Sunday Sermon: “Growing Mustard Seeds” 5/19/19

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…..

flight landscape nature sky

Photo by Pixabay on

“Growing Mustard Seeds” Sunday, w/Rev. Betsy Coffman

Join us as Rev. Coffman leads a service entitled, “Growing Mustard Seeds”.

Sunday, May 19, 2019:

Hospitality begins at 10:30 am

Service begins at 11:00 am

#MondayMotivation : God in Nature – The Circle of Life

magnolia-blossom-ncom“God in Nature – The Circle of Life”
Sunday, May 21st, 2017 – New Church of Montgomery
(Updated from June 8th, 2003)
Rev. Betsy Coffman

Leader: Creator God, most distant space shows traces of your touch.
Sculptor God, you give galaxies their form, shape granite mountains, design
butterfly wings. You choreograph the paths of stars and the flight of snow
geese. Your divine song is sung by sparrows, mountain streams, and the
rushing winds. We human beings wonder at all you create and rejoice to be
a part of the living world, which you love and sustain. Amen
Now let us open our minds and our hearts to hear the Divine voice within.


(From the Inuit Christian Psalter)

Oh Great Spirit, Mother of the Earth, blessed is your name.
Blessed are you in the fields and forests. Your rocks and
mountains, your grasses, trees and flowers, and every growing
thing, speaks your name.

Blessed are you in all creatures that walk or swim or fly, for they are
all our relatives.
Blessed are all people who share this planet, for we are one family
and the same spirit moves in us all. We speak your name.
Oh Great Spirit, whose voice we hear in the winds, whose face we see
reflected in creation, blessed is your name.
Help us to remember that you are everywhere, and teach us your
way of peace.
Blessed are you in the waters that flow, the start of life. It sustains our
bodies and refreshes our souls.
Blessed are you in the air we breathe. It binds us to all living
things and speaks your name.


Oh Spirit within the world and above the heavens, may we today be touched
by your grace, fascinated and moved by your creation, and energized by the
power of new growth that is at work in your world.
May we move beyond viewing this life only through a frame. Help us to
touch it and be touched by it. Help us to know it, and be known by it. Help
us to love it, and be loved by it.
May our bodies, our minds, and our spirits, learn a new rhythm paced by
the pulse of your whole created order. May you come to us, be in us, and
recreate life in us.
May we forge a new friendship with the natural world and discover a new
affinity with beauty, with life, and with the Cosmic Christ in whom all
things were created in heaven and on earth. This is our prayer and desire. Amen.

HYMN: “For the Beauty of the Earth”

BIBLE READINGS: Psalm 8, Luke 12:22-28


All through the Bible we find images of God in creation. Most native groups have always seen clearly that “God was and is alive” in the world of nature. Rev. Chris Skinner, a Swedenborgian minister from Australia states, “Before the Bible was [ever] written, people were very much aware of the presence of God through nature. By looking around themselves they perceived the Creator’s influence in their lives. Rev. Robert McCluskey describes it this way, “For these…people, life was ultimately one experience, within which the dynamic activity of body-spirit took place. There was nothing that was
unrelated to or independent from God, the Creator. All things came out of and returned to this source.” (ODB, 5/03, pg 5) However, in many ways our own Christian tradition has lost its deepest sense of connection with our “earthly roots”. Skinner accounts for this as largely the result of humanity becoming more self-focused and materialistic. “We humans began to rely on our own sense and abilities and outward sight, instead of on the inner sight that was reflected all around us, and was given by God in ancient times.”(ODB, May 2003, pg. 14)

Last year when I was here to lead a service, we celebrated Pentecost, the spirit of God, symbolized as heavenly fire and wind, which moves through all things and all people, bringing a sense of renewed life, and inclusive connection for all of God’s creation. It seems natural, especially at this time of year, to focus on the theme of “God in Nature” as we understand it in our faith, since we have a very specific and in-depth understanding of this whole area. In the newest translation of Divine Love and Wisdom, the introductory outline notes the following; [For Swedenborg] “…creation can be depicted as a circle. God goes out of himself, creating the world out of his own substance, which is Love. But God implants in creation a desire to circle back and return to himself. According to Swedenborg, the goal of creation is ‘that everything should return to the Creator and that there should be a union. The grand purpose of all elements of creation is an eternal union of the Creator with the created universe.’(DLW, pg. 28, 29). It is also noted that “this circular conception of creation is present in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam…”, as well as many other religious traditions.  Creation is seen as a “Great Chain of Being”, “…stretching from inanimate matter at the bottom through the plant and animal kingdoms to human beings and angels, with God at the top.”

Swedenborg writes, “There is a ladder of all created things to that First [that is, God], who alone is life”. In his view, angels and human beings are the most accurate reflections of God’s nature as a person, yet he claims that all of creation is a reflection of God’s nature, including the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms. We can see a similar sense of connection between nature and the Divine reflected in these well-known poetry lines by William Blake, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour”.

For Swedenborg, animals, plants, and even minerals resemble the divine “person” not in their form, but in their functions. “In every seed…there is an image of something infinite and eternal, an inherent effort to multiply and bear fruit without limit, to eternity.” He sees this as true of all animals as well. “Even the smallest animals have organs that perform functions analogous to those of the Divine human body;”… ‘They contain sensory organs, brains, hearts, lungs, and the like. Plants too, have analogous functions. Even minerals display crystalline structures that are analogous to flowers.” The fact that minerals are inert is not contradictory to Swedenborg’s thought, because Swedenborg sees God alone as “alive”, and created beings are receivers of divine life or inflow, thus their “life” comes from God, not themselves.  Swedenborg sees “all levels of reality having interlocking functions or uses and all display an upward striving. Minerals function to nourish plants. Plants function to nourish animals. There are three levels
of the animal kingdom: worms and insects, birds and animals, and humans. Herbivores (plants) function to nourish carnivores. And the whole system functions to nourish humankind” “In the last analysis everything has been created for our sake”, according to Swedenborg. To believe this, is to believe in an essentially Benevolent Universe overseen by a compassionate God who, provides for us both in the world of nature and in terms of our spiritual needs and welfare. The Bible readings today from Psalm 8 and Luke 12, seem to express this as well.

Human beings, according to Swedenborg, receive not only inflow of the three levels of the material world, but also inflow from the spiritual world. Because of this, we can rise above the material world. We do not have to be guided merely by “natural” drives; instead Swedenborg contends that we can “think analytically and rationally about civil and moral issues within the material world and also about spiritual and heavenly issues that transcend the material world. We can be lifted up into wisdom to the point that we see God”.

As Swedenborg sees it, we can rise through three levels. First, we are born with the power of perception. On the basis of our ability to perceive we gain factual information. On the basis of factual information, we then develop our ability to reason. These three cognitive levels correspond to the three kingdoms of nature. When we leave our spiritual bodies, we are able to perceive the spiritual level, which Swedenborg also saw as divided into three levels. When one ascends to the third spiritual level, becoming a heavenly angel, one enjoys a vision of God, making the circle of creation complete.

God is both the creator and the sustainer of all things. But God uses tools to perform these tasks. The material sun is both the creator and the sustainer of life and motion on earth. But the material sun, like the rest of nature, is in itself dead. Its life is infused into it from the sun of the spiritual world. The sun of the spiritual world is both the creator and the sustainer of the spiritual and the material worlds. In our world, the sun which brings life to the world of nature as a result of its light and warmth corresponds to the two essential qualities of God, Divine Love and Divine Wisdom. The warmth of the “spiritual sun” is the “good that thoughtfulness does” and the light of this sun is “the truth that faith perceives”.

Rev. Robert McClusky points out that for “pre-scientific people”, the understanding of our physical world as a correspondence or reflection of spiritual realities was “an intuitive, spontaneous response to human experiences. It involved seeing all things as spiritual experiences first and foremost, and relating all things to that experience. Nature was the language of the spirit – the outward appearance that revealed the qualities of the inward reality. Always, [he says] nature was used to point to a higher, spiritual dimension. Clouds were not categorizes as nimbus or cirrus…;clouds were spokespersons for God!”

Skinner gives clear examples of how the world of nature can be an opening for spiritual insights and growth. “Minerals such as stone and rock form the ground on which we walk and the material for all sorts of structures and products which we use in our lives. Some minerals are hard, others are soft. Isn’t this like the foundational principles – upon which we base our thinking and actions? And plants do not move in their position, but put down roots just as we do in the place where they live, while getting nutrients from the soil beneath them. When we put down roots in good soil (strong, loving principles), our thoughts and motivations for actions can blossom like flowers and trees. Our lives can then have a solid base. Native cultures also look to the characteristics of animals and birds as mirrors of human nature. Vultures wait for their prey to die before pouncing. How often do we act like vultures in our dealings with people? The elephant never forgets. How much do we harbor our resentments? We use terms like “sly as a fox”, far-seeing (or perceptive) like an eagle.

The three kingdoms of the natural world are a mirror of our life. God is within us and around us. God is life, and everything receives life from God. God is wisdom and use. Everything in this world and the cosmos, or universe is from God and performs a use for the whole. And so, all life mirrors our Creator in one way or another. And we can see this if we will look for his hand in all things.

Skinner goes on to say that “This concept has vital implications for the way we consider the environment. The variety and harmony of our world is a gift to be used, but not abused. There is a hierarchy, an order in creation. We must respect this as part of God’s plan, and we must see each part as performing a vital and important use in creation. In the mineral kingdom we have the fuel for human life – and for destruction. We have used fossils fuels to develop huge industries; we have over-mined and misused our stores of oil reserves. The same principles hold true for the use of trees, plants and flowers. “They are all part of the linkages in creation, and are part of the provision of life by our Lord. We can see in them the beauty that reflects the Lord’s love. Yet we have caused deforestation and taken away the habitats of both humans and wild creatures.

We have created desertification. In the animal kingdom we see the variety and diversity of life. Yet due to indiscriminate farming, poaching, and environmental devastation, many of our animals are on the endangered species list.

McCluskey says just as creation is an outflowing from God, so our regeneration or spiritual development marks a return to God, the re-creation of humanity in God’s image, the fulfillment of providence, and unity with the Divine.” He feels this can “only be accomplished if we engage in the outer world as spiritual beings, not just natural beings. “We must engage the outer world, including the environment, with maturity and integrity, compassion and insight, care and commitment.” He states further that our failure to do so, creating a pollution of our environment and corruption of our institutions will be a “reflection of the inner contamination of our spiritual environment, from which there is no escape.”

He goes on to say that “ecology and religion have never been separate concerns. Rather, it is we who are dichotomized, finding our identity now in the world, and now in God. It is we who are confused by the apparent differences, unable to see the vital, organic unity between nature and spirit. It is we who must overcome this division in ourselves. Only then will effective action begin to flow outward, benefiting our neighbors as well as the earth on which we live. ‘O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.’

That is to say, how mystical, how alive is this world when seen with the spiritual eyes of our understanding; when God is revealed as the source and goal of all things, the beginning and the end; when we see all things embedded in the flow of God’s providence, wholeness, self-giving and eternal beings; when we see more deeply what it means to say that sacrifice and rebirth is the way of life. When we see the world in this way, we gain a new understanding of nature, its use and our relationship with it.” (ODB, 5/03, pg. 8-10)

And so, during this season of spring-moving into summer, as the world of nature around us comes into full bloom, we are invited to open not just our physical, but also our spiritual senses more fully to an awareness of the absolute presence of God in all creation – that circle of life that calls us back to our roots, to connect with the very Source of our being – and in so doing, to complete the circle.

Musical Reflection: “Thank You My Lord” (Beth Neilson Chapman)


As we sow our seeds
May our hands be one with the ground.
As we wait for the seeds to grow
May our mind be one with the light.
As we hoe the growing plants
May our hands be one with the rain.
Having cared for the plants
May our mind be one with the air.
And while eating the fruit
May our body be one with the earth.