“Small Beginnings” A Baptismal Sermon on Mark 4:30-34

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” —Mark 4:30-34

When I was a young minister I preached on this text about the mustard seed for the first time. And after the service, as I was shaking hands at the door (I call this the Third Protestant Sacrament) some know-it-all said to me, “You know, the mustard seed is not the smallest seed on earth, nor is its bush the largest.” I don’t remember what I said, but I know what I’d say today, since I’m not as polite as I was back then. I’d say, “Jesus was the Son of God, not a botanist, and his point is theology not plant husbandry.”

So lest we, too, miss the point in the details, what Jesus is saying is that the works of God start with small beginnings and grow to great conclusions. Starting with a small seed we end up with a large bush for shade and bird habitat. The kingdom of God is like that, Jesus says.

Because “God’s ways are not our ways.” We humans like the big moments, the large gestures, the bright spotlight, and the immediate result. God, on the other hand, works quietly, often unseen and unnoticed, in the shadows, behind the scenes.

Jesus was often teaching his disciples about the kingdom of God. He often told them it was near, or even sometimes here. It was “at hand.” It was “among you.” It was “within you.”

Well, where is it, then? Is it in heaven or on earth? If you are confused by what Jesus meant by the kingdom than you are in good company, for the disciples never quite got it, at least not until after Jesus died and was raised.

So let’s take a moment to inquire about the kingdom of God. Simply put the kingdom of God is where God is king. Which is to say it is not a particular place so much as anywhere where the sovereignty of God is recognized and acknowledged.

Since we don’t have earthly kings anymore we often prefer to use the words “realm” of God or the  “reign” of God as substitutes. The Greek word that kingdom translates as kingdom is basilea, which means “dominion,” so it is not a place so much as a political reality.

Now (unlike Mark and Luke) Matthew refers to “the kingdom of heaven.” Why is that? Matthew was too pious a Jew to come out and use God’s name, so he substituted the kingdom of “heaven” for Mark’s (and Luke’s) kingdom of God. But it is a distinction without a difference.

As we shall see one of the meanings of Baptism is a sign of the kingdom of God. Every time Christians gather for worship we pray the prayer of Jesus, which asks God that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of God is where God’s will is done. Every congregation is a laboratory for striving to make the kingdom of God real, “on earth as it is in heaven.” The experiment is never finally successful, but the church persists in trying as preparation for the Day the kingdom finally comes in fullness.

Now this congregation of Christ-followers is the context into which Simon is not only baptized, but where he, with you all, will try to live out your baptismal promises, the ones you just heard.

Now Simon comes into a pretty extraordinary church context, with his Mom as the pastor, and his Dad a theologically educated Christian with a degree from Yale. Is Rebecca Seely here? Ah, there you are. Becca Seeley is  a Lutheran pastor, and a classmate of Alex and Rebecca’s at Yale. She gave the homily at their wedding, and described them famously as “church nerds.” And they come from families of “church nerds.” Simon arrives at his baptism today as just the most recent of a long line of Floyds and Marshalls and their various antecedents for whom faith was taken seriously and church was a second home.

What’s a church nerd? Let me share a church nerd story with you. Did you know that when Alex and Rebecca were picking a name for Simon they came up with some biblical arcana. They named him “Simon James,” which for them has a particular meaning. See if you can stay with me while I explain what they did. The name “Simon” has the same root as the Hebrew word, shema, that means “to hear’ or “to listen, or something closer to “listen up!” And the name “James” is the Anglicization of the Hebrew name Jacob.  I never understood in my English history why the followers of King James II, who wanted to restore the house of Stuart to the English throne, were called Jacobites and not Jamesians. Now I do, and so do you. Jacob in the Bible, as you will recall, was renamed “Israel” after he wrestled with an angel at the River Jabbok. So “Simon James” echoes the great Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael from Deuteronomy 6:4-9. “Hear, O Israel!”

“Simon James.” And to make it even more rich, or “thick” as we say in theology, Jesus himself quotes the Shema in Mark 12:29-31. Remember when the scribe asks him which is the greatest commandment? Jesus, being a good Jew, answered him, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ And Jesus adds from Leviticus 19: 9-18: “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Shema Yisrael. Simon James!

So, yes, Alex and Rebecca are church nerds. That’s what you get when you have two Yale Divinity School graduates marry and have children.

So today’s sacrament is for little Simon James, but Simon isn’t embarking on the Christian life alone. He’s got myriad Floyds and Marshalls in his corner, many of whom are here today. Aunties and Uncles, Great Aunties and Uncles, Grandparents and Great Grandparents. And he’s got Jennifer and Charlie as Godparents, and I want to say a word about them.

Charlie was Alex’s best friend at Yale and his best man at his wedding. And Jen is Rebecca’s best friend from Pittsfield High School and was her Maid of Honor at her wedding. In their days as bachelorettes, before they met Alex and Matt, they joked about living out their days together if they couldn’t find suitable spouses, which happily they did.

So it is entirely appropriate that they are the ones Alex and Rebecca chose to be Simon’s godparents. And they are both practicing Christians who take the faith and the church quite seriously.

And here is something else that I think is really cool and gladdens my ecumenical heart. They are both Roman Catholics. And that may not seem unusual to the younger ones among us, since we have always had godparents from a variety of Christian denominations. But some of us older types recall a day when Protestants and Catholics were often estranged.

In fact, some of the overheated rhetoric used against immigrants today echoes precisely the language used against Roman Catholic immigrants by Protestant nativists in the late 19thcentury.

And the feelings went both ways. A friend of mine who was raised Roman Catholic recently told me that when she brought her Baptist boyfriend home to meet the parents things didn’t go well. She told me, “You would have thought I brought home a jihadi terrorist. ” Happily things were smoothed out long ago with the arrival of grandchildren, which often seems to trump doctrinal disagreements.

So back in and before the 20thcentury Protestants and Catholics lived in separate silos, even while sharing a common faith. This kind of tribalism still exists in our country and we are worse off for it, but today the presence of Charlie and Jennifer here as Godparents of the child of a Protestant pastor is a wonderful sign. It might even be a sign of the kingdom of God, which as you recall, Jesus tells us, is “at hand.”

And the reason Charlie and Jen are here is not only because they are Alex and Rebecca’s best friends, but because, as they told me, “they are the two best Christians that we know!”

And so Simon has these splendid Godparents added to all the family members in his corner.

But wait, there’s more, and that is where all of you come in. Especially in the Congregational tradition the local congregation serves as corporate Godparents to help raise the baptized as a Christian, to live out the baptismal promises with him. You’ll do this in many ways. By supporting his parents, by providing quality Christian education in your terrific Sunday School. By teaching him about God and Jesus, prayer and worship. And by supporting him as you watch him grow up. And that will happen fast, since it seems like yesterday that I baptized his mother!

And there’s even more. This baptism is carried out in the presence of a great company that also includes the communion of saints, that great cloud of witnesses of the church across the generations and ages.

So let me talk a bit about the meaning of baptism. Baptism is a sacrament and sacraments are often referred to as signs, but they are not just signs such as a stop sign that points beyond itself to something else. Sacraments participate in what they are pointing to. For example, baptism doesn’t merely remind us of the new life that Christ offers as a past reality, it confirms that offer in the here and now. The initiative in the sacrament comes from God; the gifts of grace given to us are given by God, and the sacrament represents them and makes them real for us. I like to say that the sacraments show what the Word says.

There are several meanings to the sacrament of baptism. In January 1982 over one hundred theologians representing virtually all Christian traditions, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Eastern Orthodox and others, met in Lima, Peru under the auspices of the World Council of Churches and drafted an historic statement called Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. They arrived at a five-fold understanding of the meaning of baptism.

Let me share them with you.

  1. Baptism is participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. In baptism, Christians “die with Christ” so that they might be raised with him in newness of life, free from the power of sin and death. In the early church the baptismal candidate was immersed three times (once for each person of the Trinity). This going under the water was a powerful ritual for dying, and as the newly baptized emerged from the waters they experienced the new life in Christ as a turning away from their old life and often from their participation in pagan religion.
  2. Baptism is conversion, pardoning, and cleansing. The ethical implications of baptism are symbolized by the washing with water as a sign of the cleansing of the heart of sin. The promise of new life in baptism is also the promise of the Holy Spirit to give one a new ethical orientation. The baptized person remains a sinner, that is the human condition, but the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work will now go on throughout that person’s life.
  3. In Baptism the Christian receives the gift of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is at work in people’s lives before, during, and after their baptism. God gives his Spirit to all the baptized as the first installment of their inheritance as his sons and daughters.
  4. Baptism is incorporation in the body of Christ. It is a sign and seal of our common discipleship. “Through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, union with each other and with the church of every time and place”(BEM, p. 3). Baptism is an important sign of Christian unity and calls us to overcome the divisions that separate the church (Ephesians 4: 4–6). It also has profound social implications as it binds together people of “all races, tongues and ages.”
  5. Finally, as I said earlier, Baptism is a sign of the kingdom of God. Although we live in the present world, baptism has already begun in us the new life that is the reality of the world to come. The baptized are those who pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” and anticipate the day when every tongue will confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).

There’s that phrase again, “the kingdom of God.” The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that, in God’s economy, great things grow from small beginnings. And one of the tasks of the church is to discern where God is at work and be involved with him in plantings and waterings. So today as we made our several promises before God about our Baptism and Simon’s let us think of those promises as being like seeds, small beginnings that may grow and thrive and flourish, and bear fruit as God moves in our lives.

And God will move in our lives! It may be in big moments, but more likely, quietly, as we strive and struggle to be Christ’s faithful followers, trying to do God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.

(I preached this sermon at The United Church of Little Compton, Rhode Island, on June 17, 2018 at the occasion of the baptism of my grandson.)

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