Pass It On

June 13, 2021

Series: June 2021

Category: So-called Christian Values

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Today's Scripture: Ezekiel 17:22-24

Today's Sermon


"Pass It On"


Ezekiel 17:22-24

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.

Mark 4:30-32

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 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, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”


Rob and I both love to talk about the time we each spent at church camp during the summers of our childhood.  I went to Camp Caz up in Cazadero, where we would open each day with Bible study and small group discussion and we would close each day with worship.  My favorite part of worship – not surprisingly – was the music.  At worship, we would sing all the old favorite camp songs year after year after year.  I don’t think Camp Caz got any new musical repertoire after about 1970, but when you’ve got a good thing going, why change it?
One of my favorite camp songs growing up is called “Pass It On,” a classic written in 1969.  We campers would put our arms around each other, start swaying to the music, and belt out what, admittedly, is a rather cheesy song.  But it was tradition!  You couldn’t be at Camp Caz for a week without singing “Pass It On” at least three times.

I want to share a verse of this classic with you today.  If you are the child of a church camp and know this song, please join me!

“It only takes a spark to get a fire going,
And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing;
That's how it is with God's love, once you've experienced it,
Your spread God’s love to everyone, you want to pass it on.”

Oh, the memories!  I am often reminded of this song when I hear the parable of the mustard seed.  From the song – “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.”  From Jesus – “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of seeds, yet grows up to become the greatest of all shrubs.”  I will admit to much preferring Jesus’ mustard seed metaphor … fire metaphors do make me a little nervous this time of year. But the point is the same with each – the possibility of something small growing into something large.  I often hear this parable explained in terms of our own faith.  We need only a tiny bit of faith for God to do something great in our lives. 

The stole I’m wearing today actually has a mustard seed sewn into it somewhere.  I have no idea where!  It is too small to find!  The stole came with a card that explains, “The seed is to remind us that our faith is like a mustard seed that begins very small and grows throughout our lives.” The card then quotes a different mustard seed story that is found Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus talks about nothing being impossible for those who have faith even the size of a mustard seed. Jesus obviously loved his mustard seed stories! 

In the parable we heard from Mark’s Gospel this morning, Jesus is not actually talking about our own personal lives of faith. He instead uses this parable to explain the kingdom of God.  It is not our faith that is compared to a mustard seed in this story. This time, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  So, though something small does become something big in this parable, I don’t think that is the most important part of this story.  It is what happens next.  Once the seed grows into a great shrub, it puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.  Or as the song reminds us, once that fire gets going, soon all those around can warm up in its glowing.

The prophet Ezekiel shares a similar vision. Ezekiel shares that God will plant a sprig that will grow into a noble cedar.  Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.  I love the inclusivity of Ezekiel’s prophecy.  Every kind of bird and winged creature will be welcome – none will be excluded.  The kingdom of God is a place that provides comfort and rest and welcome for all. 

So what does this kingdom of God look like today? In her book, “Take This Bread,” Sara Miles describes the first time she ever participated in Communion.  Raised in a secular home as an atheist, church had never been a part of her life.  Then, in the early 90’s, two of her best friends died from AIDS, followed by her father’s death from lymphoma, and one day she found herself, rather unexpectedly at a worship service at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. She gathered with the other worshippers around the table, where, she says, “Something outrageous and terrifying happened.  Jesus happened to me.” She writes, “I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told.  But neither could I go away.  It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table through my fear and confusion.”

In the midst of her sorrow and her grief, she had found a place of comfort and rest and welcome.  That community did not care that she had no experience with church, didn’t know a thing about Jesus, and had a thousand questions.  She had found her mustard shrub in what she describes as “the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honored.”

But Miles didn’t stop there.  She explains, “My first, questioning year at church ended with a question whose urgency would propel me into work I’d never imagined: Now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?”  Slowly but surely, she developed a vision for a food pantry at St. Gregory’s.  In a letter to the congregation, she wrote, “The first time I came to the Table at St. Gregory’s, I was a hungry stranger.  Each week since then, I’ve shown up – undeserving and needy – and each week, someone’s hands have broken bread and brought me into communion. Because of how I’ve been welcomed and fed, I see starting a food pantry at church not as an act of ‘outreach’ but one of gratitude.  To feed others means acknowledging our own hunger and at the same time acknowledging the amazing abundance we’re fed with by God.”

It wasn’t easy, and she faced plenty of obstacles and nay-sayers, but Miles did begin a food pantry at St. Gregory’s, where the poor, elderly, sick, homeless, and marginalized from the community continue to be served each week from the very table where Sara took her first communion – with no strings attached and no questions asked.  Hundreds gather around the Communion table – a place of comfort and welcome – to fill their grocery bags with staples for the week.

An interesting thing happened as time went by, many of the visitors who came to get groceries became volunteers.  Miles writes, “They were more often than not misfits: jobless or homeless or a little crazy or just really poor.  They’d stand in line for weeks, then one day ask if we needed a hand.  The next week, they’d show up early and the next, they’d be redesigning our systems, explaining to me how things could work better.  Little by little, these new volunteers were beginning to run the pantry.”[i]Those who had received comfort and welcome began to offer comfort and welcome.

From the song – “That’s how it is with God’s love, once you’ve experienced it: you want to pass it on.”  Sara Miles didn’t keep her transformative experience of God to herself – she shared it with others.  The mustard seed and the noble cedar did not grow simply for the sake of growing.  They grew so that other living beings might have a place to call home.  Each received blessing and then became blessing.

I think it is easy to hear Sara’s story and think she did what she did because she is an amazing human.  Well, she is, but no more amazing than any of us. Each and every one of us is capable of being a blessing for another.  Of offering comfort and rest and welcome to those who need it most.  It is helpful here to return to the parable and to remember what a mustard shrub actually is.  It is a weed. Yes, Ezekiel has God planting a noble cedar, but in Jesus’ story, the kingdom of God is like a weed.  Nothing special.  Nothing extraordinary.  Just a shrub, using the gifts of its branches to provide for another. 

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber worked for a few years as a stand-up comic before she became a pastor.  She says, “Each of us preachers faces different challenges in writing sermons. Mine is to cut out most of the jokes from my manuscript before I preach. But it’s hard because I just find the Bible to be so darned funny. Especially parables.  That day in Palestine thousands of years ago, I bet there were one or two people who inadvertently laughed out loud at Jesus’ mustard seed parable.”[ii]  The mustard seed grows up to be the greatest of all shrubs?  Come on, now, that’s like saying the most beautiful weed.  Or the most delightful kudzu.  There is nothing great about a mustard shrub!  That’s hilarious, Jesus! 

But now he has our attention.  Jesus purposefully uses the most ordinary example possible to make his point.  Because this very ordinary shrub shows up, grows up, and offers extravagant welcome to those who need it.  That is what the kingdom of God is like.  The kingdom of God is where we, in all of our ordinary-ness, show up – for God, for each other, for ourselves; grow up in our faith; and pass it on.  Amen.


[i]“Take This Bread,” by Sara Miles.  Also “Searching For Sunday,” by Rachel Held Evans, pp. 146-147.