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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Mustard Seeds, Beanstalks and Soup

A Sermon Preached at
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
and simultaneously broadcast on Facebook Live
The Third Sunday after Pentecost Proper 6 B
Sunday, June 13, 2021


When I was a kid listening to this parable about the Mustard Seed from Mark’s gospel, I immediately thought of another one of my favorite stories, Jack and the Beanstalk. If you recall, Jack’s family lived in extreme poverty and, as a last act of desperation, his mother asked Jack to sell Milky-White, his family’s cow.

On the way to the market, Jack runs into a man who convinces him to trade the cow for his beans, which he claims are magic. When Jack returns home, his mother is so distressed and angry to learn what Jack has done that she throws them out the window.

However, in the morning, Jack discovers that the magic beans have grown into a huge stalk, which reaches high into the heavens. Jack decides to climb the beanstalk which begins an adventure that brings golden eggs and riches – as well as danger – into their lives.


To my young mind, Mark’s story of the mustard seed sounded an awful lot like Jack’s story of the beanstalk. Faith, it seemed to me, was the magic bean that could grow high into the heavens, setting you off on a great adventure which wouldn’t necessarily bring you great financial riches, but by which one’s life would be greatly enriched.


It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that every seed - even a tiny mustard seed – needed a lot more than just a careless toss out the window. Faith is a priceless gift, but it does need to be tended and cared for and nourished in and by a community of faith. (Otherwise known as church.)


That’s when my grandmother’s story of Stone Soup began to make more sense to me than Jack’s beanstalk. You have probably heard a version of the story of Stone Soup.

This is my grandmother’s version, which she brought with her from her home country in Portugal. Indeed, just outside of the capitol city of Lisbon is the town, Almeirim, where the story allegedly took place. It is now world-renowned for its Stone Soup.

According to my grandmother’s Portuguese folklore of Sopa de Pedra, a mendicant Franciscan friar was on pilgrimage and was passing through a small village just north of Lisbon when he was hungry but found that he had nothing to eat.

He stopped by a house and knocked on the door, asking if he could borrow a pot in which he could make a delicious and filling stone soup. Curious but also devoutly religious people who understood what Jesus said about hospitality, the family invited him in.

The friar reached into his deep pocket to produce a smooth and well-cleaned stone that he promptly dropped into the boiling water in the iron cauldron in the fireplace.

A little while later he tasted the soup and said that it needed a touch of seasoning. So the wife brought him some salt to add, to which he suggested that maybe a little bit of chouriço or pork belly would be better. Graciously, she obliged and dropped several thick slices into the pot. Then, the friar asked if she might not have a little something to enrich the soup, such as potatoes or beans from a previous meal.

Smiling broadly at his clever game, she agreed and added a healthy portion into the bubbling water. This continued for a while, the friar tasting the soup and then the family supplying some other ingredient. Finally, the friar announced that he had indeed made a very delicious and filling soup. When the soup was done, the friar fished the stone out of the pot, washed and dried it off, and plopped it back in his pocket for the next time.

He and the family ate a delicious soup for dinner after which he told them many stories from the bible. When the family woke up in the morning, they found the friar had already gone but he had left enough soup for them to feed the poor and hungry in the village.

My grandmother said that when we ate this soup we should remember the Portuguese virtues of hospitality, generosity, and community, especially in times of crisis.

She used to end the story by holding up her hand and saying, "See? There are four fingers and a thumb. Each finger is different from the other and the thumb looks nothing like a finger. Yet," she'd say as she closed her hand, "they all belong to the same hand. And, know this: If you take one finger away, the hand does not work as well."


She would tell us one of the stories of the families of the bible, sometimes she would tell the story we heard this morning – of Samuel and King Saul – and how God did not want Saul to be King so he sent Samuel out to Bethlehem to see the sons of Jesse where, God instructed him, he would find the King God had anointed.


Seven of Jesse’s son’s passed before Samuel, but Samuel knew that not one of them had been chosen God. There remained one son, David, who was away, tending sheep. Jesse sent for his youngest son and as soon as Samuel saw him he knew that he was the one God wanted; Samuel anointed him right there and then.


“David did not become King by himself,” my grandmother would say. “People look to outward appearances, but God looks on the heart. So it is with our faith. Sometimes, we need other people to help us with our faith – to see in us what we can’t see in ourselves.”

As she served the soup she'd always say, “The bible says ‘we walk by faith, not by sight’. (That was St. Paul, actually.) We never know how the soup is going to turn out. It all depends on what God will bring you that day. So, keep a stone in your pocket and, with God’s grace and the generosity of others, inspired by your cleverness and faith in them, you'll never go hungry.”


I think we catch glimpses of the Kingdom or Realm of God whenever we walk by faith, not by sight; when we acknowledge that we already have what we need but sometimes it takes others to point out that even a tiny mustard seed of faith is what we have and all we need for our lives and our work to prosper the work of God’s hand.

I keep hearing people say, "We need more families." "We need more kids." And, maybe we do. But, what if this is the mustard seed God has sent us? What will we do, how will we make the best of what we've been given?


Sometimes we catch glimpses of the Kingdom or Realm of God when we see the stalk, or just the head, or only when we see the full grain in the head; and sometimes we can only see it when the harvest comes and the sickle cuts down the ripened grain.

But, God has been there, all along, tending to our faith no matter how small or how big, just the way David tended the sheep as a lowly shepherd but would soon be tending the flock of God as King.


You don’t need magic beans, like Jack in the fairy tale.  Keep a stone in your pocket, my grandmother advised, to remind you of God’s grace and the potential generosity of others. But, as Jesus says, all you really need is a tiny mustard seed of faith to see the Realm of God. 



Sunday, June 06, 2021

Move the fence!

 A sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Pentecost (5 B)
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Georgetown, DE
and simultaneously broadcast and recorded at
Facebook page Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter
June 6, 2021

This is a sermon about insanity and family and unforgivable sin.


I can hear a few of you thinking, right: being part of a family will either make you crazy or lead you to think and do unforgivable things.


Well, I understand. Yes, I am a member of a family. Several of them, in fact. I’ve been both driven crazy and driven others crazy which lead us to do things which were  “sins against the Spirit”. Then again, haven’t we all? More on this later.


So, let’s tackle the kind of insanity with which the family of Jesus thought he was suffering. To get our heads wrapped around this, let me take us through a short exercise.

I’m going to call out a word and I want you to respond with the first word that comes to your mind. 


(Yes, I am asking you to talk while I’m preaching. Yes, I am inviting you to participate in this sermon. For those of you watching from home, just pretend you’re watching Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy and yell at the TV screen.)


So, when I say “servant” what word comes to your mind? What are some of the characteristics of a servant? What are some of the tasks of a servant? What is the temperament of a servant?


Okay, now, let’s try another word: “leader”. What word comes to your mind? What are some of the characteristics of a leader? What are some of the tasks of a leader? What is the temperament of a leader?


Now, let’s put those two words together: Servant leader. That’s the kind of ministry that Jesus models. It’s the ministry of our baptism. To be like Jesus and his disciples and be servant leaders. 


Which means, we are asked to be two opposite realities: Knowing when to follow and when to lead; when to be humble and when to be strong; being sacrificial and generous and willing to be criticized for it, to hold back for the good of the whole.


A Servant Leader can look to some to either be a poor leader or a crazy person, neither of which is what the world seeks in a leader. In our first lesson, we hear of the time when Samuel, one of the great leaders of Israel, was approached by the elders because it was time, in their view for Samuel to retire.


“Give us a king to govern us,” they said. Samuel was greatly displeased and tried to convince them otherwise, underscoring for them all the negative aspects of an autocracy or plutocracy – the singular leadership of a wealthy person.


Scripture tell us: “But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel” . . . they wanted, instead, to be like all the other nations and have a great King “to go out before us and fight our battles.” 


Well, you may have heard the old saying, “be very careful what you ask for because you just might get it and then, what will you do?”. They got David, which is a whole ‘noter sermon for a whole ‘noter time,


Suffice it to be said that Kings and Queens are seen a stronger than Servant Leaders. We see royalty as being “divinely anointed” where Servant Leaders are merely “called”.  Royalty is in one’s blood; Servant Leaders can be anyone with good intentions. Those who prefer Servant Leaders or who are, themselves, Servant Leaders are sometimes seen as having at least a few screws loose.


That was certainly the case, as I read it, in Mark’s reporting of Jesus and his disciples working so hard among the people that they barely had time to stop and eat a proper meal. Indeed, his family went down to “restrain him for people were saying that he had gone out of his mind.”


But Jesus, our great High Priest who sacrifices himself for the good of all of God’s people, scoffs at them and says that when you try to block the work of the Spirit - whatever that work is, if it is divinely inspired by God – that is a sin so grave as to be unforgivable.


