Sermon: The Parable of the “Code Key",  Mark 4:26-34
14 June 09 at St Paul's Lutheran Church, Sugar City, CO




Children’s Sermon: A Mustard Seed Faith

Need: Mustard seeds

Have you ever seen a mustard seed?  The mustard seed is one of the smallest of all seeds.
Here, let me show you.                                                                        (Hand out mustard seeds).

Some people wear a necklace that has one of these tiny mustard seeds inside of a piece of glass.  They wear this necklace as a symbol of their faith in God.  Do you know why the mustard seed is considered a symbol of faith?

One day, Jesus was talking to his disciples when one of them turned to him and said, "Lord, increase our faith." Jesus answered and said, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you." Can you imagine what it would be like to have that kind of faith?

I heard a story about a man who read this verse in the Bible and decided to put it to the test.  There was a large tree in his front yard, so he went out to that tree and said, "In the morning when I wake up from my sleep, I want you to be gone." That night the man went to bed.  When he woke up the next morning, he went to front door, opened it, and looked out into his front yard.  "Just as I thought!" the man said. "It's still there."

Well, first of all, the man didn't have mustard seed sized faith, did he?  In fact, he didn't have any faith at all.  When he told the tree to be moved, he never expected it to happen.  In the second place, I think that the man misunderstood what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples.

Jesus was not suggesting that you and I go around trying to move trees just to prove that we have faith.  What Jesus was trying to teach his disciples -- and what he wants you and me to learn -- is that it doesn't take a great faith to produce great results.  Why?  Because the results don't depend on us, they depend on God.  If the results depended on the size of our faith, I have no doubt that we would probably go around bragging about our great faith.

So, don't ask for a great faith so that we can do great things -- ask for faith the size of a mustard seed so that we can see God do great things!

Dear Father, we ask for a mustard seed sized faith. Help us to believe and never doubt your mighty power.

Amen.




Sermon: The Parable of the “Code Key"

I have a riddle for you, and by the way, only 17% of Stanford college graduates figured out this riddle, but 80% of kindergarteners knew the answer.

“What is stronger than God, more evil than the devil, poor people have it, rich people don’t need it, and if you eat it, you’ll die?”

Do you have the answer?  The answer is: “Nothing.”

“Nothing is stronger than God.  Nothing is more evil than the devil.  Poor people have it and rich people don’t need it.  And if you eat nothing, you’ll die!”

I could have called this riddle a parable, as literally, the word parable means “a riddle.”  They are stories that leave the listener with the responsibility of figuring out just what they mean.

In the 1986 movie, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, Whoopie Goldberg plays a character named Terry, who works at a New York bank doing fund transfers.  She doesn’t quite fit in, and is often in trouble with her boss for talking to other bank computer workers around the world in an inappropriate or informal manner.

One night she is contacted by a man calling himself "Jumpin' Jack Flash", who turns out to be a British Intelligence agent stuck in a hostile country in Eastern Europe, and is being pursued by the KGB.  Jack tells Terry that he can only communicate with her via computer chat, and only over a private channel. 

Jack is afraid of the KGB electronically eavesdropping on their conversation, so in order to access his channel Terry must solve a “riddle” in order to figure out a “code key” in the Rolling Stones song, which gives the title to the movie. 

Jack tells her to "sing with me, and find the key", and Terry, a huge fan of classic rock, figures that the key must be hidden somewhere in the lyrics to The Rolling Stones song.  So she listens to the lyrics of the song to try to figure out the words, but is unsuccessful.

At one point, frustrated, she cries out, “Mick, Mick, speak English!” But to no avail.  Mick Jagger’s words elude her, though the solution, she discovers later, isn’t in the lyrics of the song.

I almost want to cry something similar to Jesus after today’s lesson.  “Speak plainly, Jesus.  Tell us the meaning, not just your disciples.  Give us some indication of what the ‘Kingdom of God’ is about.  Don’t keep speaking in circles.” But to no avail.  I can almost hear Jesus saying "sing with me, and find the key."

Jesus’ parables continue to spark imagination and controversy.  They are parables, which means they speak around things, not directly about them.  So we are left to puzzle, and the daring among us attempt an interpretation of them that, when we are honest, we know can fall short of the truth.

Jesus told more than 40 parables during his ministry, and he didn’t fully explain most of them to his disciples; which left the disciples with a lot of figuring out to do.  And then Jesus took the answers with him when he ascended into heaven.  So here we are, some 2000 years later, still pondering what Jesus must have meant when he told the story of “The Wedding Feast,” or “The Dishonest Steward,” or “The Good Samaritan,” or the 2 parables in our gospel lesson for today.

