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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Faith the size of a mustard seed

The parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:26-34)
II Pentecost – June 14, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

I don’t watch much commercial television – mostly because of, well, the commercials. I find most of them an annoying intrusion into my viewing. There is one commercial for the NY lottery, which is particularly annoying. It features a nerdy little guy whose name is “Little Bit of Luck”. He’s not to be confused with “Beginner’s Luck” or “Dumb Luck,” and he’s very possessive of “Lady Luck.”

I know he’s supposed to be entertaining but he is only very annoying.

Sometimes, when people talk about ‘faith’ – especially a ‘little bit of faith’ – that can also sound annoying to some. Especially when you are anxious or fearful and someone comes up and says, “Oh ye of little faith.” Or, repeats the line in today’s gospel parallel about ‘a mustard seed of faith.”

I have found that ‘faith’ is a touchy matter – especially among Christians. Most particularly among Christians who are Episcopalian. And, you certainly don’t want to talk to Episcopalians about faith during times of financial uncertainty. They will hear it as an insult or a challenge almost every time.

Well, guess what? I’m going to talk about faith vs. fear this morning.

It’s time, you know, for us to have this little chat. The economy isn’t turning around as fast as we’d like. We are a culture that grew up on ‘Minute Rice’ which begat the 10 second (albeit annoying commercial), which begat the Sesame St. Generation, which begat technology, which begat the woman at the registration desk at the Y that I met this week who got very annoyed because her computer took 10 whole seconds to call up the information she was seeking.

If there’s a problem, we want it fixed. Now. We don’t necessarily want in depth analysis. We don’t want to wait for more information to come in.

Problem, meet Solution. Done. What’s the problem?

There are now four houses on my street alone with ‘For Sale’ signs in front. Okay, one has to do with an ongoing saga of a messy divorce and the other has to do with a transfer to Connecticut. I’m not certain what the other two are about, but I can guess. The one thing I can tell you is that the mere presence of those four ‘For Sale’ signs has significantly raised the anxiety level in my neighborhood.

People in my neighborhood seem to be talking much more loudly about topics of increasing insignificance – the rain is a Very Big topic of conversation. Everyone is annoyed with it. Everyone wants to know when it will end and when summer is “finally going to arrive”. I smile and say, “Summer will arrive when it’s supposed to. On June 21. Just like it does every year.”

“But, it’s late this year, isn’t it, Rev?” they ask me. “No,” I say, “Actually, it’s right on time,” adding, hopefully, “Just think of how wonderful the rain is for flowers and the ‘Jersey Big Boy’ tomatoes, and all the other plants.”

Not good enough. When talking to me, what they really want divine intervention. “Isn’t there a prayer you can say – something you might prompt ‘The Big Guy’ upstairs to bring on the sun?” I laugh and say, “Have a little patience, O ye of little faith.”

That’s when I see it: a slight flash – just a little bit of a flash - of anger. That’s when I remember that all religious language is symbolic language. That’s when I remember that, many times, when people are engaging me in conversation, they are talking in parables.

We may have been talking about ‘the rain’, you see, but we were really talking about economy. “When will the good times return? When will the economy turn itself around?” are really the questions behind, “Isn’t summer late this year?”

This passage from Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus “did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” Author May Sarton writes that some of our most significant conversations are the ones just below the conversations we are having. She called them ‘crucial conversations’; indeed she wrote a very powerful story with that very title, which I commend to your summer reading list.

It seems to me that the crucial conversations we have been having are all about our anxiety about not being in control. The truth of the matter is that there is not much in this life of which we are in control. However, we have been most adept at creating illusions of control – the insurance industry is but one example.

A sense of loss of control over income can make everything else in your life seem out of control. This week has been especially anxiety provoking for some in this church. So, let me state clearly and from this pulpit: Yes, Tim, our Missioner for Youth and Young Families, is going away for a year. Yes, he is returning after a year. He has made this promise and, as you and I know, he is a man of enormous integrity.

We who are St. Paul’s Church understand that at the core of our identity as a Body of Christ is our mission to Youth and Young Families. We have a clear commitment to that. It’s part of our unique identity. We will hire a full time person to fill in for Tim during the year he is gone. We have promised Tim that he will have a full time position when he returns. That has all been articulated in a ‘Letter of Agreement’ with Tim.

