Sermon for July 26, 2020: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed (The Rev. Dr. Paula Nesbitt)
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Pentecost VIII Gen. 29:15-28 Rom. 8:26-39 Mt. 13:31-33,44-52 Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez CA The Rev. Dr. Paula D. Nesbitt “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed….” Amen.
This spring, while staying home because of the pandemic, I cleaned out the tool shed behind our house– for the first time in 15 years. There were many surprises, including about 10 packets of flower and vegetable seeds, which had been there for at least that long. Defying the skepticism of a mastergardener friend, I planted the seeds anyway, hoping that just maybe one or two might take root. Fertile soil, water, sun, shelter from harsh winds, and daily tender loving care weren’t enough to bring them to life.
Meanwhile, birds heard the running water each day and started to visit that inert brown patch of ground, looking for a drink and listening for worms struggling to get out of the way of the watering. Some birds also feasted on the lifeless seeds—marigolds were their favorite. Perhaps they dropped other seeds that they had picked up elsewhere. Afternoon winds also may have carried seeds from elsewhere to that patch of soil. After a month, I had 10 tomato plants (I had not planted any tomatoes there), a few other plants I’m still not sure about, and, of course, a magnificent crop of weeds. It would be a stretch to call this garden the kingdom of heaven, but maybe there’s a seed or two of truth to it. The first seed is that sometimes we make bad choices, but good can come out of them. This echoes what we heard in Romans, that all things can work together for good. Defeat taught me a bit of humility–had those 15-year-old seeds produced a garden, I certainly would have bragged, which would have done no one any good. Yet, despite my defeat, there will be more than enough tomatoes to share with the neighborhood. A second seed of truth is that a spirit of generosity is vital to bringing about the reign of God in our midst. Both parables of the mustard seed and the leaven involve generosity—the emergence of a tree offering hospitality for nesting birds and leaven transforming inert flour into bread that can nourish and sustain life. Both parables also require agency. Generosity must be cultivated and channeled for good use.
Jesus urges his listeners to be agents of transformation. There is something one can do in everyday life, through every intention and action, to help usher in what God intends for all creation. The reign of God isn’t simply “out there,” separate from this world. The reign of God is both here and now as well as eternal. God needs us—human hands and hearts—as co-agents of transformation to bring it about in this life. With a loving heart—for God and for one another—a generosity and benevolence permeate all we might say or do.
In the gospel era, early Christians were like seeds cast upon hostile ground, in the words of one church historian, subjugated by a brutal political regime, family and community divisions, and widespread anxiety and fear over societal breakdown and vast, unsettling social change. yet, by living out of a spirit of love and generosity, or as we might say today, living as the body of Christ in the world, they could be a transformative force for good.
Today, we also live in an unsettling time of widespread change, where economic, political, and pandemic anxieties have infected all sectors of society. If ever there was a time to manifest God’s love and offer hope to others, it’s now. If ever there was a time to live and work together as the body of Christ in the world, mindful of the love and dignity that every person is endowed with by God, it is now. If ever there was a time to build an ethos where everyone can be nourished and able to flourish as God would have them do, it is now. If ever there was a time to spread divine love and generosity of heart through our everyday relationships, as well as taking a stand against what is antithetical to the love and reign of God, it is now.
Some time ago, a friend was thrust into a situation where he was forced to make a choice between taking a stand against racist behavior at work, which directly affected some of his colleagues, or look the other way. As a matter of faith, he realized that he had no choice. He spoke out, which ultimately did cost him his job, but it also brought some underlying issues to the surface so that systemic changes within the organization were made. Today, that same work environment is a much more welcoming place for racial diversity. My friend “sold all,” so to speak. He had loved his job, but not at the cost of living with injustice and abuse when he could have done something.
The second set of parables speaks of the kingdom of heaven being like treasure hidden in a field or like becoming aware of a pearl of great value. When we recognize what is right or just, or accords with making our work or civic community life-giving to others, our choice is clear, even though the price is steep. Looking the other way might have preserved my friend’s job in the short run, but those perpetuating injustice or abuse would only have been emboldened to escalate their behavior if he and others remained silent. Lately I’ve been reflecting on the rise of the Nazi regime and the soul-searching that both Catholic and Protestant theologians had done in the aftermath of the Holocaust as to the role of the church’s silence in empowering such genocide, and the price paid by a few, such as the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed for speaking out and his acts of resistance. In 2017, in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests and the rise in antisemitism, a colleague who had been studying families of Holocaust survivors, spoke on a panel about how anxious some had become, asking her whether it was time to leave. Any regime that cultivates an ethos of fear and intimidation to the point of making people feel the need to flee for their lives, or it takes those lives on the pretense of a traffic stop, is not about cultivating a spirit of generosity or establishing a reign of God’s love and justice for all. The protests that have swept our country over the past weeks have responded to profound racial injustice. Black Lives Matter protests have taken root in other countries as well, as they have been forced to look inward at systemic racism within their borders. Here in Martinez, you have added your own chapter to this movement that continues to unfold.
In the process, you likely have asked where is the kingdom of heaven in all this? Everyone likely has a different answer, but they probably share some common themes. As with many protest movements, people bring different motives as well as different ways of responding, perhaps much like the parable of all kinds of fish in the net. Sometimes it’s not clear what we should do or what direction to go, or perhaps what is right or wrong. For some, speaking out or visibly participating in a protest movement could risk direct harm to family or others in their community. I’ve had students who weren’t citizens, as well as some who were but members of their families were not, and the retaliatory risks of deportation for siblings, parents, or extended family members have put them in difficult positions of feeling that they have had to hold back when they wanted to speak out or publicly participate. Some have taken the risk; others have chosen less public ways to express their support. Another example involves a woman I’ll call Carolyn, who was in her nineties; she used a cane and her eyesight was failing. When her parish began a new social justice ministry, she was one of about twenty parishioners who showed up. As they introduced themselves, saying why they had come, she said, “I’m not sure what I can do, but I’m here to help.” As she found out, there was always something that she could do, such as making phone calls. Her presence also inspired more able-bodied younger adults to become engaged. Thus, the notion of showing up may mean different things to different people under different circumstances. But it always means pursuing wholeheartedly God’s universal love, in a spirit of generosity and hope for justice.
The net thrown into the sea and catching fish of every kind…” (Mt.13:47) emphasizes that all have something to contribute in varied ways. The Greek word for the word “kind,” here, means race or tribe, suggesting that “every kind” points to people from every nation or background and therefore emphasizes a radical inclusiveness to the reign of God. God knows our hearts. Nothing can separate us from the love of God—unless we separate ourselves, and even then, we can always return and try again. Theologian Gerald Cragg, reflecting on our passage from Romans this morning writes, “actually, it is in those places that seem most to deny goodness that we often find God most present.” “It is in those places that seem most to deny goodness that we often find God most present.” This week, I’ve also been reflecting on the life and legacy of Congressman John Lewis. In the midst of whatever ugliness, brutality, and hatred that has swirled around us of late, he lived to see the Civil Rights Movement rise again with a new inter-racial generation, adamant that justice should have no racebased limitations. There is goodness and hope in the fresh seeds and shoots in the soil of so much pain.
Whether cleaning out a toolshed or cleaning out a legacy of racism that has been embedded deeply within our society, we have been called to be transformers of the heart through the generosity of our actions, our spirit, and our love.
1 Buttrick, George A. “The Gospel According to St. Matthew: Exposition,” pp. 416, 418. In The Interpreter’s Bible, George Arthur Buttrick, ed. Vol. 7, pp. 250-625. New York: Abingdon Press, 1951.
2 Haslam, Chris. “Comments, Revised Common Lectionary Commentary, Clippings: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 30, 2017 Clippings,” http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/apr17l.shtml
3 Gerald R. Cragg, “The Epistle to the Romans: Exposition,” pp. 524-25. In The Interpreter’s Bible, George Arthur Buttrick, ed. Vol. 9, pp. 353-668. New York: Abingdon Press, 1954.