One of the great blessings of being in ministry for my wife, Linda and me, is that we’ve lived in several different parts of the United States. When I was a Methodist minister, I had a parish in Jackson Center, Ohio. Once I became an Episcopalian, I served for a year at St. Boniface, Mequon, Wisconsin, as a Seminarian Assistant. After that year of seminary graduate work, I was a curate at Saint Mark’s Church in Arlington, Texas, and then later on the Rector of St. Andrew’s in Grand Prairie, Texas. After Grand Prairie, we went to Grace Church in Monroe, Louisiana, and after Monroe, we went to Sarasota, Florida, where I had my longest term as Rector, 26 years, at Church of the Redeemer. After I retired, I was Interim Rector of St. John’s Church in Tampa. And now, of course, we are at Emmanuel Memorial, where I am once again the Interim Rector.
We have loved every parish, and every parish was different in one way or another. Each of the parishes has been relatively “high“ liturgically, and each of them was a little higher after I got there!
And each of them were fairly social places. They loved the worship of the church, but they also loved getting together and enjoying a good meal and socializing.
People tell me I have a fairly healthy appetite, some might even say robust. I’m glad I do, because that makes eating pleasurable. There may be something circular in that reasoning, but I’m not going to worry about it! And I have to say that the most unusual place we lived with respect to cuisine was Louisiana. There’s a wonderful point of contact between my experience in Louisiana and the Parable of the Mustard Seed which we heard in the Gospel this morning.
When we first moved to Louisiana, I heard that all Louisiana recipes start out with the same five word sentence: “First you make a roux.” That certainly is how gumbo is made, and gumbo has an interesting history. Back when New Orleans was getting established, the wealthy families who moved there brought their French chefs with them. Many of the ingredients with which these chefs had learned to cook were not available in New Orleans, so they had to improvise, using ingredients that were native to their new surroundings. One of the ingredients they discovered was okra. They wanted to make bouillabaisse, but they had to improvise, and the new ingredient they used was okra.
Okra has an interesting history as well. That history is really the reason I’m talking about gumbo this morning. Okra isn’t native to Louisiana, but to Africa. The black women who were taken to New Orleans from Africa as slaves, hid okra seeds in their hair, so that they could plant them in their new home. The fruit of this African plant is what the New Orleans French chefs used to make a creole version of bouillabaisse called gumbo. Small okra seeds brought in faith from Africa by black slave women brought about a delicacy now known around the world. If God had chosen Louisiana for the setting of the incarnation, I’m sure we would have a parable or two about okra, rues, and gumbo.
Instead of a parable about okra seeds, what we have is one about a mustard seed. “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown, it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The things of faith may seem small, even insignificant, but actually produce a life that is richer and more abundant than anything else in life.
Our Lord may have told this parable to encourage his disciples concerning the growth of the Church. After the resurrection, as they spread the Gospel, they would encounter systematic and determined opposition. Jesus warns them that they would suffer persecution, and even martyrdom for his sake. He was encouraging his disciples not to let those who opposed them, those who are much bigger and stronger, to cause the disciples to think that their cause was hopeless. At one level, the parable of the mustard seed is a prophecy that the seed God planted in Bethlehem 2000 years ago would indeed become an organism that would reach to the ends of the earth, transforming the lives of people in countless generations.
Yet there’s another level of meaning in the parable. It’s what you and I probably think of first when we hear of the tiniest of seeds becoming the largest of plants. It has to do with our faith. It’s the tiniest of seeds because the things of faith are basically very simple. Say your prayers, read your Bible, go to church on Sunday, forgive those who wrong you, help the needy. Do the simple things of faith, things that taken separately look very small and insignificant, and eventually that faith will be the most meaningful, most fulfilling, most important aspect of your life. Furthermore, your life will become so attractive that others will find peace and refreshment just being around you, not because of any particular thing that you do, but because of who you have become. For in the process, God has made a dwelling in you.
God has a purpose for you and me in calling us to be a part of his Church. We must never think that our role in the Body of Christ is insignificant for the growth of the kingdom of God. We’re a part of the Church, and specifically, we are a part of Emmanuel Memorial, for a purpose. Through prayer and through talking with other Christians, we discern as best we can what that purpose is, and then we exercise that ministry, by the grace of God, and to the best of our ability—doing all to the glory of God.
And all the while, we continue to do the simple things of faith, for those things are what provide a foundation for an effective ministry. God wants our life of faith to be like a good gumbo, with all the ingredients working together to make for a rich, rewarding life.
We all love to hear a good speaker, an engaging talk, an inspirational message. When we come to church we want to hear a sermon that lifts us out of our everyday life and transports us to the feet of Jesus. We prefer that to be done with some humor and it's especially good if it makes us cry! And if it's memorable, well that's all the better!
All tongue in cheek aside, we want to hear the word from God that will change us, make us less self-centered and more loving, more the people God would have us to be. I suspect that we would all pretty much agree that the quality of the sermon depends on the preacher.
What I would give to have heard Jesus! I know many things that he said, of course, because his words are recorded in the accounts of the Gospel. But I know he said things that were not written down and I don't know how he said those things. How he raised or lowered his voice, how he paused before an important point, his use of gesture.
We all know of the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, but we tend to forget that that miracle happened because 5,000 men, plus women and children, walked a long way just to hear our Lord teach. What a powerful teacher and preacher he must have been when he walked this earth. Of course, they didn't always like what he had to say. He was known to make some folks angry, angry enough even to want to kill him. But that speaks of a powerful speaker as well.
Jesus certainly was aware of the expectations of his hearers. He knew the human need to be moved and to be entertained. But in one of his parables he turns the tables on them. In the parable of the sower our Lord shifts the emphasis from the preacher to the hearer. A farmer scatters seed on the ground indiscriminately. Some of the seed falls on the hard earth of the beaten path or on stony ground. That seed never has a chance to take root. Some who hear the word are too hardened by hatred to get anything out of the message.
Some of the seed falls on shallow soil, so the roots can’t go deep, and the plants die from the heat of the sun. Some hear the Word, it makes an impact but the person doesn't allow the Word to touch him where he lives.
Some seed takes root, but the plants are choked by weeds and thorns. Some hear the Word and respond, but golf, and making money, and any number of other concerns soon takes the place of faith.
And some seed falls on good soil, establishes deep roots, and flourishes, producing fruit in abundance. Some hear the Word, respond, and repent, taking the Word to heart and living according to it, and as a result, God is able to do wonderful works of mercy and justice through them.
Jesus has turned the tables ! Yes, the message is important, but the result of the teaching depends upon the quality of the hearing! Linda and I sent to see the new Mission Impossible movie last Tuesday night. In it there was an exciting car chase through the streets of Rome, driving by the colosseum, and St. Peter’s Basilica. A couple of cars even drove down the Spanish steps! It was fun watching that, because it brought back great memories of our trips to Rome.
We saw the place where St. Peter and St. Paul were imprisoned; the Pantheon, a pagan temple to all the gods built over 2,000 years ago, and later converted into a Christian church dedicated to all the saints; the catacombs, where early Christians worshipped in secret and where many were buried. On every block in the city there were magnificent churches, testimonies to the great faith and sacrifice of Christians in ages past. Everywhere we went, we were reminded of our faith. We walked on streets named for the saints. Religiouns artifacts were for sale in all of the stores. Christian icons and paintings were even found on the outside of public buildings. In other words, the seeds of faith were everywhere, wanting to take root in the lives of all passersby.
Yet, ironically, in another way that city looks just like any other city. People shoving and shouting; no one dares carry much money, and what is carried is carefully concealed, because of all the pick-pockets. Poverty abounds. For all of its beauty and for the countless testimonies of faith, Christianity still has a lot of work to do in that great city. The seeds are certainly there, but not all of the soil is receptive. The result of the message depends upon the quality of the hearer.
I have a couple of things I want to say to you concerning this parable of the sower. The first is that whenever I return to the parable of the sower, which
is really more aptly called the parable of the soils, I identify with all of the kinds of soils mentioned. There have been times in my life when I have been too hardened to hear the good news, times when I have heard the Word but not allowed it really to touch me, times when I have allowed worldly concerns to choke out all thought of Jesus, and there have been times when the soil has been good, by the grace of God. And sometimes those kinds of receptivity follow closely upon one another. Human sin is always ready to rear its ugly head. If the soil of our lives is to be truly receptive to God's Word, it is by the grace of God. So we all need to pray that God will continually make us receptive to his Word, that we might bear fruit for him.
And second, the next time you find yourself being overly critical of a sermon, ask yourself if perhaps there might be something in your life that is causing you not to hear what God is trying to tell you. Believe me, that doesn't take the burden off of the preacher, but it does recognize shared responsibility for the resultsl For remember, the result of the teaching depends upon the quality of the hearing.