27 June 2007

Sermon for Year C, Proper 22: "Mustard Seeds & Mulberry Trees"

Workshopped on Thursday, June 7, 2007 as part of the Episcopal Preaching Foundation's Preaching Excellence Program -- preached on Sunday, October 7, 2007 at St. James - Fordham Manor. Lectionary readings that this sermon is based on can be found here.

Update: I preached this sermon on May 2, 2008 for the judges -- and was awarded General Theological Seminary's Bishop of Newark Preaching Prize.

In the name of Christ + Amen.

Mama Robbins was my city grandmother and Mama Collins was my country grandmother. In these two, I had the best of both worlds: I had a grandmother near by in the city where I grew up with a candy dish that never failed us: Hershey’s kisses and Bazooka bubble gum, and gumdrops at Christmas. And I had a grandmother off in the country with a barn full of hay to play in, fields of cotton and corn to chase cousins through and a grey zinc ladle - a ‘dipper’ we called it -- hanging by the sink. The clear cool well water always had a slightly sweet metallic tang when we gulped it from that dipper, gasping for breath, cheeks red from running, before we dashed out again into the green expanse of those fields.

Both women were paragons of the Christian faith -- in quite different ways. Mama Robbins was a Methodist and never missed church. There was always a copy of ‘The Upper Room,’ a sort of Methodist ‘Forward Day by Day’ in her sewing basket. Mama Robbins felt and feared all the anxieties of the city, it seemed. She would sit for hours sewing in a chair by the window. The sun would wax and wane through the Cape Cod curtains as the afternoon wore on. The ticking clock would mark the hours and periodically she would part the curtains and say to the sun drenched street, “Lord, I’m just so nervous!” or “Oh! I’ve got the swimmy head today!” and then return to her silent stitching. She seemed always to be worrying, most often about her loved ones, most of whom gave her good reason. Alcoholism was part of the family legacy and it caused my grandmother no small amount of worry. But her faith buttressed her against the strife her husband, children and grandchildren caused her. She never doubted that God would support her and would find a way to repair her oft-broken heart. Like Paul in today’s epistle, she knew the one in whom she had put her trust, and she knew that he would guard all that she had entrusted to him.

Mama Collins was a Baptist, and played the upright piano at Concord Baptist Church. Concord sat atop a red dirt hill which was hard to navigate in the pick-up truck on rainy spring days when we’d had what my grandfather called ‘a gully washer.’ The church was probably no more than 20 feet wide by 30 feet long. The piano was jammed against the wall just beyond the front pew. Mama Collins would crash out the first few bars of the hymn posted on the hymn board, and then she would turn to us over her right shoulder -- eyes wide, mouth wider -- and with a sharp, audible gasp of breath, and a nod of her head, give us our cue to begin singing. Mama Collins might miss a Sunday if there was cooking to do or the fruits of her garden to be ‘put up’ for the winter. If she wasn’t there on a particular Sunday another grandmother with a late Victorian girl’s education (which, of course, included piano lessons) would play the piano or the congregation would sing the so well known hymns a capella. Her life was tied to the seasons, and her faith was mingled with the red dirt of the earth. It had always and would always sustain her and it would always live in her, and in her children, and now lives in me.

How is it that faith comes to us? How does it grow in us? Who plants the seed? How is it nurtured and brought to fruition? For me, faith was drunk in from a zinc dipper of cool well water. It was prayed for in prayers that accompanied tens of thousands of stitches. I am so lucky, so blessed, for like Paul in our epistle, I am able “to worship God with a clear conscience,” in no small part because “my ancestors did.” And so, I think, are we all. When we gather around the pulpit to hear the Word of God proclaimed, when we come to the table that is set for us to feed of the fruits of the earth that will soon be sanctified for us, we join the throngs of believers that have gone before us.

