Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Audacity of Hope

I Corinthians 13:13 - Part 2


The Grand Inquisitor is a parable found within Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov.  Jesus comes back to earth in the 15th century during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He befriends some common folks which led to his arrest by the authorities. A quick trial is concluded with the church telling Jesus he is no longer needed on earth. As he sits in his dungeon awaiting execution, Jesus receives a visit from the Grand Inquisitor. Allow me to share a paraphrase of that conversation. The Inquisitor speaks,

I have condemned you because of the responses you gave Satan during your confrontation in the wilderness. You had the chance to give the people bread and you refused. You could have produced a great of miracle by throwing yourself off the temple but you didn’t. You could have ruled the world yet you turned your back on the opportunity. Instead, you held before the people the freedom of choice. How many folks can handle that responsibility? They don’t want freedom; they want to be taken care of. We are the ones who give them bread. They are not smart enough to realize we take what they produce and give it back to them. We enslave them to build temples and they fall on their knees worshipping a God that requires loyalty. We rule over them, for they would rather be subjects of an iron hand than confused by the choices liberty demands. Like you, I went to the wilderness. I lived on roots and locust. I saw your path of humility and rejected it.  I will not join your madness. Your followers and I have one thing in common. You will be forgotten before the ashes of your body turn cold.

When the Inquisitor ceased speaking, he waited for Jesus to answer him. The old man longed for Jesus to say something, however bitter and terrible. Finally Jesus stood, approached the man in silence, and softly kissed him on his bloodless lips. The old man went to the jail door, opened it and said. “Go, and come no more.” And Jesus left.  

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky bases his book on the difficult questions intertwining faith and doubt. The Inquisitor could not comprehend what the people saw in Jesus. He thought Jesus offered freedom to folks he surmised needed order. Instead Jesus offered a hope that no amount of failure, suffering, or desolation could eradicate.

What is hope? We can’t prove heaven, yet we dream of it. We can’t prove God, yet we joyfully sing, “Our hope is based on nothing less.” Children hope to become adults. Adults hope to become children of God. Isn’t it in these dreams that we discover the possibility of truth? And isn’t it in this truth that we discover a hope beyond what we could ever imagine?

Paul wrote to his friends in Rome, “I consider the sufferings of the present time not worth the glory being revealed to us.” Then he concluded, “Hope is that which cannot be seen, yet we wait for with patience.”

I think of those children who wandered into that cave in Thailand. They kept going deeper into the cave to escape the rising waters. Some of the boys had never learned to swim. Imagine the fear that swept through that community once the boys were discovered missing. Yet once the word went out, the world responded. 13 foreign divers assisted the Thai Seal team. Language, lack of equipment, fatigue was overcome by the possibility that the twelve boys and their coach might still be alive. Hope rules the day, yet if the Grand Inquisitor had been in charge, don’t you believe he would have calculated the cost and declared the children expendable?

Grand Inquisitors are driven by tally sheets. Hope is sustained by unrelenting love and a persistent imagination which believes that which cannot be confirmed.  Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Unfortunately, despite what we witnessed this week, too often the Grand Inquisitor gets his way. 

George Watts, a 19th century English artist created a painting of a tranquil, blindfolded figure seated atop the planet Earth. Her head is sadly bowed as she plucks the only unbroken string of her harp. The name of the painting is Hope. I first encountered this painting in a sermon by Martin Luther King called Shattered Dreams. King describes the picture and then wrote, “We live in a world where our highest hopes are not realized. In despair some will distil all their frustrations into a core of bitterness and resentment. Some will withdraw completely into themselves. A few will adopt a fatalistic philosophy which believes everything is predetermined. But that woman still looks down on a world in disarray and plucks the only string remaining because she fervently believes God will hear her song.

We are practical people. We understand the rationale of the Grand Inquisitor better than we do the wishful plucks of a single string. It is absurd to think the way of the world will change just because it doesn’t suit us. And yet, despite all the evidence against us, we gather here on Sunday morning. This is the place where we pray for miracles we know will probably not happen. This is the place we care for the hungry, the injured and the impoverished realizing statistics say our generosity will not change anything. Yes, we are practical people, but we are first a resurrection people. In spite the evidence, we continue to believe that God hears and responds to the sound of that solitary note.

