Exercising the Muscle of Faith

Sermon Preached at All Saints’ Chicago (virtually and in person) on Sunday, June 13, 2021. 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6): Mark 4:26-34

I speak to you in the name of one God, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen +

I’ve recently started watching a new PBS series called “Human: The World Within.” It is awesome…Netflix describes the show as “cutting-edge science and captivating personal stories collide in this illuminating docuseries about the incredible workings of the human body.” It reminds me of the Discovery Channel TV mini-series from 2006 called “Planet Earth,” only this is all about the human body. I’ve always been fascinated by the complexity of the inner workings of our bodies—how each system within us depends on the other, how resilient the human form is, and how the body has the ability to change and adapt in different environments. Especially as a person of faith, someone who believes we are purposely made—that our bodies have been perfectly created and designed—by our Creator, when watching this series, I started seeing parallels in how our body operates and how we operate in the world.

For example, in the episode entitled “Fuel,” I heard the story of a Navajo distance runner named Shaun Martin. He has started every day of his life since he was young, running to meet the sunrise. He talked about how running was connected to Navajo spirituality and tradition, claiming that running embodies the key lessons to celebrate, pray, learn, and heal. For Shaun, running is a way of life…it is his way of showing how he is connected to his creator and that by running he is doing his part to make the creator present in the here in now, in this present moment. From a Christian perspective, especially in relation to our Gospel lesson this morning, through running, I would say that Shaun is contributing to the kingdom of God. But Shaun isn’t just any distance runner. He is what is considered an ultra-runner. Don’t know what an ultra-runner is? Don’t worry, I didn’t either…an ultra-runner is someone who runs any distance longer than a traditional marathon. Sidebar: I’ve never run a marathon, and I will probably never will, but I’ve always been in awe of anyone who could run 26.2 miles! So, an ultra-runner is someone who runs more than someone I already consider superhuman! Shaun Martin consistently runs distances of close to 100 miles at a time, and this particular episode highlighted how when subjected to certain conditions, i.e. running everyday and learning how much fuel is needed to sustain such activity, the body has the ability to change and adapt, and function on a whole different level.

This concept is not new to any of us. The more you do something, anything, the better you become. Like they say, “practice makes perfect.” The more you exercise certain muscles, the stronger they will be. “But what does this have to do with Gospel reading,” you might be asking? Today, I’m encouraging us to make exercising the muscles of faith a priority. Let me explain.

In Mark’s Gospel this morning, we hear what the kingdom of God is like. We hear of someone scattering seed on the ground, then sleeping and rising from day to day not tending the ground, and then all of a sudden, while the person was living their life, the earth produced of the seed full growth, and at that time the person goes to harvest.

What is Jesus trying to teach us? Who are we in the parable? I find looking at the passage that comes directly before this one helpful, especially since it is much more well-known. The text just prior to this lesson is the parable of the sower, where the sower, instead of meticulously and methodically planting each seed spaced perfectly in a row to ensure its growth, the sower liberally and indiscriminately throws seeds everywhere, on all types of soil—not just the “good” soil. Traditionally, this parable is interpreted as God as the sower and we as the soil, explaining that the kingdom of God consists of God’s gifts and blessings, and it is up to us, through our good works, to actualize God’s vision for this world.

In the parable we read this morning, Jesus is switching the roles. Unlike in the previous passage, God is not the sower. We are. And to play our part in the kingdom of God, we are called to scatter seed—to plant as best we know how—and then…we are to wait. And not just wait, we are called to give it over to God. We are called to act in faith, to give up our own ability and skill—to give up our control—and let God do the growing until it is time to harvest.

If we are honest with ourselves, most of us prefer the previous parable…the one that puts the ownness on ourselves and keeps us in control. Especially in a society that rewards hard work and individualism, the action of fostering “good soil” is way more familiar to us and far less scary than placing our trust, hope, and faith in someone other than ourselves. But that is why we are hearing this parable today. The kingdom of God is like both parables, not one OR the other, and if you’re anything like me, the parable that promotes placing faith in God challenges me, and that tells me that I need to exercise that muscle more. My muscles that operate the good works of kingdom, by the grace of God, are strong. I volunteer at pantry every week, I listen to those in need, I am comfortable being good soil. But the faith part of the kingdom…giving up control, being vulnerable, placing trust in others…those things scare me. But just because it scares me doesn’t make it any less true, and as a child of God, as a believer in the Good News of Jesus, I know that even though it is scary and uncomfortable, I am called to exercise that muscle of faith, as well. Just like God as the sower in our previous text, we too are also called to plant seeds indiscriminately but only with the faith of putting the outcome in God’s hands and setting aside our need to control.

But what does this look like? Look no further than our own community. All Saints church, this beautiful community of individuals made in the image of God, this collective group are the equivalent of ultra-runners…but instead we are ultra-runners of faith! This place has used the tradition of the Church year after year, day after day, exercising the muscle of faith, and with God’s help of tending and growth, has produced harvest after harvest. Our most recent seed that we planted was the open and honest parish profile that was created, in part, by all of you, and then compiled by the amazing group of people who make up our Search Committee. After that big seed was planted, the control of the committee was given away and then it was God who called fantastic candidates to this place. This past Friday, the announcement was made that the time for harvest has come—our new rector has been called and they are ecstatic to begin their work with us. Come June 24th, we will know who this amazing person is, and I hope you join in excitement that this process…this extremely difficult, vulnerable, prayer-filled, and faithful process…has come to an end.

Still have doubts or need another example of how this community is an ultra-runner of faith? Just look back to one year ago when the seed of the Greenlining Campaign was planted, not having any idea of what would become of it, and now, through God’s action of growth and germination, there are 2 model homes in North Lawndale and those homes have inspired more funds to be allocated ($10 million) to allow homebuyer subsidies for roughly 300 homes!

Exercising our muscles of faith is not easy, and Lord knows we as individuals are nowhere near ultra-runner status, but we are part of a community that is, and we should use this place to us grow in faith. Like the human body, we have the capacity to adapt and change—to grow into the creation God made us to be. The more we exercise our muscle of faith the more we contribute to and experience the kingdom of God, but instead of going at it alone, I suggest we exercise together, just like this community has done for years. Amen.