Scripture: Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Mark 4:26-34
A Single, Simple, Small Seed
Rev. Leanne Walt
“You Are Not Special.” Did you hear of this local graduation speech that made national headlines this week? David McCullough, Jr., son of historian and author David McCullough who this church hosted back in 2007 at our 300th anniversary, was the keynote speaker at Wellesley High School’s commencement this year where he told the graduating class in one of the wealthiest, most privileged communities in the world, “You are not special. You are not exceptional. Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped into save you…you are not special.”
When taken out of context, parts of McCullough’s speech could be interpreted as callous, insensitive, and less than motivating. However, when considered in its entirety, McCullough’s words serve as his caring way of telling an entitled generation to pursue work that they love for the sake of the common good rather than work that will yield measurable success and personal gain. It was his way of illustrating that if everyone is special, then no one is.
Like many new mothers, during my maternity leave I fell subject to bad TV during late night and early morning feedings. I learned of the dark infomercial underbelly of television that dances in the mid of the night while I used to enjoy 8 hours of sleep and I was sucked into morning news shows that don’t report the news, as far as I can tell, but instead tout sensationalist headlines like Matt Lauer’s exclusive interview with John Edward’s mistress Rielle Hunter or the now famous “Octomom,” Nadya Suleman, mother of octuplets – not that I don’t enjoy this escape from reports of the dire state of the economy or lives lost in Afghanistan.
Well, now that I’m watching, each morning on the Today show they have a panel of three “professionals,” who discuss that day’s headlines. This week one of the topics they tackled was McCullough’s “You Are Not Special” speech. While two of the panelists applauded McCullough for his candor and insight, the other felt that it was self-indulgent and that he would never stand before 1,000 of his employees and tell them, “None of you are special. You’re not special until…” (dot, dot, dot).
Yet, I tend to agree with the former two panelists. Had I heard this speech before leaving the sheltered nest of my suburban upper middle class town for college, I wouldn’t have been so shocked to receive a “COME SEE ME” in big red marker on my first college essay only to be told by the professor that he did not appreciate my flowery language and personalized commentary in an academic term paper about the plight of refugees in the Korean War.
Our gospel lesson from Mark suggests that Jesus would agree with Mr. McCullough that no achievement of ours, or measure of neither wealth nor power dictates our exceptionality.
For, when Jesus asks, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” His answer is, “It is like a mustard seed.”
I brought with me today a sermon prop: the mustard seed....
A mustard seed is the smallest seed on all the earth. It’s not one that requires much care or attention in order to grow. It doesn’t grow into a tall, noble tree, but rather into a large bush. In fact, in Jesus’ day the mustard bush wasn’t exactly a highly desirable piece of agriculture to have on your property – they were more like pesky, unruly weeds – and I’m sure he would be astounded that to know that two thousand years later they get away with charging $5.99 for a bottle of them in the spice section at your local Shaw’s supermarket.
In our reading of Ezekiel this morning, God is going to plant a noble cedar tree to signify God’s kingdom and yet, in the gospels, Jesus selects no such imposing, majestic image from nature. No, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
“The kingdom of God,” Jesus also says, “is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, would go to sleep that night and rise in the morning and the seed would sprout and grow and he does not know how.”
The kingdom of God is like an inattentive, sleepy farmer.
I find this image of the kingdom as a mustard seed growing under the watch of an inattentive, sleepy farmer more than disconcerting. As someone who gets great satisfaction from making lists and checking things off and someone who has spent the greater part of my life in an academic world measured by percentages, letters, and GPAs, and as a Christian in the ministry and in the church I think of the coming of God’s kingdom requiring special and specific action on our part, rooted in our discipleship – in our service, in our love, in our generosity, in the depth of our faith - but this is a passive image that Jesus paints of the seed of God growing without our care or intention.
Even and especially in the church, we are constantly embroiled in decisions that lead (we pray) to action, each made (we pray) with the intention of furthering God’s kingdom on earth.
As individuals this is equally true, building our lives around productivity and increase – hoping to be a constructive contributor to society, to the world.
Is Jesus telling us that we as individuals play no special part in the building of the kingdom? That in between the planting and the harvest, we cannot further the cultivation of growth?
The parable of the mustard seed leaves us to wonder if there isn’t more evidence than we think to suggest that the evolution of the kingdom occurs naturally, without our contributions and glowing achievements. This week, our church received a rare gift to bear witness to the wondrous and inexplicable realities of the natural order of creation - to the birth, growth and death that calls each one of us into being.
On Friday afternoon we gathered here in this sanctuary to celebrate the life of one of our longtime and faithful members, Helen Marshman. After the service, I joined her 2 kids, 6 grandchildren, her niece, and other close friends at Blue Hill Cemetery. It was a beautiful afternoon to drive through the grounds there – the shadows and light created by the leaves on the ominous oak trees lining the driving path danced on the windshield of my car as the hearse led me to an area of the cemetery that was new to me. It was a piece of land toward the back of the cemetery that dipped down, almost as if it were tucked away in a small valley, sheltered and protected underneath the large oaks. There was a fountain there as well; the peaceful noise of running water joined the rustling leaves and singing birds. It was a lovely spot, where Helen was laid to rest. Quiet and private. A piece of the earth now marked with her special and unique life.
And this morning, we share in the joy of Teah’s baptism. Like a small seed, Teah is born into infinite possibilities and potential beyond all of our imagining. Her life holds such mystery and wonder.
Teah’s baptism signifies the work that God is already doing in the world – creating us, calling us, forgiving us, blessing us - and it reminds each one of us of our own baptism. Of that moment in our lives when we were marked as special, as beloved children of God, who did not have to achieve in order to earn God’s favor, but rather received God’s grace, unmerited and freely given.
Thank you, Teah, for this reminder. It is good to be reminded that God adores us – each and every one of us – and that God provides enough love to nurture every single seed into a special piece of the harvest.
And, we pray that as the days pass by and the years wear on that you, Tom and Sally, Michelle and Dave, will continue to remind Teah of the moment of her baptism, of God’s love that will nurture and support the healthy growth of her faith as her life unfolds in its own, unique, exceptional, and special way.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
This morning you will each be going home with your very own mustard seed. As this is our last Sunday together before many of you scatter for the summer, as you leave the sanctuary, I will be handing out mustard seeds for you to take home with you. Hold it close as a reminder of God’s power, of God’s love, of God’s grace. Hold it close and pray for the seeds in your life and the lives of your loved ones that have not yet begun to grow. Hold it close and as you take in the quiet moments of the summer, pray for our church – for the seeds that we are scattering and the harvest we await.
The wonder of life and death is contained in a single, simple, small seed. Seeds, often indistinguishable from one another and involved in a natural process of growth that fascinates us even today in spite of scientific knowledge and progress.
Jesus is asking us to have faith enough to trust that the harvest will come without us having to work for it. This is grace. Grace that transforms the tiniest and more impotent-looking seed into a unique shrub that gives rest and shade to the singing birds.
Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8 and Romans 8:12-17
From The Mystery to Mission
Rev. Leanne Walt
Life hinges on those moments when we are provoked to ponder the mystery of it all. Prompted by a birth, a trip to the shoreline or simply the sight of a bird taking flight. Plunged into the depths of illness or lifted up to the heights of a mountaintop – inclined somehow, someway to enter the doors of a church giving way to the mystery – we partake in the age-old questioning of the meaning of life.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle, he retells the familiar Genesis creation story in light of humanity’s proclivity to ponder the mystery of it all.
He tells it like this:
“In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in his cosmic loneliness.
And God said, "Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done." And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close to mud as man sat, looked around, and spoke. "What is the purpose of all this?" he asked politely.
"Everything must have a purpose?" asked God.
"Certainly," said man.
"Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this," said God.
And He went away.”
Like all prophesies, Isaiah’s begins with the mystery.
King Uzziah died in the 8th century BCE. Uzziah was Judah’s king who was greatly admired for enhancing the kingdom’s agriculture, building watchtowers in the wilderness, and strengthening their army. After his death, Isaiah begins to fear for the future of his people. In such uncertain times, Isaiah makes his way to the temple, to worship the mystery ~ to wonder at the purpose of it all.
What makes this well-known vision of Isaiah’s particularly unique, apart from the disturbing image of flying 6-winged flaming celestial bird-like creatures is that it happens while he is in the Temple worshipping God.
So many prophetic revelations in the bible occur in the wilderness or in a dream or on a mountain or the sea. Yet, here Isaiah’s glimpse of the holy appears to him in worship.
As a minister, I regularly meet people who feel the need to share with me the fact that they find God in nature, not in church. And it’s always delivered to me as if it’s a revelatory concept for us crazy churchgoers, this idea of the divine being in a tree or sunset or drifting clouds. Never mind the fact that the bible is soaked with images of God in nature: the Tree of Jesse, the burning bush, God in a pillar of cloud leading the Israelites out of Egypt, and the countless Psalms that speak to the glory of God made evident by the beauty of the sun, moon, stars, ocean and mountains.
One of my closest friends often reminds me that she doesn’t believe in religious institutions and instead finds God on early morning walks with her dog through the woods near her house.
Yet, I can’t help but wonder what will happen when cancer invades the body of someone she loves or when she looses her job or a parent?
How will her God of the forest and the trees offer her strength and comfort during those times?
Like Isaiah, it is often in times of despair when we walk through the doors of the church. Perhaps we’re former tree and sun worshippers or perhaps we’ve been burned by a community of so-called “faith,” lost trust in the clergy, or were told our beliefs were unchristian and our questions unwelcomed, or perhaps we were never inclined to set foot in a church before. Whatever winds may have brought us in the door, we have come because somewhere along the line, we realize that there are times when we can’t explain away the events of our lives using the laws of science, nature, or society.
Because God exists in the mystery. In the unknown as well as the known.
God exists in the seed’s need for soil in order to germinate and in the roots’
need for water in order to grow.
God exists in the reality of loneliness and our need for human connection.
God exists in the fact that disease invades some bodies and not others,
in the fact that some are hungry and others are not,
that some know love and others do not.
God exists in the fact that the sun rises on the evil and the good and the rain
falls on the just and the unjust alike.
A life of faith begins with a surrender to the mysterious, an admission that the rule of God is other than the rule of science and humanity. God is in the bad as well as the good, in the ugly as well as the beautiful.
When Isaiah steals a glimpse of the holiness of God in the Temple, he cries out that he is unworthy. He is unclean, he is a sinner! Yet, still, God comes to him in worship, wipes him clean of sin, and sends him to proclaim justice to the captives, to stand with the suffering, to call our the religious hypocrites of his day.
Like all prophesies, Isaiah’s begins in the mystery and ends in mission.
At this moment, the youth group and other adults in this congregation are right below us in the church kitchen. They are setting out pieces of bread, covering them with meat or peanut butter or jelly, folding the bread together and placing them in a bag, each one intended to feed a hungry belly. Prayer in motion. From mystery to mission.
This afternoon a group of us will be journeying to Park Street in Boston to go to Common Cathedral, an outdoor church that primarily serves a homeless population. What makes Common Cathedral so special is that it is about more than feeding hungry bellies. It’s about feeding hungry souls. It is about common, corporate worship.
At Common Cathedral, those who lack shelter, struggle with addiction, and suffer abuse read Scripture, sing hymns, speak their prayers aloud as we do every Sunday morning, and they even preach the Word. And there, on the open street, in the open air, with no walls to close them in, they receive invitation to God’s abundant feast at the communion table and they journey to the table together, bearing all of the common burdens and responsibilities, joys and mistakes that weigh on God’s people. This is Church. From mystery to Mission.
At the communion table, we discover our primal identity in the mystery, not in the socio-cultural distinctions that we have learned to live by. Our identity is not found in our ethnic community, or the titles we hold in our homes or places of work. It is not found in our financial instability or stability.
Gathering for worship is the way in which we connect with our primal identity in Jesus, as it teaches us to live by the spirit and not the flesh. In corporate worship, we learn to live into the primal role that Paul defines for us in the 8th chapter of Romans: that we are all children of God – that the many are truly one.
Compelled by the mystery, we gather for worship. And we come so that we can learn to live not by the limitations of the mind but by the openness of the heart.