How crazy is that? Being fully aware of the ABSURDITY of hope, we choose to believe in the AUDACITY of hope. In other words, despite our anxiousness about tomorrow, we continue to work and dream of making today better.

Jesus had the audacity to say some absurd things. Do you recall the one where he insisted we not worry about what we eat, or drink, or wear? Just remember the lilies of the field. Or what about when Jesus said if people reject what you say, dust off your sandals and move on. Maybe the hardest to hear is Jesus promising there is peace amidst each storm and tranquility within each disaster. 

We can decide Jesus is absurd and join the ranks of the Grand Inquisitor and his ever growing army of minions. Or we might have the audacity to play a one note samba declaring God’s way not only puts blood in your lips, but also a song of hope in your heart.     To God be the glory.  Amen.           

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Why I Believe

I Corinthians 13:13 - Part 1


        I Corinthians 13 is one of the most beloved passages in the entire Bible. It might be hard to believe but Paul did not have a wedding in mind when he wrote these words. In fact it was quite the opposite. The church in Corinth was in turmoil.  A series of events coincided with a change in leadership and the members were at each other’s throat. Some of the problems were theological, some were practical and some of the folks just didn’t like each other. Each impasse ripped a larger hole into the delicate fiber holding the community together. Paul, almost out of desperation writes, “If I speak with the authority of a mortal or an angel but speak without love my words are useless. It hardly matters what I believe if doesn’t reflect the love of God. Faith and hope bring us together but first, and last, there must always be love.”

        For 2,000 years we have been trying to understand the power of those words. So forgive me if I take three weeks to raise some questions and observations which I hope will confirm the brilliance of Paul’s perspective:

                What do we believe?

What do we imagine God is in the process of doing?

What would motivate Paul to declare that neither faith nor hope is as important as love?

The Beatles were brazen enough to declare, “All we need is love”, but no one believes life is that simple. Yet how often do we take the time to actually contemplate what we believe? Most of us can recite the Apostles Creed from memory. But are the words etched on our hearts. Would it matter if they are not?

Douglas John Hall, Professor Emeritus of Theology at McGill University begins one of his books with these disturbing words. “I don’t see why anyone today would be a Christian.”  Before you turn your attention elsewhere, the statement begins a dialogue between a teacher and a student who dares to question any institutionalized religion in this time of secular reasoning and pluralism. The student has a point. What do we believe? Why do we believe?

I was born in a cotton mill village in northwestern Georgia. I was baptized in the Presbyterian Church. Not everyone in Cedartown went to the Presbyterian Church but on Sunday morning I imagine most folks were sitting in some church. There was no Mosque or Synagogue in Cedartown. The only non-Christians we knew about were the folks in Africa our brave missionaries were trying to convert. Growing up I never remember anyone suggesting there might not be a God. The stores were owned and the banks run by the same folks who were the elders and deacons at my church. In the towns I grew up in it seemed being a successful Christian and a successful business person were one in the same. My culture and my faith were merged. Then I made the first mistake of my faith journey. I began to read the Bible.

Don’t get me wrong. I had read the Bible all my life. My grandmother used to give me a five dollar bill each time I read the book cover to cover. I collected on her challenge more than one, the first being just before my tenth birthday. I became a “Wikipedia of Biblical facts” but I hardly understood much of what I was reading.  I had my favorite passages. Most of them proved how righteous I was compared to everyone else. I must confess I have yet to completely rid myself of that shortcoming.

But at some point in time I discovered every one of my Biblical heroes was flawed. That was devastating. Moses and David committed murder. Elijah succumbed to fear. Solomon was not as wise as he or I imagined. Amos was a bit too arrogant. Ezekiel was a bit too perfect. Each of my heroes was damaged goods. Even worse, their faith became the incentive for their ungodly actions. Moses murdered an Egyptian out of righteous anger. David had Uriah killed because as God’s anointed, David believed his desires were preordained. Elijah became afraid when he discovered power only conquers, it doesn’t convert. Solomon was so smart he destroyed Israel with his thoughtlessness. Intellectually I had embraced each of these men. When their flaws were revealed, my truths were exposed. My understanding of God was wrapped up in the personalities and abilities of each of my heroes. I believed God would make me powerful. I believed God would make me all-knowing. I believed God would keep me from fear. I had turned the Bible into a Marvel Comic book. Then suddenly I was accosted by doubt.

40 years ago I was a newly ordained minister in Wilmington, North Carolina. I was asked to teach a midweek two year study of the Bible. The first week there was a group of 20 folks who had committed to this daunting task. I began by explaining how the creation story was a poem. I spent the next hour trying to convince half the class not to leave. One woman asked, “If the world was not created in seven days, what else will you ask me not to believe?”

That is an excellent question. If faith is built on certainty, or what another declares as doctrine, then faith stands on a fragile foundation. When that faith erodes, doubt, a devastating and enlightening passion, is born. It is devastating because we are asked to question what we once considered to be an unconditional truth. But it is enlightening because a faith that shows no doubt is most assuredly dead.

To paraphrase Paul, when I was a child I knew everything there was to know about God. But as I became older my faith moved from an intellectual puzzle describing an omnipotent being to a relationship with a mystery that I no longer needed to define. Instead of being sure who God is I learned to place my trust in something beyond my comprehension. Instead of declaring myself perfect, I discovered God was capable of transformational moments despite my imperfections.

Thankfully, doubt still lingers. If it didn’t, that would be the first sign that I had regressed back into my childhood. Saying that questions are more important than answers sounds like a cliché, but there are reasons that certain clichés have a long shelf life.

Thankfully, anger still lingers. Outsiders want Christians to be nice and joyful and pretty much docile. But we live in a world filled with suffering, sorrow, discord, and grief. The Bible I read is filled with stories of folks who sacrificed their happiness, their joy, for the sake of another. The Bible never said, “God helps those who help themselves.” That was Thomas Jefferson. The Bible said, “If you have two coats, give one to a stranger.”

Thankfully love still lingers. How can faith matter if it is only one dimensional? If the full extent of my faith is only cheating death, then perhaps I really don’t understand why God created me? But if in the midst of the world’s suffering, sorrow, discord and grief, I believe God speaks, then God’s primary discourse must be, “Love one another.”

And that can be difficult. I believe in God but often I am confused by what other Godly folks claim to believe. I become frustrated with their words and actions. I find it hard to believe they might be equally irritated with my words and actions. It is like we are playing out the drama in Corinth all over again. We all believe, but sometimes we can’t believe what others are doing in God’s name.

So what do we do? Perhaps believing is our first child-like step. But loving is the more difficult Godly step. If I believe but don’t love, I am little more than a clanging bell that irritates but never transforms.

Does my faith allow me to hear the groans of another? Does my faith allow me to value the faith of another?

Is my faith grounded in love?

“Faith, hope, love”…….. Well, you know the rest. 

To God be the glory.    Amen.




Sunday, July 1, 2018

Waiting for Death

Mark 5:21-43


William Sloan Coffin observed, “The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death, and as soon as possible, for death is an event that embraces all our lives.” I guess you could say I am preaching to the choir. These days we attend more funerals that weddings which is pretty remarkable when you consider a funeral is a once in a lifetime event. I suspect most of us have made plans concerning our death. If not, a member of the cemetery committee would be more than delighted to sit down and chat. I plan for my remains to be tossed off Humpback Rock. My grandson promised to take care of the deed as long as I die during the summer.  Death is something we joke about, but seldom think about, until tragedy strikes or someone we love becomes ill and then we realize death is the one thing we all have in common.

Death is not unique, yet we uniquely encounter death in different ways. I have a good friend struggling with what could be a life threatening heart condition. Does he want my thoughts, my ear, my prayers, or my silence? There is no prescribed script in confronting ones mortality.  The one thing I have learned is when death darkens one’s doorstep; thoughts on mortality become delicately heightened.

