The first time I attended a service at an Episcopal Church occurred when I was in seventh grade. It came after having slept over at a close friend’s house on a Saturday night and I was curious to see how that particular church was different from the one I grew up in.
Upon my arrival at the church, many things caught my eye in a most amusing way. I had never seen a church where people crossed themselves. I had never seen a whole congregation kneel for prayer. I had never had communion with wine and I had never seen a minister in West Virginia that looked like the spitting image of Friar Tuck. He had the hairline, the sideburns, everything.
It was fascinating to say the least. The service flowed differently from what I was used to. Yet, out of all the new things I saw around me, what later gave me the motivation to come back and eventually make that my church home was the sermon that was preached by Fr. Paul Bresnahan.
The sermon was on the parable of the mustard seed and it was preached during a time of great difficulty in my life. As a seventh grader, I had recently lost one of my best friends and mentors to Alzheimer’s disease. My grandfather, a United Methodist Minister and, in many ways, my fellow partner in crime, had slowly begun to deteriorate both in mind and body.
Prior to his transition into the last stages of the disease, I remember my grandfather saying to me that what he feared most from the disease was that, in the end, he would lose his dignity. Upon his death, to a teenager, it seemed that his biggest fear had come true and that revelation shook me to the core.
Now, always having gone to church and hearing sermons of how the good triumph, while the bad are punished, I could not get my head around how such a good man, a man that devoted his life to service to Christ and others, could suffer so much and have his greatest fear realized.
I was confused. I was heartbroken. I was angry. For the first time in my life, I can honestly say that what little faith I had was finally being put to the test. It was easier for me to be angry and push away belief in Christ as an absurdity, rather than continue to believe that in the midst of pain, suffering, terror, and injustice, there was still a loving God.
A loving God walking alongside us, suffering with us, and calling out to us that we are beloved, even though we have to face the trials that life simply has to offer.
I walked into that Episcopal Church having all of that pressure and pain weighing in my heart. I was trying hard to really care about what was going on. I was trying to convince myself that the good preacher had something truthful to offer me when I felt that God was so far away. So, as he approached the pulpit, I began to listen.
He talked about how the kingdom of heaven was a tricky thing to understand. He said that Christ tried to best explain it to us through the use of parables, but we always seemed to be lacking the whole picture. For some, they understand the kingdom of heaven to be a place we go to when the faithful die. Others understand it as a tangible reality that could take place on earth if only we followed the life that Christ intended for us.
Yet, amid all of these pictures that had been presented to him, Fr. Paul admitted that he honestly did not have a complete understanding of what the kingdom of heaven was like. However, in his own experience, Fr. Paul had come to understand that the kingdom of heaven was not simply one idea, but a reality that existed in multiple places. The place he understood the kingdom of heaven to exist most intimately was in the human heart.
He said that it is a place that can feel, at times, as full as Fenway Park and as empty as a bottomless pit. As you can tell, Fr. Paul is an avid Red Sox fan! Laying that aside, he best understood the parable of the mustard seed in this framework. He said, that “when our hearts feel empty and our faith has come into question, God is able to take whatever reserve we have left and transform it, like the mustard seed grown into a tree.”
Now, show of hands, how many of you have ever gotten to see a mustard seed? They really are rather neat. They are tiny little spheres, almost weightless. They are smaller than a sunflower seed, even smaller than a BB. Yet, they grow into a really interesting shrub.
When I was digging in Israel, I finally got to see the crop where my French’s mustard came from and they are very much as the gospel portrays them. They can grow into little trees; some 5 to 6 feet, some 9 to 10 feet, and others can reach up to 15ft. in height. The only thing I can compare it to is a thinner version of a willow tree. It is an amazing thing to see and looking back, it is hard to believe that such a plant arose from such an insignificant yellow seed.
This, I think, is precisely Jesus’ point, in that the reality of that transformation from seed to towering tree tends not to be understood until one experiences the finished product. When a farmer goes to plant a crop, he knows generally what to expect from a seed. Yet, time and time again, the harvest catches one by surprise when looking at all the beauty that God could create out of a handful of seeds. So it is with the kingdom of heaven lying within the heart of a believer.
It is hard to believe that God can work in our lives when everything seems to be going wrong. It is hard to believe that despair can be transformed into rejoicing. But again, I say, that when our hearts feel empty and our faith has come into question, God is able to take whatever reserve we have left and transform it, like the mustard seed grown into a tree. Though, in order for that to happen, we must offer something in return and that is to trust in God.
When reflecting on the sermon I heard from Fr. Paul all those years ago, I remember finding this point to be the hardest to swallow. Again, as a young boy, angry from losing a loved one, I heard the word trust and initially blew it off as a simple gesture offered by the good preacher, which said, “If you simply believe hard enough, everything is going to work out all right.” However, I do not think this was ever his intention or belief.
When I went home that evening, I can remember starting to wrestle with his words, “God can transform your heart…have faith…trust in God.”
I kept asking myself, “What did he mean and why can’t I get this out of my head?” Unable to come up with an answer, I went to bed, crying a bit, confused, and angry. I missed my friend. I missed my grandfather. Yet, as the days and nights continued, I reflected more and more on what Father Paul said in his sermon. “Trust in God.”
So, instead of avoiding the issue and making it easier on myself by avoiding God, I began to pray. Bit by bit, I shared my feelings even though I felt at times that I was speaking to no one. I told God that I was angry. I told God that I deserved an answer and that servants did not deserve the kind of pain my grandfather went through.
For a long time, I still felt that there was no answer. There was no one that heard my prayers. But, I could not stop, because the words “trust in God” were still on my heart.
Months passed and every night I still prayed to God the same prayer. “I am angry. I miss my friend. I miss my grandfather. Help me to understand.”
Soon, as result, my prayers seemed to open up something inside of me. Amid the anger and confusion, I was able to look back and see a fuller picture of my grandfather. I could see how he was when I knew him and not simply the bad portions toward the end. I began to see him as a pastor, the man who would stop on the side of the road when anyone had a flat tire. I began to see him as the friend who loved it when I came over because that meant we didn’t have to watch the news anymore. I began to see him as the gentle spirit who had helped other people when they were dying, knowing full well how scary it is, but knowing full well the greater gift that lied ahead.
My grandfather trusted in God so much, that even in his fear, he was always ready for the next journey that lied ahead, whatever it may be. That was something I had forgotten for a long time, especially when his disease had gotten worse. Through prayer, I was able to discern that it was not both of us, but only me that was resentful for the death of my grandfather.
Without time and trusting that God’s presence would help make things clear, I doubt I would have ever been able to come to terms with my feelings. By letting go and seeing what God would bring to me the next day, the next month, and in the years to come, the bottomless pit I felt eventually welled up with a zest for life and an ability to see God’s grace in places I never knew to look before. The kingdom of heaven in my heart had truly transformed the mustard seed into a towering tree.
Still, I know that trust is not easy. The contents and intentions of one’s words can hardly do anything to change that fact. As a new member of this church family, I find myself wondering where each of you are in your spiritual journey with Christ. I don’t know about your faith story. I don’t know your moments of triumph and what drives you to keep coming here week after week. I don’t know what things have hurt you, confused you, and has caused doubt. In time, I hope to be here to listen to your stories. I hope to explore those stories and work alongside you as you come to understand how Christ is calling you into service each and every day.
At St. James’s our motto comes from scripture. “Be Ye Doers of the Word and not hearers only.” It is a grand reminder of our gospel call where we must act within our individual lives and with those around us to see Christ’s kingdom more visible each day. Yet, I would offer that the first step we all must take in that journey is to stop and reflect on our personal relationship with Christ. Ask yourself, “Without trusting God to transform my own heart, how then will it be possible for me to show Christ to others through love and service?”
I pose the question again. Without trusting God to transform my own heart, how then will it be possible for me to show Christ to others through love and service? If the answer that pops in your head provides some pause, uncertainty, or uneasiness, I think you are on the right track. So, when we all leave this building today and go home, I request that we take the time to question in our own minds what it is to trust in God and have we really begun to do so?
I can promise you that there will be times in your journey where your faith will seem so certain. There will be times when it feels empty and small due to struggles along the way. Nevertheless with prayer, patience, and trust in God, our hearts can and will be transformed. The kingdom of heaven manifest in your heart will provide you with a purpose-filled life where love for others not only becomes a possibility in the near future, but an abundant reality, like the mustard seed grown into a towering tree. Amen.