Planting Seeds

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June 17, 2018. Today we welcome our interim pastor, Pastor Stephanie. She talks about her work with the Bridge ministry, relationships that have been made, and the idea of planting a seed that will grow into a great plant that provides sustenance for all.


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Well, I’ve already confounded some of you by what you should call me. So let’s just make it clear: you can call me pastor Stephanie. Or Stephanie. But some of you say you have to use the word “pastor,” so we’ll go with your comfort level. But don’t worry about my last name. It’s very difficult. It’s Dutch, with some German and French Huguenots influence in it. So it’s kind of an amalgamation of many ethnicities. It took me a while to learn how to spell it too, since I took that from my husband’s side of the family.


It’s really a pleasure to be with you this morning, and I know it’s warm for many of you so we’ll keep our our words succinct and celebrate together. I feel like I need to give a little bit of an introduction, since I’m going to be here for a while, beyond what I just already said, and that is that I just want to let you know that I really am looking forward to getting acquainted with you. I see some familiar names already, faces from places that I’ve been before with you. But I look forward to how we can serve God together in these coming months, as Christ Lutheran continues to live out the call of God to witness to the grace of God, made known through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


When I was asked to consider joining you as resident pastoral interim minister — that’s kind of the official term, but whatever, interim pastor’s fine — I was immediately interested because of my previous experiences with this congregation. You will be hearing more of them, I assure you, in future sermons. But be assured these interactions have been positive. So I readily engaged in that conversation when invited. The key connection that I have had with Christ Lutheran has been through the ministry of the Bridge, which is a joint ministry of the ELCA and the denomination to which I was ordained as a minister of word and sacrament, already alluded, to the RCA or the Reformed Church in America.


There will be more on that at another time. But the reason I can be here with you is that we are Formula of Agreement partners, as I said, and therefore we can be involved in joint ministries as brothers and sisters in Christ around one table. Some of you have already connected the dots or recognized my face as being one of the people who has participated in the Lady Gray Beads holiday boutique that you hold each fall at the Arden Mead Center, raising money for missions. I have come bringing a variety of fair trade items from the Bridge, based in New Town, and I have had the pleasure of meeting several of you there.


As you have purchased fairly traded socks or children’s sweaters or wooden carved puzzles, you have enabled artisans and farmers to have the dignity of providing food, shelter, education, and more for their families and places where they would not have had that opportunity otherwise. Thank you for your participation in furthering that mission. I mentioned this today because the ministry of the Bridge has relevance as I thought about how today’s gospel lesson is experienced in our lives.


First some background. Ten years ago, three ELCA churches in St. Charles County — Living Lord; Christ the King; and Hope, and one RCA Church, Christ’s Church (which I have served in St. Charles County) started with a small dream. We wanted to plant a ministry that could build bridges among our churches and engage people who had not been part of any church, in participating in a ministry for the common good.


So we chose to start with a small fair trade store in a new development called New Town, and from there a coffee house, and a faith community has developed. I got to thinking about what God has done through this ministry more intentionally, because June 8th of this year marked our tenth anniversary. We opened a very small fair trade store as sort of a test to see whether there would be a welcome and an affirmation of that ministry there.


I’m thankful to reflect on a number of signs of God’s kingdom presence in that ministry. Relationships have been made, and giftedness, and calling into ministries beyond the Bridge have arisen from our work there, far beyond our initial hopes. One notable thing being a young teenager who came to work with us once we started the coffee house, and she served as a barista and built bridges of conversation with others, sharing the hope that she has in Christ in her life, and the significance of why we were doing what we were doing in order to be a blessing to people. She is now a Harvard Divinity School student and she’s preparing for entrepreneurial mission service. She’s from Hope Lutheran Church originally. She herself planted another mission in South Africa when she served as a summer intern there and she called that the Bridge. So, things have arisen from small beginnings. But just in terms of the impact of fair trade purchases over the years, I think it’s safe to estimate that at least $225 thousand from the total sales (we can only figure sort of a percentage, not knowing exactly how it’s portioned out in each country). But at least that much money has made its way to farmers and artisans in places in the world where even one dollar a day makes a big impact, if that is what the increase of what people get back and it’s more than that. So many, many people, families, and communities have felt the impact of the growth that God has given to those people from those small initial seeds. The resources coming back to those communities have translated into children receiving education who would not have done so otherwise. More families fed and sheltered. More medical needs addressed. Water Supplies opened, and trafficking averted.


All of that is not to say, “Look how much we did” but “Look what God has already done from a very small start.” From one little place, with a handful of people, and we can only imagine the generational impact that can still be realized as time goes on. That is only one ministry among countless ones that could be named that at least in part illustrates the parables that Jesus uses in Mark 4 to expand our awareness of how God’s kingdom operates. It’s like a seed, a kernel that starts out small yet becomes something far more significant than we could ever have guessed.


Well, we marvel at things that we wouldn’t have expected regularly, don’t we? Someone we thought of as rather ordinary as we were growing up turns out to be a vibrant force of life and vitality as an adult, a force to be reckoned with. Or a seemingly throwaway idea during a meeting picks up steam and becomes an effective way for an organization to flourish in amazing ways. Sometimes it’s the thing we exclaim, “I didn’t see that coming.” That is one common way we express that at times a thing that we didn’t recognize as being anything of any significance will exceed our expectations in amazing ways.


Why do some things that seem small and insignificant to our way of perceiving later turn out to be far more than we could have imagined?


Of course, it is the mystery of the kingdom of God. As I tried to share in terms that a child can understand. But in reality we are all children when it comes to understanding the mystery of God’s kingdom work. Jesus spoke in parables, which literally means to cast one thing alongside another in order to make an analogy. We would often like teaching that is more of a scientific bend or in alignment with our Western way of seeking to perceive truth. But God’s kingdom is so far beyond our human understanding that at best we can only handle hints of it, intimations of what it is about. And we can never in this life master a full understanding of what God is up to all around us.


In the gospel reading today, Jesus lifts up the grace and power of God, taking a tiny seed and transforming it into a great plant that provides sustenance for all. It is at once a humbling parable and an exhilarating parable for the followers of Jesus. In God’s kingdom economy, it is not the large and mighty that bring about the most significant change. God so often chooses to use the lowly, the humble, the people who are more full of hope and trust in what God can do, than they are of their own confidence of which they can do.


We are told that Jesus said, with what can we compare the kingdom of God? Or what parable will we use for it? It’s 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 the shrubs and puts forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.


In reality the mustard seed image is about the under-the-radar nature of God’s kingdom. The day will come when the results of God’s silent, steady growth will be impressive. Meanwhile don’t be surprised if the seeds you plant look ineffective. Don’t be surprised if the witness you have to offer gets laughed at on account of being so puny. It’s the old Jack and the Beanstalk tale in some ways. Jack’s mother scorns the tiny beans he brings home from the market. They can never live off those. They’ll never amount to anything. So in anger, she hurls them out the window. Those beans were a non-starter, a mistake, a dead end right from the beginning in her mind. Except that of course (as we know the fable) they ended up sprouting into a beanstalk that went in a way clear up to heaven. Seeds that are planted in hopefulness and trust that God will use them to bring blessing yield unimaginable results. Sometimes seen and many times unseen in this life, but significant nonetheless.


In typical fashion, the gospel of Mark says a lot using only a few words. We don’t have parables here, like what we call the Prodigal Son or the Lost Sheep Lost Coin and Lost Son as in the Gospel of Luke. Many details, a full story.


So at first glance, we might primarily see that Mark affirms things people have already learned about God’s reign. That something very small will eventually morph into something much larger. That is helpful all by itself to know. But there is something else going on. In these few words a vision is given. Something that appears obscure and insignificant will turn into something public and grand. The reign of God or the kingdom of God won’t just grow for the sake of looking pretty and assuring us that God made something wonderful.


But we are told that in what God caused to grow creatures will find that which provides them shelter and security. Again, there are examples of this happening near and far and I’m eager to learn more about what you have already seen in the witness of this church because I know it’s significant. But sometimes it’s also helpful to look at other cultures that are not our own where we can see some of these graphic changes. I was privileged to travel to South India in 2006 to visit churches, schools, and medical facilities that were planted over 150 years ago, and since that time by missionaries who carried initially with them the seed of the gospel. The missionaries who moved into these neighborhoods began by sharing cups of cold water in Jesus’ name, giving food and clothing to those nearby, offering prayers of hope and healing for their neighbors, providing medical care, and starting schools and churches.


They were planting seeds.


Years later, those whose lives have been nourished by the growth of those seeds by God are now doing the very same thing with their neighbors, and more people are coming to experience the shelter and protection of that tree, if you will, that has been growing by God’s grace, doing small things with great love and seeing what God will do. When someone asked why the church, when we were visiting the church of South India, why they were growing so rapidly, their bishop seemed surprised at such a question. “Why, we just do what Jesus told us to do.” We offer what we have to those in need: a cup of cold water in his name, food and clothing as we have them to give, prayers for hope and healing, and people somehow experience our Triune God in the midst of that and they respond.


The image of the shrub, then, is so large that birds can find shelter under its branches. It’s more than a happy ending to the biological principle of what a seed can grow into. It’s Jesus’ way of saying that wherever even the smallest seeds of the gospel are sown, God multiplies the effectiveness to bring about healthy, thriving places of wholeness, of shalom, of well-being, of more than enough, or safety, assurance, sustenance, hope and joy can be found.


Also in our Ezekiel passage in chapter 17 we are told that God plants a tiny cedar twig on a high mountain of Israel, and that twig becomes a large and fruitful tree under whose branches every kind of bird will find shelter. The birds there symbolize the nations that will flock to Israel’s god on the glorious day of the Lord. The word picture in both Ezekiel and Mark envisions the day when God’s sovereign and life-giving power will embrace the whole world, and this is certainly good news.


So I wonder what this parable means for this church at this time in its life. Since parables are given to expand our wondering, and to free us from our own tendencies to have a script or a formula to follow, I pray we together will live into the freedom of knowing that the kingdom of God is most assuredly growing in our midst where we can see its presence. We give the giver of life praise, knowing that there’s always more that God is bringing to fruition than ever meets the human eye or our ability to perceive.


Isn’t it marvelous of Jesus to tell us stories that help us to release any anxiety or worry we might have about the present or the future of this church? We can, as this parable assures us, we can adopt a child-like posture that allows us to sleep peacefully at night and to look to each day with wide-eyed wonder knowing that God is always in charge and that God’s kingdom is ever growing into beautiful expressions of the love of God, for the blessing of others as well.


In my brief interactions with this congregation recently on some of its leaders, I’ve already seen signs of the Kingdom. God is continuing to build something in this body that gives safety and peace to all. It’s a warm and welcoming tree where shalom is experienced. However the next months unfold, we can be sure that seeds that have been planted in alignment with God’s kingdom will flourish beyond our imagination.


It is “God’s Work, Our Hands” indeed. Thanks be to God for the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in and through this church to the glory of God and for the blessing of all people and of all creation.




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2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot