THE MARVELOUS MUSTARD SEED
About two years ago, I had the chance to translate a book called The Marvelous Mustard Seed, written by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, and illustrated Margaux Meganck. The book starts with this sentence: "A child plants a mustard seed in an empty garden. It is an itty-bitty seed. It isn't anything very special--yet."
The people from Mechanisburg Presbyterian Church did a reading of the book in English.
Jesus speaks in parables
The parable about the mustard seed is one of the two parables that we read about in the gospel of Mark where Jesus tries to explain what God’s kingdom is like. The first one is about a farmer that scatters her seeds and sleeps and wakes every night and day with no control of how the seed will grow. She only knows that when harvesttime comes she will collect the harvest. The second one is about a small mustard seed that grows into the largest of all vegetable plants. The birds use its branches for their nests.
It is possible that the people that are listening to these parables feel frustrated. The disciples might be frustrated because Jesus is talking about gardening instead of fulfilling some of their expectations about Jesus being a military leader, and maybe some of them expected a more ambitious leader. Others maybe are more concrete, thinking about their own work, trying to raise food for their families, frustrated by unsuccessful crops and impatient about when they can get the harvest they need to sustain their families and communities.
The reason I suppose this is because, after all, they were all human. We don’t like to wait. We get concerned when we see a lack of progress. And we are always worried about not having enough.
In fact, there is a description of this state of mind: “the mindset of scarcity”, The Rev. David Loleng, in an article called When Enough is Enough adds a theological aspect to it called “the theology of scarcity”. He says that,
“In a theology of scarcity, we believe there will not be enough for everyone, and doubt that God will provide for us.”
Another book that we read as a congregation Neighborhood Church, reminds us that during times of stress, congregations often focus on what they don’t have instead of what they do offer.
A Theology of Sufficiency
The interesting thing that Rev. Loleng offers in this article is that the antidote to a scarcity mindset is not an abundant mindset but what he calls a “sufficiency mindset." He explains that an emphasis in abundance negates that...
“There is true scarcity in contemporary society – a scarcity of resources, opportunities, and security – a reality that hits hardest for people in historically exploited communities of color, cities in decline, and emerging adults facing a changed economy. Recognizing that God provides for us out of God’s abundance does not dissolve our struggles.”
Therefore, he proposes the possibility of living into a “theology of sufficiency” that he connects to an explanation that Lynn Twist, author of The Soul of Money, presents:
“Sufficiency …is not the same as abundance (abundance is more than we need – it is excess). Sufficiency is precise. It means that things are sufficient, exactly enough.”
As I look at Jesus’ parables, I realize that they are not parables of abundance, but are parables of exactly enough. The farmer scatters seed on the ground and has no control over the harvest. And even if she scatters an abundance of seed there is no guarantee that all the seed will grow.
All mustard seed are the same. They are the smallest of all seed on the earth. And by the grace of God “when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants.” But anything we do will not make it more or less abundant.
It reminds me of our peach tree back home. This year it gave a lot of fruit… more abundantly than in other years. But the fruit has fallen to the ground, and it is not mature enough to eat. Every time I look at it now, I don’t wonder about having more peaches than we can eat… but if we will have enough peaches… but maybe I should not worry about that, because God knows what that tree needs and what I need… and that is sufficient.
We are sufficient
As I think about farmers and mustard seeds, I think about Beechmont Presbyterian Church. A few years ago, the church decided to invest in part time ministry, under not so ideal circumstances.
Our church, according to our denominational standards, is a small church. And when it went to part time ministry it is possible that some here and in the Presbytery thought… “I can hear the death knell a ringing”. In fact, I’ve been reading a book called Part Time is Plenty where a staffer of what amounts to a presbytery in another denomination states:
“Anytime one of our congregations moves from full-time to part-time pastor, we believe they’re beginning the process of a slow death of the congregation.”
The reason for this thinking is that you need a full-time pastor for a congregation to grow and to thrive. Some of us might think that… I even think that. And seminary certainly educates us to think that churches need full time ministry in order to, at least, survive.
But… “What’s a good image for God’s kingdom?” Is it a Mega Church? Is it a church with one, or two, or three pastors? With associate pastors and a large staff? No. It is a mustard seed… a small mustard seed. A mustard seed that grows into a bush that gives the birds a place to nest in its shade. A mustard seed that grows into a bush that produces the spices we use for our food. A mustard seed that grows into a bush that produces medicine that people need.
That is why I think that Beechmont Presbyterian Church and other churches like it are not a small. They are mighty and full of possibilities to build the kingdom of God. We are enough. We have the sufficient things we need to impact the community and to do the work that God wants us to do. Beechmont is a mighty church, if we understand that the harvest that God has planted is enough…
To provide a learning hub for fifteen kids.
To expand the family beyond the people sitting in these pews through Zoom and socia media.
To collaborate with three other organizations and seek ways to work together.
To mentor four people that are in their discernment process to engage in the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
To do ministry in two or sometimes engage in a third language because it is important for us to express the love of God to others.
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
It is true that church vitality declines when congregations go part time… but it does not have to happen that way. We need to look at the kingdom of God and think, not about scarcity, or about abundance, but about the grace of the seed that grows by God’s grace.
Or as Lynne Twist writes and David Loleng echoes:
“There is a principle of sufficiency, and it is as follows: When you let go of trying to get more of what you don’t really need, which is what we are all trying to get more of, it frees up immense energy to make a difference with what you have…to be known for what we allocate rather than what we accumulate.”
Let us look at what we have, as people and as church, and let us use it to make a difference. We are enough. We are sufficient.