We share the faith of millions and millions of Christians. We share the faith of martyrs and prophets and apostles. We share the faith of Peter and Paul, and of Timothy and his grandmother Lois, and his mother Eunice as we heard in today’s epistle. We share the faith of Billy Graham and Pope Benedict the 16th, of Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori and Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria. We share the faith of Mama Collins and Mama Robbins.

But we know, each of us, in different ways and in different times, what it is like to cry aloud like Habakkuk: “Why do you make me to look upon trouble and wrong-doing? O, Lord, how long shall I cry: Help -- and you will not listen? Violence -- and you will not save?”

Sometimes our faith is very much like the mustard seed. A mustard seed is the smallest of seeds, it is so tiny. I helped Mama Collins plant them in her garden and I was amazed that anything so small could survive in the mud and muck. She would warn me, “Just two or three now! They’ll come up, don’t worry!” And sure enough, they would -- yielding huge bushes of the bitter greens that she would stew for hours on the stove with a bit of pork and serve with a little hot pepper vinegar. So tiny, the mustard seed, in dim light -- or in hard times -- you might not even be able to see it at all. But small amounts of faith, even the tiniest dot of it, can, as our gospel says, “uproot the tall and mighty mulberry tree and hurl it into the sea.”

According to Jesus, the faith that can move mountains and mulberry trees comes in the smallest, tiniest grains. And that goes against the grain of our capitalistic, consumerist culture in which more is better and bigger is better and too much is not enough. It is in smallness that the miraculous is found. The smallest seed can contain a forest of faith. But it can be so difficult to know it at times. It can be so difficult to access it. For me, it can be so difficult to look into my own troubled heart and worried mind and find the mustard seed of faith amidst the fears and unfulfilled hopes, among the doubts and disappointments, alongside the hurts and the losses.

But even at such times -- maybe especially at such times -- I know that I am not alone. And neither are you. I am “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” -- and so are you. I am part of a long, long history of belief, contentious as it has been -- and still is. Nonetheless, it has survived in the hearts of millions of Christians-- Mama Robbins and Mama Collins to name but two.

That is why I come to church, that’s why I cling to a community of believers. Others may be able to go it alone like the desert fathers and mothers, casting themselves adrift in a sea of sand to live alone in mystic communication with the risen Christ. Not me. I need you. I need you and all your grandmothers and grandfathers. I need a communion tied together by word and sacrament and common prayer. I need every one of our ancestors in faith -- martyrs, prophets and apostles, sinners and saints alike. It is when I see you uprooting mulberry trees that I remember that there’s a mustard seed there somewhere in my heart. That is just as powerful, just as mighty as the faith of millions of Christians on earth and in heaven -- Mama Collins and Mama Robbins, to name but two.



Derek said...

Mark, I loved this sermon! Maybe because I, too, had a Methodist grandmother (she didn't sew, but she could be a worrier) and a Baptist grandmother (who did sew, and knit, and crochet) who played the piano for her little country chapel. But also because it ties together so much for those of us who inherited a faith and therefore had to find our own way through it before we were even aware of ourselves. Just as the fish is the last creature to discover the existence of water, some of us have had to discover the baptismal waters we've been swimming in since before we can remember, which has had its own deep joys and revelations.

Happy summer!

barry said...

how do you remember all these details? hell, i was there and dont remember them. but then i have always taken life as it comes just day by day. maybe some day they will bury me in that cool Mississippi (hill country) dirt and i can hear Mama Collins play that piano again. your brother, the MAJOR.

Lynne said...

That was lovely. I did not realize until reading this that my hankering for Bazooka bubble gum (I literally had to stop myself from buying some on Sunday afternoon at the drugstore.) came from Mama Robbins. We should be so thankful for our wonderful, screwed-up families from which we could learn and grow. As a teenager when I began understanding faith for myself, I actually had some resentment about my Methodist upbringing (because you know that every time she went to church, I went with her.) As I've gotten older I realize that God used both of my grandmothers to plant that "mustard seed" of faith in me. Thanks for sending this to me.