When a child claims a spot around the family table death is the last conversation considered. New birth brings joy, laughter, a sense of awe just waiting to be discovered.  A few years ago my son went to a local rescue kennel and picked out a dog. David was transformed by this new addition to his family. When he asked why we never had pets I sarcastically responded, “We had you and your sister.” He just shook his head and continued playing fetch with Kaylee. Sixteen months ago his wife gave birth to Molly Jane. Now when Deb and I go to Christiansburg to see our newest grandchild I spend most of my time playing fetch with a dog who wonders what happened to her life.

Children do this to us. Our lives stop as we anxiously await her first word. We pick out her first bicycle before the first step is taken.  Today parents scrutinize Day Care Centers as if they were picking out a college. And with good reason, they cost about the same. Nothing is more precious than a child.  So we don’t have to imagine the panic that overwhelmed Jairus in this morning’s text. One moment his daughter is picking flowers. The next she lays collapsed on the ground gasping for breath. Doctors are called in but they can only shake their heads. Death seems certain. Then someone suggest Jairus go find Jesus. Rumors abound the young man from Galilee heals the sick. Days before Jairus probably had been in the synagogue discussing how the community might rid itself of this charlatan.  But now his daughter is sick. Common sense is placed on the back burner when death enters. Jairus leaves his home, runs to where Jesus was preaching, throws himself at his feet and begs, “Can you save my daughter?” Jesus responded, “Yes I can.” Immediately they rush to see the sick child.

A woman with no name blocks their way, and Jesus stops.  Can you imagine how this must have frustrated Jairus? He didn’t know the woman’s name but he probably knew her story. She had been ill for twelve years. Why should one more day matter? Jesus would be around tomorrow but his daughter would not. Jesus stopped and life ebbed out of the daughters veins. Jesus stopped and a heart so filled with hope was shattered into a million pieces.

That is what death can do to us. We, who proclaim the resurrection, are left speechless when accosted by death. We don’t lose our faith, but our dreams become somewhat bruised. Our formula for life doesn’t include the death of an infant, or a child, or even a young adult.  We offer pithy little sayings like, “A parent should never bury a child.” That might be true but I have never been to any funeral where sadness was absent. Regardless of our faith, death brings a conclusion to life. The relationship ends, the dreams end, and worst of all, the conversations end. Someone is left alone and silent. It is then that I am often asked, “Why did God allow this to happen now?”

The Wisdom of Solomon is a book that did not make it into the Old Testament. If your Bible has an Apocrypha you might glance at it occasionally. The Wisdom of Solomon begins with this radical statement, “God did not make death and God does not delight in the death of the living.” So who do we blame? Jairus blamed the woman who kidnapped Jesus. The woman blamed a community that had tossed her aside. Jesus probably blamed the inevitable. No matter how many folks Jesus heals, death still trudges forward.

I have come to believe this story is much deeper than a girl and woman momentarily escaping death. The miracle is that the woman touched Jesus. Imagine the courage it must have taken for an outcast, an untouchable, to reach out and make contact with a man. She didn’t just want to be healed; she wanted to be acknowledged. She wanted Jesus to recognize her. She wanted to live but she also wanted to experience acceptance and intimacy. She wanted to touch and be touched. So many folks die long before their casket is rolled toward the cemetery. Having lived in isolation much of their life, death completes a life hardly lived.  

I wonder how this story would be told today. I suspect the roles would have been reversed. A woman discovers her husband has a life threatening illness. She is told there is nothing that can be done. In desperation and against all odds she flies to California to speak to a young preacher who has been called a healer. She places an airline ticket in his hand and begs the healer to come with her. As they are leaving the church a 15 year old reaches out and touches the healer. Jesus stops, recognizes emptiness, lets the ticket drop to the ground and embraces the young boy.

Almost everyone within the sound of my voice has come to terms with mortality. We have lived good lives. We have insurance policies which cover any bases we might have overlooked. No one welcomes death but as we slow down we understand life has been good to us. We have lived among friends. Death will bring both closure and hope.

Many young people the age of my grandchildren have lost the ability to imagine a future. They are emotionally hemorrhaging yet hardly noticed. Suicide in children between 7 and 17 is up 70% in the last ten years. Depression and loneliness are often cited as the number one cause. We who are older have come to understand and live with death. Children who have never experienced life are turning to death as an acceptable alternative.