I have every confidence in the world that Tim will keep his promise to us and that, despite the gloomy financial forecast, we can /will keep our promise to Tim. We can only do that - AND keep down our "deficit" budget (which the church calls a "faith" budget), AND get a line item of credit to replace the roof, AND make this building handicap accessible – if we choose faith over fear.

Our culture preaches a gospel of scarcity. Jesus preaches a gospel of radical abundance. The Realm of God, he says, is like scattering seed on the ground and having faith enough to watch it grow. In the economy of God’s Realm, you only need one – just one mustard seed – which is the tiniest of seeds, and yet it grows into the largest, most study of all God’s plants and trees.

I know. Sometimes you see my preaching as being every bit as annoying as that nerdy ‘Little bit of Luck’ guy on the Lottery Commercial. I’m not talking about luck. I’m talking about faith. I’m not talking about gambling with our money. I’m talking about having faith in the abundance promised of God.

In my business we have a saying, “Money follows mission”. As long as we are being true to our mission, money will follow. I don’t know how that works, but after 23 years of ordained ministry, I can tell you with great confidence that I know it to be true.

I also know that we will get through this awful time of financial uncertainty. No, I don’t know when. I only know that, as a nation and a world and a church, we have been through even more difficult financial times as these and we are here today to talk about it. We need to learn some things about our own avarice and greed. We need to learn to reorder our priorities. We need to work to rediscover our faith in God who works not so much through rugged individualism but primarily through community.

We are as Christians, each one of us, seeds of hope, scattered on the common ground of our lives of faith. The seeds of the Realm of God lie deep within each one of us, scattered across the fertile ground of our souls. These seeds will take root, as Jesus says, while we sleep and then rise and we know not how the seed will eventually sprout and grow. That’s part of the mystery of our faith.

I know. It’s annoying not to know how that happens. I only know that it does. So, at the risk of being annoying, here’s what I have to say to you this morning, “Have faith.”

Just a little bit is all you need. The rain will stop and the clouds will disperse. Summer will arrive, eventually. Meanwhile, the seeds of faith are being watered and nourished in your soul. Meanwhile, the seeds of your faith which you had aimlessly scattered are beginning to take root and grow. You just have to look among the weeds of your fear and anxiety to find them.

Soon, you will see a few sprouts – “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head” – and then, before you know it, it will be time for harvest.



susankay said...

I don't know where this belongs in your sermon but it also seems that the disciples remained totally clueless. None of that explaining seemed to help them. Until they met the resurrected Jesus and then it apparently all made sense.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, susankay, it belongs right in my heart. I need to remember it when another anxious person knocks on my door.

June Butler said...

As you saw, I included the mustard seed in my little reflection, although our Gospel reading was Jesus calming the storm from Mark.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Part of the problem, I think, when it comes to "faith issues" is you can never see it through the "pro-spectoscope" but it becomes very very visible through the "retro-spectoscope."

Nice tag team to the sermon I had here at home today. The buzzword in my priest's sermon was "patience." Patience that God's will does reveal itself. Patience that over time, being devoted to the disciplines of our faith DO eventually lead us to a place we can handle. Just like it takes time for that itty bitty mustard seed to grow into a bushy shrub that the birds can rest within its branches.

Guess what? "Patience" is NOT my favorite word! I had that brief thought during the sermon of "Yeah, yeah, ok, patience...I don't have time to learn that. Can we move on to another topic?" LOL

But to tag team onto your sermon, I'd add "patience that the economy will turn around." But then there is the next step. When it DOES turn around, what have we learned? What have we learned about good stewardship of our money and our possessions? What have we learned we really didn't need, in order to have a rich full life that before the economy tanked we did not know we could do without? What have we learned about taking care of each other?

That is the other problem. Every time God leads us to a place we can see as "growth" through the retro-spectoscope, He always sticks some NEW challenge to us about living more fully. Arrrrgh!

Suzer said...

God must really get tired with the grumbly lot that we are. Heck, last year we had the Guvnuh of Georgia praying on the steps of the Capitol FOR rain. Now we've got some (thankfully), and it's made y'all up in New Jersey sore. I wonder if God ever suspected, when He was creating all of us, the amount of grumbling He'd have to hear daily? I wonder if He'd have made us quite as vocal if He'd known. :)

(I do hope the sun shines for you all pretty soon, though! If not, my Northeastern friends are always welcome to a sojourn in (mostly) sunny Georgia!)

Bill said...

Isn't "patience" that double-four letter word the Anglican Communion wants Gays to practice.