Let me say that again – When you try to block the work of the Spirit – whatever that work is, if it is divinely inspired by God – that is a sin so grave as to be unforgivable.  Just let that sink in.


Maybe then Jesus won’t sound as harsh as he does when the people tell him that his mother and brothers were there, and he says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”


No, I don’t believe that Jesus is disowning his family. I think, rather, he is expanding it. He is saying that the work of tending to each other and allowing healing to happen; the work of feeding the hungry even if it means you don’t eat or – THAT work is so important, so critical to the life of community, that anyone who does that work is not limited by human-imposed barriers or understanding of what it means to be ‘family’.


No, doing the will of God breaks down all barriers and the work because the focus of what’s important. With Jesus, all previous understandings and definitions of relationships are obliterated. Now, we are all one. We are all family – beyond barriers of kith and kin, or race, tribe, or class.


It is the nature of sacrificial love to break down barriers and see that which we hold in common, that which unites us not divides us; that which inspires us to take care of one another, even if that means it costs us something like our time or our talent or our treasure. And, especially if it means giving up our most cherished thoughts and beliefs and prejudices.


There is a story told of five military buddies who fought together in WWII on the European front. They had first met in boot camp, bonded together by the rigors of training, the anxieties of war, the service to their country and the longing to return one day soon to their families.  They considered themselves family – ‘brothers’ – and they looked out after each other.


One day, while there were in a small farming village somewhere in France, they were ambushed and picked up heavy artillery fire. When the skirmish ended, to their horror, they discovered one of their brothers had suffered a mortal wound and had died. Bereft, they talked among themselves about what to do.


One of the brothers remembered seeing a church in the village with a graveyard. Together, they decided to carry their fallen brother’s body to the church and ask the priest if he could be buried there. They pooled their money and promised that they would one day return to pay the priest the rest of whatever it cost.


When they arrived at the church the priest took pity on them and agreed to let them bury their brother in the graveyard. But first, he wanted to know the dead man’s religion. The four soldiers looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. 


The priest pressed on, asking, but surely he was baptized, yes? Again the men exchanged curious glances. 


They had talked about a lot of things. They knew where he was born and the kids he grew up with and the school he attended. They even knew some of the names of his teachers and neighbors. They knew he loved his parents. They knew he loved his girlfriend. 


And, they knew he was a good, kind, decent man, but they had never seen or heard him pray – although they assumed he had, doesn’t everybody in war? – much less know if he had been baptized.


The priest shook his head sadly and looked out the window for a long while before saying to the men, “The cemetery is sacred ground. I cannot let just anyone be buried there. But, do you see the fence around the cemetery? You may bury him right outside that fence.”


The men were not pleased but said nothing and took to their sad task of burying their brother. After they laid him in his grave, they said some prayers. 


They laid a large rock on top of the grave to mark it and put one of his dog tags under the rock. One of the brothers made a sketch of the graveyard and wrote down the name of the town and the church so they could find it again.


A few years after the war ended, the four brothers gathered together and agreed to make the return trip to visit the grave of their fallen brother and to finish paying the priest. When they got to the church and the graveyard, they searched for the grave outside the fence but could not find it. There was no sign of the rock, no sign of the dog tags.


Just as they were about to panic, the priest arrived and waved to them. Their panic turned into anger and one of the men demanded, “Where did you put him, you arrogant, heartless so-and-so”? 


The priest bowed his head for a moment and then said, “Look. He is right here.”


The men looked over the fence and, sure enough, there was the rock and the dog tags as well as a grave stone, ready to be engraved. 


“You see,” said the priest, “after I prayed about it and thought about what the war had done to us, the answer seemed simple: I moved the fence.”


This is a sermon about insanity, family and unforgivable sin. Some might look on the story and think the priest insane. Others might look on those men and see soldiers who had bonded in war but were not family. 
And some might find an unforgivable sin in the priest either denying burial inside the cemetery or skirting the law of the church and moving the fence.


St. Paul says to the early church in Corinth:

“. . . for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

I hope you remember this story and these ancient words of St. Paul when we enter into conversations about the insanity of sacrificial love and servant leadership and what it means to be a “church family” and open to the spirit. 


In answer to a problem, I hope one day to hear someone say, “Well, maybe what we need to do is move the fence.” 


I pray that we will not be bound by that which is temporary and can be seen, but by that which is invisible to the eye and is eternal.


To other ears, the ears of the world, that may make us sound like crazies and fools.

I like to think it makes us sound more like family members in the household of Jesus.