glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, June 17, 2012

On Mustard Seeds, Episcopalians, and the Kingdom of God: A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost


 I thought I’d begin this morning by sharing a little about the Episcopal City Mission’s Annual Dinner on Tuesday evening last week.  Several of us from Emmanuel attended: Eric Dannenberg, Tim Green, Bill Hausrath, Mo Pollman, Lynn Peterson, and I.  The ECM dinner is one of the biggest events in the diocese, besides diocesan convention.  We don’t vote on anything, but instead visit, enjoy a little wine and cheese, and then sit down for dinner and hear a speaker.  This year’s it was Richard Parker of Harvard’s Kennedy School.  His talk was entitled “Does the world still need the Episcopal Church?”  But really it was more focused on what’s distinctive about the Episcopal Church and how we all should be more active in promoting it. 

Parker noted that 57% of the signers of Declaration of Independence were Episcopalian.  30% of the Supreme Court’s justices have been.   And more U.S. presidents have been Episcopalian than any other denomination: 26%, despite the fact that we are less than 2% of the population.  Franklin Roosevelt, our longest serving president, was Episcopalian, and in fact, was senior warden of his parish in Hyde Park, NY the whole 12 years that he was in the White House.  Roosevelt even interrupted cabinet meetings to take calls from his rector.  I was sitting next to our Senior Warden Eric Dannenberg and said, “That’s a lot to live up to, isn’t it?”  Now, given that FDR was warden while saving the world from the Great Depression and Hitler, I don’t want to hear anyone say they are too busy if I should call upon you!   

Since the ECM dinner, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be Episcopalian today.  Some of you have been Episcopalian your whole life, or at least for a very long time, while others are newer to the tradition.  I joined the Episcopal Church in college, attracted by two factors—which may at first seem contradictory.   One is the church’s historical tradition, the liturgy, the beautiful buildings, the sense that the faith we embrace and share is ancient.  But at the same time, we are open to new insights, we try to be inclusive of all people, and strive for justice and peace.  I actually don’t think that these factors are contradictory, holding a traditional, even ancient faith, while believing in justice and inclusiveness, but some might.

As you know, some of my experiences in the Episcopal Church (and also the Anglican Church of Canada) have been in large, impressive churches, like the cathedral in Minneapolis, or some grand places in Toronto.  Trinity Church, Copley Square, Church of the Epiphany in Winchester, or Christ Church in Cambridge, might be local equivalents.  But, these grand places, with high cathedral ceilings, flying buttresses, and large budgets are not typical of the Episcopal Church.  Parishes like Emmanuel are much more common.

In fact, 68% of Episcopal parishes have fewer than 100 people in attendance on Sundays.  The median Sunday attendance is 65 people.  Emmanuel’s average attendance in 2011 was 81.  So, we are actually a bit bigger than the national average.  Not that we should be complacent—there’s always room for more, and we are somewhat less than average for the Diocese of Massachusetts—but it doesn’t hurt to remember where we fit into the bigger picture.  

Now, the reasons that our parishes tend to be on the smaller side are many.  Some of them are historic—a professor of mine said that it was because Episcopalians were too loaded down with fancy vestments, carved altars, and holy hardware like silver chalices and brass thuribles—so we didn’t do a very good job of moving beyond the East Coast.  We’re more clustered in places like New England, New York, and Virginia.  But we also haven’t been as good at evangelism as others, we’re too shy or reserved about our faith.  And often, as around here, it’s because there are Episcopal churches in every town so none of them are especially big. 

But, sometimes I think our modest size may be by design.  That’s what I’ve concluded is the case for Emmanuel.  Just look at our building.  It only seats about 130 people, 160 maximum.  Those who established Emmanuel must not have intended for us to be very big.  It took 11 years before they were able to cobble together enough money for even a very modest building.  When they finally built the church, it must have seemed that even a church this big was wishful thinking. 

But they did eventually grow, and in 1900 when they decided to relocate from Water Street to the Common, they could have used that opportunity to build something grander—more like the Congregational, Baptist, or Universalist churches nearby, churches that make a statement.  But they didn’t.  They loved this little church so much that they lifted it up off its foundation and moved it to where we are now. 

It seems that our founders’ vision was never that Emmanuel would be a rival to the big churches in Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline, or even the bigger churches in Wakefield, the churches with grand buildings and flying buttresses and big budgets.  But rather, that we would be an intimate parish, the New England equivalent of the small, English country church, maybe even a bit like on the Vicar of Dibly TV series, where we all know each other, and care about each other, and do good things together, maybe not in a big splashy way, but honestly and sincerely.

And, you know, when Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, as in today’s gospel, he was reminding the disciples that there’s nothing wrong in being small, even in being insignificant by the standards of the world.  Jesus was encouraging them and reminding them that God can and does use even the smallest of seeds, even the smallest group of people, to make the kingdom of God grow and flourish.   It doesn’t take a lot.  Even 12 scraggly, gaff-prone apostles are plenty.

That’s a nice, image isn’t it, that Jesus uses in his parable--the tiny mustard seed that becomes a growing tree, with birds resting in its branches?  But, as nice as it sounds, the parable of the mustard seed is also challenging--both to Jesus’ disciples in the first century and also to us today.  Because, you see, mustard seeds were not only small, they were also pesky, like weeds really, and they would grow out of control.  A farmer wouldn’t want them around, for fear that they would choke out all of the more desirable vegetation.  The biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has written of this parable:

The point… is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds… where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, [but more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses -- if you could control it.

So, in telling this parable, Jesus seems to be saying that even though the kingdom starts out small, it will take over, it will be hard to control, it will transform the world.  And you know what, I think that’s what we are called to be like as well.  Earlier I spoke of the significant people who were Episcopalian: the signers of the Declaration of Independence, presidents of the United States, supreme court justices, people of power and influence.  That is our history and our legacy and we can be proud of it.  But Episcopalians are also people on the outside of power. We are people working to transform society into something more just, more equitable, something that less resembles grand cathedrals and more resembles the kingdom of God: where the hungry are fed, the sorrowful are comforted, God’s creation is preserved and protected, and all people, whoever they are, wherever they come from, are included within the embrace of God’s love and care.

In fact, that’s exactly what the Diocese’s TogetherNow campaign is helping us to accomplish.  By combining our gifts, of whatever size, even the size of the tiniest mustard seed, they can grow into something that has the power to transform lives, beyond what we are be able to do alone.  Some funds will support ministries in other parts of the world; some will help parishes, like Emmanuel, to be kinder to the environment through Green Grants; some will support the Barbara C. Harris Camp and provide rest, recreation, and faith instruction to children and youth; some will go toward training young adults in how to be transformational leaders themselves. And yes, some will go to the Cathedral—transforming it from the historic church of the diocese into a house of prayer for all people, where anyone and everyone is welcome, whoever they are, wherever they come from.

That’s the gospel of the Episcopal Church today, just as it was the gospel of Jesus’ first disciples.  And, you know, maybe that’s why we are small, as compared with other denominations.  Because the gospel we share can be hard to hear, because it challenges power and assumptions.  Because we don’t always offer easy answers or black and white rules for how to live.  But what we do offer, what we do believe, is that together, like the tiny mustard seed, we have the power to transform society, or at least our small corner of it, into something that more closely resembles the Kingdom of God.

To whom be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell