Mustard Seed Thinking

(Click Here to Listen.)

As we prepare to discuss meeting in homes as a way to build up our faith community I would like to share with you the biblical why behind this direction I feel called to lead us in. We live in a culture that tells us “Bigger is better,” to “Think big,” and to “Go big or go home.” Today I want us to consider the contrast we see in Jesus focus on small things and the constant reminders he gave to pay attention to small things first in order to practice faithfulness so that we are prepared when big things come along. In the year 165 an epidemic swept through the cities of the Roman Empire. People were dying in droves and many fled the cities to the countryside to try to escape the disease. There was no healthcare system and people barricaded themselves in their homes, but not all people. There was one weird little Jewish sect that went out and did little things like prepare meals, care for the sick, and bury the dead. They had always been thought to be a little strange since they didn’t participate in the big festivals or the public sphere very much, and when they did it was in acts of service that seemed insignificant. Something changed after the plagues. The people that were cared for by those early Christians began to wonder why these people risked their lives to perform menial tasks for people that might die at any moment and the Christians shared about Jesus who called his people to be faithful in the small things and to care for those who couldn’t repay.[1] The early Christians understood well the parable of the mustard seed: “31 “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” Matthew 13:31b-32 Jesus’ use of this garden analogy is a good reminder to us that big things begin small. Seeds in general are tiny, especially when we compare them to the plant that grows from them. The important thing to remember is that there is a lot that needs to take place for a seed to grow. The ground must be prepared, the seed planted, watering must happen, fertilization can help as well, then we wait for the first shoots to poke their way up through the softened earth. We have opportunities all around us to share a little bit of what heaven will be like and when we are faithful to take those opportunities we plant mustard seeds.

When Paul was building church communities throughout the Roman world he gave us all an example of how to be together in ways that promote care in the mustard seeds of home communities and the trees of our public worship.

17 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. 18 When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. 19 I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. 20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. 21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. Acts 20:17-24

On his way to Jerusalem Paul stopped at the town of Miletus to catch a boat for the next leg of his journey east to Jerusalem. While he was there he sent north to the nearby town of Ephesus to reinforce what he had taught the leadership there about what needed to be important for them as they served that community. It is important for us to pay attention to the words Paul characterizes his service with: “Great Humility.” In his travels in Ephesus, Paul was verbally and physically confronted by the Jewish leaders there. In choosing humility in his response Paul avoided the normal self-preserving fight or flight reaction we have to confrontation and kept his focus on God’s mission. When we choose service rather than fight or flight it completely derails all expectations about how an encounter should go and prepares the soil for a mustard seed to be planted. As Paul taught and preached he didn’t get caught up in ego games, didn’t worry about scoring points on his detractors, he just served who he could and mourned for those who opposed him.  What might change if we choose to serve and mourn rather than fight or flee?

Paul kept his focus on spreading the kingdom and worked in both the public and private spheres of life. This idea of gathering together in more intimate groups and then having the groups come together in a larger setting has its foundation in Jesus’ ministry and the practice of the early church. The combination of personal and communal worship and instruction is still the most effective model for discipleship that I have seen. Here we touch on the priorities we are called to have as God’s ambassadors to the world. We have a mission and that mission is to share the good news of God’s grace. There can be nothing more important in our lives than extending that message of the redeeming work of God to everyone around us. We must become vulnerable and share exactly how much God has transformed us and why we still have hope even though there is so much more transformation needed. One of the key reasons why we need to meet in smaller groups outside of the building is to provide a setting for the work of transformation to happen that invites others who need transformation into the process. It is in sharing our stories and struggles that we can communicate the hope we have in Jesus, and it is in the accountability of a place we are known and committed to that transformation can be most easily welcomed. In a larger setting we can learn, serve and praise as well, but in my experience I have learned that if I am not meeting with others in pursuit of Jesus in a smaller setting I have much slower growth.

I need other people to help me see what is distracting me from the kingdom of God and his way of being and doing what is right, and that doesn’t happen for me in a large group setting that is focused on larger things. I need to meet in a more intimate setting to get to the root of things I can’t talk about in larger groups, and I’ll bet I am not the only one. When Jesus began his ministry he gathered 12 disciples to him and taught them in a way that invited them into deeper relationship and created an atmosphere in which the disciples could grow. Paul stuck to that model and that combination of intimate instruction and large scale worship and teaching spread through the polytheistic Roman Empire like wildfire. As in Paul’s time there are many false gods trying to claim our allegiance and only having one God to focus on and serve really does make life a lot simpler. What makes things harder is that we don’t think of many of the gods of our current day in terms of being religions, but they are. Humanity is amazingly talented at coming up with stuff to worship, and our culture, no matter how secular it is becoming, is no different. We worship celebrities, TV shows, musicians, countries, politics, sports, smart phones, computers, jobs, food, money, sex, power, homes, and the list goes on and on. If it exists someone somewhere worships it in one way or another. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we each had a cheering section around us helping us turn away from those things and towards God? In many ways what I would like to see happen in our home meetings more than anything else is that we encourage each other in turning away from the false gods of the world and towards placing all of our faith and hope in Jesus.

In Paul’s mind, and his teaching of the Ephesian elders, we see how all considerations other than the task of testifying to the grace of God don’t affect Paul’s decision making process. Instead Paul spent time with others discerning the will of the Holy Spirit for him and elected to follow that discerned will even though he had no idea what the outcome would be. Paul didn’t go it alone. He always had people around him, partnering in his mission and reminding him of God’s calling on his life. Paul very carefully gathered people around him to help him on his way and to continue the overall mission when he was gone. In a home meeting of people listening for the voice of God and holding what we know of God’s will together: decision making, and facing the consequences of decision making, becomes easier. Have you ever noticed how easy it can be to make bad decisions when nobody is around you?  It isn’t when I have friends looking at what I eat and buy that whole bags of Doritos get consumed in one sitting. My willpower diminishes significantly when I am standing alone, but when I have others around me, encouraging me and praying with me something amazing happens. I am able to keep my focus on the task God has given me and the voices of my gut and bad habits are drowned out.

Each of us has also been given part of the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace, and my task as your pastor is to help you with yours, to make sure that you have access to everything you need in order to live out God’s calling on your life. Paul uses the metaphor of a race, and the role of pastor is a lot like that of a coach, developing a training regimen and identifying specific areas to train in so that you can run better the race set before you. One of the areas of training God is pointing out to us is in making spaces for the training we need to happen. We need to carve out time to spend developing our spiritual muscles and supporting each other’s spiritual preparation. This is why I feel so strongly that we need a well-organized home meeting structure to support each other’s ministry. I can’t do it alone, and I need you to support me in my ministry just as much as you need me to support you in yours. As we support each other in being faithful to our calling in tiny mustard seed ways, big things will result because we have prepared ourselves well to testify to the good news of God’s grace.

As we enter our time of open worship listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit and share the encouragement God lays on your heart to share with this meeting. Let us pray.

 

[1] Matthew 25, Luke 14:12-14

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