Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Please Read: Philippians 4: 10-13; Matthew 13:31-33
We pray for the people of Norway… And in light of the tragedy on Friday, I have two preliminary comments. The first thing is that the sermon title should be a question. Small is not always beautiful. A Twitter account belonging to Anders Breivik, the madman who allegedly killed at least 91 people in Oslo and the island of Utoya two days ago, posted that: “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.” He’s absolutely correct. The question is, of course, whether the belief and subsequent force is for life or destruction…
The second thing I need to acknowledge is that it doesn’t feel very good to have the media broadcasting Mr. Breivik as a so-called “Right Wing Fundamentalist Christian”… Now we know how our Muslim brothers and sisters feel when a small group of lunatics create such havoc and terror in the name of God. We Christians will easily conclude that there is nothing fundamentally Christian about Mr. Breivik’s words or actions. We can empathize more with our Muslim neighbors who for years have had to put up with “guilt by association” with extremists who neither speak nor act in a way coherent with Islam…
We would do well to reflect on many of our cultural assumptions. I have grown up with the belief that bigger is better. There’s little question that mainstream America is predisposed toward “large and in charge.” The latest issue of Fortune Magazine has a list not of the smallest 500 corporations, but the largest 500 corporations. Walmart Stores is the world’s largest corporation, in case you wondered, just above Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobile and BP, of course the world’s largest oil companies… The United States has the largest corporation in the world, the largest economy in the world, but also the largest amount of energy and product consumption, and of course we now have the largest debt in the world… Whether it’s good for us or not, we Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite to be bigger and better.
So it’s quite a jolt to my cultural sensibilities when Jesus says “the Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” As we established last week, Jesus knows his seeds. The mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds in the world, about 1 or 2 mm in diameter. But interestingly, the mustard plant, although it has one of the smallest seeds, can grow into one of the greatest shrubs, even several meters high, large enough for birds to make their nests in its branches.
Jesus also says, “The Kingdom of heaven is like yeast that leavens three measures of flour… which my commentary tells me is about 60 pounds (or a little over 27 kilos) of flour, enough to make bread for a small village!
Both of these parables speak of spectacular growth from insignificant or humble beginnings. Such is the way of the kingdom. I was reading a colleague’s introductory letter to the new congregation he was serving this week. He concluded the letter with the following:
“One very important disclaimer: I will disappoint you! Isn’t it comforting that ministry isn’t about great people doing great things? It’s about broken, deeply flawed people discovering the power of the gospel and then living each day desperately dependent upon [Jesus]...because they know their life depends completely upon [Him]. I join you as one such man.”
His confession points to the good news. God can take small and make it beautiful.
Jesus also uses the illustration of a mustard seed in Matthew 17:20. He says that if you have the faith as small as a mustard seed, you can move mountains… Jesus is saying here that the quantity of faith is not nearly as important as the object of faith. As we put our faith in Jesus Christ, not just with our mouths, but with our lives, reality changes. Our minds change, our priorities change, and so our words change and our actions change. It’s the butterfly of faith effect. Everything is affected by that turning and putting our faith not in the things or people of this world, but in this One who has done for us that which we cannot do for ourselves.
Faith doesn’t mean we don’t make an effort, but rather we have a very different orientation and motivation. We trust that God loves us, and that God has a plan for our lives, and that God is at work in our lives. Faith in Christ is the mustard seed, the yeast, that makes the Kingdom of Heaven grow in and through even us! Paradoxically, we are then able to focus more on what truly matters in life: family and friends, loving and working not for self-gain but for the honor and glory of God. A smile here, a pat on the back there, a listening ear. Truth told in love. A word of repentance. A word of forgiveness. Writing a letter to say thank you. Or I love you. It’s amazing what one or two people in your life who are encouraging and positive can do...
