June 13, 2021

Pentecost 3B

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

GOSPEL

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 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.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. Mark 4:26-34

SERMON

Have you ever had someone thank you for something you’ve completely forgotten? A family member, a friend or an acquaintance reminds you about something you said or did, that made a real difference in their life. You may have long since forgotten the moment. But the other person has not. It turns out the forgotten gesture or chance remark you made, was exactly what was needed. It was the right word of comfort, the best advice, the most appropriate and timely show of support. The other person has treasured it for years and has finally found the opportunity to tell you so. You never had the slightest idea, of course, not until you heard about it, years later. But that tiny action of yours turned out to have made a big difference in someone else’s world.

If this kind of thing has happened to you, you also know that it is a very moving experience, one that both humbles you and makes you feel both grateful and good about yourself at the same time – something so small becoming something so big.

Not too long ago, I had such an experience. I received a card in the mail with the following message:

“Dear, Father Frank,

In high school and college I was a member of St. Bernard’s Church, in Rockville, CT. That was 1970 – 1978. I wanted to reach out to you all these years later (okay, decades) to let you know how deeply and profoundly to let you know how deeply and profoundly our conversations helped me with my faith and moved me forward in my spiritual journey.

I had so many questions back then and I feel grateful to have found you. Your patience and calm acceptance of me made a huge difference.

I was recently going through some old journals and was reminded again of the perfect timing of your presence in my life. So, I looked around online to see if I could find you. And, hopefully, I did.

After graduation in 1978 I headed to Virginia and taught there for 6 years before moving back to the northeast. While in Virginia I joined the Episcopal Church and have been thoroughly happy there. I see that you also transitioned from the Catholic Church to the Episcopal community and I smiled a lot when I found that out!

Anyway, I just wanted to reach out across the years/miles to let you know how much of a difference you made in my life.

Peace and joy,
Anne Marie”

Now wouldn’t it be nice if we each received a note like this at least once a month?

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
The two little parables that the Gospel offers us this morning are slightly different, but they both make their point with the image of seed. One is about the contrast between the insignificant act of sowing seed and the significance of the resulting process of growth that eventually yields a harvest. The other is about the contrast between a gigantic shrub and the tiny mustard seed that produced it. Both of them are teaching that in the Kingdom, More Comes Out Than We Put In. More Happens Than We Make Happen.

This seed of the Kingdom, which produces far beyond expectations, is not so much the great deeds people may do once or twice in their lives. I don’t know about you, but I am still waiting hopefully and expectantly for my first. The real seed of the Kingdom is the mustard seed: the tiniest words, the most apparently inefficient pieces of witness, the small actions of every day.

You could almost say that from the point of view of the Kingdom, whatever we do, sows a seed either for God or against God.

The choices we make:
– when we decide to greet and linger with a visitor in church, or
– begin pledging, or
– ask a friend to join us for worship, or
the choice we make not merely to come to church but to be church,
– to own our identity as a disciple of Jesus, and
– to make sure that I don’t pass thru another week and arrive at another Sunday without, in some way, serving the building up of the Body of Christ.

The actions we take:
– when we return the extra change the store clerk gave us by mistake,
– when we speak up against racist, sexist or homophobic remarks,
– when we volunteer in some giving effort or
– when we put ourselves on the line for justice.
Yes, the choices we make and the actions we take to live each day, as Paul reminds us, “No longer for ourselves but for Him.”

The choices we make to put aside our own ego need to have power over anyone else, and instead cultivate compassion, understanding, and cooperation.

The choices we make to cease all violence, all cooperation with violence, whatever the good or noble cause with which violence may be associated to make it acceptable and reputable, and instead promote dialogue, empathy, acceptance, forgiveness and peace.

The choices we make to bring an end to our own oppression of others,
and, instead foster open-mindedness, a willingness to encounter what is new, and an appreciation for difference.

All these things sow a seed, both in our life and in other lives.

“Scatter seed upon the ground… and the earth produces of itself,” says Jesus in Luke’s rendition of this morning’s Gospel. The sowing of even those tiniest seeds begins a process over which we just don’t have control. Oh, we can step in and wreck it by over-watering, or maybe help out a little by getting the right fertilizer in the soil. But the growth does seem to come of itself.

In fact, if we try to control the result, we ruin the process. Children will sometimes dig up seeds to see if they are sprouting yet, and we all know what happens then! If you give someone a piece of advice and then call them every three days to ask if they are following it yet, you’ll kill the growth. The same thing is true in our own spiritual lives, by the way. The great Anglican mystic, Evelyn Underhill, used to advise her co-workers not to keep pulling themselves up by the roots to see how they were getting on.

Ultimately, we have to trust the seeds that are sown in our own lives, just as we trust the seeds we may sow for others. We have to trust the Word of God to grow in our hearts, the sacraments to have their effect in us, the daily efforts of fidelity to Christ to change us little by little, but certainly not without some real co-operation on our part. It isn’t magic.

Of course, this won’t work if we haven’t yet begun: to read the Word of God, come to the sacraments, and try to serve Christ wherever we are wherever He shows Himself to be. The process has to start somewhere. But once we have stepped into that process, once the seeds are sown. We mustn’t keep pulling ourselves up by the roots. God will take care of the process. The growth will happen at the right pace, “first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear”.

God invites us in this morning’s Gospel to learn how to let seeds grow, both in our lives and in the lives of those around us, without trying to control the process. In fact, perhaps a further invitation is to live without even fretting all that much about whether we are sowing enough seed, or the right kind, or in the right place. Our focus must always remain on being faithful rather than successful. The former is in our control, the latter is God’s domain.

As God’s children, we can live our lives, not worrying over progress and control and results, but simply referring all those concerns to him.
“We make it our aim to please him,” says the Apostle Paul in today’s epistle. This has all kinds of results — none of which we’re guaranteed of getting to see. One will be the effect on other people, the positive seeds we will be privileged to sow from time to time. We won’t always know about these, but they may turn out to have been very great. And the other result that will come from living our lives as in God’s sight will be the effect on ourselves, as we mature in faith. The seeds that have been sown in our own lives will keep growing too.

We may or may not perceive that growth; we may or may not know what we have done for others. But we will know that we are making it our aim “to please God in all things”, and certainly in the small things that are so possible and doable for us. When we do that, the Kingdom takes care of itself.

In 2017 we planted a seed here at Holy Cross/Santa Cruz. We called that seed, “Radical Hospitality”. We engaged the support of the wider faith and beyond-faith community, in an expanding effort to create sanctuary, in the broadest sense of that word for our immigrant neighbors. Today that seed is the UIDN tree in which hundreds of otherwise, vulnerable people, find some measure of safety and support.
We planted the seed and God has given the growth. To God be given the Glory. Amen.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
June 13, 2021