Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Nathan Mattox First Sermon in Morris: "It's always the last place you look"

1st samuel 15:34-16:13
Mark 4:26-34

I hesitated at first to bring to you the Gospel reading today. This is the story that you’ve probably heard of as the mustard seed. It seems that God’s kingdom is not always spectacular and noticeable at first glance—in fact it rarely is. With the parable of the mustard seed, or the pine nut, as Eugene Peterson tells the story in his translation of the Bible that I read from today called the “Message,” we see Jesus comparing the Kingdom to something quite small and unremarkable.
I’m sure you’ve heard it said that “It’s always the last place you look.” I can attest to the truth of this statement, because unpacking boxes creates an enormous amount of mess, and I I’ve spent hours in the last week just looking for things that I had set down a few minutes before. It was only in recent years that I finally got the joke of this saying. Of course it is always the last place you look, because if you find what you’re looking for, you stop looking, right? Even if you find what you’re looking for in the first place you look, it is also the last place you look.
Jesus on several occasions shows us that what we usually don’t notice—what we call small and insignificant—are usually the most potent metaphors for God and God’s glorious kingdom. I hesitated to read this Gospel lesson today because I was just a bit concerned that those of you who helped me unload the U-haul would assume that the opposite might also be true. A 26 foot U-haul full of “stuff” is anything but inconspicuous. Lurching down 3rd street, scraping the branches of trees as I pulled it into our new home, I prayed, “Lord, give these people patience!” To my surprise and delight, we unloaded the van and even set up our bed in less than an hour! While Jesus tells us in the parables that good things come in small packages, I hope that today you might entertain the possibility that in my family’s presence with you here today, good things might also come in big packages too!
From what I’ve been able to tell from the bulletins I’ve seen, this congregation usually only hears one scripture lesson. I’ve been told that we pastors aren’t supposed to change anything in the worship service for at least a few months, and I had at first thought I’d base my sermon solely on the Samuel scripture—but this little pine nut kept coming to mind, and these scriptures go so well together.
Besides—I ride a bicycle okay, but I have never gotten up on a unicycle. Likewise, I need two scriptures to keep a sermon balanced and going in the right direction. With one I might just wobble around and fall on my face. I hope you don’t mind the change—I don’t preach a long time usually, and we’ll probably have room to hear two accounts of God’s story—our story—I think.
What strikes me about both of these scriptures that we heard today is that phrase from the Samuel reading—“the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
This is so clear in our Scriptures—that God always seems to choose those we’d least expect—Jacob and Joseph, Jonah and Ruth, Peter and Mary, even Jesus and David are unlikely candidates for God’s Spirit to stir within them. We all tend to judge on outward appearances.
Believe me, I’m aware of what my outward appearances are—young, green—and in my case the outward appearances are truly part of who I am—but thank God we have a Father in heaven that sees into our hearts--Sees our hearts not as fist-sized organs for pumping blood, but instead dwelling places large enough for God’s own Spirit!
I think this is why Jesus uses little seeds and little children and little farmers and little birds and flowers to point out the truth of God’s Kingdom. God is so immensely present in all things that sometimes it is the smallest things that give us an insight into who God is. We can wrap our feeble minds around the small things. The kingdom is indeed like a seed. Martin Luther said that the whole universe is infused with the totality of God—he said that even a grain of wheat, designed and brought into being by our creator, contains God’s presence. Meister Eckhart, a 14th century mystic and pastor, said, “Apprehend God in all thingsfor God is in all things.Every single creature is full of Godand is a book about God.Every creature is a word of God.If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature -even a caterpillar -I would never have to prepare a sermon.So full of God is every creature.
Mark tells us that Jesus gives us the Word as we are able to hear it. It has always been inspiring to me that God wants to be known and loved so much that we are given these stories that are so profound and yet so simple. A farmer casting out seed and then falling asleep—while the kingdom sprouts in his midst without him even knowing how. The kingdom is like that isn’t it?! How many times have you simply said something very offhandedly or perhaps even been unaware of how deeply you have touched someone else? My first year of ministry taught me this humbling parable in my own experience. Every week I struggled to find the right words to convey what I believe God wants me to convey, and then after I would deliver a sermon, I usually forgot about it and moved on to preparing for next week’s sermon—
but later in the week a parishioner might come up to me and tell me how something in particular I had said had really made a difference in their outlook that week. It may have even been something I forgot about saying!
What a gift it is to see the grain ready for the harvest! What a mystery it is to know that a simple smile or gesture of good will can make such a difference to someone.
The inverse is true as well of course, the slightest wag of the tongue, the smallest little whisper of a broken confidence sometimes bears the largest consequences of all—even while we “sleep” and forget about what we have said or done, our carelessness can sometimes spiral out of control.
Saul knew of this carelessness. You might ask yourself why Saul had fallen out of God’s favor—why, as the scriptures tell us, “God regretted ever having made Saul king.” It was just the slightest slip up—God had commanded Saul to conquer and kill the Amelekites—from top to bottom—from the King himself to the scrawniest goat in his Kingdom, and yet Saul had given permission to his warriors to take the choicest livestock as spoils of war.
As the scriptures show us, God loves shepherds—God is a shepherd. But God chooses a shepherd who would lay down his life for his flock, not lay down the lives of others for their flocks. Jesus tells us that he is the kind of Shepherd who would spend all day searching for the tiniest lost lamb, and Saul becomes the kind of shepherd who chooses the best livestock for himself.
Jesus chooses the mustard seed, and Samuel calls in Jesse’s youngest son from the fields where he is tending sheep and anoints him as the next king. Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” and David is celebrated as a fierce defender of his sheep—an unexpected King who comes out of the pasture to defeat giants and to lead a nation in the worship of God. Who would expect this of a shepherd boy?
Samuel tells us that God doesn’t see as we see, but God looks at a person’s heart. In a sense, Jesus is telling us the same thing with the parable of the mustard seed. The heart of a mustard seed is what it will become—and God doesn’t write off the seed because it is small and inconspicuous.
I have been a pastor for the past year at a small church, so I know that at times we can feel somewhat small and insignificant in comparison to the other more “successful” churches, the churches with so much to offer, the churches with the huge programs and the new buildings. But I can tell you that God chooses us as long as we have a heart for God. I’m not saying that God chooses us and not those big churches, because many of them are doing great things for the glory of God—but what I am saying is that God chooses us in the same measure that God chooses those other places.
God loves to dwell in our hearts, and physical size has no bearing on the size of heart. I can attest to you that in my short encounter with you thus far, I see a heart open to God—I see a pine tree with an Eagle’s nest. In the outpouring of help we have received, in the welcome baskets full of brownies and fresh vegetables and salsa and canned goods, in the pounding of steaks and beef and pound cake and other goods, in the in the ministries and motivation that I have witnessed at this past week’s church council meeting,
it is obvious to me that this church witnesses God’s presence. Being welcoming is a response to God’s grace pouring into and out of a place. Jesus says in the gospel of 7th chapter of John, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let anyone who believes in me drink. And out of the believer’s heart will come rivers of living water.” The Living water is the refreshing, purifying Holy Spirit—and in my opinion the Living water is often experienced as “welcoming.” Judging on our reception here, I would proclaim it as good news that this family of faith has felt the thirst in your throats and has dug the well to the heart of Christ—and that you drink from it and are now spilling over with the Spirit’s presence.
As your pastor, I see it as my calling to remind us of our thirst—remind us that this thirst creates possibilities for others to drink from the living waters which in turn flow out of our hearts.
Thirst causes us to see pine trees in pine nuts—to see shepherd boys as kings. Living this way takes constant hope. It takes a relentless hope in the possibilities of things unseen. But—as we have heard, God sees the things unseen, and God puts stock in mustard seeds, and shepherds, and us! amen

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