Like many of Jesus’ parables that have to do with seeds and soil and planting and harvesting, the first parable talks about the Kingdom of God being like a man that scatters seed on the ground, and how it grows whether he is asleep or awake, and when it is ripe, it is harvested. 

But the second parable for today tells us that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  There seems to be an element about this one which is different from the first, a bit unusual, and maybe even Jesus is hard-pressed to find a natural illustration for it.

I think we get a clue to the strange character of this parable in the way Jesus introduces it.  He sounds almost puzzled, like he’s thinking; "Now, how can I illustrate this?  With what can I compare the Kingdom of God?  What parable or riddle shall I use for it?" Then he tells the parable of the mustard seed:

"What shall we say the Kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?  It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground.  Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

So…  That’s it?  That’s what the Kingdom of God is like?  A mustard seed?  I’m not sure I get it.  Those who take every word of the Bible literally have a bit of a problem with this parable, because science has shown that the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds.  In fact, many seeds are as small as a speck of dust.  So what was Jesus thinking?

Maybe the point of the parable is not that it was the smallest of all seeds, but that something small can grow into something great?  Was Jesus perhaps saying that a small baby that was born in a humble stable would grow up to become a Savior, and people would find comfort and security in him?

Or could Jesus have been saying that this Christian Church, which began with just a tiny gathering of fearful men in a small, upper room in Jerusalem, would one day become a gathering of more than 2 billion people who find their hope in him?

Or could this parable mean that if we only have faith the size of a mustard seed (another teaching of Jesus), our faith will mature and grow, and it will be enough to bring us to eternal life?

That’s another characteristic of parables; there may be more than one likely explanation.  All of those scenarios may have been part of Jesus’ thinking when he sat down and told his hearers that the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed.  We don’t know; as Jesus didn’t tell us.  We are left to figure it out for ourselves, and maybe there is not a wrong answer.

So let’s take a look at this mustard seed that Jesus is talking about.                                                           (Hand out mustard seeds).

Jesus took something ordinary, something probably seen every day, and turned it into an illustration of the mysterious nature of the Kingdom of God.  No doubt the yellow flowers of the mustard plant could be seen all around them as the people listened to Jesus' words, since wild mustard is prominent in the vegetation around the Sea of Galilee.

The mustard referred to by Jesus is probably the native Black mustard, which was more of a weed, but it could be controlled and cultivated for its seeds to be used as a spice.  In biblical days, it was also the source of mustard seed oil, and was used as a medicine.  The seeds are only 2 mm in diameter but the plants can grow from 9 to 16 feet high.  If left unattended, it would eventually become a tree with branches strong enough for the birds to come and make nests in.

I think the most interesting thing about this parable is that Jesus did not, as one might have expected, compare the Kingdom of God to something breathtaking or highly exalted.  He did not compare it to some magnificent visionary kingdom that would impress his audience and take away their breath.

Instead, he compared it to this simple, tiny seed that could be held in the palm of the hand; the smallest of all the seeds which are upon the earth was how he described it.  There was the likeness of the Kingdom of God!

From such insignificant beginnings, tremendous growth was to be made, till it became a large plant.
From something so tiny; small enough for birds to snack on, comes something that is large enough and strong enough for the birds to live in.

No wonder Jesus frequently used the mustard seed as a symbol of faith.  It is a beautiful symbol.

In Matthew 17:20, Jesus said, “…if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you."

In Luke 17:6 Jesus said, “"If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you.”

Matthew 13 and Luke 13 also record the same message as in our Gospel reading of Mark 4 today, with Jesus using the illustration of the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed.

I think Jesus used the mustard seed because of its inherent capacity for growth.  A seed is able to grow, and so can faith.  In fact, faith that is not used will not grow; but if it is used, it increases.  This is why Jesus uses a seed as a symbol of faith.  And this is why you never have to worry about whether your faith is small or great.  If it is small, it can grow and eventually become large. 

That is where all great faith has come from; from people trusting God in little things, then in larger things, more and more, until their faith grows to take on great things.  That is an unchanging principle of the Word of God.  When you trust him in little things, you learn to trust him in larger things, and you find your faith has grown, and you are able to step out a little farther.

But like many parables or riddles, we find the parable of the mustard seed is hidden to many.  Human nature looks for great things.  It looks for self-importance, esteem of fellow men, pride and grandeur.  Even the disciples were not entirely free of this human trait, as they debated among themselves who should be the greatest.  Jesus made it clear to them that the greatest were those who served.

I think that for much of the time they were with Jesus, the disciples didn’t see it or get it.  They remained blissfully clueless to the end, even after Jesus was raised from the dead.  They did not understand and were afraid for most of the time.

