Mustard Seeds Matter

mustard seeds--11-9-2017 blog

 

There is a legend about a traveler making his way to a large city.  One night he meets two other travelers along the road–Fear and Plague.

Plague explains to the traveler that, once they arrived, they are expected to kill 10,000 people in the city.  The traveler asks Plague if Plague would do all the killing.  “Oh no,” Plague responded.  “I shall kill only a few hundred. My friend Fear will kill the others.”

Fear, whether real or imagined, can discourage us, overwhelm us, and strangle us.  Fear is widespread ranging from fear of failure to fear of war and terrorists.

***

The disciples of Jesus experienced many of these same feelings.  In Luke 17:5-10, we read of their beseeching Jesus to increase their faith. Perhaps this is a cry or prayer you may have said at one time or another, “Lord–increase our faith!  Help us believe enough so that we can do what it is that you have commanded us to do–help us to trust enough so that we can live as you say we should be living.  Lord, take away our fear!”

How does Jesus respond to their pleas?  Does he lay his hands on them and pray and give them more faith as they asked?  Does he snap his fingers and grant them a double dose of the Holy Spirit?  No–instead, he says to them: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry, ‘be uprooted up and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” I imagine the disciples looking at one another with the unspoken question: Do you know what Jesus is talking about?

***

I think Jesus’ odd response to the disciples can be explained through the concept of “the butterfly effect.” The notion in chaos theory is that no matter how complex a system is the slightest change in initial conditions can have far-reaching effects, changing a system dynamically.  Edward Lorenz first observed and proposed this theory back in the 1960s when he was running computer models of weather measurements. When he entered even the slightest difference in the initial number in his equations, the resulting outcomes were dramatically changed.  His paper submitted for a scientific talk he gave in 1992 was titled, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?”

***

Might there be something in the butterfly effect that Jesus is trying to tell us?  Possibly that even the smallest intention and action toward following Jesus, toward doing the good, the smallest glimpses of that holiness and wholeness in the midst of our fear and brokenness can help bring the kingdom of God into being?

***

In the novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird, the character Tom, an African-American, is wrongly accused of assaulting a white teenage girl and he is held in the town jail.  A group of white men approach the jail with the intention to lynch and kill Tom.  On the front steps sits Tom’s lawyer, Atticus Finch, the moral center of the novel. Atticus’ daughter, Scout, runs to Atticus’ side and she watches the men. Her father tells her to run away and go home. But Scout doesn’t run, and she doesn’t fight. Instead she finds the right words that become a kind of mustard seed.

Scout looks at one of the men in the mob and says, “Hey Mister Cunningham, don’t you remember me? I go to school with Walter. He’s your boy, ain’t he? We brought him home for dinner one time. Tell your boy ‘hey’ for me, will you?” There was a long pause. Then Cunningham responds to Scout: “I’ll tell him you said ‘hey,’ little lady,” and he turns to leave. With Cunningham’s departure, the rest of the mob begins to break up and leave.

Scout offered a small, gentle reminder of God’s goodness.  And what she said was a mustard seed–nothing courageous and noble– because she saw Mr. Cunningham’s humanity and touched that humanity enough to bring him out of his irrational inhumanity. It was a “butterfly effect,” a tiny mustard seed that changed the events of that night.

***

I am reminded of the prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy ….”

***

In this world where doubt, hatred, and despair reign so supreme, it seems almost impossible that such small seeds of faith, love, and hope have much chance of surviving.  No wonder we cry out with the disciples, “Increase our faith!”

Remember:The slightest change in initial conditions—no matter how complex–can have far-reaching effects.”  Mustard seeds matter.

I fret, therefore I am.

Jesus appears to Thomas - John 20:24-29John 20:19-31

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I can fret about anything. And fret is the best word to describe it because it’s different than worrying or fearing. It is a wringing of my hands, a low-grade thrumming that underscores my day. Sometimes I will fret over the outcome of an anticipated conversation, an appointment with a doctor, a conversation with an authority figure. And, more often than not, I am surprised by reality.

The consequences of this thrumming are that I am perpetually anxious, easily angered and begin to obsess like a hamster running on its wheel going round and round without relief. I become so tense that I unconsciously shift into brittleness and clench my hands into fists. And, because my hands are in fists, if something is offered to me I am unable to receive it.

However, when I am at peace, I feel serene, calm and my soul feels expansive with a desire to extend grace and love to those I encounter. I feel relaxed and loose, my hands are open and I can receive the good gifts that are offered to me.

In this passage from John 20, the disciples are fearful, hiding behind locked doors days after Jesus’s death and resurrection. The tension and fear in Jerusalem has spiked so the disciples are hiding, with good cause. Were they next to be executed?

And in the midst of their fearful fretting, Jesus appears and says, “Peace be with you.”  The text tells us—in a foreshadowing of Thomas—the disciples also had to check Jesus’s wounds first. And again, Jesus said to them: “Peace be with you.”

The phrase, “Peace be with you” was a regular greeting in Israel at this time. The phrase was “Shalom” meaning wholeness, health, and completeness; to have the physical and spiritual resources to meet one’s needs. So the disciples were familiar with this expression. But Jesus meant more when he said, “Peace be with you.” In John 14:27, Jesus said:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and don’t let them be afraid.

(Or, “fret not.”) Simply put, Jesus is our peace.

Then Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on to them as a gift. I imagine this as a kind of resuscitation, breathing the LIFE of the Spirit into their fretting, gasping souls.

Eight days later, with Thomas present in the group, Jesus appears among the disciples again. Rather than scolding him for his doubt, Jesus meets Thomas at his fretful, tightly wound place and says, “Peace be with you.”

And Thomas responds from the depths of his heart, “My Lord and my God.” His tight, suspicious heart opens up and he receives Jesus and Jesus’s blessing of peace.

As I ponder this passage I ask myself:

  • Where am I fretting and remaining closed to Jesus’s peace?
  • Where do I need Jesus to resuscitate and breathe peace into me?