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.