Text: Mark 4:26-34
Harry Golden once said that if a religious census had been taken in 50 A.D. (C.E.), the results would have shown that 64% of the population was for Zeus, 35% was for Mithra, and only 1% was for Jesus. That was the challenge the early Christians faced. It was the kind of situation Jesus addressed a generation earlier when he spoke parables concerning the kingdom of God.
The disciples were few. There had been some converts, yes. And there were many interested kindred spirits. But, on the whole, Jesus’ preaching, teaching and healing had not rallied multitudes to commitment. And so, he offered a parable to give his twelve companions encouragement and hope. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” It will expand. It will explode with astonishing growth.
And it did. In less than three centuries, the faith of these few had conquered the Roman Empire.
But in the initial lean years of plodding along the dusty roads of Galilee, the disciples could not have anticipated what was to come. So Jesus offered a parable of promise. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all the seeds of the earth; but when it grows up, it becomes a tree, putting forth large branches, so that birds can make their nests in its branches.”
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It is difficult for us in the early 21st century to realize that 150 years ago the Christian movement was identified with only parts of the globe – with Europe, western Asia, and much of the western hemisphere, our hemisphere. Africa, Australia, and the greater part of Asia and the Pacific were hardly touched.
But then, in the mid-19th century, the mustard seed of Christian faith burst forth. Dozens of missionary societies sprang up. Heroic men and women crossed oceans and deserts, jungles and mountains, with the watchword of William Carey impelling them:
Expect great things from God;
Attempt great things for God.
This was an era of prodigious evangelical expansion – the era when the Gospel was taken to distant peoples, despite danger and persecution – to lands and nations where the church continues to grow dramatically: Korea, Africa, China. The Christian movement is now universal.
Think how small the seed had been: a baby born into a harsh world; a teacher on a hillside; a condemned man executed; an empty grave; a handful of people who claimed it wasn’t over. The story of the Christ-event has spread, and burst all imaginable bounds: hundreds of millions drawn to faith, all over the planet. Like a mustard seed, just as Jesus promised.
But more recently, things have changed. Some of the older branches have shriveled. Notably, the old missionary-sending churches. Europe’s cathedrals have become museums. The once “mainline” churches of America have been declining for more than fifty years. We are less like a mustard seed, with promise and potential, and more like an aged tree, grand and stately, but with some branches brittle, and without foliage.
For American congregations, things are increasingly difficult. Pew Forum surveys say that nearly one-third of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised. For most younger adults – Gen. X, Gen. Y, Millennials – they were never part of church life. Most of them have never even been inside a church building. The fast-growing category in relation to religion in this country are the unaffiliated, those known as “the Nones.” That’s n-o-n-e. Because when pollsters now ask Americans about their religious preference, the largest percentage answer… “None.” No preference. No religion. For “Christian America” – and for many years, many lived with the assumption, and illusion that this was a “Christian nation” – for many American Christians, this loss has generated a cultural crisis. And a politics of resentment. But it’s been hard on us too.
What happened – to the promise in today’s parable? What happened to the “mustard seed… the smallest of seeds… [that] when it grows up, becomes a tree?”
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When Jesus first uttered this parable it can’t help but have been met with skepticism. The Jesus movement was tiny. Just a dozen disciples. Curious crowds, yes. But nothing much more. And when they got to Jerusalem, there was the overwhelming, repressive force of the Empire.
And when Mark was writing his Gospel, the mustard seed promise must have been met with deep pessimism. Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome, around the year 70, when the Emperor Nero was scapegoating and persecuting Christians – by fire, sword, and Colosseum spectacle. When Mark was written, the little Roman community of the faithful was being decimated.
So, realize that if we respond to this mustard-seed-of-exponential-growth parable with skepticism, and pessimism, we are certainly not the first to do so.
Your Pastor Search Committee and Church Council have recently begun an important conversation. They are wondering whether this congregation would be wise to seek a full time pastor or a less-than-full-time pastor. At present, Trinity Church probably cannot afford fulltime pastor compensation plus benefits – at least, not for very long. You’d manage for a few years. But then what? So there’s this basic question: In this era, in this location, could the right fulltime pastor lead you to sufficient membership growth? Is this the time to go for it? to lay it all on the line? Or not. Instead, would Trinity Church be better off with a more sustainable salary package, perhaps at three-quarters time? I will say no more. Because we all are invited to join this conversation on June 17th after worship. Mark your calendar. Everyone’s input is being sought.
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This morning, we’ve been talking about the prospects for the Christian church: growth? decline? potential for renewal? But we need to ask ourselves, Was the subject in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed – the church? Listen again. “Jesus said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” And, he continued, The kingdom of God “is like a mustard seed.”
Mark tells us it was this kingdom that Jesus came to announce, the good news that God is putting things right – in Jesus’ life and ministry, God restoring the world to the way God intended in its creation. God’s reign, as a decisive assault in Jesus against everything that opposes life, that opposes the way things are supposed to be.
In June, 2011, David Hollinger published an influential essay concerning “ecumenical Protestantism” in America, which is us. Hollinger knew full well that our brand of “mainline” or “old line” Christianity has been hurtling downhill for decades. But when he looked at our impact on American culture, he saw a much more hopeful picture. “Ecumenical leaders may have lost American Protestantism,” he wrote, “but they have won the United States.” He pointed to our denominations’ commitments to religious diversity, to anti-racist legislation and judicial rulings, our skepticism of aggressive, militant foreign policy, our concern for civil liberties and civil rights. And all this, he said, is now embraced by many Americans, and our government, as normative, David Hollinger wrote that this is “in no small part due to” the efforts of the ecumenical churches. That was 2011. This is seven years later. And much has changed.
The ecumenical, mainline view of what it is that God intends in this society and in the larger world, is under great stress. And threat. If it’s true that the kingdom of God (reign of God) trajectory is toward compassion and justice and peace, toward the mending of the world and all its populations, then there is certainly lots more work to do. And the mustard-seed promise of inexorable, decisive growth hangs in the balance.
Now, there’s one last thing I want us to notice in relation to the mustard seed metaphor. Which is, to remember that just as seeds produce trees, so also do mature trees produce seeds. You know what it’s like to walk through a forest or woods, the diversity of growth: fully grown trees, saplings, seedlings, shoots. And here and there, a fallen trunk, decaying but becoming a nurse log, from which emerges new growth, new sprouts, the forest of the future.
There is work for us to do. Not just our little congregation, of course. There is work for all who seek to further God’s mission in this, God’s world. Last summer’s General Synod of the United Church of Christ lifted up God’s call to seek a just world for all, and to practice “The Three Great Loves.” As we, last fall, were discussing who we are, what we stand for, what it is God calls us to be, we were drawn to those great loves. We placed them in our vision statement. We saw ourselves, and see ourselves, called to love of neighbor, love of children, and love of creation. The Love of Creation mission group immediately tackled a local issue, advocated with the Village to ban toxic coal tar sealants, and it happened. Another task force has been exploring the possibility of a ministry with LGBTQ youth.
So, we got started. Or… re-started. Demonstrating that mature trees – even little mature trees – can recycle themselves, can produce seeds, produce seedlings. We’ve gotten started – re-started – on this path. But, friends, as you surely know, it’s really only a start.
For me, the intersection of faith and life is full of insight and surprise. Browse here for sermons and other meditations and musings.