And as for the Jewish leaders of the time, Jesus didn’t speak of his Father’s Kingdom in a way that they were hoping for.  When Jesus spoke of his Father’s Kingdom, it was against their prevailing views of physical wealth and political authority and order.  Instead, his message spoke directly to the heart of his disciples and the crowd who weren’t royalty, rich, powerful or famous.  They weren’t an army or political movers-an-shakers. 

So Jesus, who without the Kingdom of God could never be established, was despised and rejected, and finally crucified by his generation.  They looked for glorious things and he offered them a mustard seed!

In the end, faithful Israel is reduced to one, Jesus himself.  And yet from that one, a movement began that has swept the world and changed it with God’s love.  So there just may be more to these parables than meets the eye.  The disciples had Jesus with them, explaining everything to them, and still they did not fully get it!  How in the world can we hope to be better?

And yet, we don’t have to be, at least not according to these parables.  God is bringing His kingdom, His harvest, His mustard seed to full growth and fruit, despite our lack of participation or understanding, despite the fact that we often don’t get it, or when we do, we sometimes get it wrong.

This is why some people find the parables Jesus tells a bit frustrating, because they can have a lot of possible interpretations.  Some probably wonder, 'Why doesn't Jesus come right out and say what he means?'  If Jesus wants to tell his disciples how to do ministry, why not a "policies and procedures manual?"  A big set of rules, instead of little stories.  Why leave to chance whether or not his followers will know when and what seeds to plant, how to tend, and when to harvest?

In fact, sometimes I find Jesus’ parables a bit difficult, and maybe you do as well.  I want to understand, I want to know, I want to see.  And yet my brain is just too small to take it all in.  So for now, I will have to simply trust that, without my knowing or understanding, God’s kingdom is taking shape, God’s will is being done, even as I pray every day for understanding.

For now, I will simply have to trust that what looks small and ineffective to me at the moment will become something greater than I could ever imagine. 
For now, I have to trust that the fullness of understanding will come later. 
And in trusting, I begin to participate in the very kingdom that is coming, and growing, and becoming God’s love in the world. 

So…, I have decided that when it comes down to it, Jesus speaks in parables as a kindness to us.  He tells us enough to get us on board, to hold out a vision for a different world in which God’s kingdom or rule will indeed become the reality for all creation, even though we don’t see it at any given moment.  And if we participate in that vision, we grow in God’s love and live God’s forgiveness in spite of our Sinful selves and the Sinful world.

The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, began her orphanage with such a vision.  She told her superiors, "I have three pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage."

A dream and three pennies represented resources as small as a mustard seed.

"Mother Teresa," her superiors said, "you cannot build an orphanage with three pennies...with three pennies you can't do anything."

"I know," she said, smiling, "but with God and three pennies I can do anything."

After hearing how she had the vision to start her orphanage, I think that maybe Mother Teresa just might have understood these parables better than most of us.  Or maybe she was just good at solving riddles.  Or maybe she would have understood what Jesus meant if he were to say, "sing with me, and find the key."

Remember the clue in the movie, “Jumping Jack Flash?”  Jack told Terry to "sing with me, and find the key", and Terry spent hours unsuccessfully searching through the lyrics, until she looks at the sheet music and figures out the code-key is “B-Flat”, the key in which "Jumpin' Jack Flash" is supposedly written in.  It made me think of how sometimes the answers to riddles, or parables, can be right in front of us.

"Sing with me, and find the key…" 

We don’t have to fully understand these riddles or parables for them to show us how to be Christians.  And we don't have to explain all of the mysteries of God.  We just need to plant the seed without worrying about believing it perfectly, or doing it exactly; just plant the seed, and God will help it grow.

Just plant the seeds of kindness and love, seeds of mercy and grace, seeds of patience and gentleness.
Just get out there and pull the weeds of injustice, weeds of wrong and hurt, and God will do the rest.

The beauty of the parables Jesus tells is that we, ourselves, can become one.  We don't have to understand all of the fine points of theology.  We don't have to require that others think like we think, or even live like we live.  With our lives, we can simply tell stories of God's love and justice.

The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that God's beginnings may be small, but His results are great. 
The task of the church is to look for the signs of the kingdom which may be no larger than a mustard seed; to live and love with a new perspective; and to offer that perspective in the name of God.

Jesus Christ has called you and me to be His disciples.  No matter what our situation or condition, He has something important for us to do.

Believe that, and it will change how you think and how you live in the world.
Believe that, and you will receive a new enthusiasm and excitement about life.
Believe that, and you and the world will be different.

Amen