St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
July 24, 2011
Year A: Proper 12 – The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
For the past couple of Sundays we’ve been making our way through a collection of Jesus’ parables recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.
Two weeks ago we heard the Parable of the Sower – Jesus’ powerful image of a persistent and hopeful God casting seeds all over the place – casting seeds on good soil and, more often, casting seeds not such good soil.
Last week we heard the parable of the weeds and the wheat.
And now today we have a collection of shorter parables beginning with the parable of the mustard seed.
This is one of the best known and most beloved of Jesus’ parables – giving us a glimpse of what the kingdom of God is like.
The kingdom of God begins in tiny, nearly invisible, easy to miss, ways. And yet, under the right conditions from these small beginnings the kingdom is manifested in ways that are a blessing for many.
In thinking about this beautiful and profound parable, I was reminded of a movie from France that came out last year, but Sue and I only caught up with it a couple of weeks ago.
The movie is called Of Gods and Men. It’s set in the North African country of Algeria during the 1990s.
It tells the true story of a small group of French monks who live in a monastery in a rural village in that predominately Muslim country.
In the movie’s early scenes we see the monks going about their daily tasks, living out their vocations. Like monks and nuns everywhere their days and nights are punctuated by times of prayer and worship in the monastery chapel. They eat their meals in silence listening to one monk read some spiritual writing. They wash their dishes. They scrub the floors. They gather firewood. They tend their crops and bring their products to sell at the local market.
And they operate a rudimentary clinic that seems to be the only medical facility in the village. Each day young and old gather outside the monastery door waiting to see Luc, the monk who is also a physician. Each day he dispenses medicine, along with the occasional pair of shoes and, at least once, advice to a young woman from the village on matters of the heart.
In 1991 an Islamic party won Algeria’s first multi-party election. More secular elements in the country, including the military, refused to accept that result -sparking a decade-long brutal civil war.
In the movie, at first the violence seems far away from the rural village where the French monks and their Algerian neighbors live in harmony. But, soon enough, it becomes clear that their village, including the monastery, will not be spared bloodshed.
Unlike most of the villagers, the monks have a choice. To save their lives, they could close up the monastery and head back to France.
The monks are divided. Some want to stay while others say they went to Algeria to live, not to die.
Talking with one of the villagers, a monk describes himself and his brothers this way. He says,
“We are like birds on a branch. Uncertain when we’ll leave.”
But the villager gently corrects him, saying,
“We’re the birds. You’re the branch.”
Although the monk had lived at the monastery and among the villagers for years, he had not recognized how important the monastery had become for the little village. The monastery had started as a small seed in very inhospitable Algerian soil. Thanks to the faithfulness of the monks day after day, year in and year out, that little seed had grown into a life-giving tree where the people of the village were able to make their nests in a dangerous world.
As we heard in the parable of the sower two weeks ago, God is planting seeds all over the place – in the most unlikely and inhospitable places.
And God is certainly planting seeds in us all of the time.
The only question is how do we respond to these divine seeds.
Like the monks in the movie, despite our flaws and weaknesses, do we do our best to faithfully nurture God’s seeds?
Even when we’re tired or bored or are just feeling dry and uninspired, do we still drag ourselves here week after week just as the monks punctuated each of their days with common and personal prayer?
Like the monks, despite our fear, do we come out from behind the walls of our church and our homes to walk side by side with our neighbors, with our brothers and sisters – especially those who are poor and who suffer in mind, body or spirit?
It seems to me that the only thing that prevents us from nurturing the seeds that God plants in us is fear – fear that we might have to give more than we expected – fear that we might lose what we think is most important.
The French monks in Algeria were afraid, some more than others. The threats of violence, pain and death were very real.
In the movie there’s a scene when the abbot talks with one of the monks who is afraid of losing his life. Essentially the abbot tells the monk that he has already lost his life. He lost his life when he gave it to Christ. He lost his life when he gave it to serving God and serving God’s people. He lost his life when he gave it to doing his best to nurture the seeds that God had planted in him.
You never know, but I’m guessing that no one here is called to be a monk or a nun.
But we are all called to lose our lives by giving them to Christ.
We are all called to lose our lives in service to God and God’s people.
As Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Fear alone prevents us from nurturing the seeds that God plants in us. The monks in Algeria suffered a great deal. And there has been and there will be real suffering in our lives. But, ultimately, we can be sure of God’s love through every challenge and ordeal.
St. Paul – who knew a lot about suffering - wrote to the church in Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
There’s no guarantee that the tiny mustard seeds planted by God in each of us will ever grow into trees with branches strong enough for birds to make their nests.
With God’s help, through our openness and faithfulness the kingdom of God can take root and grow in Gainesville, in Algeria, and throughout creation.