Marva Collins went to school in a strict one-room schoolhouse in Alabama in the 1940’s,in the days of segregation in the south, and was given extra assignments and challenges by her father at home. After graduating from college, Ms. Collins became a substitute teacher in the Chicago public schools, and was appalled at the treatment and disposal of poor black students. Finally, she withdrew the $5000 that was in her teacher’s retirement fund and opened a private school in the top floor of a brownstone in the westside Chicago neighborhood where she lived. Beginning Westside Preparatory School with her own 3 children and 2 others, Marva Collins developed an educational system based on the principle that there is a “seed of greatness” in every child. For more than 30 years, graduates of Westside Preparatory School became full and contributing members of society, went on to college and other higher levels of education, and attributed their success to Marva Collins’ tough but respectful interest and commitment to each one of them. “I believe in you,” she said to every student, and would “water” and nurture “seed of greatness” she had discovered in them. She practiced grounded positivity, based on the actual seed that was there in a student, not one that she didn’t make up or see present, for that would be building pseudo-self-esteem, as she called it. The question she asked was not, “Is this student smart?” but rather, “How is this student smart?” And then, “How can we cultivate this seed of greatness?”
Marva Collins’ teaching methods are still sound. The story is told of one little boy who wasn’t doing well in school and his self-esteem was slowly but surely being whittled away. Finally a wise teacher noticed that he always carried in his pocket 3 little balls, and every chance he got, he would juggle them. She invited him to demonstrate his juggling skills in front of the class and then to teach other students how to do it. The students in the class began to see this young boy in a new light, and he began to see himself in a new light. He began to think of new ways to teach others how to juggle, and in the process, began to do better in his more academic studies. That teacher had uncovered his “seed of greatness.”
“Teacher,” the disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” And Jesus replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,…” Jesus said. It sounds like maybe he doesn’t think they do, but actually this construction in Greek, according to a number of scholars, is what is called “a condition of certainty.” “If you had faith–AND YOU DO–you could do this.” In other words, Jesus is saying that the faith that you have is already sufficient–celebrate the gift of that seed! “The faith you have, though small, is more than enough to do all that you dream of and more.” [Glenn Monson, Law and Gospel Everywhere, 9/24/16]
“Increase our faith,” the disciples had said to Jesus. That was right after he had told them of the need to forgive even a person who had offended them 7 times. “Increase our faith,” they said. “This is too hard for us!” The disciples, like us, were focusing on what they lacked. “I’m not good enough, smart enough, successful enough, strong enough, pretty enough, thin enough, brave enough, spiritual enough…” “You already ARE enough,” Jesus said. “You’ve got a seed of greatness within you, planted there by God. Water it. Nurture it. It’s all you need to do what God wants you to do.”
And who said you had to uproot and move trees? “Increase our faith”–super-size us, upgrade us, make us spiritual giants. Who said you had to become famous? Who said you had to be “the greatest”? Who said you had to perform “miracles”? Certainly not Jesus. Leave the uprooting and moving of trees to God. Have faith the size of a mustard seed in God–faith, as in trust, confidence, commitment, not belief in some statement about God. Trust God, even a little bit. Practice in the small things, make it a habit. If you’re feeling discouraged, try remembering, “I am beloved..” When things seem to be taking a bad turn, try, “All will be well…” When you or someone are in distress, try, “Thank you, God, that you already at work healing, holding, …” Begin again each day.
Faith is a muscle, not an idea, as preacher David Lose says [workingpreacher.org, 10/2/16]. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. The small deeds of kindness, the random acts of beauty, have a huge impact. Imagine how empty and grim a place the world would be if we subtracted all those little acts, all those quiet words of encouragement, all those small gestures of grace and beauty. The seed of greatness is already planted in you. Just ask any of those everyday heroes who unthinkingly reach out to grab a child running into the street, or tackle the kid with the rifle shooting up the schoolyard, or filling a subway station with music that soothes and fills weary commuters. “I didn’t think,” they’ll tell you. “It’s just what you do.” It’s what that seed of greatness, that faith the size of a mustard seed, enables you to do.
“Rekindle the gift of God that is within you,” the writer of the letter to Timothy said. “…that faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you…” Rekindle the gift, blow on the ember–”It only takes a spark to get a fire going…” the hymn says. “That’s how it is with God’s love, once you’ve experienced it…Pass it on….” The spark, the ember, the seed–it’s not just for our own warmth or growth–it’s for the world, for the community. “The kingdom of God–the reign of God–is like a seed….” Jesus said. That’s how the kingdom comes.
Just a piece of bread, just a sip of wine, contains the whole Body and Blood of Christ. Our actions and reminders of unity here today ripple out into the world and join with others all around the world who celebrate the life of grace and oneness. “Excellence is not an act but a habit,” Marva Collins said. “The things you do the most are the things you do the best.” May the love, compassion, and justice we practice here become the habits we express in our community and in our world. The faith that we have, however small, is more than enough to do all that we dream of and more. It is enough for God to move mountains or build the kingdom. Let us keep the feast. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark