Seeds of Hope: Malala Yousafzai

Mark 4:26-34

Malala Yousafzai was a bright, precocious 12 year old girl growing up in Pakistan. She was born into a lower middle-class family with little money. In fact, her family didn’t have enough money for healthcare, so rather than being born in a hospital, she was born at home with the help of neighbors. But what her family lacked in resources, they made up for with ideas, learning, dreams, and a desire to help the world. Her father, a poet and teacher, educated Malala and raised her and her two younger brothers to dream big and to look for opportunities to make the world a better place. He allowed her to stay up way past her bedtime to discuss politics. Long after her brothers had been sent to bed.
But soon Malala’s life was drastically changed. The Taliban rose in power and were implementing drastic changes. Television and music were banned, women weren’t allowed to be in public and girls were no longer allowed to attend school and receive an education.
Responding to an inquiry by the local BBC, Malala began writing a blog under a pseudonym describing life as a young girl under Taliban rule. The blog piqued the interest of the New York Times and soon they made a documentary on Malala.
With this, the young girl gained visibility in national and international media circles. She quickly rose to prominence and used this new platform for activism, speaking out against the Taliban and advocating for education equality. She appeared often on local media and even received awards for her efforts.
But as she became more recognized, the dangers increased.
One day, after finishing one of her exams, she was headed home on a bus with her friends. Suddenly the bus stopped and a masked Taliban gunman climbed on board and shouted for Malala. Upon being identified, Malala was shot point blank in the head.
The extraordinary, promising future of an amazing young woman seemed to come to an abrupt end.
A small seed planted in a violent world.
A seed with so much potential for good but seemingly trampled upon. S
A seed of hope tamped down in the ground.
But God had other plans.
In today’s well-known gospel passage Jesus is using the imagery of a mustard seed and its growth to describe the kingdom of God. Many of us, whether we knew the Bible or were active in our churches or not, knew this parable. Or at least the gist of it. How many of us had a mother or grandmother who wore a necklace featuring a tiny mustard seed encased in a glass, pearl? It almost became a cliché to hear “if you just had the faith the size of a mustard seed…”
And to some extent, they are right. Jesus is speaking to the potential of just a little bit of faith. Like a seed can grow into something large, our faith, too, can grow into large, impactful outcomes. This is most certainly true.
But Jesus is also contrasting for his original audience the expectation of the kingdom of God which they had heard about through their tradition-this kingdom of God is described in Ezekiel as a “noble cedar.” Tall, powerful, strong and stately. But Jesus is describing a somewhat different kingdom of God –one more along the lines of a modest shrub.
Because the mustard seed, when sown, does indeed grow into the largest of shrubs. But it’s still a shrub. It’s not a mighty oak or towering cedar. So this imagery would have been a bit of a shift for the disciples to hear. The prophetic dreams of glory for Israel looks less like power and more like
Despite their size, the branches of these shrubs, actively care for living things. Every bit of their being in service to their fellow beings in creation. Offering shelter and shade- safety and provision.
And these mustard bushes spread like wildfire. Some botanists compare them to ivy- they grow with abandon and soon are popping up everywhere- villages of God’s love and care for all of God’s creation.
Oftentimes, big things come from humble beginnings.
Jesus is describing the Kingdom of God as full of potential. But it often starts small. Like a little seed.
With God’s power something seemingly insufficient grows into something great. Not for its own glory, but to do the will of God. It’s about God’s power.
God’s kingdom.
And as the passage states just before this one, it’s going to happen whether we will it or not. The seed grows not because we make it, but because God empowers it.
As Jesus explained, the grain grows whether we are awake or whether we are asleep. It’s God who does the growing. The sower doesn’t control the outcomes, God does.
God uses the tiniest efforts of faith to explode them into substantial efforts.
But the sower must distribute the seed. This is the partnering God calls us to for the kingdom of God.
But we don’t need to worry about the outcomes when it comes to faith. Nope, God will do that. But we are invited to plant those seeds. We are invited to sow just a little here, a little there. We are invited to nourish the seeds.
Seeds of love.
Seeds of grace.
Seeds of hope and joy and promise.
Seeds of radical welcome and loving inclusion.
These are the origins of the kingdom of God.
Once these are planted. Once these are sown. God takes care of the rest. And then the whole world starts to change.

