A sermon for the stately cedar, the young sapling, the wild bush, and even the tiniest mustard seed.
Texts: 1 Kings 3:5-12, Psalm 119:129-136, Romans 8:26-39; Matt. 13:31-33, 44-52
Our readings today are all about growth, taking us on a tour in an arboretum of faith. From the deep roots of our elders, to the new branches and buds visible in our very youngest members, the Church is meant to be a place where every type of plant, and every stage of growth, is welcome.
Our first reading describes King Solomon’s faith. When I think of Solomon, I think of a cedar – a mighty tree known for its height, strength, and straightness. Solomon was known for his strength and wisdom. The nation of Israel grew steadily under his reign. In this passage from 1 Kings, Solomon places complete faith in God, entrusting himself to God’s wisdom for his life, rather than asking for fame or wealth.
The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann describes the people who I would describe as having this kind of “cedar-faith”:
“They are persons who have decided some basic life-commitments. They know to whom they belong, and they will answer. Therefore, they know who they are, and they have settled in large part the moral posture they will assume toward life. There is a focus to life, an absence of frantic moral dilemma, a sense of priorities matched by an absence of anxiety.”
Those with cedar-faith live in a well-ordered world, because their lives are held together by faithful obedience to God. “And the result is not dullness or bitterness, but freedom,” says Brueggemann (The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 40).
These are people who bring light, life, joy and delight into the world. You know people like that, don’t you? They are our cedar trees of faith who keep us steady.
Let me tell you about one of my King Solomon cedar-faith models. Her name was Aunt Kitty. At least, that’s what everyone called her. She actually did not have any children, but she loved young people. She was a friend of my aunt’s, and she had a very strong, cedar-like faith. No matter what she faced in her life, her faith never wavered. She was as tall and strong and true as a towering cedar. Her wisdom would rival King Solomon’s. The way she lived her life – always showing kindness, never saying an unkind word about anyone, and being a role model for young people – demonstrated to me what that cedar-faith can do.
But let’s face it – we don’t all have that kind of deep-rooted, rock-solid faith. Some of us have more of what we might call a “sapling faith.” Psalm 119 is addressed to those with that kind of young faith. This is meant to be a teaching psalm, one to direct young people as they are growing in their faith.
Think about the youth in your congregation, your teens whose young sapling-faith needs tending and care. We nurture them through Sunday School, Confirmation, and youth group, giving them lots of opportunities to explore their faith. I think of the many children and youth I’ve taught and mentored during my 17 years as a pastor. I think of my own children, Rachel and Benjamin. Their sapling-faith gives me energy and fills me with hope.
Mustard bush faith
But let’s face it – we don’t all have that kind of young, vibrant, newly-green faith of the sapling. For some of us, our faith is more like the kind described by Jesus in his parable that we have in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus doesn’t talk about a stately cedar or young sapling. He talks about the lowly mustard bush (which grows to about 8-9 feet). Why would Jesus choose this scraggly specimen to illustrate faith and hospitality when so many other flora would be much prettier, grander, or well-mannered?
Mustard bushes are not the most respected plants in the garden. Yes, they have little yellow flowers, and the leaves and seeds are full of flavor and nutritional value. But they certainly would not be chosen for an ornamental garden. In fact, because they have a tendency to grow so rapidly, they are known to overtake the highest garden walls. So they are shunned by many gardeners. Mustard bushes are not stately trees, or even well-maintained, tightly clipped shrubs. The truth is, they usually grow wild.
You probably know people whose faith is like that, too. They’re a little on the wild side, a bit unconventional. They’re the ones who ask the far-out questions in our Bible studies, the ones who send me scurrying to my theological library. Maybe they’re not the stateliest tree in the garden, but their faith just grows and grows and grows. And they show up to help at everything, always willing to lend a hand, always there when you need them. They don’t care where the garden wall was built, they’re going to reach out over it and extend a welcoming and inviting hand to anyone who passes by. I’m sure you could name quite a few people who have this kind of mustard-bush faith.
Mustard seed faith
But let’s face it – we don’t all have that kind of out-of-the-box, creative, ever-spreading faith. For some of us, our faith is no bigger than . . . well, a mustard seed. It’s not much to look at. Nothing is happening with it. Drop it, and it will likely get lost on the ground. It’s not a tree. It’s not a sapling. It’s not even a plant at all yet. It’s just a seed.
I don’t know about you, but this is how I feel my faith is some days. No bigger than a grain of sand. Not doing anything. I hold it in the palm of my hand and hope I don’t accidentally drop it. Sometimes I hold it gingerly in my fingers and ask myself: Is this all I’ve got?
And then Jesus holds out his hand to receive this little seed. Or, sometimes he’s had to get down on his hands and knees with a magnifying glass when I’ve let it slip from my fingers. Like a woman searching for a lost coin, or a shepherd going after his tiniest lamb – the Gardener never gives up on my little seed of faith.
You see pastors often appear to be the stately cedar. But inside we’re more likely clinging to the tiniest seed. And we have to give that seed to Jesus again and again, trusting him to coax new life, new hope from that smallest bit of faith.
I give thanks to God that I had the blessing to have been planted in congregations where I could grow together with my congregation, creating new branches of faith. My little seed was welcomed along with the wild bushes, the young saplings, and the grand cedars.
God’s arboretum of faith
That is the beauty of God’s landscape of faith. There is room for everyone here. The long-time Solomon-members whose roots grow deep and whose cedar-faith grows tall and straight. The young cedar-saplings growing into the promise bestowed on them in the waters of Baptism. The wild, unkempt mustard bush – growing and reaching and welcoming. And the seeds – the ones with just the tiniest bits of promise and potential.
No seed is too small to escape the notice of the Gardener in this arboretum of faith. Every green shoot of growth is precious and nurtured by the Gardener’s hand.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).