By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
About ten years ago, the youth director on our staff told me a riddle, and then he left town on a week-long camping trip without telling me the answer. He told me the riddle, and then he said “Oh yeah, only 17% of Stanford graduates figured out this riddle, but 80% of kindergarteners knew the answer.” And then he left! I could have strangled him! But here’ the riddle:
“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?”
The answer is: “Nothing.” I knew I should have gone to Stanford!
Literally, the word parable means “a riddle.” They are stories that leave the listener with the responsibility of figuring out just what they mean. Jesus told more than 40 parables during his ministry, and he only explained one of them to his disciples, so that 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.
German theologian Helmut Thielke says that we cannot comprehend the parables of Jesus until we see ourselves in the story. Like a small child, recognizing herself in the mirror for the very first time, when we see ourselves represented in the story, then we finally get it. Then we realize that we’re the snotty younger son who ran away with his father’s fortune. We’re the Levite who passed by the beaten man on the road to Jericho. You might even be the wise man who built his house upon the rock, and I might be the fool who built my house on the sand. Once we see ourselves in the story, the story takes on a whole new meaning, and then we understand.
The second parable in our gospel lesson today is one that we need to do business with. Like many of Jesus’ parables that have to do with seeds and soil and planting and harvesting, this one tells us that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed;
With what can we compare the Kingdom of God, or what parable (what riddle?) will we use for it? It’s like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all seeds on the 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.
That’s it? That’s what the Kingdom of God is like? A mustard seed? I don’t get it. Those who take every word of the bible literally have a bit of a problem with this parable, because modern agronomy has shown that the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds. In fact, the orchid seed is as small as a speck of dust. So was Jesus stupid, or was he lying?
Or was the point of the parable 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?
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 (that’s 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; Jesus didn’t tell us. We are, at last, left to figure it out for ourselves, and maybe there is not a wrong answer.
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So with that liberty, I want to suggest one other interpretation to The Parable of the Mustard Seed on this Father’s Day 2006, and the explanation is this; could it be that the mustard seed is the child in our midst? You know how much Jesus loved little children; how he would take them on his knee and bless them, even though that practice upset his disciples. Could Jesus be using the words of a parable to remind the fathers of every age that our children are our greatest resource, and our greatest responsibility?
The Mustard Seeds are our children, and our purpose is to nurture them, encourage them, protect them and guide them, until they grow up to become the greatest of all shrubs. And we dads start out with such good intentions, but then stuff happens:
• We have to work long hours to provide for our families, so we don’t have time to play catch. Have you listened to Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” lately?
• We don’t like our kids’ music, so we buy them an iPod so they can listen to it without bothering us.
• We spend hours taking care of the lawn and the flowers and that new river birch tree in the back yard, but we ignore the “shrub” that God has given us to care for. I love the story Harmon Killebrew tells; that he and his brother were playing football with their dad in their yard, and Harmon’s mother yelled out the window “You’re tearing up the grass!” Killebrew’s father shot back “We’re not raising grass, we’re raising boys!”
Assuming for a minute that I might be right, that Jesus told The Mustard Seed Parable to serve as a timeless reminder to fathers, these are the things that I also believe to be true for dads:
• That the best way to love our children is to love and respect their mother,
• That the best gift we can give our children is a sense of safety and security as they grow up. I hope you saw the interview with Pastor Keith in Friday’s Gazette, where he said “I think dads, all dads, need to defend and protect their children.” I agree.
• I believe that it’s more important to give them our time, not our money, it’s more important to be respected by them than to be liked by them, it’s more important to encourage them in their interests than to require them to share our interests. That means, dads, that if you were a fullback but your son loves the violin, you better learn to love the violin!
• And I believe that our responsibility reaches beyond caring for our own children, and Jesus expects us to care for all children, everywhere. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said “The true test of a society is how it cares for its children.” Taken to its logical extension, it means that we cannot just be proud that OUR kids received a great education when other children receive a poor education. We cannot be satisfied that our children get fully nutritious meals when some children go to be hungry at night. We can be proud that our child has a spacious bedroom, but shouldn’t we also be concerned that 4400 children are homeless in Minnesota alone?
Well, if all of this sounds like I’m preaching, I guess I am…preaching to myself. I know that God gave two children to Marsha and me, and as we raised them, we made some good choices and some bad choices. I could have done better, but still, they’ve grown up to be good shrubs.
And so this sermon isn’t so much a “parenting report card” as it is a reminder that parenting is never really done. And our children are not just the ones who eat our food and use up all our hot water. God calls us to care for all children, everywhere. And when they flourish and grow, we can know that we nurtured them along the way. Mustard Seeds today will be the leaders of this world in no time, and God has called us to help prepare them. Do this, and it will be a “happy” Father’s Day indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen.