“Be like the Mustard Seed” Colchester Federated Church, July 30, 2017, (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52) Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Americans seem to love underdog stories.  Stories about people who are least likely to win.  Stories about people who deal with adversity or come from disadvantage.  We’re drawn to them.  The unlikely story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger Jr. is one such underdog tale made into a classic football movie.  Now Rudy has this dream to play football for Notre Dame—he doesn’t think he’ll start, let alone be a superstar athlete.  He just wants to put on that Fighting Irish uniform and be on the football field with the team for at least one play during the regular season.  Rudy comes from a working-class family where his own father thinks his dream to play football for Notre Dame is ridiculous.  What Rudy has going for him is perseverance, a big heart, and just plain grit.

Rudy doesn’t even have good enough grades to attend Notre Dame initially.  He lands at Holy Cross across the street and befriends a priest who offers him encouragement when everyone else thinks he’s just crazy.  Rudy eventually gets into Notre Dame and tries out for the football team.  He gets assigned to the practice team where he’s battered and bruised to help the linemen get ready for those big Saturday games.  People can’t help but notice that this kid may not be much to look at, but he sure has heart.  He finally gets to don the Fighting Irish uniform and play in the last game his senior year to cheers of “Rudy!” coming from the packed stadium.  In real life, Rudy was on the field for three plays, did indeed sack the quarterback from Georgia Tech, and was one of the only players in Notre Dame history carried off the field by his teammates.  It’s no wonder that friends of mine on our Wadsworth High School football team would mention Rudy with this wistful, goofy look on their faces!

I mean, what’s not to love about underdog stories, especially when an unlikely hero like Rudy wins in the end?  Yes, they can be a little predictable.  Yes, you’ve heard or seen them before and probably will again.  Yes, they sometimes idealize sacrifice and hardships, glossing over all the hard stuff one has to overcome to get to the victory.  Yet, they speak to the human condition in unique ways.  Especially when we find ourselves backed into a corner or up against tough odds.  Underdog stories give us hope.

Jesus of Nazareth was an underdog—coming from a poor family in the middle of nowhere in the region of Galilee.  Jesus was most likely a day laborer of some sort before he hung out with John the Baptist and began his own movement of Jewish reform.  Jesus taught people who didn’t have a whole lot going for them either—people who struggled to put food on the table, care for sick relatives, or sought healing for themselves.  People who others were quick to label as sinners and dismiss outright.  These folks who followed Jesus were the salt of the earth.  There’s a reason that the Lord’s Prayer says, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  People in Jesus’ day asked God for help with daily sustenance, daily bread if you will.  That’s why Jesus taught his followers the prayer that we still say every week, to give a little bit of hope to the underdog even if things seem bleak.  To remember that we rely on God.  At the end of the day, people in Jesus’ time were struggling to understand how God could possibly be at work among them when life was just so hard.  Jesus showed them God’s compassion.

Now Jesus used his actions to embody compassion and was known far and wide as a healer.  And Jesus taught using parables—these stories we’ve been hearing over the last several weeks from Matthew’s Gospel that make comparisons between everyday objects and ordinary experiences and eternal, transcendent realities.[1]  In today’s text Jesus makes several comparisons to the kingdom of heaven.  This kingdom he was working for in his ministry with us.  This kingdom where humans would become passionate about what God’s passionate about.  Think of Micah 6:8—what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.  Justice.  Kindness.  Humility.  Love.  These are the values that Jesus didn’t just talk about but embodied due to his concern for the destitute of society.  His values are kingdom values, and it’s worth exploring all the ways Jesus tried to explain kingdom values to his followers.

Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast mixed in with flour so that it becomes leavened.  Jesus gave an encouraging word.  Those committed to following Jesus may sometimes wonder if our efforts of witness are impactful in the world.  Yet we can rest assured that this work is of ultimate importance.  Because God has a significant outcome in store for all of creation even though right now we see in a mirror dimly.  Something good is happening when we live into Jesus’ teachings of compassion.

Jesus teaches that the joy we feel when we discover the kingdom is like the joy of finding that hidden treasure in a field.  We can’t help but respond.  For finding this treasure is due to the grace of God.  We may experience God showing up unexpectedly, and our lives are transformed.  Though the kingdom is something that we may well stumble upon by accident as opposed to seeking high and low for it.  We show up, we pay attention, and we see where God has to lead us.

And there’s more!  Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of an especially fine pearl.  When the merchant finds that pearl, he goes and sells everything he has to buy it.  There are some people who seem to stumble upon the kingdom of heaven like the one who discovered treasure hidden in the field.  Others are earnestly committed to finding ultimate meaning in their lives.  Those folks may spend years of study, go on pilgrimages, learn from great teachers and scholars in order to find ultimate meaning, to find God.  Here Jesus says in this parable that this earnest path of seeking is good too.  When we discover what we’ve been looking for, we’re willing to make some pretty drastic changes in our lives in order to accept the gift.

Or recall that the kingdom of heaven is like a net that’s thrown into the sea and catches fish of every kind so that the net overflows.  The work of evangelism is like casting that net into the sea and bringing in fish of every kind to hear about God’s love.

Finally and perhaps most famously, Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed—one of the smallest seeds.  But plant that tiny seed and it can become the greatest of all shrubs so that even birds can nest in its shade.  This seed will sprout and grow with God’s help.  We may be starting off small, even insignificant, an underdog.  But we can blossom and provide shelter for those who need compassion.  Words of hope, words of comfort in the face of uncertainty.  A reminder that if we’re working to help God create a just world, we will bear fruit.  We just need to have a little bit of faith.

Here’s how I’ve seen this yearning for a little bit of faith play out in the world.  Nearly a year ago, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, arguably the holiest site in Christianity where we commemorate the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  One can sense people yearning for that little bit of faith inside the walls of the church.  Under a mandate from 1852 the care of the church is shared by no less than six Christian denominations—the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syriac Orthodox churches.  Perhaps not such a crazy idea for a Federated Church like ours.  But these denominations don’t come together often, for the church itself is divided into sections with a set of complicated rules that mandate how the denominations travel through each section of the church on given days.  Fistfights have even been known to break out inside the church if one crosses into another’s territory.  So imagine this huge church where liturgy is being read, prayers are being prayed, songs are being sung, processions are being walked simultaneously as crowds of Christian pilgrims do our best to navigate the holy chaos.  And if you take too long to venerate at the rock of Golgotha or inside the room of the Tomb itself, you will have priests yelling to move along in multiple languages.  Even banging on altars to get the point across yelling in Arabic for instance, “Yalla! Yalla!” roughly translated as come on, hurry up!

Now our group was given some time on our own to explore.  And after a while I went back to this stone slab at the entrance.  This stone supposedly marks the spot where Jesus’ body was laid after he was crucified and before he was placed in the tomb.  Our guide shared that Christians often venerate the stone in unusual ways.  If someone had just bought a souvenir in the marketplace outside they will lay that souvenir on the stone to get charged up with holiness.  Parents will plop their young children down for a blessing.  People will be sprawled out on the stone—you get the idea.  Another group member was there near me, and he was moved to tears contemplating Christ laid out on that stone.

As for me, I studied the people and how they used the stone to observe their faith.  Local Christians seemed to come to that stone too, it wasn’t just pilgrims from afar.  Perhaps because the entrance of the church is cool and gets you out of the stifling sun for a minute.  Perhaps because you can be inside the Holy Sepulchre without plunging into the chaos.  Perhaps because you can be charged up with holiness and then move on with your day—tending your shop, playing with your children, preparing a meal for your family.

Now it would be easy to observe these practices and look down upon them.  It would be easy to think it’s misguided or just a waste of time to charge oneself up with holiness from a stone slab.  But the look on peoples’ faces during and after venerating that stone where Jesus’ body might have been laid—the look was joy.  A joy more pure than I had seen in so long.  People would leave after touching that stone or placing an object atop that stone with their faces almost glowing.  Maybe it’s because the practice (as odd as it may seem) helped them have that little bit of faith, that faith as small as a mustard seed that can defy the odds or even change lives.  What helps us keep a little bit of faith?  If we’ve lost it, how do we find it again?  If we pay attention, how may God show up?  Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] Exposition of Parables from Arland Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary.