I’ve experimented with different types of Bible reading on my own over the years. I expect some of you have done this as well. For instance, I sometimes enjoy working my way through a whole biblical book over the course of several days or weeks, or I try for awhile tracing a certain theme through both testaments, as our guest speaker invited us to do last week, with all of those Scripture passages about showing hospitality to the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant. Recently I’ve been giving myself permission to read the same chapter of Scripture a number of days in a row. I find when I do this that different words or phrases will resonate with me each time I return to the very same passage. One of the texts I have found myself coming back to again and again this year has been Psalm 139.
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up… If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast…”
A person could do worse than to recall those words as he or she begins each day. God is with us wherever we go. However far we may need to travel from home, and however long we may have to stay away. However much it may seem at times we are alone, we are never really alone. Even if we feel we’re sinking into a pit, or are on the very point of death (Sheol is an ancient Hebrew term for the place people go when they die), there is nowhere we could possibly go, ever, where God isn’t. Behind us and before us and above us and below us. Accompanying us through the finest moments in our lives, and through the worst moments too.
Granted, this can be a double-edged truth. Most of the time it is tremendously good news. But every now and then we may find ourselves wondering why God has to be quite so ever present. I’m reminded of the biblical story of Jonah we read together this summer. Good old Jonah, who tried to run away from God. Commanded to preach God’s word to Israel’s enemies, he caught the first boat headed in the opposite direction! The text says “he paid his fare and went on board, to go with the [sailors] to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.” (Jonah 1:3) “Oh, Jonah,” we say to ourselves with a smile, “there is no ‘away from the presence of the Lord.’ In God’s presence is the only option, ever. You know that.” And sure enough God is with Jonah: in the storm at sea that results from his disobedience, in the belly of the fish (which incidentally Jonah calls “the belly of Sheol,” in 2:2), even when he is rather unceremoniously deposited out of the fish’s mouth back onto shore. And God is with him too, of course, as Jonah finally does go to Ninevah to obey that original command. We might prefer God was only around when we were behaving ourselves, but it’s kind of a package deal, isn’t it? God always being there means God is always there. In our finest moments, and in those we’re not as proud of, too.
Another interesting twist on how we might hear this psalm was pointed out by one of our church kids a couple years ago. I was speaking one Sunday of words about enemies in a different psalm, and the fact that it’s ok to include in our prayers even our anger and bitterness. This young man turned to his mom and said “but isn’t that rude?” She explained that there were certainly things we shouldn’t say to other people, and naturally we need to be careful about acting in anger, but it’s actually ok to be honest with God about how we feel. After all, God already knows what we’re thinking, whether or not we put those thoughts into a prayer. Stunned, he replied: “But wait! That’s private!” Oh yes, wise child, there are indeed thoughts that each of us would prefer God didn’t have access to, as well. But it’s kind of a package deal, isn’t it? God always being there means God is always there. When the psalmist says “even before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you know it completely,” (Psalm 139:4) he doesn’t give us the option of a filter system where only our good thoughts make their way to God. Again, in our finest moments, and in those we’re not so proud of, too, God is there.
Still, on a balance, I’d rather go through life with God by my side, than not. Wouldn’t you? Particularly when the God who never leaves us alone is at the same time the God who can forgive us for our less-than-exemplary decisions and actions, and our less-than-honorable thoughts.
As I’ve returned to Psalm 139 again this week, I confess I’ve also welcomed the way it reassures me that God remains not only with me, but with each and every one of God’s children, everywhere. Like those thousands upon thousands of refugees we heard about last Sunday, fleeing horrific wars and terrorist attacks in their home countries and seeking refuge here in the US and in Europe. Like victims of gun violence here in the States, and their grieving families. Let’s face it, if we’re not outraged and overwhelmed by news stories like those we’ve been hearing again this week, if we’re not grieving for these tragic, senseless losses of life, we’re probably not paying attention. I find myself praying: “God, I can’t begin to fathom why so many must suffer so much, but whatever you do, do NOT let them go. Be with them in their darkest hours, too.” Psalm 139 assures us God is there, no matter how terrifying there may be, whether for a Syrian child fleeing her home, for unsuspecting local Washington families running weekend errands at a mall near their home, or sometimes for young black men just trying to get home. This Psalm also reminds us that Black lives, Blue lives, Muslim lives not only matter, but matter immensely. Every person on this earth was created by God and is loved by God, more than we could possibly imagine. God has “searched and known” us all, knitted each of us together in our mother’s wombs, and will be with every last one of God’s children to the very end.
Such an important truth is the fact of God’s constant presence with us, that Psalm 139 takes its place in a long line of biblical reminders. The ancient Israelites, moving from place to place in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land, found that Yahweh camped out right along with them, appearing in the form of a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire to guide their way, as they moved from place to place. When the temple was finally built in Jerusalem, King Solomon made clear in his prayer of dedication that God would dwell there, certainly, but never only there. “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (I Kings 8:27) Throughout the New Testament gospels we find reminders that Jesus himself was Immanuel, God with us. With the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost in the book of Acts, the constant presence of God was passed along to the entire Church. And in the letter to the Ephesians, we read of the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s power and God’s love.
What difference does any of this make? It means that there is no circumstance we will either endure or enjoy, where God isn’t. Not one moment of our lives, or even the moment of our death, when God won’t be there – indeed, God is the one who brought us here in the first place, for again, we have that beautiful image in this psalm of God knitting us together in our mothers’ wombs. (Psalm 139:13)
That’s the detail it’s perhaps easiest to remember when we baptize a beautiful baby like Tess. Such a new little life; it wasn’t long ago at all that she was in her mother’s womb, each precious eyelid and fingernail knit together carefully by a loving God who will continue to hold her close her whole life long.
Now marked as a child of God in baptism, Tess is invited to remember always that she is God’s own. In every situation life sends her way, she can recall she has been baptized and claimed as God’s beloved. And who among us doesn’t need those reminders from time to time? To help us keep our bearings, when times are hard. To remind us who and whose we are, when temptation strikes. To motivate us toward greater generosity when it would be all too easy to be selfish. To bring us comfort, when we are faced with tragedy.
In baptism we are marked as Christ’s own forever, and forever is quite a long time, as it turns out. Today this sweet child of God is less than a month old. But someday she will be a 5 or 6-year-old ball of energy bounding off to her first day of kindergarten. And someday she will be a teenager holding her first set of car keys in her hand. And someday Tess will be a young woman eagerly heading off to college, or nervously interviewing for her first job. She will remain God’s beloved, she will remain Christ’s own in each and every one of those moments, just as we all are. And if she stands in a church like this one to be married someday, or becomes a mom herself, she can take comfort in reminders that her journey of faith had its start here at the baptismal font. Even when she takes her final breath, she will belong to the God who loves her in life, in death, in life beyond death. For as Psalm 139 reminds us, “I come to the end – I am still with you.” If raised to understand the importance of this sacrament we have celebrated with her today, Tess can find joy and comfort in her baptism her whole life long.
And as it is for baby Tess, so it is for each one of us. Where could we possibly go, ever, without God accompanying us? Nowhere. There is no “away from the presence of the Lord,” (Jonah 1:3) for us, or for anyone, and thank God for that.
Everywhere and always, our loving God is there. Amen.
In my backyard, there’s a huge cedar tree. It’s enormous, solid, strong. It provides wonderful shade in the summertime, and birds and squirrels regularly occupy its branches. It’s easy to see why the cedar was used by biblical writers as a metaphor for things mighty and majestic, and as an image for the kingdom of God, as in today’s reading from Ezekiel.
Of course Jesus knew the writings of the Old Testament prophets. So when he asks the question in today’s gospel text, “To what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” the tree that would have normally come to mind for his audience is the cedar mentioned by Ezekiel, in which every kind of bird, and every winged creature, would find a nest.
But Jesus loved to turn expectations on their heads. So what did he say instead? “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? Well, it is like a mustard seed which is the smallest of all seeds, and yet, it shall grow, and it shall become the greatest of all…shrubs!” A shrub, Jesus? Seriously? What happened to our noble cedar?
Still, at least the point of these two images from Ezekiel and Mark would at first seem to be somewhat parallel. “Both parables are about hope in the Kingdom of God. Both affirm that God will accomplish great results from small beginnings.”  The kingdom of heaven starts out small, like a seed, but sow the seed, and the kingdom will expand in astounding ways.
Look how one woman, the recently sainted Mother Teresa, began her orphanage in Calcutta with resources as small as a mustard seed. She told her superiors, "I have three pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage." Her superiors chided gently, "you can’t build an orphanage with three pennies...with three pennies [it just isn’t possible]." "I know," she said, smiling, "but with God and three pennies I can do anything." The materials God uses may at times seem inadequate, but once God gets to work, the results can be extraordinary.
A closer look at Jesus’ parable also shows us it’s a bit more complex than it seems at first. First, it’s interesting to note that this parable appears in three out of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Luke writes that the mustard seed “grew and became a tree” (Luke 13:19). In Mark, “it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs” (4:32), and Matthew conflates the two: “When it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree” (Matt. 13:32).
No matter which way you read it, though, you’ve got to love the hyperbole here. After all, a mustard seed is small, but it’s by no means the smallest of all seeds. I remember as a child hearing this parable in Sunday School, and having just planted truly miniscule carrot seeds in our backyard garden, I have to say I was a little thrown as I looked at the far larger mustard seeds in my teacher’s hand. Mustard seeds actually aren’t that tiny, relative to other kinds of seeds. It’s certainly also an exaggeration to say that a mustard seed grows into the “greatest of shrubs,” much less a tree.
Preaching professor Tom Long suggests, though, that “Jesus … has a twinkle in his eye as he plays on the popular image, drawn from the Old Testament, that a mighty political kingdom is like a great tree.” Powerful kingdoms are supposed to look like the massive cedars of Lebanon. And what does Jesus offer? A humble mustard plant. The kingdom of heaven is like…an overgrown shrub?! Long says, “The main point remains intact – the kingdom grows to great size from very small beginnings – but another important point gets made as well: This greatness does not come in the form we expect.”
As I understand it, wild mustard is hard to control, too. One commentator notes, “The mustard plant tends to take over where it is not wanted … tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon … [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties.” 4
So… this kingdom Jesus proclaims isn't necessarily going to be tidy and orderly. “Rather, the kingdom comes to overturn, to take over, to transform ...”
It’s worth considering, I think. Where can we see God's kingdom sneaking in, or spreading out, or taking over little corners of our world? Where do you see God's kingdom infiltrating and upending things, even though at first it might not seem obvious or particularly grand?
Have you ever caught a glimpse of God’s kingdom, of people truly living in God’s way, in an act of kindness in the face of bullying? In an act of bravery in speaking truth to power? In an act of compassion in the face of pain or need? Think of these acts as tiny branches of a growing plant, one that’s continually expanding and thriving under God’s watchful eye, able to bring life and hope wherever it goes.
There’s one final reflection I want to make on this morning’s text, and that is on the power of a simple shrub.
Keep in mind that Jesus told this parable to a group of disciples who were impatient with the slow results of their work. They wanted action, and they wanted it immediately! Jesus reminds them here that God's kingdom is not in their hands. It’s in God's control and things may take time. Genuine progress can be slow. Still, mighty things can come from small beginnings.
So we don’t need to lose hope when things move more slowly than we’d like or when it seems darker forces are winning out, because Jesus assures us that God's kingdom continues to spread and move in ways we may not even perceive.
We also needn’t worry about our size. And by that I don’t just mean that I shouldn’t be discouraged that I’m only 5’3” and both of my daughters long ago left me in the dust, height-wise. Admittedly the phrase “small but mighty” has some personal appeal for me. I’m actually talking about the size of a small church family like ours.
I have great respect for larger churches. As some of you know, my husband very happily serves a large church here in Seattle, and the good work that bigger congregations are doing is significant. The parable of the mustard seed, however, reminds us that we don’t have to be a mighty cedar mega-church with thousands of members or millions of dollars in our budget to make a difference in this world. All we have to do is be the exact size God calls us to be, and God will bless the world through us, will spread God’s kingdom, through us.
And in fact we’re going to be focusing more intentionally on stretching our branches and expanding our vision in the coming year, of what God can do through this particular congregation. Our Deacons are going to help us focus on a different outreach organization every month, with displays in the narthex and information on the back page of your bulletins each Sunday and opportunities to see where your mission dollars are being put to work through our church budget. We’ll also regularly be offering hands-on ways to demonstrate our compassion for those in need, like our collection of household supplies this month for refugee families. Next Sunday we’ll welcome a speaker from World Relief to tell us more about what life is really like for those who’ve had to flee their homes in the Middle East and elsewhere, and he’ll share with us ways we can become more involved, as a whole congregation or even as individuals.
There are so many wonderful organizations spreading out their particular branches of God’s kingdom and impacting our world. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We don’t have to do God’s work all on our own. We simply have be the people God calls us to be, and take advantage of opportunities to participate in amazing ministries already happening all around us. Every one of us can find a way to pitch in.
So take heart, fellow branches in God’s ever growing mustard plant. If we simply seek to be faithful, heaven only knows what God can do for the world - heaven only knows how God can expand God’s kingdom - through the people sitting right here in this room.
After all, “with God and three pennies, we can do anything.”
 Lamar Williamson, Jr., Interpretation
 The Rev. Dr. Hugh L. Eichelberger, http://day1.org/894-a new perspective
 Long, Matthew, 153.
 Garland, Reading Matthew, 149-50
 David Lose, http:www.workingpreacher.org