A sermon delivered to the City Park Church of Christ
12th Sunday after Pentecost
July 30, 2017
1 Kings 3:5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
“He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.'” (Mat. 13:31-32).
Our humble God did not gain his humility with the advent of Christ. The God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has always worked in small beginnings. He decided that his dominion of the world should be shared with Man and Woman. He called an unknown man from the east and made him the father of many nations. He chose the barren to give birth to a chosen people. He chose a small people to give birth to a Savior. He chose a manger to give birth to a King. And he chose a mustard seed to grow tall and play host to birds and their nests. Such is the kingdom of heaven in the person of Jesus Christ.
The same God that did all this is the same God we serve today. The history of the church follows in the footsteps of its crucified Christ. Its small beginnings, with a despised carpenter from Nazareth, have quite literally shaped the world. It did not keep its blessings to itself. It has grown large and played hosts to civilizations and cultures. The same God which accomplished all this can accomplish the same great things in us. But what great things has this tiny church accomplished empowered by the kingdom of heaven?
Medicine has been studied for a long time. Hippocrates, born in the fifth century B.C., is often considered the father of modern medicine. Doctors, however, were for the wealthy. There were some medical facilities in Rome, but they were primarily for soldiers and gladiators. The mother of our modern hospitals was not established until the fourth century A.D. by St. Basil of Caesarea. Moved by his faith he established an enormous complex, a “new city”, for “the care of friendless strangers, the medical treatment of the sick poor, and the industrial training of the unskilled.”1 By the middle of the 16th century there were “37,000 Benedictine monasteries alone that cared for the sick.”2 This close association with Christianity is the reason for the emblem of the Red Cross as well as such names as St. Jude’s, St. Luke’s, and our own Covenant Medical Center in Lubbock.3 Other kinds of medical care such as Hospice, established by Anglican Cicely Saunders, and the L’Arche communities of Jean Vanier were likewise inspired by a commitment to Jesus Christ and his care for “the least of these.” Could you imagine a world without hospitals? If you can, you will then see the difference the kingdom of heaven makes out of its small beginnings.
Public education is almost brand new in terms of world history. It also has Christianity to thank for it establishment. Prior to public education there was no law which required parents to educate their children. As such, many went without any education at all. Those which were educated were either taught by their parents or by those who were wealthy enough to hire a tutor. This all began to change with The Massachusetts Bay School Law of 1642.
Plymouth, Massachusetts was established in 1620 and became the second successful North American colony (after Jamestown, Virginia in 1607). It was established by Puritans who sought to separate themselves from the State Church of England. Literacy was exceptionally important for them. They thought that you needed to be able to read and understand the laws of the land in order to make good citizens. They also believed that you should be able to read the Bible in order to make good people. Suddenly, there was an influx of new settlers who did not share their commitment to literacy. They worried that perhaps their way of life might be endangered. So, they passed The Massachusetts Bay School Law. It says:
“Forasmuch as the good education of children is of singular behoof and benefit to any Common-wealth; and wheras many parents & masters are too indulgent and negligent of their duty in that kinde. It is therfore ordered that the Select men of everie town, in the severall precincts and quarters where they dwell, shall have a vigilant eye over their brethren & neighbours, to see, first that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families as not to indeavour to teach by themselves or others, their children & apprentices so much learning as may inable them perfectly to read the english tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes: upon penaltie of twentie shillings for each neglect therin. Also that all masters of families doe once a week (at the least) catechize their children and servants in the grounds & principles of Religion, & if any be unable to doe so much: that then at the least they procure such children or apprentices to learn some short orthodox catechism without book, that they may be able to answer unto the questions that shall be propounded to them out of such catechism by their parents or masters or any of the Select men when they shall call them to a tryall of what they have learned of this kinde.”4
Note their two reasons for insisting upon learning to read: that they may learn the laws of the land and that they may learn Christian orthodoxy. A difficulty soon arose with the law. They may impose a fine for those who do not educate their children but what are those to do who are not themselves educated enough to teach their children or rich enough to pay someone else to do it? This led to The Old Deluder Act of 1647. It states:
“It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors.
It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the town shall appoint; provided those that send their children be not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other towns.”5
So the city required one school teacher for all children per fifty households. Again, their motives were religious. They saw public education as a way to combat “that old deluder, Satan.” His job, they said, was “to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures” and saw whatever would enable men and women to read the Bible would be war against him. It was not long before surrounding areas began to pass similar laws. The Deluder Act goes on to require the establishment of a grammar school per one hundred households in order to prepare students for college. Our first colleges, over a hundred of them, were established as seminaries. The Christian influence in education is undeniable. Can you imagine a world without public education? If you can then you will begin to grasp what difference the kingdom of heaven makes out of beginnings like that of a mustard seed.
The Church itself had the humblest of beginnings. Its cornerstone is, of course, Jesus built upon by his closest disciples, the apostles. They were a rag-tag group of men. They were fishermen, tax-collectors, and rebels. Two of these, Peter and John, were recognized as “uneducated and ordinary men” by their opponents. Yet their boldness made it clear that they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13). Paul had the most learning of the apostles and yet he did not depend upon it. Rather, he preached “the foolishness of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18-21; 2:1-5). Still, it was Christ in him that “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). This community, at first as small as a mustard seed, grew so large so as to be scattered throughout the known world. And like that great tree became a home to the birds of the air, so the church shared its blessings with the world. They were and we are a people who believe, fundamentally, that “it is better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
It was in Jesus that the kingdom of heaven arrived. As he stepped onto the scene of history he announced, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). But even Jesus’ beginnings are small and despised, like that of a mustard seed. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the question asked of him (Jn. 1:46). Just after he told these parables the people were impressed, partly because of his despised beginnings. They marveled, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” (Mat. 13:55). None of this mattered. His lowly birth, his unworthy neighborhood, his working class family, none of it stopped him from changing the world. He built a house which all can call their home. The church he built spans centuries, countries, and cultures. Billions of people have made their homes in the tree which sprung from the seed of his body. This is the God of the Bible, the God who brings order from confusion, a great tree from a small seed, even life out of death. This is the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
The Change in You
The tiny seeds which change the world are being sown today. Their symbols remain in the church. Only God can take water and birth a new family from all nations, tribes, and tongues. Only God can take the singular meal of the Supper, the common bread and wine, and feed billions across millennia. Only God can speak a word and change a life. Baptism, the Supper, the preaching of the Gospel are all humble simple things, but they make the home that we inhabit. And should this surprise us? Jesus has made the world. Yes, the sun, moon, and stars, but also the hospitals and the schools. The branches which began in the mustard seed continue to grow. Christ continues to bless the world through the church. He changed the world forever, in amazing ways. If he can establish the foundations of the universe, if he can build hospitals and schools, don’t you think he can do great things in you? Those great things need not start off great. It need only be as big as a mustard seed. A marriage can be saved by something so small as the commitment to tell the truth. A community can be revitalized by your signature on a petition to establish a food bank. A soul can be saved because you took the time to listen to a person’s grieving. A life can be put back together just because you decided to read the gospel for yourself. Christ brought the kingdom of heaven to earth. It began as a seed. Today its branches provide homes for millions of homeless. Make Christ your home today.
©M. Benfield 2017
1. The Catholic Encylopedia, “St. Basil the Great.” Available: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02330b.htm ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.↩
2. “The Christian Origins of Hospitals.” Available: https://biblemesh.com/blog/the-christian-origins-of-hospitals/ ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.↩
4. “Massachusetts Bay School Law (1642).” Available: http://www.constitution.org/primarysources/schoollaw1642.html ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.↩
5. “The Old Deluder Act (1647).” Available: http://www.constitution.org/primarysources/deluder.html ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.↩