There is so much richness in Jesus’ teaching today and so many directions one could pursue as we seek to come to a deeper understanding of the Kingdom, the Reign of God. There are mustard seeds and yeast, discovered treasure and a pearl of great value and yes, there are fish of all sorts gathered and sorted. And oh, there is the master of the household finally sorting it all out, what is new and what is old.
One could surely take any one of these paths and be blessed with an encounter with The Holy which would, which surely could all on its own shape your day, your days as you live deep into it. For me at least, I am staying with the first, the mustard seed, that small beginning, which winds up providing home and safe haven for the birds of the air. I am staying in the first because it is an image of growth and because it comes closest to describing where my heart is now, although I expect all the rest could do the same, should I stand still within them for even a little while.
You have heard, I know, that John Lewis died, that Civil Rights icon who as a very young man heard a call to something more than he had ever known. And I wonder, I do, who or what planted a ‘mustard seed’ in his heart when so many others who shared his history and circumstance could not or did not experience the same. And as I consider his story, I think of the seeds that have been planted in you and in me which as they grow and flourish can and should also provide shelter for the flourishing of the very Reign of God where all people, but especially those who have had and continue to live so far from the gifts and promises of God’s Kingdom — especially, yes, black and brown people in my own community and in yours.
I think of those seeds and I think now of especially one, a pastor’s tears.
I was there, I am certain of it, but I was not quite 7 years old, in the spring of my first grade year. We were in worship where we would have been every Sunday morning at the 10:30 service.
The Thursday before, Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated at dinner time while standing on a balcony outside his second floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Years later my mother told me that on Sunday morning our pastor had spoken of it those few short days later and that he wept as he spoke.
I do not know who or what had planted such seeds in him which could have resulted in his apparently out of character very public Sunday morning response to a tragedy which was and has been repeated again and again and shapes us still. I only know that I have carried the mere story of his tears close to my own heart all these years as I have wondered at what it is to pastor, yes, but also simply to live and in even small ways to lead in a world which falls so very short of the vision Jesus held up for us so long ago. Indeed, today I would say that those long ago tears have continued to nurture in me the understanding that the church’s place is to speak to heartbreak and injustice in the world. And so much more.
And so it is that I wonder, I do, not only at the origin of the seeds which have been planted and nurtured and grown in each and all of us. I also wonder at the amazing things those seeds can accomplish. And in the case of the mustard seed, I can almost see it with the birds sailing in and under the shelter it provides, feeding their young, protecting them from predators, teaching them to fly. And I cannot help but consider that the seeds planted in you and in me are meant to be and do the same: to provide shelter and sustenance so that others might also flourish and grow:
- That such seeds are planted and again nurtured and grown that life might not only begin.
- But also continue.
- And in our living and growing and giving allow others to flourish. And be and do the same.
These days, especially, I do find myself wondering at what the story of a pastor’s tears planted in me so long ago and how they continue to nourish my own call.
And just like with most any living thing, so has the story of the planting of this seed within my own heart been one of growth, yes, but one that has grown in fits and starts. Of not necessarily having been nurtured by what I learned in school (not grade school or high school, and no not really in college or in seminary either — although all were a long time ago) while at the same time given room to stretch and grow in my childhood household which recognized the inherent value of those who differed from us, from me. Indeed, this ‘mustard seed’s call to grow: to be and do more is certainly receiving plenty of sunshine and rain in these days in our world and in the community I now serve where there are other companions both like and unlike me who have also sensed that this or something like it has been planted in them as well.
And yes, at least for me. As one whose growth is often deepened in relationships, in conversations, and in stepping out where I have never been before among those with whom I might not normally spend my time, it is also nurtured in learning. I am growing by simply reading the stories of those whose gifts and experiences, challenges and hopes and heartaches have been long inaccessible to me. In part because they were perhaps not easily available. In larger part, it is true, because my own curiosity had not yet taken me there. And while book learning is not enough, it can go some distance to build foundations under the seeds planted in me so long ago. Nurtured yes, by the story of a pastor’s tears, but growing ever stronger roots as I understand more fully the deep hurts of people who have lived alongside but for far too long, far too separate.
There are so many books being suggested these days: so very many possibilities of which each and every one would be worth your time. For me at least, in these last months it has been these three:
God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights by Charles Marsh. This one tells the faith stories of individuals in 1964 Mississippi. It is a fascinating read as one learns about how the faith can be twisted to represent something you will not begin to recognize as your own while it also raises up heroes and saints whose ‘mustard seeds’ did exactly what they were intended to do. If you are anything like me, the names and the faces on the pages will be new to you. While some of it will be unsettling, you won’t be sorry you gave these stories your time.
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone. Perhaps you will also come to the end of this one and wonder how it is that generations of theologians, which include many of us as well, have not seen the now obvious parallel between the two. Spending time in this one expanded and deepened my understanding of the horrific experience of lynching: a practice which, as we know, heart-breakingly, criminally, still continues today.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of the Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. This is a long one, but a rich story and one that is oh, so important. Indeed, the author pulls together pieces of what I have come to know and adds a whole lot more. If you can give it the time, I expect you will not be sorry as it offers such insight into the life experiences of those who not so very long ago risked everything to get out of Jim Crow South, seeking to escape often threats to their own lives and livelihood, only to encounter much the same in northern cities which promised so much more.
I am not normally in the habit of offering book reviews in this space, but these are such a part of what is nurturing this ‘mustard seed’ planted within me to grow, that they seem important to share.
Indeed, these words on paper along with the blessed company of others who are working hard to learn as well, along with regular conversation (these days by ZOOM) with other faith leaders in the community who struggle with these matters, too, are moving me into new places. This and a whole lot of prayer, of course. A whole lot of listening, a whole lot of learning, and a whole lot of prayer.
And so for you, I wonder, too:
- What ‘mustard seed’ has been planted in your own heart? Can you think of an instant like my story of a pastor’s tears to which you return again and again as perhaps the source or start of that planting or nurturing? What was it for you?
- Has it grown in fits and starts like mine? What has enabled it to grow? What has stood in its way?
- Finally, if the goal of the ‘mustard tree’ is to provide safe haven for others, how is that also the goal of the seed planted in you? And how is that coming to fruition even now?