The Mustard Seed

Introduction

            Every Sunday as Pastor Peter begins the sermon, he invites you to prepare by having your Bible and note taking materials with you.  I had never considered suggesting this practice, especially right before delivering a sermon.  But I like it and you may have noticed I have adopted the same reminder.  

            The Bible provides us a foundation on which to build.  The words speak to us in new and different ways each time we read them.  Sometimes the words are quiet; yet, at other times they yell at us.  They are literature.  The lessons are historical, sometimes it reads like a novel, and other times it is like a how-to-manual, but the themes are timeless.

            Taking a lay speaking course led by Lovett Weems, right here at the university well over a decade ago, I was introduced to the quadrilateral.  This method of reading scripture makes so much sense to me.  John Wesley created the quadrilateral method of reading the Bible.  

The four parts of the quadrilateral (usually illustrated as a square) are (1) the Scripture ,which is the words as written, (2) tradition ,which is the historical and cultural context, (3) reason,which is one’s personal processing, cognitive evaluation of the words, and (4) experience which includes how one understands the application of the words throughout human history.

            Reading, studying, and reflecting on the scripture can speak to us in new and unexpected ways throughout our life.  Today we are reading one of my favorite parables, The Mustard Seed. I would identify it as one of the rocks in my faith foundation.  It connects me to my mom and my dad, it centers me when I become uncertain, and it guides me as I share God with others. 

. . . “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”  –Matthew 13:31-32, NRSV

Therefore, I hope you have your favorite translation of the Bible with you and those notetaking supplies ready.  Let us begin with prayer:

Dear God, author of our lives,

Open our ears to hear you speak to us through your words.

Open our minds to understand the lesson the words teach us.

Then guide us to transform our lives so we may live our faith openly.

–Amen

The message

            As you can tell by the screen, I have a collection of Bibles.  I am fascinated by the various ways scripture is presented.  I find that sometimes I need to understand the cultural setting for the words, so I check the Archeological Bible.  Maybe I read the words and feel confused by the structure of the language, so I turn to The Message.  I have even read a version that was the base of a British stage production entitled, The Word on the Street.  Each one speaks to me differently. 

I first became familiar with this study Bible when our cousin Merle gave a copy of it to my mom along with a note.  Mom was fighting cancer, and as she continued through the months, this Bible became her companion, and she would occasionally share something from it with me.  After her death, I opened this Bible and found some of her thoughts those final months.  The words spoke to her and they speak to me.  They speak to each of us through this earthly life.

            The parables served as one of Jesus’ methods to teach the disciples how to shift the culture away from the controlling laws created by the Jewish religious leaders.  The disciples asked Jesus how to grow in faith, so Jesus used parables to help them understand.

            What lesson, then, does the parable of the mustard seed have for us today?  Interestingly, there are two:  (1) the size of God’s kingdom and (2) the size of one’s faith necessary to be part of God’s kingdom.  When one starts reading scripture, then re-reading it, and even googling about the scripture, the message speaks to us in ways God knows we need–the Holy Spirit is at work as you discover the message of the scripture.

Let’s go back to the parable itself.  The Gospels have three different versions of which the Matthew version is the most familiar one.   But let’s look at Mark 4:30-32:

30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 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.”  –NRSV

            Both Matthew and Mark focus on the theme of the kingdom of Heaven.  

Yet, the version in Luke 17:6, provides a different insight that turns the parable into a very personal message for each of us:  

The Lord replied, “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.

            For me, Luke’s version of the parable is a foundational piece of my faith. As a third grade Sunday school student, my mom and her best friend Jewel, were our teachers.  Somewhere during that year, they gave each of us a small gift–a mustard seed.  Mine was a mustard seed necklace which I still have.

            As I grew up, I found myself wondering if I had enough faith to go to heaven.  I would worry about this and try to figure out if I had enough faith.  I think that is a question that surfaces repeatedly during life, and we turn to scripture, we go to worship, we volunteer to do service, yet we wonder, over and over, if we have done enough for God to welcome us to heaven.

            Maybe you have never worried about this.  I know that there are times in our lives that we waiver.  We may have a bad day, or we witness someone who we think is much stronger in their faith than we are–and we ask ourselves again:  Do I have enough faith?  Is my faith strong enough?  

            Jesus used the mustard seed, one of the tiniest of seeds, to assure us that it only takes a little bit of faith, faith that really cannot be measured, to be included in God’s kingdom.  The key is that we live life faithfully. 

