Milestones in our Faith: The Mustard Seed
Scripture: Matthew 13:31-34
My spiritual background is a bit of a wild ride. While I wasn’t raised in the church, I went with a friend to Grotonwood for winter camp at age 13 and was pulled into an Evangelical whirlwind that carried me through high school and then off to India, Thailand, and Malaysia for two years of missionary work before heading to Bible college with the intention of going into ministry full time.
This version of church was everything I could want. Great music, built in community, clear expectations. I went from “just a kid” to a leader. I was encouraged to learn and to teach. People wanted to hear what I had to say. They taught me how to play guitar and soon I was even leading worship. Faith was emotional and vulnerable and a shock to my Raised in New England system of academic rigor. I couldn’t get enough.
In my early 20s, it all came crashing down when I came out as queer and was removed from church leadership and even had my membership revoked by my home church where I was a worship leader and teacher. Despite all of this, I didn’t lose my faith. I studied to prove them wrong and truly believed I could change the church somehow.
They couldn’t take this from me.
Then I became a parent. It’s one thing to be rejected yourself, it’s another thing altogether to justify that rejection to your own kid.
How could I raise a child in a church that rejects her family? How could I call myself a Christian when those using the same word used it as a weapon against me?
So I didn’t. I left the church, again. Riley was born and wasn’t baptized. We didn’t celebrate Christian holidays, we celebrated the seasons instead. I made it up as we went, on some kind of adventure to protect her from all who had hurt me.
As she got older, I knew she would have questions, so I began a quest for the answers. While I had spent many years studying Christianity and world religions through the lens of converting others in my missionary work, I hadn’t ever looked at world religions with an open, learning mind. Now, with the intention to learn in order to teach my own child who had no frame of reference whatsoever, it all felt like starting from the beginning.
Soon I began to find the similarities among religions, and more importantly the similarities among people.
I was particularly drawn to the mindfulness movement of a sort of westernized Buddhism. One that requires no religious affiliation or even belief system, just a willingness to be present in the moment. I learned about meditation and began a daily meditation practice that continues today.
In mindfulness meditation, the idea is that meditation is as simple as watching your breath. You notice when you breathe in, you notice when you breathe out. As you go, you may get carried away by your thoughts, but you can always come back to the breath.
The idea is that in following your breath, you allow your mind a lot of room. Room for thoughts to come and go and not carry you away. Room for ideas to pass through.
Room for questions to go without answers.
And over time, with practice, you begin to get more comfortable with your own thoughts and questions and doubts without weighing them down with nagging attention.
As a new parent, I found that parenting was a lot of “I have no idea!” and “I have to do it anyway!” And with time and practice, I felt peace in the *not knowing*. Soon enough, I cancelled my frantic quest to prepare answers to the questions my kid hadn’t considered asking yet and instead accidentally discovered a deeper richness of my own Christian faith that I missed the first time around.
Liturgy. Tradition. There’s a lot of good stuff that keeps going whether or not you have an opinion about it.
The chants of Buddhist meditation reminded me of the prayers of the rosary I had learned in Catholic elementary school.
The mindful acceptance of suffering reminded me of Jesus on the cross.
The struggle of ego reminded me of our desperate need for grace.
In the reading today, we heard the parable of the mustard seed. Something I hadn’t really paid much attention to before is that there are two parables of the mustard seed.
The one I’ve always remembered is “faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains.” This one was popular in my evangelical Change The World phase.
But the reading today shows up in Matthew, Mark, and Luke to talk about the mustard seed creating a large tree to provide branches for birds to make nests in the shade.
And while that may change the world for those birds for just a moment... other than going from small to big, it isn’t all that remarkable.
But I’ve come around to see faith in exactly that way. Relatively unremarkable. Faith doesn’t required frantic studying and academics. Faith isn’t about answers or even necessarily devotion. Faith doesn’t have to change the world.
Faith is in the familiar. Familiar like making a secure space for a bird’s nest. Familiar like breathing. Like parenting. Like questions and doubt. Like learning each day what it is like to be human. And also, as what we heard last week, like the experience of death and dying.
The Buddhist tradition also has a parable of the mustard seed. One that I discovered as a new parent and couldn’t shake. Because it is about the loss of a child, a parent’s worst fear.
As the story goes, there was a young mother named Kisa Gotami who had one beloved son. When he was just a young toddler, he tragically died. In the young mother’s devastation, she refused to believe her child was dead. She picked him up and carried him to find a doctor to heal him.
Unable to find anyone to help, she came upon the Buddha. When she told him her story, the Buddha offered to revive the child if she could come back with a mustard seed obtained from a family in which no one had died. Kisa ran off to the village, still carrying her young child’s body, and went house to house to find a family who had not been touched by death. House by house the people told Kisa their own stories of loss and grief and could not give her the mustard seed. Eventually, she went off to lay the child’s body in the forest and returned to the Buddha, now at peace. She realized that suffering and death is inescapable and universal. It is in dying that we are born to eternal life. It is in death that we understand what it is to be human.
Jesus tells us, “Take up your cross and follow me,” in much the same way.
We carry the cross of loss and sin and death. We carry the cross of racism and inequality and rejection. We carry the cross of transphobia and oppression.
As I navigate my own faith, this parable reminds me that I am not alone, not in this church, not in this world. Ten years into parenting, I am now out as transgender, I am divorced and partnered, I am living a life I never could haven anticipated. And I am now a member of this church.
We choose this faith community because no house is untouched by the human experience. Even in our differences of race, culture, gender identity, orientation, education, or financial situation.
We no longer run from each other for what makes us different, instead, we are here to dig into what we share.
We are committed to the work that requires of us. Mountains may or may not be moved in the process.
And I am FINALLY just fine with that.