2 Corinthians 5:610, 1421 and Mark 4:2634
In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the One God.
“So we are ambassadors of Christ, since God is making his appeal through us, we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
From the Gospel of St. Mark, “With what can we compare the Kingdom of God? 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.”
Have you ever seen a mustard seed from Jerusalem? We buy mustard seeds in our grocery stores for our cooking, but those seeds are huge compared to the mustard seeds in Palestine/Israel. A mustard seed in Jerusalem is like the Gospel tells us, it is like a speck. It is hardly visible on your finger. But Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God can be compared to a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, yet when planted it becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
This tiny insignificant seed, one you can hardly see, when planted grows into the greatest of shrubs. What is fascinating about the mustard seed is that it grows at the edge of the desert or in the desert itself, frequently out of crevasses of rocks where a little moisture remains during the early morning hours from the previous night’s dew. The mustard seed grows into the greatest of shrubs in the most unexpected places. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is like that. The insignificant can become significant. God takes the most insignificant seed and from that seed grows a shrub with large branches.
As we look around the global village in which we live, we see the tiny mustard seed taking root in the most unlikely place. Last Thursday evening at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church now meeting in Columbus, the International Policy Advocacy staff person of the Episcopal Church here in Washington, Alex Baumgarten, told a marvelous story of his visit earlier this year to Juba, Sudan. His visit coincided with the return of refugees who were returning to their homeland after being displaced for decades because of the civil war.
In Alex’s address he observed: “The signs of that war, and of great poverty, were everywhere. Once a thriving river port and a transportation hub of Africa, Juba now resembles a ghost town. Gone were the schools, hospitals, clinics and all but a few miles of paved road. Running water and electric generators existed in only a handful of places, and nearly every building still standing appeared at the edge of ruins.”
In spite of all this, and in spite of Sunday afternoon temperatures well past 100 degrees, the Episcopal Cathedral in Juba was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people in their Sunday best singing their praises and thanksgivings—genuine thanksgivings—to God. In a quiet moment that evening, Alex remarked to a Sudanese priest that he marveled at how the Church in the Sudan inspires such faith among people who have been through so much and seem to have so little.
“That’s easy, my brother,” the Sudanese priest replied. “Faith comes easily to those who have nothing because we know we need God, and we know that God needs us. God needs us because God intends to work through us to heal and reconcile our land.”
“I might ask you,” the priest continued, “how is it that your church inspires faith among people who have everything? How do you convince them that they need God, and that he has put them here for a purpose?”
What a challenge that Sudanese priest has given to each of us. “How does our church inspire faith among people who have everything?” We live in a country of abundance. How do we, we who have everything, live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this 2006 world in which we live?
The Church in Juba is like a mustard seed. Although the seed is tiny, it has grown to be the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches. The Church in Juba asks us how are we going to be reconciled?
St. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthian Church, calls us to be ambassadors of Christ. As an ambassador of Christ we are called to be reconciled to God. As an ambassador we are called to be reconcilers. The injunction from St. Paul is for all of us, all of us in our individual capacities with our individual gifts, talents, and treasures. We are called to bring about reconciliation in God’s world. God’s world includes the whole of creation, the abuses and injustices we inflict on the world, its people, its creation; our need for a better ecological way of living is all part of our ambassadorial role.
The ministry of reconciliation is all about making connections or as the Gospel today calls it, taking the tiniest of all seeds sowing it on the ground so the mustard seed will grow into the greatest of all shrubs. The ministry of reconciliation is lived out through advocacy, or as Alex Baumgarten would argue, reconciliation “is about challenging the edifice and creating a world in which charity no longer is needed because the crises that call out for charity no longer exist.” Global poverty and conflict, HIV/AIDS and malaria, hunger and inequality can be relieved somewhat with charity that seeks to heal their effects. They can be defeated forever though by the justice that seeks to change their root causes.
Let me share with you two stories that give us an insight into two different forms of reconciliation—and how we can become Ambassadors of Christ.
The Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, Tom Shaw, tells the story of a few years ago when the Israeli military made incursions into Ramallah in the West Bank. Our brothers and sisters at St. Andrew’s Church in Ramallah were under curfew for a month. They were allowed out of their homes only a few hours a week to purchase food. Bishop Tom’s friends at St. Andrew’s have powerful memories of the incursion. It was a terrible time of occupation which meant the loss of human rights and dignity. Today the Christians of St Andrew’s Church continue to be enslaved by an increased loss of human rights, with the construction of the Wall, checkpoints, more incursions, and the continued occupation of Ramallah and the West Bank.
Bishop Tom said reflecting on this situation in the Holy Land: “How can we be Ambassadors for Christ for one another? How can we be reconcilers in a world that knows very little reconciliation?”
Travel with me now to Northern Nigeria, along with a mighty band of pilgrims visiting the Anglican Diocese of Kaduna. I traveled there to visit a church in this divided and difficult part of Nigeria.
The scenes were horrific, the scenes were beautiful, the faces were angelic, the faces were full of pain, the stomachs bloated, the bodies adorned beautifully in Nigerian silks. We were constantly bombarded with all these contrasts during our time in Nigeria. Rich and poor. Poverty like I have never seen in my life, in contrast to homes fully outfitted with exquisite furniture and decorations. Roads that were simply impassable, and would be absolutely impossible in the rainy season. Thanks be to God we were there during the dry season because it only took two hours to travel forty one miles over a makeshift road.
While in Nigeria we went to the Bush and in the Bush we went to an obscure village where we found a small mud-brick Anglican church. We were greeted by scores of people. Everything in the church was made of mud-brick including the “pews.” We arrived at this church mid-afternoon. I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was pray in quiet, so I went into the church. Soon the church was packed—perhaps a standing room crowd of forty people. Mothers with beautiful small children abounded. It was a grace filled moment. The prayers there were as powerful as any prayer prayed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, in Canterbury Cathedral or here at the National Cathedral in Washington.
However, there was one major difference. When I left what I now call the “Mud-brick Cathedral,” a doctor accompanying me gave me some horrific statistics. 60% of these children will die before they are three years old. They all have congested lungs and worms. One out of ten mothers will die in childbirth. There is no health clinic in the Bush.
While there in Kaduna I reflected, “How can we be Ambassadors of Christ for one another? How can we be reconcilers in a world that knows such poverty and disease, and at the same time such wealth? What small part can I play in righting the great imbalance between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’?”
When Jesus preached his first public sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, he preached on texts from the Prophet Isaiah:
Proclaim good news to the poor
To proclaim release to the captives
To set at liberty those who are oppressed
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord
Jesus concluded his sermon by saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your midst.” The question I believe we must ask ourselves in this 2006 world is whether or not we are willing to be an ambassador to live out Jesus’ sermon today. How willing are we to be Jesus’ ambassadors for justice so that people will not have to live on charity? How willing are we to be Jesus’ ambassadors so that people will not be enslaved by occupation, war, injustices and human rights violations? How willing are we to be Jesus’ ambassadors so that those who are oppressed can be experience liberty? How willing are we to be Jesus’ ambassadors to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord?
In our prayers this morning, the response we are going to make to each petition is “make us your new creation.” As we pray each petition, might we keep in mind that each of us is called to be Jesus’ ambassador. As we pray each petition, might each of us reflect how I am going to plant the mustard seed of my life so that out of my life the largest of shrubs can grow. Might we face the challenges of the world, knowing that God will use our hands to be reconcilers as we plant the seeds of the Kingdom of God. Might we always have a vision of God so that all peoples will be able to live under the shade of the mustard branch.
Let us take up and reflect deeply on the challenge presented to us by the Sudanese priest:
“How is it that your church inspires faith among people who have everything?”
In the name of God. Amen.