Sermon: The Seed

29 July 2007

The Rev. Jennifer Whipple     
The Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)    
July 29, 2007

The Seed

Mark 4:30-32

Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts gathered here this day be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.  

This is perhaps less a sermon than it is a story…a story about growth, positive change – a story about opening up, sharing, and allowing God to do the rest.  I have found that there are moments in ministry when it feels like all of the forces have come together to create if not a perfect, then a nearly perfect moment.  I had a few of those moments this year on our senior youth fellowship mission trip to Pipestem, WV .

                I realize now that this story began Sunday night, as soon as we arrived at the Appalachian South Folklife Center and received our assignment for the week. But I am going to begin this particular story a little closer to its ending.  You see one of the things we do on mission trip is split into chore groups.  The groups are assigned each day to one or more of the tasks that we were required as a group to fulfill – everything from the cooking to cleaning the bathrooms to planning the evening’s devotions...some of which you can imagine were more desirable than others in the eyes of our young folks.  Because of the way the chores and groups were divided, my chore group had to plan our devotions on Friday night.  It was our last day of work, our last day in West Virginia , so we needed to make them extra special.

             Now when you have a group of youth planning devotions for their peers it is not always easy to get them to take the task seriously…so as I pulled my crew away from the rest of the group at the end of an intensely heated Ultimate Frisbee game on Friday evening, I thought – “Oh gosh, I hope this goes well.”  And much to my surprise, the conversation went something like this. 

            “Okay, guys, tonight is our last night of devotions, we need to make it special.  What would you all like to do?” I asked.  Only a very few brief moments of silence passed when…

            “How about we use that scripture passage about the seed…you know the one where the small seed grows into a large bush or tree or something,” replied Lisa, “That way we can talk about the ways that everyone has grown this week.”

            “BINGO!” I thought.  And the angels started singing.  “That sounds great, now how would we like to go about this?  Who will lead what parts?” 

            “Well, I’ll read the scripture passage,” said Kyle.

            “I’ll explain a bit about what it means and why we chose it,” said Lisa.

            “I’ll ask the question,” said Brittany , “Something like – in what way have you seen yourself or someone else grow this week?  Sound good?”

            “I guess that leaves me to pray, “said Andy, “I don’t have a problem with that as long as I can begin my prayer with a quote from Optimus Prime in the movie Transformers.  ‘Without sacrifice, there is no victory’.” (Which I must admit at the end of a week away from home and families, working in the hot Appalachian Mountains , seemed a quote that was relatively appropo.)

            How excited was I in that moment?  Not only did these young folks whom I had pulled away from a group of their friends decide in a matter of minutes what it was that they were going to do for their devotions.  It sounded great too!  And I didn’t even have to do anything.  What was even better – it went off without a hitch.  That night everyone shared something about how they had grown or seen someone else grow throughout the week – everything from learning a new skill, to opening up to new people within our group, to realizing how much we take things like bathrooms and running water for granted.  The Spirit was there in our planning and was truly there among us that last night as we talked about what the experience of a week away working in West Virginia meant to each of us.  It meant the opportunity to learn those new skills – to dig holes and create the foundation for a new room attached to the trailer home we worked on.  It meant the opportunity to use skills that perhaps some parents don’t even know exist in their teenagers here at home – things like cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping.  It meant the opportunity to open ourselves up to one another and also to the family whose home we worked on in the service of God and discipleship to Jesus Christ – to challenge ourselves to accept the tasks at hand and to share the Good News with a group of folks who didn’t know us from Adam & Eve.

“The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,” it says in the Gospel of Mark.  “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.”  That mustard seed grows when tended to – with air, water, sunlight.  The Kingdom of God grows when tended to as well – God is the gardener planting seeds of faith and hope amongst folks throughout the world.  And we are the ones who are to take those seeds and tend them – to add the study, the prayer, the praise, to share the gospel with others in word and deed, to show others what an amazing thing it is to accept God into our lives and to allow God to work within us and among us – blessing us, giving us strength for the rocky parts of the journey, building community with friends and strangers alike.

The senior youth fellowship mission trip participants were commissioned from this place and sent out as ambassadors – sent out as disciples to spread the Good News both with their words and their actions.  And that is just what they did…the seeds were planted before we arrived in West Virginia , but our young folks tended to them, and we were able to watch them grow.  Nowhere was this more apparent then in the lives of the family we served.  The sensitivity warning that Shelli, the Director of the Appalachian South Folklife Center (or ASFC), gave us the night we arrived was that we were going to a trailer home where a mom, dad, and three daughters lived…that just the week before a group had gone in and cleaned two inches of cockroaches from the corners and some of the floors of the rooms in their trailer.  That we were not to judge them in any way, but just go about carrying out the tasks we were assigned – to build a floor for a room addition for their youngest daughter, to lay a new floor in the kitchen and to clean out their appliances, to build a roof over the new porch, to repaint the entire outside of the trailer, and to get to know the family.  No short order for certain, especially for a group of young people who had just begun their summer vacation!   

            When we arrived on the Widener family compound we saw a dog with a death wish – who played chicken in the driveway with our vans everyday – an outhouse, 5 trailers (3 of which were in use), an old school bus, and lots of land.  Trailer number one was inhabited by grandma & grandpa, while trailer number two belonged to one of the sons, his wife, and two children (Dakota & Heather).  Trailer number three was where we were assigned, the trailer of another son (Rob), his wife (Jennifer), their daughter (Janet), and Rob’s two older daughters who lived with them only on weekends.  The Wideners are very much an Appalachian Family.  They are proud of their land.  They are proud of their families.  They were a wee bit leery of the young folks who in 5 minivans stormed their compound and came to change things.  They value the simple life.  They had worked as itinerant fruit pickers traveling in the old school bus out west before settling on their 18 acres in West Virginia .  They value the little they have in their homes, and they value one another.  So for us, a group of strangers, to enter onto their compound was certainly no small thing. 

             Within minutes after exiting our vans, we were set to work digging holes, cleaning up the yard, pulling apart the old porch, moving appliances out of the kitchen, and entertaining three small children.  No sooner did we get there then Dale, our construction supervisor, warned us not to go too close to the other trailers because they weren’t too happy we were there.  You see, it took a lot for Rob and Jennifer, full of their Appalachian Pride, but both with medical issues, to reach out to ASFC for help and to let us not only work outside their home but to invite us inside as well.  Their extended family was less than happy about the circumstances, so the first day we kept our distance. 

             Little by little throughout the week, though, the rest of the family began to hang around, to see how much fun our youth were having spending a week of their summer vacation serving God and God’s people, and asking questions about ASFC and the projects that could be done on their homes.  By the end of the week, the seed that God had planted in Jennifer’s family had been tended to.  Both of the other families – both of whom, as you may recall, were not happy about having us there in the first place – had called ASFC by Friday and scheduled much needed work to be done on their places.  The kids, Dakota, Heather, and Janet who were either too violent to play with or too shy to utter a word the first day we were there, by the end of the week had become helpful – helping carry ladders and buckets -- and opened up – playing and spending time with our youth blowing bubbles, playing tag, and talking about school.  That small seed had certainly grown into an amazing thing.  The Good News was shared in conversations with the Widener family, in conversations with the young folks who were able to go on the trip, and through the actions of all who worked together that week to make a positive difference.  Being able to serve others, to watch our youth in action working and playing around the Widener Family compound, to see the difference made in the home we worked on…it was a small seed that had been planted right here at CCB for our youth, and one that had been planted in the lives of the Wideners in its own way, just growing and growing. 

 The passage in the gospel of Mark is similar to one in the Old Testament Book of Daniel, which speaks of a small seed growing into a large tree.  “Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all,” it says in Daniel.  “The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed.”  It is amazing to think that something so small as a mustard seed can grow into a huge bush that provides food and housing for many of God’s creatures. 

 Faith, my friends, is much like that seed.  It can start out so small, with just a simple word or thought, but with some tending to – joining together in worship and fellowship, praying, studying, applying our faith to the issues that we see facing our world today – our faith grows into something that feeds us and gives us hope.  God’s promise of the kingdom grows from that faith.  We envision a place and time where people find radical equality in Jesus Christ, when people choose love for God and one another above the competing interests and claims that are made in our modern day lifestyles and cultures.  If we hope and believe that God cares for all of us and all of creation, and that God will use us as agents of change, then there is no end to how large the kingdom of God can become.  But it starts with small acts – small seeds that with some attentive tending bear great fruit.

 The gospel of Mark was written at a time of persecution of the early Christians.  It provided a theology of hope for them in difficult times – and continues to provide one for us today.  “In order to view a glimpse of the Kingdom of God,” one commentator wrote, “you just have to look at the Good News we find in the actions of Jesus—the healer, teacher, [friend], crucified and risen one.”  St. Paul took the Good News in the Gospels one step further in his letters explaining that service to God means service to one another and to our neighbors throughout the world.  In this light – faith inspires each of us to “pay it forward.”  As we have received love and care from God, we are to share that love and care with others whom we encounter—family, friends, and strangers alike.

 “How about we use that scripture passage that says something about a small seed growing into a really large bush,” she said.  “That way we can talk about the ways we have all grown and seen others grow this week.”

Truer words have rarely been spoken.  Thanks be to God for these words, for a kingdom that continues to grow, and for the good news we continue to receive through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.  Amen.



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