The Mustard Seed

In my hand, I am holding one mustard seed. I'm sure you all can see it, at least in your mind's eye you can. You know, it's one of those little things that float around in the bottom of the pickle jar. Pretty small. And, that's nothing new to anyone.

And, I know you've all heard this saying about a mustard seed before. In fact, this saying has given people the strength to persevere in the face of extreme obstacles. For many, faith has to do with believing that as children of God we have all been gifted with the knowledge - that our doctors and scientists will eventually figure out the answers to life's challenges. Or, the other side of it is knowing that God can and will answer our prayers and cause a miracle to happen. Sometimes this saying has brought great disappointment though when the hoped for miracle doesn't happen. Did I not believe hard enough? After all, it says, all that is needed is faith the size of a mustard seed.

But to understand what this saying of Jesus means, we have to see it inside of the whole conversation. In fact, we have to ultimately go back to chapter 13, where Luke begins the narrative of what the Kingdom of God can be compared to. You see, the gospel reading we did today culminates a message that spans several chapters.

In 13, Jesus has healed a woman on the Sabbath and the leader of the synagogue gets all indignant and says you've got 6 other days of the week to work, heal on those days. Remember? And, that's when Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows into a huge tree so big that all the birds of the air made their nests in its branches. The kingdom of God and the mustard seed are paired up here - both beginning small. And, over time they become large enough to incorporate lots and lots and lots of residents.

Now between chapters13 and 17 we hear a great deal from Jesus about who is entering into the kingdom and what that kingdom is like. We hear about how God the Father longs to gather up the people of Jerusalem like a mother hen gathers and protects all the little chicks in the barnyard under her wings. We hear about a wedding feast in which God calls the lowliest forward from the back of the hall. We hear about the banquet prepared for its guests. But many are too busy to go and so the master invites all the poor, crippled, blind, and lame, the ones that ancient society considered outcast and useless. And, it says that the slave was told to compel them to come in. We hear the Father welcoming home the son who had squandered all his inheritance and reduced himself to feeding pigs. The Pharisees berate Jesus for eating with sinners. And, Jesus even goes to dinner and hangs out with the very Pharisees who are complaining.

What's the message here? God wants to welcome everyone into his house. From law abiding Pharisees to the most miserable sinner. God wants them all to come home.

So here, let me read the couple of sentences right before our gospel reading. "Jesus said to his disciples, "Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck, and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive."

Now think about the implications here. Jesus is telling them how responsible they are for everyone else. And he's not talking about someone tripping and falling down and skinning their knees. He's talking about those people who are tentatively approaching Christianity and thinking about mayyyybe becoming a disciple. And, Jesus is telling his disciples, that if your behavior or your attitude makes someone falter. If your misguided example or your words, or your arguments with one another cause anyone who is struggling with what to believe to turn aside, then you might as well have a millstone around your neck and be thrown in the sea. Cause that's about all you are worth as a witness to the gospel - a hunk of concrete.

Have you ever seen one of those things? Archeologists have unearthed some that are sort of cone shaped, about 3-4 feet tall made out of basalt. The top has an opening like funnels do for the grain to be poured into. It is placed over another cone shaped rock and mules turn it around and around. Can you picture someone with their head stuck through that? They wouldn't get very far trying to walk down the street sharing the good news!

Okay, now Jesus doesn't quit there. He also says you have to forgive someone when they offend you…every time they offend you. 7 times a day if necessary. And the other gospels will say 70 x 7. Now, many of us know the saying, "hurt me once shame on you, hurt me twice, shame on me." Right? We aren't going to let someone take advantage of us or make fools out of us more than once. So what is this forgive them over and over and over!!!! But, I think it is something a little different here. It is said in the context of not causing someone else to stumble. So, if we as fellow witnesses to the gospel notice that one of our fellows here are behaving in such a way that it is interfering with some other Christian's faith development, it is our duty to call them on the carpet and say, "Hey! Cut it out. You are jeopardizing the mission." The quality and character of a Christian was crucial for someone potentially entering the faith

Jesus knew the rough road ahead for his followers. In the beginning to follow Jesus was called "the way." It was a lifestyle change that for Jews and Romans alike was considered suspicious and potentially dangerous. And, followers of the Way, could be persecuted. And, if you know history you know they not only crucified Jesus, but hundreds and thousands of Christians were crucified along a major Roman road called the Appian Way, or thrown to the lions for sport.

When Jesus was laying it on the line for his disciples, it was no wonder they shouted, "Increase our Faith!" It was hard enough for them to get a grasp of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus for their own sakes, let alone realizing they had the fate of everyone they met on their shoulders. And, Jesus, in frustration turned to them and said, "Increase it? If you even had faith this big, you could uproot a tree and plant it in the sea." It almost sounds as if Jesus was saying you don't even have any faith to begin with. But it is more like, "If the kingdom of God resides in you, quit fighting it. Even though it starts very small, let it take root and God will be able to do all that God wants to do through what I am asking of you." He went on to say, "Guys, even in a master/slave relationship, the slave understands that his job is all about accomplishing what the master needs. It's not about getting thanked or rewarded, its about getting the master's work done through his efforts."

Think about it, where does your way take you each day and what people do you encounter along that path? Your husband, wife, parent, children, friends, co-workers, pew mates, teachers, students, strangers, enemies. Now, think of the dynamics of those relationships. Is the kingdom of God blossoming there or struggling? In every encounter, can you look those people in the eye and extend or receive love, respect, safety, trust? Through us Jesus is trying to restore relationships with God the father.

Through each of us, faith this small, can bring about amazing miracles in this world. So much wasted energy is involved in anger and hatred. Greater is the power of healed relationships that free people both parties to do what they were intended to do. Jesus believed so much in healing relationships that his followers were advised to go and resolve any conflicts with their neighbors before they came to the Lord's table to commune with him.

Let me ask you a question. For whom was your faith given to you? Faith was hardly meant for you to keep to yourself, hidden in your heart. Rather it was given to you as strength to allow you to take the risk of opening yourself to the world for the sake of Jesus. He said the cost of discipleship would be high. In some of your relationships can you humble yourself and admit you don't know the way and be willing to take the long journey of learning how to love in a new way.

Go home this week and write down on a piece of paper what you think life in the kingdom of God is like. Keep it in a convenient spot so you can add to it all week. And then think of one person that you would like to share that with, someone with whom your relationship is struggling. Think about ways that you can take your mustard seed of faith and let the kingdom of God grow in those moments with that person.

Read other sermons by Pastor Joan