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Seeds of Faith

Sermon - 6/18/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 4:30-41

30 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

Told on a number of occasions that the amount of food that she had placed on her plate was  too much, a little girl standing in line at a church ice cream social when asked how much ice cream she would like responded, "Too much!"  Faith is kind of like that ice cream, especially if it is my favorite, chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.  You can never get too much. 

I have heard it all the time, I suspect you have to, from people who say, "if I only had the faith, if I just had a little more faith."  A construction crew was digging a ditch for a new building when they came across what appeared to be a high-voltage power line directly in their path.  They called the electrician over and said, “Look we have this problem, we have to dig this ditch and here is this power line in our way.  What shall we do?”  The electrician looked at and said, “That is no problem, there is no power in that line, just cut it.” 

They asked, “Are you sure?”

He said, “Absolutely.” 

The foreman of the job then him handed a pair of cable cutters and said, “OK, you cut it.”

The electrician hesitated for a moment and said, “Well, I'm not that sure.”

We all have doubts, those times when we are not sure if our faith is strong enough to get us through, when our boat is tossed about by the waves of doubt and the wind of chaos, when we fear sinking in a stormy sea of personal turmoil.  Perhaps we are faced with difficulty at home and we are not sure we have the faith to stick it out.  Or we have problems on the job and we don't know if we have what it takes to do it.  Or maybe we are facing a loss of someone important in our lives and we are not sure if we have enough faith to get us through that crisis.  Or it could be any other personal crisis that causes us to doubt our ability to go on.

In my 20 plus years of full-time pastoral ministry I have not seen it all but I have seen a good deal.  I have seen parents who have lost their children to suicide or murder.  I saw a 15 year-old girl left brain dead in a hospital and her only relative was her 18 year-old brother who was being asked by the hospital to make a decision about her life support.  Mothers who were informed that they were HIV positive and fathers that they had full-blown AIDS.  People with hard luck stories and personal tragedies of all kinds. 

A college student, a stranger to me who came into the church seeking a place to pray because she was about to go for an abortion.  People who have endured unspeakable acts of shame and who have faced unbearable grief, including in my own family.  And not one, not one, said to me that they had too much faith.  Not one said they couldn't use a little more faith.  And yet somehow they survived, wounded, scarred deeply but survived. 

I wonder, how do we do that?  Where does that faith come from?  Think about the people in the boat with Jesus in this morning's text.  This was not a crew of highly trained Navy seals.  They were not cream of the crop athletes.  There was not a CEO, bank president, brain surgeon or rocket scientist among them.  They were just ordinary people trying to survive in a rough world.  Invited to follow a charismatic teacher and healer, they are on the ride of their lives. Think of what these disciples had to face, of what was going to be asked of them in the days and years ahead.  Common, ordinary people entrusted with the incredible good news of God to the world and they would be the only thing Jesus left behind.  Totally up to them.  Would they have the faith?

William Watley, pastor of a large, African Methodist Episcopal church in New Jersey, spoke a few years ago at a gathering of Disciple leaders, a church-wide planning conference.  He said, "I know that many preachers are not spell binders and that we have choirs that could never sing outside the church building... But don't ever underestimate just ordinary people, ordinary people who are touched by that extra-ordinary power who do extraordinary things.  We dare not underestimate that extraordinary power that raised Jesus from the dead."

We are not talking about supernatural power of moving mountains or changing the course of hurricanes or going to the Rose Bowl more than once every 38 years or any other supernatural deed.  We are not talking about the kind of thing we read once in a while in the newspapers, about some miraculous phenomena.  In 1988 it was reported that the Virgin Mary appeared in a charismatic Catholic church in Lubbock, TX.  Thousands of people flocked to see this incredible apparition and some saw it, but most did not.  But Maxine Sharpy of Shreveport, Louisiana, had definite proof that had been silver and now had been turned to gold by the Virgin, according to Sharpy.  Martin Marty, columnist for the Christian Century, wrote:  "Now we find out how in Sharpy's eyes Mary occupied herself.  The hungry of Ethiopia do not get fed.  The suffering die in Mother Teresa's arms.  AIDS spreads.  Drought persists. And when God wants to work a miracle to inspire faith, apparitions of Mary turn silver rosary chains to gold."

That is not to say that miracles do not occur, but rather it does question our understanding of what those miracles are. The problem is not our lack of faith in miracles.  The problem is our lack of faith in ourselves.  "Have you no faith?" asks Jesus.  When people have faith, any faith, they do extraordinary, miraculous things.  Like those first disciples, who single handedly brought the good news to the world.  Or like Maria Garcia, who I am sure must be one of those disciples.  Maria had an encounter with a serious illness that nearly killed her in 1973.  As a result of that experience, recommitted her life to God and decided to go to Haiti, to bring some good news to that impoverished country.  She ended up in the northwest peninsula of Haiti where there are no roads, no water, no electricity, no schools, no agriculture.  Primitive buildings at best, and on her vacation time established in 15 years 8 new congregations now affiliated with the Disciples of Christ with a combined membership of 600 people. 

In each of those congregations there is a primary school with over a thousand students combined.  In each of those congregations there are development programs to teach people how to use their skills of weaving and sowing to bring in some outside income, how to raise rabbits, how to start a garden, how to dig wells.  For those people, Maria Garcia is the good news.  She has brought them hope of a new life that has changed their lives.  An ordinary citizen with extraordinary power.  With faith we can do those kind of extraordinary, miraculous, outrageous things, as outrageous as calming storms, like launching new missions,  building new homes for low income families, clothing people in need, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry.

Two weeks ago we heard Ali Nebot, one of the missionaries supported by our offerings and who serves the church in Puerto Rico, tell us about the church’s victory in Vieques, a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico.  Puerto Rico, you may recall, became part of the United States after the Spanish-American War.  During WWII, Congress approved legislation turning over more than 2/3 of Vieques to the US Navy.  Thousands of people were displaced. The west end of the island was converted into a naval base and the east end into a bombing range. As part of the war effort, it was one of those things you just had to do.  But after the war, sentiments began to change.  Local protests against the actions of the Navy went unheeded. With a population of only 8,000, Vieques was hardly a blip on anyone’s radar. Then in the 90s, Puerto Rican churches began to get involved.  Mainline protestant churches, Catholic churches, Pentecostal churches, liberal and conservative churches—groups that seldom worked together, stood together with their brothers and sisters on Vieques.  When the church stood together, Ali told us, and with one voice demanded justice for the citizens of Vieques, something changed.  The U.S. government took notice and in 2003 returned the island to local control.  It was the church, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, said Ali, that made the difference.

Jesus used a mustard seed to describe the power of faith.  His listeners must have thought it was some kind of joke.  A mustard seed didn’t produce any big, enormous tree.  It didn’t produce volumes of food one could put on the table.  It produced a little, scraggly bush as common as a weed.  But you see, it is precisely that commonness, the pervasive, everyday ordinariness of  that little bush spread across the landscape like blackberry vines along the banks of  the Willamette which gives it its Kingdom of God quality. Our calling, our mission is to live out Jesus' vision of that community of God--to be that seed which spreads its constantly growing vines throughout the countryside.

A week ago Saturday 50 of us met to talk about the priorities of the congregation.  We dreamed of all the things we’d like to do.  We narrowed a list of 50 or 60 great ideas down to a dozen.  Then we narrowed those down further.  The number one priority which emerged in that group by a landslide was to grow that mustard seed, to reach out to our community to find others, lots of others, who are searching for that kind of community of God and presence of the Spirit of life.  People in need of hope and transformation, such as we find in the Good News of the Christ.  People who share our passion for justice and peace. People who believe we need to do more as a society to care for God’s neglected earth and God’s abandoned children. People who gave up on the church years ago because it no longer seemed relevant in this post-modern world.

In the 13th century a church in Northern England was built using the stones the Romans had left from a wall they had build to hold out the Scots and other undesirables. They brought in the best architect they could find who had designed several cathedrals in Europe.  He presented a design to them of a high arched roof with no columns.  When they saw the design, they said, that's not possible.  The roof surely will cave in.  We want columns.  He insisted that it was possible, that he had done it elsewhere.  But they had not seen any of his other works and they did not believe it could be done.  They wanted columns so he put in columns.  What could he do?  You know how building committees are.  800 years that church has stood, columns and all, until some archaeologist wanted to see what was under the church.  Nothing to do with the structure.  Dug up some flag stones and they were amazed.  They discovered that the columns were not attached  to the floor.  For 800 years people thought the columns were holding up the ceiling and what they discovered was that the ceiling was holding up the columns.

We sometimes speak of pillars of faith  in the church, you know, those people, who like Atlas, hold the church on their shoulders.  People like Jessie Bork, Ronald Osborn, the Hylands and the many other pillars of this congregation.  But the true pillars of faith are not those who by their strength hold up the church but those who know that they hang from the heavens and are sustained by God.  How much does it take to have that kind of faith in God?  How much to calm the storms and steady the boat?  How much to light the world and build the kingdom?  It would have to take a lot, wouldn't it? 

It would take a huge amount of faith to accomplish the things we would like to do here at FCC.  It would take an enormous amount to follow the dreams we all have for our lives.  And Jesus said, the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a little tiny seed.  That is all it takes.  Einstein taught us that the energy contained in all matter, every single molecule, every atom, is equal to its mass times the speed of light squared.  That is a whole lot of energy all around us.  It is everywhere, in everything, even us.  You see what Jesus is saying to us?  The power of God is like that.  The seeds of God's realm are there, they are there in you, and you, and you, and me.   Planted by God in each of us to do great, wonderful, miraculous things.  

All the faith we need has been given to us in a little seed.  Go, plant your seed, disciples of Jesus, and watch it grow.


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