In 1976 the people of Bangladesh were suffering from a terrible famine. Economics professor Muhammad Yunus visited the village of Jopra, one of the hardest hit communities. While he was there he met a group of forty-two poor basket weavers. Yunus removed $27 from his pocket and loaned it to those women. They used the money to buy straw to weave baskets and seats for stools. They were able to sell the baskets and stools, repay the loan, and develop a successful business.
That idea, which started with forty-two impoverished women grew into the Grameen (which means “village”) Bank. Small loans allow poor entrepreneurs and crafts people to invest in supplies and services to help them earn a living. Since then Yunus and the Grameen Bank have granted micro-loans to more than seven million poor people, who have no collateral and most of whom cannot even read or write. The repayment rate has been 98%. This program is not dispensing charity, it is investing in people who have never had the opportunity to reach their potential and experience decent lives.
Just like the tiny mustard seed in Jesus’ parable grows into a large shrub, so these tiny micro-loans grow into profitable businesses that bring a quality of life to impoverished people who before dared not even dream of having basic food, clothing and shelter. The poorest of the poor flock to Yunus and the Grameen Bank out of hope for their future. 96% of the loans have gone to women, who are usually victims of repressive social and economic conditions. The seed money gives them a chance for life with some measure of safety and an ability to care for their families.
In 2006 Professor Yunus, “Banker to the Poor,” received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to eliminate poverty. His dream is that someday people will have to go to museums to see what poverty was like, because it will have been eradicated.
Where do we plant our tiny seeds of faith? One important place is in our children. Most often, although not always, they are baptized as infants and then we enjoy watching as they gradually grow in faith. Sometimes they come to faith at an older age, when they embrace the promise of God’s grace for themselves. We teach them, we act as role models for them, we nurture them on their faith journey. But, as Jesus reminds us, we may plant seeds but we must resist the temptation to think we know exactly how to make them grow. Very often they surprise us. Today we are blessed to have our young people lead us in worship, demonstrating their commitment to God and their thankfulness to the congregation for our support of them.
In our second reading Paul writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Today we are also pleased to celebrate with four of our young people as they affirm the promises made on their behalf at their baptism. We have enjoyed accompanying them on their faith journey thus far, and we are confident that they will continue to be part of our church family and contribute their time and talent to the church, each in their own unique way.
In their essays for confirmation (which you will be able to read in the summer issue of our newsletter) they have each described moments that were special to them. These essays never fail to amaze and impress. They are young theologians, speaking knowledgeably of their faith in God and their trust that God is always there for them, watching over them and always willing to forgive their sins. In a world that sometimes seems superficial and too technological, they have a firm grasp on the reality of sin, the need for forgiveness and their complete trust in the gift of God’s grace. They understand the meaning of baptism and confirmation and the reasons why we gather as a congregation to worship God.
They each have particular memories that are meaningful to them, affirming that we have served as role models for them while providing them with a safe and fun place to grow in faith. They appreciate their individual families and their family of God, and they find safety, comfort and strength in both. They are thankful and express their gratitude, both in words that we truly appreciate and by doing things for others. A favorite part of confirmation class has been working at the Garden at St. Francis Episcopal Church and sharing worship with the people there. They also enjoyed confirmation class with Tom and Nick, as one of them put it, “I really don’t get what everyone said was so bad about it anyway.”
All of us, together with their families, have worked together to make this day possible for them. But we have to be careful not to try and make these individuals fit into neat little categories that we create.
Jesus chose the mustard seed for his second parable for today. In his day, mustard was a weed. It could be useful as a seasoning, but it was not something that people would purposely plant. Yet it grew abundantly and well even in less than ideal conditions. Jesus calls it the “greatest of all shrubs,” which was probably a bit of a joke on his part. The mustard plant is not a magnificent or great plant, but it provides shelter and security for little birds and other creatures.
Jesus is encouraging us to perceive greatness in new ways. Like the mustard plant, the kingdom of God is everywhere. It’s spreading and growing all around. Even though Mark insists on the messianic secret in his gospel, the word still gets out and spreads among the people. In fact, there is no gospel story where the message and example of Jesus remains buried in the ground, dormant, waiting for perfect conditions. The good news is like a weed, spreading everywhere, invasive even among those who prefer neat and tidy beginnings and endings.
We are so blessed today to see an example of the seeds of faith as they have grown in those who were once little children, now mature young people we are so proud of, ready to take their part as leaders and sowers of the seed. They are each unique individuals who look forward to the future with a positive attitude, and we are eager to see what each of them will accomplish as they grow into adults, with the confidence that they are beloved children of God and cherished members of the family of God. We cannot control what will happen in the future, but we trust that God has a wildly fruitful plan that is already in operation. We may not see it clearly or fully understand it, but as our confirmands so eloquently expressed, we know that we will be the beneficiaries of God’s free gift of grace. Amen.