope. Maybe these seeds were planted by our parents. I think the mustard seed parable is especially appropriate for Father’s Day because, at their best, fathers are called to do lots of small but deeply powerful things for their families. My father is a teacher now, but when my sister and I were growing up he had an office job that he hated. Yet, day after day he got up in the morning and forced himself to do something he really didn’t want to do – for us. To the world, this is a simple, little thing, not really worth mentioning – just one man taking care of his family, doing his duty. But of course there’s nothing simple or little about it. Like so many others, through his sacrifice he was planting seeds of love and hope in his family. That’s what the Kingdom of God is like.

You’ll notice that Jesus is not talking about the past or the future. Instead, by using the simple example of a seed, Jesus is reminding us of something amazing and wonderful – truly Good News - we can begin to experience the Kingdom of God here on earth. We can experience the Kingdom of God out in the fields or even right here on the streets of Newark. If we really pay attention, if we are mindful, we can experience the Kingdom of God right here, right now. If we really pay attention, if we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit and plant even the tiniest of seeds we can help to build the Kingdom of God, right here at House of Prayer and right now in June of 2006.

I don’t know about you, but I am relieved that Jesus uses the tiny mustard seed as his example of the Kingdom of God. Anything bigger than a mustard seed would be just too much to handle. You know, since I have been off from school I’ve had some extra time to read the newspaper. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that in many ways things are not going very well in our cities, our world, and our church. The paper is filled with senseless death and destruction – and not only in faraway places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s really overwhelming – way too much to handle. Just this past week in my hometown Jersey City a young man was stabbed and killed right in the middle of Journal Square and a teenage girl hanging out on a cliff drinking beer fell to her death while reaching for her cell phone. What in the world can we do to stop our young people – or people of any age – from putting themselves or others in danger? Let’s face it, we’re just a little church in Newark. What can we in this little church do to stop this terrible waste of precious life? The challenges facing our cities seem overwhelming – way too much to handle.

And then there’s the world itself. Again, I don’t need to tell you that the newspaper is filled with stories of war, famine, corruption, and pollution. Many millions of people around the world and in our own country live in fear of natural disasters. Did you see the devastation in Indonesia after the recent earthquake – and now many of these same people are facing a volcano that is erupting! And, of course, much of our own Gulf Coast still lies in ruins after last year’s storms – and another hurricane season has already begun. The challenges and problems of the world seem overwhelming – way too much to handle. Let’s face it, we’re just a little church in Newark, what can we do?

And, lastly, you may have heard that these days we have a few problems in the Episcopal Church. As many of you know, (and a couple of our young people are experiencing) right now the Episcopal Church is in the middle of its General Convention, trying to find a way to bridge the gap between those who think gay people should be fully welcomed and celebrated by the church and those who believe that by accepting homosexuality the church is turning away from God - rejecting the Bible and two thousand years of Christian teaching. The church is trying to hold together people who say that the Holy Spirit has led us to a new understanding and people who think we have fallen into Satan’s trap. What in the world can we here at House of Prayer do about this? Let’s face it, we’re just a little church in Newark. Really, what can we do? The challenges facing the Episcopal Church seem overwhelming – way too much to handle.

So, have I got you feeling overwhelmed yet? Is there anything we can really do about all these problems? Is there anything we can really do to ease all this suffering? What can we do? Jesus gives us the answer in today’s gospel. Here’s the Good News. Jesus says we are all called to begin small – just a mustard seed – and then we are called to trust that God will take the tiny seed that we plant and grow something that feeds and shelters many. What a relief – we don’t have to do everything. All we need to do is to open our hearts and allow God to work through us. All we need to do is to pay attention, to be mindful, to look for opportunities to plant seeds. We don’t know how God will work with what we have planted – just as the farmer doesn’t know how the seed grows into the shrub. All we Christian “farmers” need to do is to look for what we might call “mustard seed moments” – chances for us to plant seeds and then let God do the rest.

Getting ready for today’s sermon these past few days I have been on the lookout for some of these “mustard seed moments.” I’d like to share a couple with you.

My home parish, St. Paul’s in Jersey City, runs a summer program for kids. I have seen the program in action a few times – I’ve actually tried to do some Bible study with these kids, and believe me they ask some really tough questions! Anyway, it’s a great program – a fun, safe place for city kids in the summer. It’s a bargain, but in reality of course some people in the community can’t afford it. This year a member of the choir – a professional singer who I’ve always thought of as a nice, talented person but not really part of the parish – offered to pay the entire fee for one kid during the summer. That’s over 600 dollars. This was offered quietly and privately from someone who came to church to sing but apparently realizes the Christian life calls us to give of ourselves. It’s a quiet, generous, powerful “mustard seed moment.” And who knows what God will do with this act? How will this child be affected by spending the summer at St. Paul’s? How will others be transformed by this selfless act? What kind of plant will be produced by this tiny mustard seed?

Now someone you know. Of course, Lucye has been organizing an upcoming trip with young people to go down to New Orleans and to help with the rebuilding. I should let her tell the story but last week she and some of her crew went to St. Stephen’s in Millburn. They talked about what they hope to do and then offered the parishioners at St. Stephen’s the chance to write a prayer or a message of hope on the work gloves that they will be using in Louisiana. What a great idea and what a powerful symbol! The people of St. Stephen’s offered not only their prayers but also over 600 dollars for this effort. Mustard seeds are being planted in Millburn, too! Is this trip going to solve the problems of the Gulf Coast? Of course not, but who knows what God is going to do with this work and those prayers? In a real sense, thanks to God, all the mustard seeds we plant today continue to grow throughout eternity in ways that we can hardly imagine.

And then there is the Episcopal Church. Oh boy. I wonder what our young people who are out at General Convention would say to those on all sides of the issues tearing apart the Episcopal Church. What would they say to those who suggest that we cannot pray together? What would they say to those on all sides who say to beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, “We have no need for you.” What would we say? I would say, come to House of Prayer. Set aside your differences and come to church with us. Come as you are – imperfect and broken. Come to our imperfect and broken church and join hands in our circle of prayer. Come kneel with us, and reach out our hands and take this holy bread and wine. (Or grape juice, if you prefer!) I think they might say – and I know I would say – if you think we can’t be a church together, before you walk away come to House of Prayer.

Well, it just so happens that one of our young people at convention actually spoke at one of the hearings. Charles, a “mustard seed” who has grown up in this church, and was nurtured not only by his mom but by so many others here, spoke out in favor of a resolution called “Justice, Respect and a Living Wage.” This resolution challenges the church to support workers’ rights, especially the right to form a union and earn a living wage. Let me quote Charles’ statement from the convention – a real “mustard seed moment”:
“We talk about the great work we do as a church – justice for this and justice for that. Who do you think put those pitchers of fresh water on your table? Who put those clean table cloths on your table? Who do you think cleans these carpets after we leave? And these people – many of them immigrants – do not even make minimum wage, much less a ‘living wage.’ C’mon, people. This is your chance to improve the lives of people right here.”

Sure, we’re just a little church in Newark. But, we sure can plant mustard seeds! And we can have faith that God will take what we have planted – what we have planted in sometimes very rocky soil – and in ways we can’t imagine, transform each little seed into a rich harvest. We can have faith that God will transform each little seed into a beautiful plant, a plant providing food and shelter for many.

This is our Christian faith. Of course we can clearly see the many challenges facing our cities, our world and our church. And although we may sometimes get afraid or discouraged, Jesus reminds us that our job is to open our hearts and build the Kingdom of God, right here, right now, one mustard seed at a time.