Could it be that they have reached out and no one felt their touch? Miracles happen when our lives are interrupted for the sake of another. Jesus stopped and a life was saved. As we continue our rush from one spot to another perhaps we can occasionally stop and find time for a small soul who has lost his way. It is amazing what a word or a touch might do for someone far too young to be waiting for death.    

To God be the glory.          Amen  

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Who Are You?

Who are You?

Job 38:1-11; Mark 4:35-41

        The Book of Job is known by everyone but read by very few.  It is a dangerous poem that exists on the edge of Old Testament theology, challenging time honored tradition of Israel’s faith while giving no easy answers to the questions raised. Discussions of this book too often begin and end with the simplistic question, “What happens when bad things happen to good people?” But the deeper, darker message of the poet is that neither Job nor his friends understand the mystery and wisdom of God. Having experienced the suffering that arises when property or a family member is lost, we side with Job. But this poem rises above our tragedies, daring us to look beyond our own pain. In an incredibly sarcastic response God asked Job, “Who are you? Were you around when I laid the foundations of the world? Job, it is not just about you.”

        Job defined righteousness within the parameters of the Deuteronomic code which declared if you do what is right, good things will happen. We have a similar code. Each morning the shadow of Monticello falls upon our county. We have been raised to believe we have the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   When we are denied those revered privileges we raise our Job-like complaints to the Almighty.  But what happens when laws evolving from the gospel according to Jefferson are not harmonious with the gospel of Jesus? What happens when our rights appear to be threatened by the existence of sojourners who are also part of God’s holy creation? We have created laws which protect our constitutional rights. But does legality replace morality when those laws are used against the widow and the orphan? If we claim Christ, I believe these are questions we have to raise.

It was late in the afternoon when Jesus said to the disciples, “Let’s jump in the boat and travel to the other side of the lake.” The disciples saw this as a terrible idea. Why on earth would Jesus want to go to a foreign place where no Jewish laws were observed? Where would they eat? Who would give them a place to stay? Had Jesus lost his mind?

We understand the fear of the disciples. Jesus is always asking us to leave the satisfaction of tested shores and undertake a journey toward the unknown. But who wants to encounter bumpy waters? Life is hard enough without the Godly tug to deepen our humanity and care for folks we really would rather not think about.

My last Presbytery had a covenant relationship with Presbyterians in Villahermosa, the capital of the Mexican state of Tabasco. I twice had the privilege of traveling and staying in the homes of Mexican Presbyterians who are working to build a hospital to insure better health care for their woman and children.  The trips were exhausting yet spiritually enlightening as I witnessed folks living out their faith for the sake of those who were invisible.   On returning home I would often be asked where Tabasco was located. When I mentioned Villahermosa was on the Gulf of Mexico more than once the reply was, “That’s nice, but when we vacation in Mexico we prefer Acapulco to Cancun.”

Jesus wasn’t taking the disciples on a vacation. He was going to the other side of the lake where marginalized, often demonized folks lived. The disciples knew what they would find in Gerasene and they had no desire to go.

During the night a storm arose on the lake which threatened the lives of everyone on board.  You know the story. Jesus awakened; spoke; and the wind and waves became calm. The disciples respond, “Who ARE you?”

I believe the storm was a metaphor for the chaos that was exploding within the heart of each disciple.  What happened to the people on the other side of the lake was not their concern. Those folks were Gentiles. They raised pigs. They were unclean. By making this trip the disciples would once again bring down the wrath of the Pharisees. So why did Jesus choose to step into this mess? These unnecessary side trips threatened the life, liberty, and happiness of each of the 12 disciples.  Why couldn’t Jesus understand this was the last place they desired to be? I think it was beyond their imagination that Jesus wanted the disciples to look the face of a stranger and recognizing her as a child of God.

We are no different. How often are people, especially children, invisible. How often do statistics replace names? The captured, the outcast, becomes a pawn in debates over what is legal or illegal. Then God muddies the water by asking what is moral and immoral. God drags us into the chaos and we desperately look to Jesus for help.  But that calm we so frantically desire comes with a price. Once the storm ended, Jesus asks disciples of every age to continue rowing toward the distant shore.

In moments of chaos, our nation has a history of listening to Godly voices. In 1944 Richard Niebuhr wrote, “Our capacity toward righteousness makes democracy possible. But our inclination toward injustice makes democracy necessary.”

From the inauguration of Washington until today, we as a nation we have tried and failed, tried and failed, but we always try again. In the midst of our chaos our leaders have found the courage to call on a higher power. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln was asked if God was on the side of the Union. Lincoln responded, “What matters is that we try to be on the side of justice and righteousness.” When asked to justify his reasons for supporting the Marshall plan Harry Truman responded, “God will judge us on how we respond to those who are weak.” On September 12th 2001, George Bush preached, “The world God created is of a moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a moment. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end.” In Charleston S.C., after the murder of nine members of the Mother Emmanuel Church, Barak Obama paraphrased a beloved hymn when he practically sang, “Grace is not merited. It is the free, benevolent favor of God upon sinners. God has visited grace upon us as a nation for God has allowed us to see where we have been blind.  Then God has allowed us to find our better selves.”


Perhaps the most beautiful expression of our dependency upon God’s favor was written in 1893 after Katherine Lee Bates visited Pikes Peak. Fifteen years later, Samuel Ward added music to the poem and retitled it America the Beautiful. We all love the song. I wish we would sing the second verse more.

O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved,

And mercy more than life.

America, America, God mend our every flaw.

Confirm thy soul, in self control,

Thy liberty in law.


Historically, there are never simplistic answers to complicated problems. Historically, we will often find ourselves at odds with each other when trying to discover creative solutions. The book of Job suggests no matter how good we think we are, holy answers are found when we have the courage to look beyond our own plight.  The Gospel of Mark assures us Jesus can always be found in the midst of our chaos. But Mark also reminds us if we turn to Jesus, there is always a catch. Jesus will encourage us to keep rowing our boat toward the orphaned, the widow and the forgotten.                      

I pray that our nation will never lose the yearning to turn to God in our times of chaos.

I pray equally hard that we will have the courage to listen, and hopefully, find our better selves.
To God be the glory.             Amen. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Arising Out of Fear

II Corinthians 5:14-17; Mark 4:30-32


        During my 40 years of ministry I spent a lot of time engaged in youth ministry. I can remember when rope courses became all the rage. If you are not familiar with this phenomenon, both mental and physical obstacles are created to help the participants learn to trust others and themselves. The low ropes course was performed no more than a foot off the ground. Obstacles were created and the group had to figure out how to get from point A to point B without leaving any members behind. I always found these particularly helpful in addressing trust issues with group members. But then there was the high ropes course. These were individual tasks designed to challenge ones strength and more importantly, one’s nerves. Securely fastened in a harness, the participants tackled one challenge after another, often at heights that for me were beyond my comfortable level. Why did the kids do it? I guess for the adrenalin rush. Why did I attempt it? I really don’t know.

        The task that still interrupts many a pleasant night’s sleep was the pole climb. Imagine climbing what appeared to be an ordinary telephone pole. Only there was nothing ordinary about it. From the ground it seemed to be a thousand feet high. Spikes protruded from the pole allowing access to the top where there was a flat platform. Once the climber ascended the pole, the task was to stand up on the platform, step to the edge, and jump into a net below.  all of this was done in the Texas Hill country where the wind seems to never blows less than 20 mph.

        One or two 18 year olds raced up the pole, stood up, did some kind of victory dance, and jumped. Then everyone looked at me. Not wanting to disappoint, I put on the safety harness and climbed skyward. The first twenty feet were easy. But then something happened. The pole began to gently sway. My legs started to feel heavy. An inner voice began to scream, “Go back.”  I took a deep breath, knowing two things, I was frightened out of my mind and quitting is not part of my vocabulary. Refusing to look down I continued climbing until I reached the platform. I clung to the pole until both feet were safely on the flat surface. All I had to do was stand up, turn around, take two steps forward and jump. But my legs were frozen. They would not move. Here I was, 50 feet in the air, suspended between heaven and hell, absolutely paralyzed. Where was my faith in myself, in God, and in those holding the ropes attached to my harness? 


        What does this story have to do with the parable of the mustard seed? I am sure you remember it.  “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of the seeds yet when it is sown, it grows up to be a bush large enough for the birds to use as their home.” The sermon that most often follows this parable insist if have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can accomplish anything. The prime time for preaching this scripture is during stewardship season. The minister will gather the children around her, open her hand, and show the kids a mustard seed. She will ask the children  to notice how small the seed is. Then she will show them a picture of a mature plant. The catch phrase is, “If you believe, God will do the same with you.”

        Session members pull this parable out of their hermeneutical hat at session meetings when the projected budget is a few dollars short of the anticipated revenue. An elder will stand and say, “My friends, our work here is a lot more important than worrying about a shortfall of funds. If we have faith the size of a mustard seed, everything will work out. We will find the money.” On hearing those brave words the budget is approved yet rarely does anything change. There is still a shortfall and six months later the stewardship committee will make the necessary cuts. Is that faith or good financial management?

        Maybe a different question needs to be asked. Is the parable of the mustard seed really about an individual expression of faith or courage? Too often we jump the gun and assume every parable is about our personal salvation. What if we stop, hear the parable again, and pay particular attention to the first phrase in this story.

With what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like the the smallest of seeds. Yet when planted it becomes a bush large enough house nesting birds.

The parable doesn’t say, “You can accomplish anything if you have even a little faith. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” I am not a farmer. I am not even allowed in the church garden because I can’t tell a plant from a weed. But I can read. I looked up mustard plants. The article I read said mustard plants are annuals. I had to go to another article to find out what that meant. Did you know mustard plants die at the end of every season and have to be replanted each year? I would be much happier if Jesus had said, “The kingdom of heaven is like an acorn.” Once planted, the acorn manifests itself into a mighty oak that might live for centuries. Think how many generations of birds could nest in the oak’s branches?

But Jesus picked a mustard seed. Jesus picked a plant that must be sown year after year after year. This doesn’t sound like heaven to me. Isn’t heaven the place with streets of gold and townhouses with a “to die for view”. Isn’t heaven the place where we will be reunited with loved ones? Isn’t the reason most of us spend our Sundays in church is to insure our tickets are punched for the great by and by? Isn’t the Kingdom of God more permanent than an annual plant?

Allow me to gently suggest when Jesus uses kingdom talk he is not talking about the future but the now. When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven he is not speaking of one grand event but a series of moments that were never intended to be eternal. Jesus sat down with the downtrodden and those without much hope and announced his kingdom was like a fragile seed that would give temporary shelter. Then when Jesus had their attention he continued, “My kingdom is brought about by fragile folks full of fear and doubt who look a lot like you.”

So there I was on that platform, scared for my life. I could not find the courage or the faith to let go of the pole. And even if I could, where would I go. My legs refused to move. From below I heard the voice of the guy at the end of the rope. “Louie, you are OK. We’ve got you.”

Of all the moments in my life to be a stickler for pronouns, this was not the one. I knew the trainer was at the end of the rope. I knew he had done this before. I knew he wouldn’t let me fall, but I didn’t believe it. Only he didn’t say, “I’ve got you.” He said, “We’ve got you.”

Calling on all of my nerve I looked down. I witnessed every kid in my youth group holding onto that rope. All those tiny mustard seeds were finding root, finding purpose, finding the strength to make sure I wouldn’t die. It might have been my clearest understanding of the kingdom of God.

How many times have you been rescued by the words or actions of another? I bet it is more often than you might imagine. And how many times have you been holding on to the rope that brings deliverance to another.  If you think about it, you probably do it every other day.  Over 275 years ago God planted a seed on this spot. And a bush grew. For almost three centuries new seeds has been planted and replanted. Out of those seeds annually grows the courage, and the hope, and the faith that we are here to hold onto the rope for one another. In theological jargon that is called bringing about the kingdom of God.

To God be the glory.       Amen.