We Need Mustard Seed Churches Now More Than Ever
Well, first of all, congratulations! You have a new priest! I’m so thrilled for you, and Grace Church will be very much in my prayers as you live into this next chapter of ministry with Father Bill.
We talked last week about what a precious time this season of transition is.
Often congregations want to kind of fast forward through the time between priests.
There’s a complex mix of emotions.
There’s grief from losing your previous rector.
There’s uncertainty over how the Spirit is leading the next steps of the church—are we making the right choices?
There’s anticipation but a bit of anxiety as the days tick down before your new priest arrives and joins your ministry.
Will things work out? Have we made the right call?
And that is a challenging set of emotions in normal times.
Add in the additional set of roadblocks that come with facing a transition during coronavirus, and anyone would want to throw their hands up in frustration.
But I urged you last week and I’ll urge you again to take advantage of this valuable interim, short though it may be.
Priests and congregations tend to imprint themselves on each other, and that can be a beautiful thing when their gifts complement each other.
But before Father Bill arrives, take these next few weeks to really dig deep into the charisms of Grace Church and ask God and each other what your call is in this new era.
You’re not having to write a profile, so you don’t have to worry about an audience for this self-reflection.
You can go deep together and examine who Grace Church wants to be in this time of coronavirus, in this time of economic downturn, in this time of the call to racial justice.
Those problems seem so big, it feels hard to imagine what a small Midwestern church in a small Midwestern city could do to impact them.
The needs are so great, where do you even start?
But look carefully at the images Jesus chooses to describe the Kingdom in our gospel today.
The mustard seed. The leaven in the dough. The treasure hidden in the field. The one pearl in the entire marketplace.
Those images are not about being big, and they’re certainly not about being powerful or wealthy.
Those images do not require mega-church-worthy slick online worship offerings.
Jesus doesn’t need you to be the biggest church in Jefferson City, or the cleverest, hippest, or richest.
Jesus needs you to be different.
That’s what Jesus’ images of the Kingdom in this gospel all have in common.
They are small, and they are different.
They stand out from the whole they are surrounded by.
They have a hidden power within their smallness, and God works through them to do extraordinary things.
I firmly believe that Grace Church is uniquely placed to be a remarkable living example of the mustard seed, the leaven in the dough, the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price in Jefferson City.
Small, humble, not necessarily flashy, but so different from your surroundings, so remarkable in your witness for justice, so radiant in your love for one another and the world, that the rest of the community is fundamentally changed by your presence.
So I ask you: what are you going to do with the remainder of this interim time?
You have the gift of having concluded your discernment fairly quickly—not the usual 18 month process of interim, profile writing, and search.
You can spend some time discovering how you will serve Jefferson City as the mustard seed, as the hidden treasure, as the yeast in the dough.
Bishop Deon sent me an article by Susan Beaumont about questions churches should be asking right now during the pandemic.
She opens with words that speak to where Grace Church is right now: “Liminal seasons are rich times, ripe for innovation and creativity. A threshold has opened. Our grasp on the past has loosened. The threshold invites us to let go of our fears and discomforts, along with some things that we hold dear. We are broken open to embrace new possibilities.”
She suggests three types of questions to frame your reflection.
What have we lost? What did we assume? And what wants to emerge?
I’ll read those again: What have we lost? What did we assume? And what wants to emerge?
And within those categories, she asks more specific questions.
How do we need to move forward differently?
What seemed important before that seems superfluous now?
What was undervalued before that we value more now?
What new abundance are we experiencing now?
What new scarcity are we seeing?
What is our greatest asset now?
What relationships will we need to build on or strengthen in the months ahead?
What unique role might our congregation play in local, national, and even global recovery?
What long term changes in the bigger picture would we like to be part of bringing to fruition?
These are big questions, but you have nothing to lose by driving straight in.
Maybe tackle a few at coffee hour.
Sprinkle them into Bible study and Vestry meetings.
Kick one around at the dinner table with your spouse, then text, call, or email a friend in the church with what you came up with.
Ask your kids one of these questions—I guarantee you’ll get outside the box answers.
This was Jesus’ model for ministry in the gospels. He gave big questions to small groups of people who were willing to wrestle with them.
He had enormous faith in them, his mustard seed people.
His disciples were men who struggled to get it and women who had been through rough times, and he trusted them to carry his message, to feed 5000 people on a hillside, to drive out demons in his name, to bring healing and forgiveness and a revolutionary life of love to the streets of an empire teeming with oppressed people.
You have what it takes to do the same.
Because all of this is to a purpose.
The struggle of making your way through a clergy transition, the at times tedious and at times nerve-wracking adaptations to coronavirus, the complicated discernment of how to be church in unprecedented times—these are not just struggles for the sake of struggles.
This deep and challenging work of living into Christian community in a new way is for a greater good.
Return for a moment to Jesus’ images: the mustard seed, the leaven in the dough, the treasure hidden in the field.
These items are not prizes in their own right. They are all means to an end.
The mustard seed grows into a tall bush that gives shelter for the birds to nest in.
The leaven in the dough results in a loaf of bread that feeds people.
The treasure hidden in the field is used to buy the field, which will then be cultivated with crops to nourish the community.
I said before that Jesus needs you as a congregation to be small and different, because that will make you true change agents in your city.
But again, it’s not just change for the sake of change.
In Jesus’ parables, the small and different catalyst combines with the surrounding environment to create something much bigger that serves the world.
The power of the Holy Spirit working through you will enable you to build partnerships all over Jeff City that are really serving people in need.
And the needs are enormous right now.
People are hurting in body, mind, and spirit, crying out for a listening ear and a helping hand, needing to know that they are loved.
The goal is not to become the mustard seed and never get planted.
The goal is not to be the yeast that just stays on the shelf.
The goal is not to be the treasure that stays buried in the field.
You want to be found and utilized by God to change the world.
You want to be the small and different congregation that goes out boldly to mix in with the greater whole, and together you are built into the nourishing, sheltering, caring manifestation of God’s kingdom in your corner of the world.
This is your challenge in the next weeks and months.
As you prepare for Father Bill’s arrival, ask yourself exciting and energizing questions.
Use this unique confluence of change and crisis to break through into new territory of ministry.
As Paul says in our lesson from Romans today, “If God is for us, who is against us?”
No one. No one is against you.
All of Cole County and in fact this whole diocese is ready to be blessed by the work you are stepping into with courage and joy.
Thank you for being a mustard seed parish.
As your new ministry grows with your new priest, the rest of us look forward to sheltering in your shade and being fed by your bread.