            Using the Life Application Study Bible, helps develop this one verse from the ancient agricultural reference into a lesson for today:

The disciples’ request was genuine, they wanted the faith necessary for such radical forgiveness.  But Jesus didn’t directly answer their question because the amount of faith is not as important as its genuineness.  What is faith?  It is complete trust and loyalty to God that results in a willingness to do his will.  Faith is not something we use to put on a show for others.  It is complete and humble obedience to God’s will, readiness to do whatever he calls us to do.  The amount of faith isn’t as important as the right kind of faith–faith in our all-powerful God.  (p.2243)

At times our lives can be so challenging, we falter.  We can get sucked in by others’ behaviors and we lose our direction.  Sometimes we can be swayed by the opinions and ideas of others, agreeing in conversation to ideas that really do not reflect our Christian beliefs.  And then we hear that inner thought that we messed up.  We send up a flash prayer to God and ask him to forgive us.  That should be enough to let go and let God take us back, but we worry.  Is that enough?

            Life has a way of pulling us away from God.  But faith, even the size of a mustard seed, is all it takes to return to God.  Those inner whispers that remind us of God’s law, of God’s grace and forgiveness, call us back.  We reaffirm our faith, we accept God’s forgiveness, and our faith grows a bit more.

            Jesus’ use of the mustard seed made sense to the disciples because they recognized the growing process of such a tiny seed.  Even though I grew up on the farm and understand, the study notes add to my understanding:

A mustard seed is small, but it is alive and growing.  Almost indivisible at first, the seed will begin to spread, first under the ground and then visibly.  Like a tiny seed, a small amount of genuine faith in God will take root and grow.  Although each change will be gradual and imperceptible, soon this faith will have produced major results that will uproot and destroy competing loyalties.  We don’t need more faith; a tiny seed of faith is enough if it is alive and growing.

            Today, you are here with us to worship together.  Your faith calls you to join in worship.  You continue to seek God, to use God’s law to order your life, and you use that faith in all that you do.  You are living that others may know Jesus. 

            You are today’s disciples, and you are planting seeds of faith in others.  As a church family, we are working together to expand God’s kingdom.  We are living our faith in our families, at our jobs, with our friends, and even when we are on summer vacation and traveling to the various ends of the earth.

            As we look ahead, we are committed to growing the faith of our next generations.  We are preparing for the confirmation class.  We are seeking to develop a quality program for the young families and their children with the Next Generation minister.  And as we do this, we know that each of you can share in this ministry by prayer, by mentoring, by greeting and by serving each other with Christian love.

            Jesus’ parables help us to build our faith, but also build our confidence that our faith includes us in God’s kingdom.  The versions of the parable in Matthew and Mark shift the theme to define God’s kingdom.  Today we have the advantage of global communication to know that God’s faithful are at work in all corners of the world.  Where God is at work through us, there is God’s kingdom.

            The mustard seed parable that Jesus used to teach his disciples still teaches us today.  We can grow our own faith through our practices of faith–reading scripture, attending worship, serving one another in any way that we can.  Our efforts then grow faith in others and God’s kingdom on earth expands.

            The symbol of the mustard seed has carried me through any number of challenges.  I wore it through high school, even for my senior picture; I wore it when I had to take college finals, and even now I find myself turning to it on days when I need a little faith strengthening.  Why I even find myself shopping for different mustard seed accessories because it reminds me to stay centered on God.  I even found a company, The Mustard Seed Accessories, but it has more tees than actual mustard seed items.

            But, I am wandering.  Let’s us close with confidence that we are God’s mustard seed.  We are planted, we are growing, and we will provide more seeds for others to plant and grow, too.  The googling led me to two more images–the mustard seed shrub in Israel and I also found that growing mustard seeds is also much closer to us than we might think.  

In fact, when I stumbled into this picture, I realized I had just pulled quite a bit of it out of my flower bed.  God’s kingdom is at our own hands.  We just need to cultivate our own faith and then live that faith openly and confidently so that others, too, may discover God’s grace and love. The parable is so small and yet so powerful:

The Lord replied, “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.

Use these words to strengthen your faith.  Use these words to guide you in spreading God’s love.  Join me in prayer:

Dear Father God, master gardener of faith,

Thank you for your words planted in our hearts.

May our mustard seeds of faith grow your kingdom.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God with us.  –Amen

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