Just a Saying, You Say

given on Sunday, July 10, 2011:

“A stitch in time saves nine.”

“Don’t count the chickens before they hatch.”

“Don’t speak until spoken to.”

We can continue adding to the list all day and probably never find an end.  This week, I want to introduce you to another old, proverbial expression—at least that is how it is defined in the Bible references.

“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”  —Luke 17:6

The references explain that just like we have our sayings today, the Jewish culture had their sayings—proverbial expressions.  The sayings are familiar and we hear a wide range of sayings in our own culture, so why should we be surprised that the early Jewish people had sayings, too.

During my senior year, I remember we had to select a quote for our class.  Now this is a tradition that has basically disappeared, but in the early 1970’s, the decision on that quote was difficult and the class attacked it with a ferocity compared to a United Nations decision.  We looked up quotes, we read them aloud, we discussed them, and Mrs. McClure—out senior sponsor and the school librarian—would offer explanations or simply provide a nod of approval or not.

I can still recite that quote today:  “Take the world as you see it, but leave it better.”  As I was looking at graduation and college, that quote became a guiding light for me.  I knew I wanted to become a journalist so I could make a difference in the world.  I was sure that journalism provided the perfect platform for me to take the world as I saw it, and make a difference.  I never doubted that if the class chose this quote, we were destined to make this world so much better.

Now remember, my graduation was in 1972.  We were fighting in Vietnam, we were worried about the cold war, and the rebellion of young people against the ‘establishment’ was in full swing.  The race riots might have cooled down, but change was imminent.  I could make a difference.

Proverbial expressions are those sayings parents pass along to us in an effort to teach a moral code, work ethics, and standards for life.  We all use them, as they have throughout history, and they will continue to be used.  There is nothing wrong with them, but they seem so familiar that sometimes the significance is lost on the listener.

Last week the Matthew version of the Mustard Seed Parable was added to the bulletin.  Maybe it went unnoticed, but it was there.  It is easy to skip over parts of printed matter that is there all the time.  During the past year, the verse, “Grace is all you need,” quietly provided a statement week after week.  This year, the words will be ““If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can . . .”

The full verse will not be given, but the words are enough to trigger an idea, a plan, a hope, or a prayer.  Jesus taught the disciples and those curious to learn what he was saying.  He used the language of his generation, his culture.  He relied on the Holy Scriptures we now refer to as the Old Testament.  He knew the laws and was prepared to challenge them in ways that did not break the laws when forced to defend his actions or his teachings.

Are we able to do the same?  Are we able to share our faith in a manner that makes a difference to others?  Are we able to teach others about God?  Are our actions well within our community’s laws?  Are we demonstrating how faith can move mountains?

How in the world can we possibly answer each of those questions positively when our churches continue to dwindle in attendance?  I believe, yet I find myself doubting that I can move mountains.  I believe that I am among others who have the faith of a mustard seed, yet somehow the mountain does not move.

Imagine what faith, multiplied by all of us here, can do if we whole-heartedly believe that we can move mountains!  As we continue to worship together, we need to keep the proverbial statement actively centered in our mind.  We must believe that with faith as small as a mustard seed, we can do anything we desire to do—we can produce big results.

The Life Application Bible’s study notes makes one simple reference to the Matthew passage:

The mustard see was the smallest seed a farmer used.  Jesus used this parable to show that the kingdom has small beginnings but will grow and produce great results.  –pg. 1677

Now, envision small church as the small seed.  We may not be one of the new mega churches, but we still have the faith of a mustard seed.  We can, right here in our communities, plant the seed that will provide for a larger harvest than maybe we can even imagine.  The key is to believe.

