Sunday, May 19, 2019
Rev. Betsy Coffman
Bible Readings and Message
Old Testament: Psalm 1: (Stephen Mitchell translation)
Blessed are the man and the woman
Who have grown beyond their greed
And have put an end to their hatred
And no longer nourish illusions.
But they delight in the way things are
And keep their hearts open, day and night.
They are like trees planted near flowing rivers,
Which bear fruit when they are ready
They leaves will not fall or wither.
Everything they do will succeed.
New Testament: Mark 4:30–32, World English Bible
He said, “How will we liken the Kingdom of God? Or with what parable will we illustrate it? It’s like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, yet when it is sown, grows up, and becomes greater than all the herbs, and puts out great branches, so that the birds of the sky can lodge under its shadow.”
Emanuel Swedenborg: “In the Bible, ‘seed’ means truth, ‘field’ means doctrine, and ‘garden’ means wisdom.” (True Christian Religion #350)
Growing Mustard Seeds
My message today focuses on how our “ruling love” develops as we explore the spiritual symbols of Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed, one of several parables on “The Kingdom of Heaven”. I particularly like this because this is such a beautiful of time of year – planting and new growth – and planting the seeds and nurturing what becomes our ruling love is what this is all about.
So first, let’s look at what Jesus says about the Kingdom of heaven from Luke 17: “Neither shall they say, Lo, Here! Or there! for lo, the kingdom of heaven is within you.” So, we immediately see that we are looking at inner spiritual realities and in this parable, how we develop “heaven” within ourselves.
I will be borrowing from two sermons on this subject, one from Rev. Lee Woofenden and another from Rev. Kevin Baxter.
Rev. Lee, points out that the mustard seed parable “is [about] one of the ‘smallest becoming the largest’. Mustard seeds were one of the smallest seeds commonly planted by the people of ancient Palestine for their use. And further, though the variety of mustard Jesus was probably referring to (black mustard), when planted in the garden, will usually grow about three or four feet high – if it has enough water, sunlight, and soil, it can and does grow to be ten or even fifteen feet high—which approaches the size of many of the common trees that grow in that part of the world. But unlike trees, the mustard plant, which is an annual, does this in a single season. In other words, given the right conditions, it is a phenomenally fast-growing plant. All this [as well as] the hot and pungent flavor of the seeds themselves —made the mustard seed an ideal image for Jesus to use in showing how the initial seeds of spiritual love and understanding that are sown in us grow up into lives of righteousness and praise’, in Isaiah’s words.
Another aspect of this parable, pointed out by Rev. Kevin Baxter (sermon 8/12) is this; “The great thing about a seed is that it contains all of the genetic information of the plant to come. All that is required to bring it forth is the right conditions. A seed symbolizes the basic elements of being; spiritually, we might understand those elements as will (intent) and understanding. When the seed’s will (intent) and understanding are filled with the love and wisdom of God, it sprouts forth its hidden self. A seed embodies potential.” So, we also, created as “images of God” have all we need to grow into the angels and heavenly life for which we were created.
Rev. Baxter notes that, “…comparing the kingdom of God to a mustard seed [might] seem…a bit ridiculous…why not use a more impressive image?” The point here is that “The kingdom of God does not initially appear in our lives as something big and impressive, but as something unassuming and small, yet hard to destroy—something that contains a tremendous amount, if only we nurture it. In Jesus’ image of the mustard seed, something that needs to be nurtured transforms into something that nurtures: a seed becomes a bird sanctuary.” So, what we are looking at, is how our innate spiritual potential – the “seed” that is the implanted ability within each of us to recognize good and truth and to choose to act upon it (nurture it), can, in time grow into a life of spiritual vitality – we become that “sanctuary for birds” – a person whose life nurtures and expresses God’s love and purposes – and creates seeds for new plantings and growth – seeds that add zest and flavor to the meaning of our lives.
This “implanted knowing”, then, is part of our spiritual heritage and it is what the Lord uses in his attempt to guide us, helping us to discern the wisest and best choices throughout our lives, as we deal with the often confusing and less-than obvious possibilities with which we are presented. However, from this beginning, we, too have a responsibility to play our part in continuing to plant and nurture seeds that support our spiritual growth.
And we can be sure we will face challenges on this journey from “little to big”. Sometimes when we look at the world around us,
“spiritual truth and love do, indeed, seem like ‘the smallest of all seeds.’ What are most people engaged in most of the time? From the look of it, most people are engaged most of the time in making money and pursuing enjoyment, pleasure, [achievement] or power. We have built up vast economic and governmental systems that are geared almost entirely to providing for our material well-being, and asserting our economic and political power as far as it will extend. In the face of that [reality], what hope do truth, spirit and love for God and the neighbor have? They seem almost to be swallowed up in the human hubbub-tiny, insignificant seeds that almost disappear because their presence and influence seems so slight in our ordinary, worldly consciousness.
And yet, those tiny, insignificant-looking seeds have a quality about them that causes us to ‘plant them in the field’ of our minds. [This may well occur at times in our lives]…When pursuits and pleasures of this world begin to lose their savor, we are [finally] attracted to the heat and pungency of spiritual ideas that challenge everything our materialistic mind takes for granted, and promise a very
different life than the one that has already begun to grow old and stale for us. We plant those seeds of spiritual possibility in our minds and hearts, and wait to see what will come of them.” (Woofenden)
It may have taken coming to a point of inner desolation and meaninglessness in spite of all that we have – or even worse, experiencing personal chaos, pain and/or tragedy before we truly come to acknowledge that we need something more – that everything we have and try to do is just not enough. So, it stands to reason that our initial acceptance of spiritual possibilities often comes out of a hope for something better for ourselves – and this is not wrong or bad – it’s often just the way it is. And what’s amazing, is that it is this very wish and hope for “delights” – for feeling good, that the Lord uses to guide us toward a new inner life of spirit. And as most of us know, when we have experienced personal pain and turmoil, we begin to appreciate feeling a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. It’s a motivator to keep moving forward. This too, is part of the way we were designed, for as Swedenborg
notes, “We cannot have an exquisite perception of what is good, or what is blessed and happy, unless we have been in the opposite state, in which we experienced what is not good, not blessed, and not happy.”
Now this parable is seen as more symbolic of our “earlier stages of our spiritual growth,” that may only really begin in the second half of life, as Richard Rohr points out. “One of the reasons the focus is on the ‘smallest of the seeds’ is because at this stage, we are only beginning to turn the focus of our lives from our own comfort and possessions and those of our families. Our habit is still to think of ourselves first, with service to others still being something of an afterthought. In other words, we’re still looking at how this new spirituality is going to make our own life better.” Even though there is an important change in focus, we are still very much focused on ourselves and, “a long way from being angels of love and light.”(Woofenden).
At this point, the seeds of a greater understanding of truth and goodness in us are still pretty tiny, but they are there – it’s a start. It’s not the same type of symbol as that of a tree, for instance, which develops deep roots over time, while also growing upward. There is still more we need to experience and learn on our journey to our inner “kingdom of heaven”. We often find ourselves in doubt at this stage and faced with whether we will confirm or deny what we are beginning to perceive and understand about the direction in which we must go. We are very vulnerable and yet it is so important for us to affirm (or cultivate) those seeds within us that tell us to choose the spiritual rather than material path.
When we allow doubt and negativity to rule our hearts, the seeds cannot be nurtured and as Swedenborg says, “one misgiving avails more than a thousand confirmations. One misgiving is like a grain of sand placed before the eye; although it is single and small, it takes away all sight.” And so, in a way, we have the “battle of the smallest” – on the one hand, we have the smallest seed, which can grow and
bloom quickly into the beginning of a new spiritual life – and on the other hand, we have the tiny grain of sand (notice that sand does not have the life potential within it for growth, as does a seed), which can block out our [spiritual] sight if it gets in our eye. So, at this stage especially, we may go back and forth between a sense of knowing and a sense of doubt – each time we ignore or deny the reality of our
spiritual existence and act contrary to spiritual design, we make it impossible for the Lord to lead us forward, [remember that the Lord never forces us, but can’t guide us to goodness if we won’t choose it].
To be loved, we must love—and vice versa. Loving is the first step, but nurturing things in our lives does not stop with us; caring for others creates a vibrant tree that nurtures heavenly thoughts and transforms the people around us. Yet the wonderful thing about our Creator God is that he comes right to where we are in the present, especially in our struggles, and uses whatever openings he can find, to guide us and help nurture those little seeds of desire for spiritual growth and transformation. And it is that desire in us (will) to be better, more loving human beings that creates an opening so that we are actually led away over time, from our self-centeredness and our illusions, through “our delights”. Swedenborg tells us that, “So far as we allow, the Lord leads us to what is good. So it is that the Lord leads us through delights. He also leads through illusions and resulting false assumptions, gradually guiding us away from these.”(AC6472)
Remember our reading of Psalm 1? Here we really see a description of spiritual growth and maturity – having grown from our early, more self-centered focus – to experiencing a new reality of being and a new connection with the Divine…that’s the direction in which we are taken, if we truly desire it.
Friends, we can and do choose how we live and who we want to be – and it’s often not the big things that define us but the small things—the little choices we make each day about what thoughts we will entertain and what actions we express. We can choose to sleep through life, controlled by the things of this world; or we can choose to seek out points at which God is active in our lives. If we choose the latter, we become active agents in how we see the world. We nurture the seeds of love and life and
“…the mustard seed [within us], something that needs to be nurtured, transforms into something that nurtures: a seed becomes tree in which birds can nest [a sanctuary] and produces more seeds that can be planted, [seeds that bring zest and flavor to our lives].(Baxter)
And we are gradually transformed into the within into the unique images of God that we were created to be – angels of light and love…..