David McCullough’s new book The Greater Journey, chronicles some of the Americans who came to Paris between the years of 1830-1900. McCullough recounts some of the stories of people like Samuel F. Morse, inventor of the telegraph and who introduced the technology of photography to the United States from France. You may be interested to know that Samuel Morse was actually one of the organizers of the American Church in Paris, and his daughter Mrs. Leila Morse Rummel was one of our Sunday School superintendents. I listened to Charlie Rose interview Mr. McCullough, and was impressed by how this well known historian places some of the most significant moments of his life in the small encounters he had with family and friends. He reminds us that the most important relationships are not out there in the work place or the halls of business and politics, but at home in the kitchen, or at school in the classroom… It’s not the utilitarian relationships that matter, but the more hidden, loving relationships that matter.
As Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, we must realize that the small is beautiful principle is not just about us or our circle of family and friends. The mustard seed of the Kingdom of Heaven is about the transformation of whole societies and entire nations. As we sing in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, “The Kingdom of this World, Is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever, King of Kings and Lord of Lords! It is about the transformation of the kingdom of this world.
It’s just that sometimes – like now in Oslo - the kingdom can seem far away… The mustard seed sometimes reminds us that the Kingdom of heaven is hidden. But it is here, because - in the midst of it - all is Christ. Wherever there is faith in Christ, the Kingdom can grow…
In Eugene Peterson’s most recent book, The Pastor: A Memoir, he relays how his experience in a very small seminary community on a quiet side street bordering the “maelstrom of noisy, jostling, harried, secular, cutthroat, competitive New York City” gave him an early insight to the importance of one on one relationships in Christian community. It wasn’t the big football stadium crowd experiences, but the small, seemingly insignificant Christian community that prepared him for profound transformational ministry in the world. He writes this:
“I didn’t know it at the time, but what absorbed in my subconscious, which eventually surfaced years later, was a developing conviction that the most effective strategy for change, for revolution – at least on the large scale that the kingdom of God involves –comes from a minority working from the margins. I could not have articulated it then, but my seminary experience later germinated into the embrace of a vocational identity as necessarily minority, that a minority people working from the margins has the best chance of being a community capable of penetrating the non-community, the mob, the depersonalized, function-defined crowd that is the sociological norm of America…” or any urban population…
We are a minority community here in Paris. But make no mistake about the importance of our influence in this city. Jesus took 12 misfits and changed the world. Count the schools, hospitals and redeemed lives over the centuries. Consider the results of the atheistic societies of the past century. No comparison. And the amazing thing is Jesus continues to turn the world upside down through the likes of us! The invitation for us is to allow the little faith that we have and the small community that we are to continue to grow and transform the people, the society the world around us. It’s the small, simple acts of faith, humble acts of compassionate and loving obedience that make all the difference.
One last point that I struggle with, but I think we all know is critical. We have to have integrity with what we say we believe and how we live out what we believe. Max Dupree, tells the story of when one of his daughters gave birth to an extremely premature baby. Zoe was born weighing just a little over one pound (half a kilo). Max rushed to the hospital to be of whatever help he could. When he got there the head nurse said, “This is what you need to do, Max. You need to come every day and stick your hands through the sides of Zoe’s incubator and you need to stroke her body again and again. And as you do that, you need to say to her over and over again that you love her, because what Zoe needs more than anything else is to connect your voice with your touch.” That applies to all of us.. I need that and you need that… Our churches and our world need that…
Our mission statement here at the ACP is to proclaim the love of Jesus Christ in word and deed. We are saying that in Jesus Christ, God’s Word and God’s touch are fully and wholly one… That’s what makes Jesus the Savior of the World. The question for us is how do voice and touch come together? When the church seems like an irrelevance to the world, at the core of it is the breakdown between voice and touch. Christian fundamentals should trigger in peoples’ minds not insane violence, but incredible acts of forgiveness and radical loving-kindness.
The Kingdom of heaven came into being as God’s voice and touch came together for us in Jesus Christ. How that mustard seed of the Kingdom will grow is really about us, about how we will live out our faith, even in the insanity of this world. Jesus calls you and me to be his voice and his touch in the world. May the seeds of our witness grow into a Kingdom sanctuary in which others find rest and refreshment. May the yeast of God’s sometimes hidden, but always faithful work, make us agents of heavenly transformation for this city and the world.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.