THE STAFF OF LIFE                      The Rev. Brian E. Backstrand         August 9, 2015

About seven months ago, now, Joanna Jolly of the BBC wrote an article the detailed one of the shifts in the American diet.   Entitled, “Why Do Americans Love Ancient Grains?” the article was written in response to an explosion of popularity and of interest mostly by Americans in ancient grains—grains of ancient Mesopotamia, grains of the indigenous peoples of South American,   grains of Egypt and the Nile.

Well, Jolly is right: We’re interested.   Suddenly we are interested in spelt, emmer, teff, and many other grains from ancient times.   We are interested, to be sure, in part because of the gluten free craze that has people like me looking for pancakes and sandwich breads and cereals that are free from gluten. (And I thank all of you who have fed me during the coffee hour and at other times with gluten free goodies.)   But we’re also interested in part because Americans are always on the lookout for some magical food ingredient from the past, a silver bullet that when taken ensures longer life or more vibrant health.   And, let’s be honest, we’re also looking to eat our way into ancient history—to sample the common foods of the ancient Egyptians, or of the Romans or Greeks or the Persians, travelling by our pallet back through the centuries as we imagine others reclining to eat, like the disciples or the Pharisees with Jesus in the First Century AD.

Spelt has a slender rice-like grain and contains less gluten than wheat, but has a higher protein content.   Freekah has a characteristic smoked aroma and a toasted, mildly sweet flavor. A grain from Arabia, freekah contains more protein, vitamins, and minerals than most grains, and up to four times the fiber content of brown rice, though it has hardly any gluten, since it is harvested before its protein develops. It is used in soups, and stews.

Emmer, termed “farro” in Italy, is an ancient wheat that has been cultivated for over 10,000 years. It is also a very sustainable grain—it grows well without chemical inputs and can better tolerate stressful growing conditions than modern wheat. The emmer grown in New York State comes from Europe by way of North Dakota, where diverse types brought by German immigrants have been grown since the late 19th century. Emmer is known for its distinctive, delicious flavor as a cooked grain. This flavor carries through when it is used to make pasta and fl at breads as well.

And then there is Einkorn. Domesticated in ancient Mesopotamia in the Fertile Crescent, Einkorn is considered to be one of the “ancient” grains. Einkorn is higher in protein, trace minerals and essential amino acids than any other wheat. The grain may be cooked whole or ground into flour for baking. Einkorn is also safe for some gluten sensitivities.

Often we call bread “the staff of life.”   A staff provides support and this phrase with the word staff in it was first recorded in 1638. Today, however, bread is far less of a staff than rice. A majority of the earth’s people eat rice instead of bread.   In Indonesia, rice is readily available and no one in that vast country goes hungry because as a staple rice is provided.

In Jesus’ day, however, the staff that provided necessary nutrition was bread.   And some layers of Mediterranean society in his time did not always have access to even this most basic commodity.   We can imagine Jesus and his disciples reclining in the Upper Room before his Passion.   And we can hear his words. In John 13 he speaks of his betrayer and when Peter asks, “Lord, who is it?” he replies, “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.”   The morsel is dipped and handed to Judas.   And I imagine bread.

Today as last Sunday in our Gospel reading bread, that ancient grain, that staff of life, shows up. Jesus says I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he or she will live for ever. And the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.

It is hard to imagine the impact of bread in Jesus’ day.   To eat bread and to have bread to eat was to survive.   We cannot imagine this.   Even though hunger is present in our society, we often cultivate the impression in our lives of an abundance that fills us up almost to the point of being over-full and nauseated.   It is a cloying abundance. At least in our images of the good life.   But hunger, that American shadow land, remains. Today one out of every six Americans faces hunger.   Food insecurity is one of the terms used to describe the face of hunger in America.   The USDA defines “food insecurity” as the lack of access, at times, to enough food for all household members.” In 2011, households with children reported a significantly higher food insecurity rate than households without children: 20.6% vs. 12.2%.

Food insecurity exists in every county in America. In 2013, 17.5 million households were food insecure. More and more people are relying on food banks and pantries. Forty-nine million Americans struggle to put food on the table.   We rub elbows with them, but they mostly are invisible.

When we take the bread of life at the altar, today and on other Sundays, no doubt we should more fervently think of ways that we here at St. Andrew’s can supply food to others—even others in our own community.

It arrives unheralded often at the main meal of the day.   It may be a triangle of pita gracing the edges of a bowl of salad. It may arrive in a basket in the form of a small loaf. It may be wrapped and wrapped and wrapped in suffocating plastic wrap making it difficult to sample.   But it often is there.

We assume it.   We sometimes avoid it.   We now quite commonly possess an interest in its historic roots and lineage.   Today it will come modestly in the form of a wafer, thinly sliced and for many of us it will be tinged with wine.

And when we take it in with faith and with a sense of emptiness this meal can be a banquet.   And this bread coming as it does from the Master can bring into our existence the spiritual staff of new and unending life itself because it comes from him, from his mission of love,   from his willingness to be present to us yet again through this simple thing. Today, this wafer, this morsel, this emmer or perhaps einkorn is offered and blessed and lifted up and then presented.   It comes as a vehicle of grace and of presence. It comes to arrest us in our journey, so that at the intersection of this engagement with the Divine, this simple thing might feed us, deeply and completely, bringing us newness and forgiveness,   peace and reflection,   renewal and joy.   We feed upon the presence of God who is for us and for the whole created order the staff of life.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good,” Psalm 34 proclaims. “Happy are those who take refuge in him.”    Fed with the bread of life, let us also be people who, in spirit and substance, bring nourishment, strength and even food – to others.

In the name of God —  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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6 PENTECOST         TWO JOURNEYS     The Rev. Brian Backstrand  July 5, 2015

The idea of a journey as a metaphor for our lives is pretty commonplace. And it’s pretty Biblical.   The Bible is filled with stories of journeys from the journey of Abraham from Haran into a distant, unseen land to the journeys of missionaries like Paul who crossed boundaries of language and culture to preach the Good News of Jesus and his redemption because they were constrained to do so: Because they were called.   Journeys: Today I wish to focus upon two.

Today in our Gospel lesson we witness the sending of twelve followers of Jesus after Jesus has hit a major impasse in his own ministry—the rejection of his ministry in his hometown.   In response, in the midst of healing and teaching in other villages, he calls his closest followers and sends them.   He sends them out two by two and with pretty much nothing in the way of resources:   No extra clothes, no bread, no bag, no money.   What they do have is authority over unclean spirits and a general outline of how to proceed.

It is common in the culture of Jesus’ day for healers, teachers, wonder workers to enter villages unannounced, to be hosted during their stay by one family—usually a prominent one, and then to be tested. Do they have power? Do they speak a truth that fits the moment and that sinks into the very bones of consciousness of the villagers who hear them preach? Can they heal and do they heal with power. Are they to be trusted? Are they to be followed?

This is how John Dominic Crossan imagines Jesus’ own journey in the early days of his ministry when he comes and performs an exorcism of a man living in the graveyard:

He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee.   He is watched by the cold hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He looks like a beggar, yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his walk the proper shuffle. He speaks about the rule of God, and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else. They know all about rule and power, about kingdom and empire, but they know it in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession. What, they really want to know, can this kingdom of God do for a lame child, a blind parent, a demented soul screaming its tortured isolation among the graves that mark the edges of the village? Jesus walks with them to the tombs and, in the silence after the exorcism, the villagers listen once more, but now with curiosity giving way to cupidity, fear, and embarrassment. He is invited, a honor demands, to the home of the village leader.                                                  Crossan, The Historical Jesus, xi.

And now the disciples’ own journey begins.   With nothing in the way of the world’s goods, with fear and trembling most likely.   With the sending of their leader. With a spiritual presence that they perhaps only dimly understand. We can see them heading out slowly in different directions to different villages. It is hot. Perhaps they are already thirsty, their feet already covered with dust.

We have been on such a journey.   Early in my ministry here we went out two by two with no bag, no additional clothing.   We carried no big proclamation of spiritual force and insight. No, just a little flyer to offer the neighbors round about—telling them of an ice cream social that we are approaching with a good deal of fear and trembling ourselves.

And we have been on other journeys.   Some involve Thank you Baskets, some involve opening our church doors to others,   some involve the journey into holy scripture during Bible study. There’s even the monthly journey to come to this place in the middle of the week and sit around tables in the fellowship room and dream and share and plan as a Bishop’s Committee.

But these things are pretty much small potatoes in comparison to hitting the road and feeling the dust and the oppressiveness of the sun and the anxiety of entering into strange places.

What other journeys are before us that we need to take?   Our Breast Cancer Survivor Support Group has just begun and that will be a significant journey for this community of faith. And I suspect that we will be offered other journeys as well in the days ahead.

The journey of the disciples, then and now, is the first journey of which I wish to speak today.


But today is the fifth of July, placing us squarely in the middle of the Fourth of July holiday.   At this time of national reflection, we think naturally of other journeys. Journeys of the pioneers across the vast prairie expanses of the American West, perhaps. The journey of Washington and his troops across the Delaware.   The great marches of troops in the Civil War. To be sure, there are some grand journeys in our history as Americans. But there are difficult and tragic journeys, too.   Journeys painful to contemplate.   One thinks of the journey of the Cherokee and the Seminole and the Lakota peoples.   The Cherokee’s trail of tears – enforced by American troops—their devastating journey to Oklahoma following the Indian Removal Act of 1830.   The Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations were removed. Between 2,000 and 6,000 of these proud people perished along the way. They died of exposure, disease and starvation. Here is a journey that we need to remember so that our historical reflections are not sugar-coated.

Then there are the many ships filled with slaves—part of the triangle trade—and the sad history of our own people – people owning slaves, others ignoring the realities of slavery, and many others protecting property rights instead of human rights and so allowing the curse of slavery and of the subjugation of African peoples to continue.   A sad, evil journey.

We fought a Civil War from 1860 to 1865 about the right of states of a federal union to succeed from that union. Eventually the issue of slavery was joined in the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1 1863 when President Lincoln saw that such a move was in the interests of the War. By the end of the War, 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had served on the Union side and had helped secure victory..

The union was saved in that journey and a people liberated.   But slavery is more than the legal ownership of one individual by another.   Slavery has a long reach.   It can be economic.   It can be social. It can be institutionalized. It can be housed in the hearts and minds of one people even as they look upon another and argue that they’re doing just fine, that they have just the same opportunity as everyone else. It is the people who are being subjugated, put down, who really have the right to say who is bigoted and who is not.

And so we come to another march – adding it to the list of the itinerant journey of the disciples, to the journey of Washington and his troops, to so many other journeys.

This one takes place in the South in March of 1965. This journey was called, appropriately enough, The Freedom March.   If the first journey in this sermon was the journey of the disciples, put this one down as the second journey – it is the journey of Civil Rights in America. The journey of freedom marchers.

An excerpt from an account: the March to Montgomery from Selma Alabama in March of 1965.

In early 1965 civil rights activists began making attempts to register voters in Alabama.   In response, there were repeated acts of violence by local officials against black people who dared to join this effort. A young black man—Jimmy Lee Jackson—was beaten and then shot to death by a State Trooper. A column of black people, who decided to march from Selma Alabama to Montgomery, the State capital, were clubbed and gassed by State troopers. A white minister from Boston, who had come to Selma to protest police brutality, was clubbed on the street in Selma and died. This sparked protests and outcries that were world-wide.

President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress for a new law that would guarantee black people the right to vote. Eventually this became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A new march from Selma to Montgomery was organized and Johnson ordered several thousand National Guard troops and US Army troops to protect the marchers. Howard Zinn, a professor of history caught up to the marchers about 18 miles outside of Montgomery.   The following descriptions are his notes from March 20-25 of 1965. This is the second journey of which I wish to speak.


They slept in a muddy field, halfway through the March from Selma, and one hundred yards off the main highway to Montgomery.   There were three hundred of them, the core of the Long March, and now, because of President Lyndon Johnson’s formal insistence, the National Guard and US Army troops, numbering several thousand were safeguarding their path, following shootings, clubbing and gassing by police and state troopers. They turned into a muddy field about halfway through their march and settled down for the night. At the only entrance to the camp, two Episcopal priests with their collars turned around, were serving as gatekeepers.

In the encampment, one tent was set up for the men, one for the women and they spread tarps inside each one upon the muddy ground. The muddy ground sucked at the shoes, boots and bare feet of the marchers. The troopers guarded the perimeter and lit fires as they camped outside. Joining them there, Howard Zinn, then professor of history at Spelman College for Negro women in Atlanta recorded the scene. He had just arrived and settled down with the others for a long, wet uncomfortable night.   Some were up early. In the morning, Zinn could hear Andrew Young, eventually Mayor of Atlanta, calling over the main transmitter to Montgomery:   “Get us some shoes; we need forty pairs of shoes, all sizes, for women and kids who have been walking barefoot the past 24 hours.”   Clusters of people slowly got up in the gray dawn, lined up for oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, coffee.   Then they gathered themselves and marched.

Writes Zinn: “An old Negro man took his place beside me for the march. He wore a shirt and tie under his overalls, also an overcoat and fedora hat, and used a walking stick to help him along. ‘I was in Marion the night Jimmy Jackson was shot by the policeman. They got bullwhips and sticks and shotguns, and they jab us with the electric poles.’”

They sing as they march, singing about freedom as an Army helicopter hovers overhead.   An American flag is up front and it is seventeen miles to the edge of Montgomery.   FREEDOM. FREEDOM.   FREEDOM’S COMIN’ AND IT WON’T BE LONG.

The line of marchers grows by the mile, by the minute. Students pour out of a Negro high school, lining the streets as they pass, one white man on crutches marches with the rest. Recording the eventual arrival of the marchers, Zinn writes: “A jet plane zoomed close overhead and everyone stretched arms to the sky, shouting, ‘FREEDOM!   FREEDOM!’” Thousands were joining the march. Eighteen miles dwindled to two, then one. And then they arrived.

Fifty years ago, people placed their very lives directly in the path of hatred and of violence. Some were singled out, accosted, taunted, clubbed, shot, beaten down—murdered. I see the cross of Jesus there, in their agony. Others continued, old and very young, mostly black and some white, marching together, singing in the face of organized violent hatred.   Non-violent and armed mostly with only a shared vision of justice and harmony, singing of freedom, they moved along gripped by the fervor of what they believed and possessed by the Spirit that unleashed their own puny individual wills and made them strong—together. Recently arrived from Dublin, a red-faced Irishman in a trench coat holds the hand of a little black boy who walks beside him.

What kind of journeys are we prepared to take as Christians when our Lord and Master sends us out?

He sent them out two by two and told them to take nothing for the journey.   They had something to announce, proclaim.   So did these Americans – these black and white marchers marching in the hostile environment of a nation still trying to deal with racism, bigotry, hatred.   They were small in numbers, weak, uneducated, poor, impoverished but at the same time filled with a sense of purpose and justice and mission that eventually overflowed.   They were filled with faith.   With courage and boldness.   With hope.

Today and this weekend, as we reflect on our rich and positive heritage of freedom and equality and justice for all, let us not forget them.   These Americans—these bold witnesses. The disciples were sent out and are still being sent forth.   There are still journeys to take in the name of our liberator, our Savior,   our wisdom – Jesus the anointed one of God, Jesus the Christ.



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DAVID & GOLIATH       The Rev. Brian E. Backstrand            June 21, 2015

His height was six cubits and a span. Or four cubits and a span. Two different heights, because the manuscripts vary, but the same result—a giant.   In one version of I Samuel 17,   Goliath is 6 feet 9 inches. In another version, he is an unbelievable 9 feet 9 inches. A fantastic height.   He comes out every day for 40 days. He is a monster.   A hulk. A supreme enemy. He should play for the NBA.

Two men are to represent the fortunes of two armies and of two nations.   Two men, one of whom has been coming out in between the camped armies of Israelites and Philistines for the symbolic 40 days (that’s 40 years in the wilderness, 40 days of temptation for Jesus,   40 Biblically symbolic days).   And so, after forty days of taunting the other side, the two men finally do battle. The big man who has been issuing the taunts is a giant. The other is a ruddy youth, a shield bearer for the King. He is an overlooked shepherd boy with just a slingshot and a lot of nerve.   We all know the story: The little guy wins.

But it is not the first little guy to win. Consider little Joseph earlier. Like David he is the youngest.   He is placed in the pit of a deep well and left there by his brothers.   Some of them want simply to kill him.   Others hesitate. So he is placed in a deep dry well and sold off to traders as a slave. Off he goes to Egypt. And – eventually – the little guy wins.   He becomes the interpreter of dreams.   He becomes powerful– an administrator of great ability. He survives a scandal scare. And eventually he welcomes his starving brothers during a famine that drives them down to Egypt begging for food.   He welcomes them – although they at first do not recognize him.   The little guy wins.

Now the whole army of the Israelites and King Saul see Goliath as a huge and fearsome enemy. He is a giant.   Saul tells David You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy and he has been a warrior from his youth. Saul and his people see a giant and a young boy with a lot of nerve. But David sees things through another filter, another screen. David the shepherd boy, the defender of helpless sheep, sees Goliath as just another bear, as just another lion. And he has killed them both. So—through his filter, and through his experience—he reduces the giant, places the giant in perspective. He knows the power of a single stone in slingshot. He takes five stones from the dry river bed and literally runs out to meet him. A bold,   disconcerting move from a shield bearer who is unafraid and ready to do battle.

In this technological world that we live in, we might see something interesting here.   Saul wants David to use his armor.   That is, to use the best weaponry that he as king can provide the young lad. David tries it out. He walks around. David strapped on Saul’s sword over the armor and he tried in vain to walk for he ws not used to them.   Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these for I am not used to them.”   So David removed them.

Five smooth stones.   A shepherd’s bag. A sling. That’s all he had. That’s all he needed. That’s all he was comfortable with.   He used what he had. What he had he knew well and could employ with power.

Interpretations vary. In Judaism, one of the points of the story is to show David as the true king of Israel.   Saul is weak; David is bold.   David is the true king.   Later traditions portray Goliath as the great example of paganism.   And David is the ruddy youth who becomes the champion of Israel.   David says at one point: You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.

Christian interpretations take this classic encounter and spin it in another direction—a more expansive one. Here Goliath in his massive strength and height and power represents the enemies of God. And David represents a young King, God’s King who wins a decisive victory over the enemy of God’s helpless people.   This encounter and this victory with stones and a slingshot also in Christian thought prefigures the work of Jesus.   Jesus is an unknown. Jesus is not powerful. Jesus wins a great victory over the spiritual forces of sin, of death itself, over the power of evil in the world. This takes place on the cross where a decisive battle changes everything.


Today we dedicate the portrayal in marble of the dove of peace.   This is a vision of the Holy Spirit coming as a dove to bring peace into a broken world. The opponent of peace – that is, hatred and violence and destructive power – is a true Goliath.   War and the cycles of war and the power of hatred is a huge Goliath.   The destruction of the environment for greed for profit for a life of ease – this also is a Goliath that disrupts peace and harmony and the created order itself.

Why the dove?   Like a ruddy shepherd boy, the dove seems relatively harmless and vulnerable.   The dove is portrayed as pure, as white and gentle.   The dove is a form of the Holy Spirit when Jesus is baptized. The dove was said to be so pure that this was the one form that Satan could not transform himself into.   In the account of the great flood, the dove is the bird which symbolizes peace and order in the natural world. Noah releases the bird and the dove comes back with an olive branch in its mouth, signifying not only that there was dry land again but that there was peace and order about to once more appear.   For the Celts, the mournful cry of the dove meant the peaceful passing of someone. The dove is associated with purity and innocence.

And so—peaceful, hopeful,   pure, innocent, gentle—the dove seems harmless. But the dove, the spirit, the presence of the Almighty is a huge force operating in our lives and in the world for good.   The dove is capable of bringing down vast empires and vast powers. All in the name of peace and of harmony and of YHWH as the final ruler and king.

This past week we witnessed an example of the power of the spirit, the dove of peace. A young man came into a black church in Charleston South Carolina and lingered for more than an hour as a welcomed guest in a bible study.   Then he opened fire. He killed and killed and destroyed. Yet, when he was captured and arraigned, the families of some of the fallen,   powerful and tearfully told him that they forgave him.   What kind of power enables people to face their enemies and forgive them, disarm them with love?   It must be the work of the dove of peace.   It was not just classy. It was not just poised. It was someone deciding to choose love and not violence. It was actually rending;   Someone deciding to arm themselves in the power of naked love and not the power of vengeance and retribution and hatred that simply would   make them part of the violence of the young man himself.   Someone listened to the dove of peace.

Can we take this David and Goliath story a bit farther away from the dry stream bed where they fought and place it in our world?   You and I have a slingshot and a bag of smooth stones.   They are not much, at least to look at.   But there they are.   At least here is one interpretation:   One is the smooth stone of compassion.   One is the smooth stone of honesty.   One is the smooth stone of faith. And another is the smooth stone of hope. Yet another is the impossibly smooth stone of forgiveness in the face of unspeakable evil.

And giants? Our goliaths?   One of them is the often unspoken giant of racism.

Maybe we do not understand what we have.   What kind of power do we have when we love one another ; what kind of power we have when we love ourselves; what kind of power we have when we love our enemies?   That power is elusive, but also real.   That power must be the work of the dove of peace,   brooding over our broken and fallen world.   Brooding over our broken and fallen lives.

What we have is an unseen power that is available to us if we but trust it.   Let us believe. Let us take out of our bag a smooth stone, the smooth stone of love..     And let us use it this week…somewhere in our lives.   Let us use it boldly, this little stone of love.   To take down a giant.

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BUSHES                                 The Rev. Brian Backstrand                   June 14, 2015

A few years ago,   when Marilee and I were selling veggies in Beloit and earlier in Madison, I would find myself late on a Friday evening wading out into our spring. It’s a pretty big spring and it flows out of the hillside in three places with an abundant, even flow even in the most wet and the most dry of seasons. My neighbor who lived there all of his life told me that it in the midst of the worst droughts it never dried up—ever. I tried wading into the spring in tennis shoes, but the water was so cold I couldn’t stand it, so I switched to rubber boots, and even then it was very cold. The bottom of the spring is sandy and my boots would roil the water, stirring up little clouds of sand.   I carried a scissors in one hand and a bucket in the other and into the bucket I placed bundle after bundle of watercress. Cress as its more commonly known.   The watercress would go along with other veggie items to market on Saturday morning.

Watercress was a big seller at the farmer’s market – mostly because the people who bought the watercress really were buying a memory. They would reach down and pick up a bundle and smell it and maybe take off a lobed leaf and taste it. And that sharp, piquant taste would bring them back. Often it was the memory of being a little child and going out with a grandparent and harvesting from streams and from watery ditches this little plant with its sharp distinctive flavor. They would stand there in the hot sun of a Saturday at the farmer’s market and be years and years away.

It turns out that watercress is a brassica – a part of the genus that includes cabbage plants as well as mustard plants. And so, wandering around in our spring with its icy water, my feet about to fall off, mosquitoes dancing above my head, I was really dealing with the cousin of the mustard plant.   Who knew?

In Jesus’ time, the mustard plant was used to make oil. It also served as a condiment and as a pot-herb.   It was a very common plant.   It is actually an exaggeration to say that its seed is the smallest of seeds, but it is indeed very small. What is really important is the contrast between the small seed of the mustard at the beginning of its life and the end result: a very large, bushy shrub.

The parable of the mustard seed occurs in all three of our synoptic Gospels –Matthew, Mark and Luke–as well as in the Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel that is not in the Bible. In the Gospel of Thomas we see the main features of the parable as it comes to us in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The Gospel of Thomas says: The disciples said to Jesus: Tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. He said to them: It is like a mustard-seed smaller than all seeds. But when it falls on the tilled earth, it produces a large branch and becomes a shelter for the birds of heaven. In our Gospel text from Mark today Jesus says: 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. Pretty close.   Something very small becomes, at the end of its development, something distinctively large. But it’s not just large, it produces shelter. Birds come.   They build nests.   They are protected.

Birds building nests in the shade of a large bushy shrub, protected from the sun is an idea that comes from the Hebrew Bible and it is an important idea.   Consider this passage from Ezekiel when it speaks of cedar trees —

On the mountain height of Israel I will plant a twig

            In order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit

            And become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird

            Will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged

creatures of every kind.

So we get the following picture. The Kingdom of God starts small, but ends up being amazingly big.   It is place of nurture and of protective shelter. Like a bird in the shelter of a large bush, you can flourish there. This is what the Kingdom of God is like.

In the midst of our journey, we often want to think about God on a grand scale. There is a lot of grandeur associated with God.   Because we tend to like abstract ideas, we often like to search for God in the midst of great and complex ideas. However, I’m not so sure that the grand scale is the best place to find God.   If the parable is right, we ought to start small.   We ought to look around for little places where God might be at work in our lives.   After all, consider the birth of Jesus.   We may want to make it grand with the angels and all, but the fact is that God was starting small.   Just a little baby.   And when Jesus hit the road for three years on a mission, he had only a few disciples.   Surely there were more than the twelve but we should not assume that there were many more. And look at the people he often engaged.   They were not grand, they were not powerful, they were small.   Even with all of the wonder-workings and healings, he started small.

The spring where I cut the watercress flows out of the side of a steep hill. The soil is held in place by some large burr oak trees. They are very tall and imposing.   These trees have gnarly roots that curve and plunge into the soil of the hillside – holding it in place.   It is a shady place. Many birds are there.   Deer tracks abound and it is quiet, peaceful. You can hear the brook babbling as it runs out of the hillside.

As I cut the watercress—little fragile plants—above me stretched the great limbs of the oak trees themselves.   It turns out that the spring presents in my mind at least, the two opposites that Jesus was talking about.   In the water, with shallow roots, is the fragile cousin of the mustard plant.   Pretty small stuff.   In the air above, however, is the fully-developed oak tree — with its shade and its many branches, it is a symbol of protective shelter.   Birds,   deer, even humans if they want to be quiet, can flourish and be nurtured there.

So this is the pattern.   Small becomes amazingly big.   Don’t count small out.   God doesn’t.   And God   often is in the business of starting out small.

At St. Andrew’s we talk a lot about being small.   Being small has some advantages, after all.   But let’s don’t get too comfortable with the idea of smallness. And let’s don’t think about our community as being as small as a little mustard seed starting out.   Sometimes it may feel that way. But I know that this place also has some branches. This place offers shade and shelter and protection.   People can come here and in the midst of sharing and envisioning and praying and working together, the very Spirit of God can be at work, helping us from time to time to flourish.   In a couple of weeks we are going to be together for a few hours in an all-church leadership mini-retreat. What might this time together produce?

The Apostle Paul puts it this way at the end of our second lesson: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

I like that idea. He tells us to look around, pay attention.   “See,” he says. Sometimes I think it’s very hard to see, but there’s the invitation.   “See…everything has become new!”


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