Looking through the various analysis of the Mustard Seed parable, I found one reference from John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, (1697-1771, an English Baptist pastor, scholar, and theologian with an honorary doctorate of divinity from the University of Aberdeen].  Gill states that disciples felt their faith was so small that they could not perform miracles.  As he reads the verses in context, his analysis is that the disciples

“ . . . for they were not altogether destitute of faith, but their faith was very low, and their unbelief very great.  Christ says . . . because of their unbelief, being willing to convince them of their unbelief, . . . and desired that [their unbelief] might be removed from [them]:  but lest they should think they had lost their power of doing miracles, Christ adds; for verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed; . . . used very often proverbially by the Jews”

Gill was a contemporary of John Wesley and read the scriptures through a different viewpoint—he read variations from Arabic, Ethiopia and more eastern thinking.  Still Gill comes to the same conclusion–even a small bit of faith can produce miracles.

We, as today’s Christians, all too often question our own faith.  We read the scriptures but fail to catch the significance.  We see the scripture as irrelevant to our lives today.  But today is no different than yesterday.  Today we are still struggling with the same life issues as Jesus’ contemporaries.  Today’s Christian theologians, authors, and preachers are using the Holy Scriptures to teach us, to encourage us, and to move us into action.

Max Lucado is one of today’s prominent Christian thinkers.  He has a web-based ministry through which he shares his teachings in a variety of ways.  He takes a scripture or a Christian concept and places it into today’s world.  At the first of the month, his weekly “UpWords” column, “Today I will Make a Difference,” captured my attention.  The small column echoed that senior class quote, and I found myself listening to the Mustard Seed Parable playing in the background.

There is absolutely no reason to think that we, even though we are a small church, cannot make a difference.  We can.  We simply just have to do it.  We can take our smallness and make it grow.  We need to put away our self-doubts and simply do it.

Lucado said,

Today I will make a difference.  I will begin by controlling my thoughts.  A person is the product of his thoughts.  . . .  I will not let petty inconveniences such as stoplights, long lines, and traffic jams be my masters.  . . .  Optimism will be my companion, and victory will be my hallmark.  Today I will make a difference.”

Certainly the point Lucado was making is how the mind is in control of our decisions, but listen to that short phrase through the filter of our small church and what it can do in our community:  Today we will make a difference.  Today we are a small seed with the potential to grow into a huge tree.

Another commentary on the Mustard Seed Parable included on the biblios.com website is written by Adam Clarke, a British Methodist theologian and Bible scholar (1760-1832):

“Because of your unbelief—Are we preachers of the Gospel?  Do the things of God rest upon our minds with a deep and steady conviction?  Can we expect that a doctrine which we do not, from conviction, credit ourselves, can be instrumental in our hands of begetting faith in others?  So we preached, end so ye believed.  The word preached generally begets in the people the same spirit which the preacher possesses.”

Wesley’s commentary is very similar conclusion:

From Matthew 13 notes:  “The unusual (and hyperbolic) image of a mustard seed developing into a large ‘tree’ is like the unusual and unexpected growth of God’s community.

The size of the church does not matter.  The amount of faith we have does not matter.  What matters is that today we decide to make a difference.  The second reference to the Mustard Seed Parable is found in Luke 17:6.  The words are probably more familiar as a verse committed to our memory, but still Wesley’s comments give us direction:

From Luke 17 notes:  “The disciples’’ plea for increased ‘faith’ (which could also be translated ‘faithfulness,’ v. 5) is completely understandable as a response to Jesus’ call for unlimited forgiveness (v.4).  Even our most diligent faithfulness in forgiving others is merely doing “what we ought to have done!” 

In conclusion, throughout the year, the small little parable of the mustard seed is going to serve as our foundation.  We are going to make a difference.  We are going to do what we ought to do.  We are simply going to take our small-sized church with a mega-sized faith and make a difference in the world around us.

Dear All-knowing God,

Today we hear Jesus telling us the parable of a tiny little mustard seed.  We know the power of faith even though we do not demonstrate it openly all the time.  We know, too, that we doubt what we can do.  But Jesus knew that his disciples could do it, so we can too.  We can take our faith and ourselves and our small-sized church and simply do what ought to be done.  We can make a difference in your name.            –Amen

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