Baron Mullis
(Luke 13:18-19 , Psalm 150)

I’d like to tell you about my friend Frances Leete. She is, to my knowledge, still a member of the church in which I was raised, and when I was a little boy, she was the director of the cherub choir. Why the youngest choir in every church seems to be called the cherub choir is beyond me, because if you read about cherubs in the Bible, they’re absolutely terrifying creatures, which come to think of it may be why they were called the cherub choir after all. My six year-old brother was a cherub, so to speak, and at the age of three and half, I wanted to do everything he did, an affection I have gotten over. The cherub choir was not for three and half year olds, but undeterred, I memorized the first verse of All Creatures of Our God and King determined to change Mrs. Leete’s mind. After hearing me sing it, she told my mother I really was too young.

But then the next morning, she called my mother and said, “Any child who wants to sing that much should be encouraged. I’ll take him.”

I learned a lesson then that I’ve been learning ever since: that actions have the power to affect profoundly how people see ourselves and the church and every aspect of life. I also learned that music is a powerful uniting force when people sing together.

I remember very little about being three and half years old, but I remember that.

It was, and remains for me, an experience of the kingdom of God.

I think we sometimes think that the kingdom of God always has to be an earth-shatteringly big thing, you know, angels with trumpets blasting, clouds and fire around a glowing Jesus, earthquakes, etc.

And yet Jesus tells us it is like a mustard seed.

I won’t belabor the point: tiny seed, big tree, you get the picture.

The disciples were constantly looking for something with a little more splash, a little more oomph, a little more grandness, and at every turn, Jesus confounded them with the observation that the kingdom of God breaks in unexpectedly. The kingdom of God starts small – the kingdom of God is all around us, Jesus says. The kingdom is at work within us.

I called Jane a few weeks ago and asked her if there was anything in particular that she wanted me to preach about today – and while she and I did talk about it for a while, the one thing she was crystal clear about was that she didn’t want me to make the sermon into a catalogue of thirty years of music ministry. And so today we won’t talk about her terms as dean of the American Guild of Organists, nor will we mention the fact that faculty Yale Divinity School cherry-picked her Liturgical Arts Camp to serve as a model for future applicants, or that when I asked her to record the Widor Toccata a few years ago for the youth silent auction, a complex piece she has hitherto referred to as “seven minutes of loud” she played it in five and a half minutes flat, we won’t speak of her degrees from Salem, Eastman and Duke- and I’m a man of my word, I won’t even mention them. I’ll resist the allure of metaphor to substitute “ministry of music” with “The Kingdom of God,” because, you see, I don’t have to. Tiny seed, big tree; you get the picture.

When Walter Huff, the chorus master for the Atlanta Opera, retired from the church I serve in Atlanta after twenty-five years, he recounted a marvelous story of keynote address of Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas at the conference he was attending, of how she electrified him with her words about the human voice and its carrying of the divine message, and then he said, “We, in every act of life, and through our singing, as long as we are here, are messengers sent for each other: to heal each other, ourselves, and to light the way – to light the way, through our song – to light the way for everyone.”

When our vocation is working through Jesus Christ the kingdom of God is apt to break in.

Vocation has come in recent years to be associated, most often, with work. But it actually derives from a very different origin. Vocation comes from the Latin root, vocare which means simply to call. When I officiate weddings, for instance, I always remind the two being married and congregation that what we’re really doing is celebrating a holy calling, a vocation, into which they are entering. It’s a vocation because the calling is to exemplify the love of Jesus Christ through marriage. The simplest acts become holy as they become the living of vocation.

Tiny seed, big tree; you get the picture.

I love Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation. He says, vocation is “that place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet.”[1]

When we’re living our vocation, the tiniest acts are significant.

The kingdom of God is always around us – if we’ll see it. If we’ll seek it – indeed, it breaks in unexpected – oftentimes at the moment we least expect it.

In her wonderful short story, Music on the Muscatatuck, Jessamyn West tells the story of Jess Birdwell, a devout Quaker and husband of a Quaker minister at the time of the Civil War. Birdwell lived an idyllic life on the banks of the Muscatatuck in Indiana. He has a thriving business, a loving family, a good wife. But something is missing, and soon West tells us, what is missing is music. And in the Quaker tradition, music is an idolatry, an impediment to the voice of God. As Birdwell is traveling to Philadelphia to purchase cherry trees for his nursery, he encounters a traveling organ salesman, Waldo Quigley. Quigley is a gifted salesman, with the gift of gab, as it were, and he soon has Birdwell right where he wants him. He begins talking about the organs that he sells: Payson and Clarke’s, rhapsodizing about their rich, resonant sound. He cannot, of course, mimic the sound of an organ, but knowing he has a musician at heart in front of him, he improvises, singing an Irish air. West writes: “Jess said afterward that didn’t have the slightest intention of making a show of himself in a B&O parlor car singing “The Old Musician and his Harp,” or any other song, for that matter. But the tune was a hard thing to give the go-by; the mind already said the words, and the toe tapped the time; with the whole body already singing it, that way, opening the mouth to let the words out seemed a mighty small matter…”

Birdwell concluded his business in Philadelphia, and remembering the card of the salesman, decides to stop into a Payson and Clarke showroom and hear the music played proper. It would only be polite, after all. And so it is that the husband of a Quaker minister finds himself the purchaser of a pump organ.

Birdwell arrives home a few days ahead of the organ, thinking he might gradually acclimate his minister wife to the idea of the instrument. It doesn’t go well. He begins pontificating about how the birds sing and the angels play harps to the glory of God, and his wife astutely replies: “Thee’s neither bird nor angel, Jess Birdwell, and had the lord wanted thee, either singing or plucking a harp, thee would be feathered now, one way or another.”

The organ arrives. There is a husband and wife rouw over its arrival, and when the dust settles, the organ stays, but relegated to the attic.

It would seem that this would be well enough, except that, as it always will, rumor works its way round, and soon enough, the ministry and oversight board has come a-calling. They know their task – and it is not a pleasant one. They come in their Sunday best to the house prepared to confront their minister with her tolerant ways. And though Jess has been careful of when he has played, his young daughter, who is learning music has gone up to the attic and husband and wife alike hear the telltale sound of the bellows filling as she pumps the organ and know that what will come will tell the tale. And in that moment, Jess knows that he has sold his inheritance for a mess of potage, like Esau of the Bible, only worse: Esau only sold his birthright, Birdwell has sold both his and his wife’s for the sake of an organ. As Birdwell and his wife sit in their parlor with the ministry and oversight board, Jess feels they weight of what is to happen. And West writes: before his lips moved his heart began to pray, “lord, deliver thy servant from the snare of his own iniquity.

As the music begins, Jess is on his feet saying, “Friends let us lift our hearts in prayer.”

And he prays in a voice that shook the studding of his home. “he went through the Bible, book by book and sinner by sinner. He prayed in the name of Adam, who had sinned and fallen short of grace, of Moses, who had lost the promised land; of David, who had looked with desire on another man’s wife. He prayed in the name of Solomon and his follies, of Abraham and his jealousies, and of Jephthah, who kept his word in cruelty; he made music of his own out of his contrition…He left the old testament and prayed for them all, sinners alike in the name of Paul, who what he would not, he did; and of Peter, who said he knew the man not, and of Thomas, who doubted and Judas who betrayed and of that Mary who repented.”[2]

His voice rises and falls with the music. It swells with the crescendos and diminishes on the decrescendos. And he does not finish until the last Chords of the organ have been played. And then he sits.

Soon the chair of the ministry and oversight committee stands. “Friend, thee’s been an instrument of the Lord this night,” he said. “Thee’s risen to the throne of grace and carried us all upwards on thy pinions. Thy prayer carried us so near to heaven’s gates that now and again I thought I could hear angels’ voices choiring and the sound of heavenly harps.”

And then the ministry and oversight board left with amens whispering and lingering on their tongues.

“We, in every act of life, and through our singing, as long as we are here, are messengers sent for each other: to heal each other, ourselves, and to light the way – to light the way, through our song – to light the way for everyone.”

It would be so easy – so very easy – on a day like today to think first of the ways that Jane and her ministry have fed this congregation. I speak as one with authority on this matter – we have doubtless been fed a feast fit for royalty of music and liturgy – and it would be so tempting to think of the function of worship as to feed ourselves or even to light our own way.

But it’s not. Pardon me for slightly dated language – but I know there are folks here who know the answer to this question, “What is the chief end of Man?”

The answer is, “To Glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

When we worship – I told my own congregation this recently, it is not for ourselves – we are not the audience of worship. We worship for God. We worship because God is worth it.

Our acts of worship look a little different in that light. Indeed our acts of vocation look a little different in that light – but there is a side effect to worship and it is this – it is as sure a place as I can think of to look for that proverbial mustard seed to take root.

But a caution about that: Pliny the Elder notes in his Natural History, “mustard… is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”[3]

In other words, beware of mustard seed – there might be some side effects to worship.

I love the way Anne Lamott describes the moment when she stumbled into St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, so hung-over she could be barely stand. She writes, “The last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling – and it washed over me.”[4]

mustard-seedOnce it gets a root, mustard is hard to eradicate. There is no telling when it will crop up. There is no predicting, when, like God’s grace, unbidden it will break into your world and crack you open. That’s why Annie Dillard so famously noted that if we knew what we were doing in worship, we’d wear crash helmets. That too, I expect, is why Jane wouldn’t let me turn this sermon in an elegiac direction. She has known something very profound all these years, something preachers and musicians struggle to remember and it is this: when we come to worship, we have a tiger by the tail. There is no telling what God is going to do. There is no telling when the mustard seed will bloom into whatever sacred, carefully planned and contrived activities we may have planned. She has known all these years that God doesn’t follow predictable patterns and the fastest way to get swept off your feet with the unyielding power of the holy spirit is to think that that we, the body gathered to worship, somehow control the untamable power of God that is unleashed in this time and place. It’s not predictable, it’s not containable, it’s not controllable – like a conflagration that threatens to sweep through the dry brush of tired expectations, the mustard seed will flower when it is ready – it breaks in with God’s good grace.

One last thing about Mrs. Leete: about thirty years later I was in the Presbyterian Hospital downtown visiting member a member of this congregation, when the chaplain, a mutual friend, said to me, “You should stop by the Emergency Room, buy levaquin product, Baron. They’ve brought in Ralph Leete, and it doesn’t look good. Frances is down there with him.” So I went down there, and Mrs. Leete looked up at me and said, “Do you remember that time you sang All Creatures of Our God and King for me?”

It was, and remains for me, an experience of the Kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – the smallest of all, and yet it grows into a mighty tree and the birds of the air take their rest in it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


[1] Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. (HarperOne, San Francisco, 1993) p117
[2] West, Jessamyn. Music on The Muscatatuck in Faith Stories, C. Michael Curtis, ed. (Houghton-Mifflin, New York, 2003) p277
[3] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, translated by Harris Rackham, Loeb, 1950, Book XIX, Chapter LIV.
[4] Lamott, Anne, Traveling Mercies. (Anchor, NY, 1999) p50