Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Growing Strong in Faith
Planted Deep, Growing Strong, Reaching Wide, a three-week stewardship sermon series on the slogan of this congregation.
Week 2 of 3, preached October 17, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
Its week two of a three-week sermon series we are calling, “Planted Deep, Growing Strong, Reaching Wide.” That is a slogan of this church, and reminds us what we confess as the mission of this church. We believe we were planted deep, right here by God, to joyfully praise an ever-creating God. We commit to growing strong in faith, and following Jesus of Nazareth. And by Holy Spirit’s help, we will always be reaching wide in partnership with all who choose peace.
Last week, Rev. Caitlan reminded us we are planted deep in praise. She invited us to keep God and God’s purposes at our center, when we are grateful and when we struggle. This week, we remind ourselves to keep growing stronger in faith. Let’s listen for the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Mark 4:26-41
26 Jesus also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise, night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow. The person does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once the person goes in with a sickle, because (he knothe harvest has come.”
30 Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 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.”
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
35 On that (same) day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with them. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into their boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Be quiet, Be still.” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Sermon Growing Strong in Faith
They called Jesus rabbi. Rabbi means teacher. Jesus spends lots of time teaching. He teaches in synagogues, fields, side streets, and busy cities. Jesus teaches his family, his best friends, and complete strangers. Jesus teaches those who seek him out, and those who just happen to be within earshot. Jesus teaches Jews and Gentiles, males and females, young and old, wealthy and poor, slave and free. Would you agree that one of Jesus’ primary roles, in the limited years he spent with us in the flesh, was as a teacher?
As a teacher, Jesus had several favorite subjects. He loved to teach about scripture. He quoted scripture, and read from scripture in the synagogues. He helped those who were confused by scripture, and corrected those who misused scripture against others, or against him. Jesus reexplained and often redefined the commandments of God. Yes, Jesus loved to teach from and about the scriptures, even when the people didn’t understand or like or agree with his teachings.
Another topic Jesus often taught, though I doubt he loved teaching about, was money. Sometimes he would talk about actual money. Other times, he would teach about the things we want money for… more possessions or wealth, more power or fame. People like money and the things it can buy, so I bet most people with money or wanting more money were not very excited to hear Jesus’ lessons about money, that it cannot buy any of the good stuff, and that it even gets in the way. But he still taught about it quite often, even if some people didn’t want him too or like it when he did.
A third topic, and his favorite subject to teach was… what? What would you guess?
Yes, Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven more than any other topic.
Today, Jesus tells two parables about the kingdom of God. In the first one, the kingdom is like a person who scatters seed. All the person does is scatter it. But somehow, creation itself takes that seed and grows something from it. From seed to root to first sprout to stalk to fruit, the tiniest effort of sowing the seed is somehow amplified by God’s creation into an abundant harvest.
Around here, farmers measure and manage every little detail of their operation to maximize the harvest, and thus the profit. But behind all those calculations and science is the miracle that God’s creation is designed to grow abundance from the tiniest little beginnings, that God’s creation is designed to take the effort of so few, and with patience, produce enough to feed so many.
Jesus wants us to learn this is how God’s creation, God’s community really works. Our smallest efforts to do good for the whole always matter and will grow fruit, even if we aren’t sure how.
In the second parable, Jesus uses another seed metaphor. The kingdom of God is itself like a seed. In fact, the Kingdom of God is like the tiniest of seeds. It looks so small and fragile when we look at it, almost ridiculous. But when sown, it grows into the greatest of shrubs that extends its branches wide and gives a safe resting place for so many others in creation.
This time, the kingdom of God is the tiniest little idea, the smallest, silliest seed that gets planted somehow, not even by our own efforts sometimes, and yet it grows to be a safe home for a wide community of creation.
Jesus wants us to learn and have faith this is how the Kingdom of God really is. It may look small and fragile, even ridiculous, but it is growing and will give safe shelter to all God’s creatures.
I wonder what those disciples felt at the end of their lesson. I wonder if they felt the tension, or the challenge, between what they had seen about kingdoms, and what Jesus was teaching them to believe. When they looked around, they say wealthy Romans and slaves, citizens of Rome with privilege and outsiders without, they saw how money moved from the poorest to the wealthiest in interest rates and taxes, and I wonder, if they could believe Jesus’ lesson about how community could be, will be, already is in God’s kingdom. The disciples could easily see how kingdoms work, and they didn’t look like the Kingdom of God Jesus keeps teaching them to believe and trust.
They hop into a boat and head out together. They are going to the other side. Sometimes we sit with Jesus to learn, to be taught, to remember. Then, Jesus will stop teaching and take us over to the other side, where we can practice what we have learned. They get in the boat together with Jesus. Not everyone does. Some stay behind to keep studying. Some are in the boat with Jesus. Some are in other boats nearby. Then a storm comes.
“Rabbi, don’t you care? We aren’t going to make it!”
In the Greek, Jesus only says two words. They are Imperatives, direct commands. He puts on his best teacher voice and barks at the whirlwind and the waves. QUIET! STILL! As in be quiet, be still. Then he turns to the students in the boat with him and asks them, asks us, “Why are you still afraid? Do you still not have any faith?”
At a former church, I had a member one time tell me, with a bit of frustration, he didn’t really like it when I taught about the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of heaven. He didn’t understand why it came up so much in preaching. He explained to me, in all his years growing up in Sunday school and church, he hadn’t heard anyone teach or preach about the Kingdom so much.
I wondered what that said about the wider church, that a man in his 70s had spent a lifetime in church and hadn’t been taught about Jesus’ favorite subject. I sipped the coffee he made for me and listened to his critique and asked a few questions to make sure I understood.
He was telling me that, in his experience, talk about Kingdom of God is a problem in church. First, when we talk about God’s Kingdom in church, we lift up the differences between the way things are (or appear to be), and the way things God supposedly wants them to be. It was his belief people come to church for comfort, reassurance, and don’t feel comforted and reassured by lessons about God’s Kingdom. Instead, we feel tension, challenge, even guilt. He thought people wanted to go home from church feeling better, and he felt talk about God’s Kingdom made people feel worse.
Second, he didn’t think people in church agreed on what God’s Kingdom would really look like on earth. He thought the more we talk about and discuss what the Kingdom of God COULD be like, MIGHT be like, all we will do is create argument and disagreement in church. He thought people wanted to come to church for friendship and community, and that’s only possible if we agree, or if we agree not to discuss where we disagree.
To him, the Kingdom of God wasn’t good news.
I have compassion for that perspective. I remember the years when I went to church as a visitor or member, not a pastor, and I struggled when my pastors would teach what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God. Sometimes, those teachings challenged the way I was living my life or pursuing my career. Sometimes, those teachings about kingdom challenged the way I was spending my time, or the way Jill and I used monies. Sometimes, those teachings about God’s grand community didn’t match my preferred sense of fairness or common sense. And I remember feeling those feelings of tension, challenge, or even guilt sometimes at church. But for whatever reason, Jill kept going, and the boys and I kept going with her…
I’m not sure why. Probably because it is the shortest of the Gospels. But one day, way back then, somewhere in the late 1990s, I read the gospel of Mark, beginning to end in one sitting. I think I was on a plane. And there it was… the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of heaven, over and over again. Chapter after chapter, Jesus tenaciously uses a diversity of metaphors and parables to help those he is teaching understand one thing, one BIG thing, what the Kingdom of God IS like, not just what it WILL BE like someday when we die, but what it IS like, already, and how it IS among us here and now, in him, and how hard it is for the wealthy to grasp it, and how easily a child can see it, and how close we are to it when we obey God’s commandments, how it would be better to throw away one of our own eyes and see the kingdom than to keep both and never see it.
The teacher, Rabbi Jesus, desperately wanted, wants his disciples, wants us all, wanted me to see and believe, grow stronger every day in my understanding and faith in the reality and beauty of the kingdom of God. He spends all this time teaching us about the Kingdom of God, so when get in the boat and go out to the other side, to the outside, and the storms come, we will not lose faith.
May all glory and honor, now and forever, be to God and God alone. Amen.
At the very beginning of Mark, Jesus is baptized and is tempted in the wilderness. John is arrested. Then Jesus begins proclaiming anyway the Good News, that “The time is at hand. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent. Have faith in this good news.”
And now, blessing laughter and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the world turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.