Our Sunday morning service was filled good spirit and amazing members of the Calvary community.
Rev. John Weems explored “Possibilities . . .”
What is holding you back? Jesus said challenged his followers, promising that even faith the size of a tiny mustard seed “when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs.”
He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet 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.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
This is an exciting time of year, rife with possibilities.
From nursery school to graduate school to people transitioning into retirement, many among you here today are getting ready to venture into some form of the great unknown. We have people who are building businesses, selling businesses, and others simply hoping to work somewhere or find a place to live. Some of you are wondering if you will possibly have enough money to make ends meet for however long you live. Others have endured sleepless nights wondering whether your child or grandchild’s choice of school will lead to a fruitful life. And still others are feeling stuck in a rut in work and/or relationships.
The variables can feel overwhelming.
Today’s Scripture lesson offers hope for all of us.
I must warn you, however, that the seeds of hope don’t always grow up exactly as we imagine.
Today’s Scripture reading actually contains two distinct, but related parables.
Jesus first tells the story of the “growing seed.” This part of the reading is often lost in the tale of the mustard seed. Sometimes Christians tell each other to “just have faith” during difficult times. Intentional or not, we can dismiss genuine concern and belittle a person going through struggles for not even having faith the size of a mustard seed. The assumption is that faith always requires action on our part. This is in line with Matthew 17:20, “ . . . if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
The parable of the growing seed features a key insight with a different angle. I firmly believe that a fruitful faith leads to action and that we have great power to have an impact on the needs of the world. That said, Christianity isn’t merely some self-help program. If we were capable of doing it all on our own, Jesus wouldn’t have needed to come to earth at all.
In the growing seed parable, Biblical scholar Lamar Williamson Jr., draws our attention to the phrase “produces of itself.” Williamson explains that the Greek word here is automatē. Sound familiar? Scattered seeds aren’t responsible for bearing their own fruit! Williamson argues:
“The parable is significant whenever and wherever we Christians take ourselves and our efforts too seriously, seeking by our plans and programs to ‘bring in the kingdom of God.’ Against such arrogant self-importance stands ‘of itself’ (automatē), a subtle allusion to God’s hidden presence and power.”
Sometimes even when we aren’t actively exhibiting any faith at all, God is at work in ways we cannot imagine.
One of those times for me came when I was preparing to attend college and there was one major problem. I was set on a rather expensive private school in Los Angeles affectionately known as the University of Spoiled Children. I’ve shared with you before that things did work out, and that had I not attended and met the one-and-only Colleen, now my wife of 19 years, I doubt I would have entered ministry.
I haven’t told you what was going on behind the scenes and how it almost didn’t happen.
When my family totaled scholarships I had earned and the nominal financial aid package offered, there was still a major gap. My parents were and are owners of a bowling center. They were willing to do everything in their power to help, but had limited means. The situation looked bleak.
So I did the next most logical thing I’m sure any of you would have done.
I went to sell bowling score-sheet advertising in small towns in Idaho and Montana. My mom and dad, to whom I am eternally grateful for thinking in creative ways about how to make ends meet, set me up with a contact who owned a company that had cornered the market on score-sheets. For those who haven’t bowled or have only been in centers with those new-fangled computer-scoring systems, score sheets were these pieces of plastic you placed on an overhead projector. You then used a pencil to manually write your score, which was actually quite helpful for learning basic math. These sheets of plastic had small ads on them.
I drove from town to town in my 1981 Camaro, staying in cheap motels and cold calling small business owners. I sold ads to beauty salon owners, restaurants, and even a taxidermist. I made good money over a three-month period, but it still wasn’t enough for school. On one particular day, I was sitting in a motel room in Montana speaking with a financial aid officer with USC. I asked questions about how my offer had been calculated and explained that my family was doing everything possible.
“I’m sorry sir, you’ll have to call your Congressman,” the financial aid guy grumbled as he ended our phone call.
I was crushed. I sat staring at the very ugly pastel print on the motel wall.
Perhaps my destiny wasn’t to go to Journalism School, then Law School, then become an anchor/media mogul/Mercedes AMG SL 550 driver as I had planned.
I made one more call, to the Director of the School of Journalism. I didn’t even expect anyone to answer the phone, but Debra did. Not only did she answer the phone, she listened to my whole story, right up to the part where the guy told me to go call Congress.
“Let me do some checking, and get back to you,” Debra said.
We all know what that usually means.
Low and behold, the phone rang back that very afternoon.
“I have a friend in the financial aid office,” Debra explained. “He went through your information and found out that they made a mistake. Financial aid double counted your parents’ assets.”
Debra explained that I would qualify for additional aid, and I was ecstatic . . . until I ran the new numbers and found out that it still wasn’t enough.
I told my boss, Mr. Bowling Advertising.
He told me about how he helped pay for his kids’ college.
While I was impressed by his generosity, that didn’t exactly help.
“And I’d like to help you, too,” he said. “Someday when you get established, you can pay me back,” he said.
I was stunned in the best possible way.
A short while later, my parents were driving through the desert between Idaho and Los Angeles, terrified to drop off their son.
I was so filled with gratitude, I sent an engraved gold pen set for Mr. Bowling Advertising, thanking him for his extraordinary generosity. Upon arrival in my dorm room for Welcome Week, I spoke with him by phone. I told him how much I needed for the semester. He said he would send a check via FedEx right away . . .
One day passed . . . then another . . . then a week . . . then two.
I called the same number I had been calling all summer to report sales progress.
He was always very responsive, but . . . I’m still waiting for that call.
I was not especially religious at that time and don’t recall actively seeking God’s direction or prayer.
Now four weeks into school, I had a significant outstanding balance and found myself in one of the most depressing lines at the University of Southern California . . . collections. Many departments are named after prominent donors and Nobel Laureates, but not the collections department.
The representative explained that if I couldn’t pay within two weeks, I would have to withdraw. I had exhausted all other possibilities.
Dejected, I called my mom and dad. With my mom’s birthday coming up this Friday and Father’s Day next week, I have been thinking a lot about them lately.
They had wisely and prudently suggested that I look at other less expensive schools. We had sometimes stayed up until 2 am arguing about my illogical desire to attend USC.
So there I was, on other end of the phone with my dad.
I was preparing to return to Idaho, defeated.
“We’ll work it out,” my dad said.
I still don’t know exactly how they came up with the money to pay that collections bill that first semester, but it changed my life.
I do not tell you this story to point to myself as a model of faith, quite the opposite. At the time all of this had been happening, I wasn’t looking to God at all. Yet seeds that I did not actively attribute to God took root and grew—automatē—in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
And Jesus 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.” (Mark 4:30-32)
The audience Jesus was speaking to likely would have been puzzled by his discussion of the mustard seed. They would have been familiar with the words of the Prophet Ezekiel, in which God says “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar.” (Ezek 17:22) A cedar was a noble symbol of national power. The prized Lebanese Cedar was used to build Solomon’s Temple and probably Jesus’ boat.
But a mustard shrub?
Comparing the Kingdom of God to a mustard shrub represents Jesus’ sense of irony. Williamson explains:
“The parable of the mustard seed speaks of a kingdom which, for all its miraculous extension, remains lowly. Mustard is an annual plant; its perpetuation depends on renewed sowing, and its perennial promise depends on the life of the seed. It is an image which corresponds closely to the picture of the Kingdom of God in Mark: a mystery whose realization will come as a surprise; a reality whose weakness is its power.”
That is God’s way. Unlikely kings emerge to face giants. People rejected by society play pivotal roles. God’s own son enters the world in a filthy manger, rides a lowly donkey in what is supposed to be his victory parade, and suffers a humiliating death on a cross.
But that’s not the end of the story.
What happens next? Does darkness prevail, or does light shine?
Will we take a risk and make a change in our lives we know is uncomfortable?
What seeds is our Creator sowing now?
 Lamar Williamson Jr., Mark (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 98-99.
 From Biblical Archaeology, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/artifacts-and-the-bible/lebanese-cedar%E2%80%94the-prized-tree-of-ancient-woodworking/
 Williamson, 99.