After the horrific attempt on her life, Malala was airlifted to a military hospital where doctors began operating on her brain, which was swelling as a result of the bullet passing through. After a 5 hour operation, the doctors, calling it a miracle, were able to successfully remove the bullet which had been lodged in her shoulder near her spinal cord. Malala was later transferred to the United Kingdom to better her chances. 4 months later, after numerous surgeries, a cochlear implant to restore her hearing, and a procedure to reconstruct her skull, the courageous young activist was discharged from the hospital and released to recuperate in her home.
Malala would ultimately fully recover and rather than let fear drive her into the shadows, she courageously set out to continue her fight for female as well as children’s rights around the world. And at the age of 17, Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest ever to receive this prestigious award. She became a best-selling author, an in-demand speaker, and established a global foundation which funds schools in impoverished countries.
An unlikely seed God used to grow into a mighty force in the world.
Malala might have been a young 12 year old girl in the midst of an oppressive regime which didn’t value girls.
Malala might have been a child in a world which only listens to the voices of adults.
Malala might have been a citizen of a country whose needs many in the Western world turned a blind eye to.
But she was planted.
And God had different plans.
Her curiosity, her courage, her ambition, her passion – they were all seeds which were sown and God took over.
God, along with her community, nourished Malala and grew her efforts to shed light on the oppression of a forgotten people in a forgotten world.
Malala became the face for equality throughout the world and as a result millions of girls in countries all over the world were granted education.
That sounds a lot like the kingdom of God Jesus describes in the Bible.
But not all of us grow into famous, high profile change agents. That doesn’t mean we are any less effective. God uses each and every one of us just as we are with our unique gifts and even our special flaws to help build God’s kingdom.
Yes, we all start as seeds. But our powerful God grows us into something special.
We don’t really know how it works. That remains a mystery. But being open to God using us is part of our task as partners in kingdom building.
So my challenge to you today is to reflect on how your efforts are helping build the kingdom of God. How are you partnering with God in this place at this time to proclaim the gospel?
Because whatever our origins, however small we view our presence, however modest or insignificant we might interpret our potential, God sees as a seed ready to be grown into something great.

Don’t Miss the Magic: A Sermon for Graduates

Mark 2:23-3:6
In the Gospel lesson today Jesus is with his disciples on the Sabbath walking through the fields. As they’re walking, the disciples begin to pluck off the heads of the grain. Presumably they did so because they were hungry and maybe needed a little snack. Who knows how long they’ve been walking. A quick look at a map in the back of your bibles show that Jesus walked so much and so far he would be the Fit Bit Champion of all time if he were tracking steps. So they might have just needed a quick bite. But they might not have been hungry at all. They may have just been mindlessly snapping them off as they walked; out of sheer boredom. Who knows.
But all of sudden, the Pharisees seem to jump out and sound the alarm saying, “Look! Why are they doing what’s unlawful on the Sabbath?”
First of all, where were the Pharisees to notice this? Were they furtively walking a few paces behind like private investigators, watching the group’s every move? Or were they hiding in the fields like paparazzi only to spring up to catch them in some sort of misstep? Second of all, why did it matter? Indeed work was technically forbidden from the Sabbath. So would this be considered work?
Jesus seems to take this all in stride. Maybe at this point he’s used to the Torah Paparazzi, so he casually responds by giving the example of how David did the same sort of thing when he was fleeing Saul. When he and his companions were hungry and they had no food, David entered into the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, sharing some with his friends, which would, in the strict sense, have been unlawful for anyone but the priests.
But the point is clear- the Sabbath is made for humankind, not the opposite. The Sabbath rules intended to restore God’s people offering them rest. The point of the Sabbath is to help humanity have a fuller life, not to constrict them. The Sabbath was intended to serve as an intentional time to reflect on God’s blessings and provisions. Like so many of God’s commandments, they aren’t intended to be some mystical power trip but to help God’s people. The Pharisees seem to be missing this. They’re so caught up in the rules and the legal specifics, that they’re missing the larger point.
The passage continues with Jesus entering into the synagogue and encountering a man with a withered hand. Again, the Pharisees seem to be lurking in the background, waiting for a misstep so they can pounce and catch him in an unlawful act. Jesus, knowing this, uses it as an opportunity for them to recall the lesson he just taught them in the fields—he brings the man before them and asks, “ok is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?” Basically saying, “ok folks, do I heal this guy or not?”
And the Pharisees are silent.
They’ve chosen adherence to their religious structure over the helping of another human being.
And this breaks Jesus’ heart. I can imagine Jesus with angry tears, glaring at the Pharisees, grabbing the man’s hand and healing it on the spot.
And this seals his fate. With evidence in hand—finally—the Pharisees race off to conspire how to kill him.
As I was reading this passage so many different thoughts came to mind, but one in particular seemed to stick out- did the Pharisees not realize that they had just witnessed a miracle? In front of them, Jesus heals a man! Heals him! Did they not notice that?
This wondrous act, this extraordinary act; that defies the natural order has just taken place right in front of their eyes and they seem to have just dismissed it altogether. In their spiteful tunnel vision they’ve focused so intently on finding fault with this man, on sticking to their rulebook, that they’ve missed the miracle. Right in front of them.
They’ve gotten so brainwashed by the rules that they’ve allowed it to overshadow the reason for the rules altogether.
Jesus has tried to show them that the rules are there to serve a larger purpose- to care for one another. The rules and regulations are intended to point to that which is worshiped, not become the object of worship themselves.
The Sabbath is for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.
Maybe this is an area where religion has gone off the rails. Some religious people have become so focused on following the rules and APPEARING religious that they’re missing God’s extraordinary work taking place right in front of them. Seeking certainty, they’re missing the wonder of embracing the mystery of the divine.
They’ve missed the magic of a life of faith.
This is nothing new really. Humankind has been trying to put God in a box for centuries.
And I get the instinct to lean on that which is black and white. I get that there is comfort in what is dependable. And I get that sometimes considering anything outside of that carefully constructed box can be a threat. I get it. It feels unsafe. It’s sometimes even scary.
But oftentimes embracing a new interpretation of something- letting your guard down and stepping into the unknown- allows God to do some incredible work and leaves you with an expanded view of the Creator.
Sometimes when we challenge our comfortable understanding of the world, we end up with a deeper, more authentic worldview and brings us more intimately into relationship with the other.
But when we stay locked in those safe spaces, we miss these opportunities.
We miss the magic.
We miss the miracle of God in front of us.
So don’t miss the magic.
Don’t allow your faith to be so legalistic and constricted that you lose sight of the purpose- to bring you into closer communion with God. Because trust me, our faith can take anything you throw its way.
My favorite author and pastor Rob Bell wrote in his book “Velvet Elvis” about how too many well-intended Christians miss the magic of faith by sticking too stringently to dogma.
He describes faith like a trampoline.
When jumping on a trampoline you recognize the need for springs. The springs support the surface for which you jump.
Those springs are the things in our lives that help us understand God and how to live faithful lives that honor God. They might be rules, regulations, doctrines, what have you. But the springs aren’t God. The springs aren’t Jesus. The springs can be removed, stretched, examined, and explored. That’s what makes them so helpful. They’re able to be flexible to examine its purpose.
But some prefer bricks over springs. Bricks are also those things that help us understand God. The bricks seem sturdy and dependable. They don’t bend or stretch. And together, with an assortment of different bricks, they can build a strong, sturdy faith that might be helpful to some.
But if you remove one brick. Just one brick to examine or question, the whole wall comes tumbling down.
Wouldn’t you rather jump? Wouldn’t you rather bounce? So don’t let your faith become so rigid that you lose the ability to experience the magic of a buoyant life of faith. Because this is the life Jesus offers.
Jumping can be scary. Jumping involves risk. Jumping requires trust.
But that’s where you find the true joy.
That’s where you find the magic.
Being a Christian today is absolutely awesome. But in some ways we’re getting a bad rap.
Now more than ever, Christians are being challenged for hypocrisy. And to be fair there are many examples of Christians who do awful things- make outlandish statements, advocate for horrific policies, and quite frankly do an enormous amount of harm all under the auspices of their faith. And when challenged, they run for cover under their strict adherence to a doctrine that is oftentimes misunderstood. But it’s carefully constructed with little room for examination.
Like or not, the media has in many ways helped establish this misunderstanding of Christians by giving air time to these folks. And as a result have unwittingly maligned a diverse, inclusive, loving faith.
As a result, there will be people who, when you proclaim yourself as a Christian, will be just like the Pharisees—who seem to track your every movement, waiting for an opportunity to pounce to expose you and your faith as hypocritical.
Because they’re used to bricks. And we’re used to springs.
So rather than keep your faith hidden, use it as an opportunity to teach.
Invite them into a deeper understanding of the Christian faith by sharing with them a God who works miracles in the world not by controlling an army of faithful rule followers but by inviting a host of unique created beings into a magical dance, guided by love and shaped by service to the neighbor.
Help them learn to jump.
Don’t miss the magic. And don’t let them either.