Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, June 17, 2012

Small Things that Change the World
Mark 4:26-34
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, Virginia
June 17, 2012
Third Sunday after Pentecost

 God’s kingdom of justice, peace, and love grows, spreads, and overcomes evil from even the smallest of beginnings

Sometimes realities and expectations are two different things.  That discrepancy is probably one reason Jesus used parables.  He knew that people had one set of expectations about the kind of kingdom he had come to inaugurate.  He had another.  He told parables to try to explain the reality of the kingdom of God, but the parables aren’t always straightforward.  They often mystify Jesus’ opponents because they don’t want to understand his message in the first place.  They’ve already made up their minds.  They’re enigmatic riddles to Jesus’ disciples, but because they’re sincerely trying to understand, Jesus takes time in private to help them unpack their meaning.  Parables are like jokes in that they employ misdirection—they start with something you’re familiar with—trees, shrubs, birds, seeds, soils—and you wind up in a place you hadn’t expected.  A good friend put me on to the quotations of comedian Stephen Wright this week.  Some of his one-liners are like Jesus’ parables—they make you laugh because your expectation at the beginning is turned on its head by the line’s end.  Here are a few from a website published by Donald J. Hunt:

 “I stayed in a really old hotel last night.  They sent me a wake up letter.”

 “I have a switch in my apartment that doesn't do anything. Every once in a while I turn it on and off. One day I got a call from a guy in France who said, ‘Cut it out!’”

 “I'm taking La maze classes. I'm not having a baby.   I'm just having trouble breathing.”

 “I just got skylights put in my place. The people who live above me are furious.”

 “I used to work in a fire hydrant factory. You couldn't park anywhere near the place.”

 “When I get real bored, I like to drive downtown and get a great parking spot, then sit in my car and count how many people ask if I'm leaving.”[1]

 Many of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God offer people more than just a rhetorical challenge to their perception of reality.  They address the disappointment and disillusionment that arises when the beautiful nature of God’s kingdom is finally understood and then compared with the every reality most of us inhabit every day.

 The Hidden Nature of the Kingdom

 The kingdom of God was the central theme of Jesus’ teaching.  Its establishment on earth was the reason he came.  It is a social and political image that refers to the state of affairs that exists when God’s rule and reign over us and our world is fully enacted. This image is not easy to completely define.  Some people have focused on the internal dimension of the kingdom and try to describe what happens in a person’s soul or psyche when they embrace the kingdom of God.  Others focus on the external nature of the kingdom of God and envision a state of affairs where the poor are fed, the homeless housed, war is eradicated, and justice is equally distributed.  Some people have focused on the kingdom’s future reality and see it more as an ideal that won’t be realized until the final day of  judgment; others see it as a present reality that is slowly evolving or organically developing.  We are taught to pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The kingdom of God in general terms is that time, place, situation, circumstance where God’s will prevails.

The problem with this grand ideal, as Jesus was apparently aware, is that whether it is primarily present or future, internal or external, social or personal—it seems so unimpressive when compared to the realities of our lives.

In Jesus’ day, to claim that God’s kingdom had come in his appearance on earth raised many people’s expectations—and created enemies.  To the poor Jews who were tired of living under Roman oppression, talk of the kingdom of God signaled that Israel was about to be restored to the place of worldly prestige and power it had known under its greatest King, David.  To those who had a vested interest in the status quo, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and yes, the Roman authorities, talk of establishment of a new kingdom sounded like sedition, a call to armed rebellion.  The kingdom Jesus had in mind was ruled by love—love that suffers, love that refuses to embrace violence as its method, love that sees rich and poor, old and young, male and female, as of equal worth and value in God’s eyes.  That ideal frankly looks rather pitiful compared to a legion of well-trained, well-armed Roman soldiers. 

 As the early Christian community to whom this first of the gospel’s in chronology was written looked back on Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, his efforts to change the world with love and their recognition that his disciples were called to suffer as he’d suffered, undoubtedly raised questions about the efficacy of such a strategy—a strategy of patience, refusal to take up arms, willingness to suffer.  Where is this kingdom Jesus seemed so confident about?

 Where’s the Kingdom Today?

We have similar questions, don’t we?  Where are the signs of God’s kingdom among us?  Yes, it is true that we have in recent years become more aware of the frailty of the big institutions and powers we humans have created.  We’ve seen that the most brilliant minds in the economic and financial arena could not really foresee how their actions could lead to a colossal economic collapse that affects everyone.  We’ve seen that the most brilliant military strategists can embrace faulty assumptions about how easily or quickly a war can be prosecuted and won.

 But beyond our human inabilities to predict the consequences of our actions, we are made aware daily of all the ways God’s kingdom is not yet a reality. 

 You can see why Christians struggled with their faith in the early years after Jesus death.  They were certain that after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the kingdom he’d begun was going to come in its fullness in their lifetimes.  They could endure anything—ridicule, persecution, tension within their families over their newfound faith—because  Jesus was going to come again—soon. 

 But that didn’t happen.  They had to readjust their thinking—either give up their hope of God’s kingdom altogether, or reconsider the nature of this kingdom in light of the kind of king Jesus in fact proved to be.

 Jesus Embraces Small Beginnings

 We don’t just wonder about the kingdom’s presence because of the big tragedies of human history—nuclear bombs, world wars, economic reversals.  There’s enough in most of our personal lives to cause us at times to question the power of this kingdom, it’s presence among us.    

 So Jesus had some teaching to do.  He was determined to change people’s expectations about the kingdom of God,  not by diminishing what it would look like in its final form, but by teaching them about how it begins and how it grows.  Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t begin with   great fanfare.  It is not initiated or sought by a multi-billion dollar political campaign.  It does not depend on huge armies supported by huge budgets.  It does not even begin from the efforts of a powerful, prestigious contemporary mega-church.

 It begins like a mustard seed—a  small seed, one of the smallest of seeds.  That seed is sown,   and slowly, out of the limelight, away from public adulation, unseen, hidden, it slowly, but inexorably grows.  It issues not in a huge cedar tree, an oft-used symbol in the Old Testament for one of the great nations of the world, but a humble shrub—a a healthy shrub to be sure, a shrub large enough to offer shelter and refuge for a large number of birds, but nonetheless a shrub. 

 Jesus had this deep-seated confidence not in human ability, ingenuity, wealth, or even force of arms, but in God to take the smallest of beginnings, and use them to change human lives, even the course of human history.  His own story was an illustration of that confidence.  He was born, not in Jerusalem, the seat of spiritual power, nor in Rome, the seat of  imperial rule, but in a little out of the way place called Bethlehem, and there not in a nice hotel, but a humble manger as his parents sought shelter with the livestock.  He lived in Nazareth, a small town people often poked fun at.    And he chose 12 ordinary men to be his disciples, men without impressive resumes or pedigrees, some who had questionable pasts and few earthly achievements to commend themselves, just ordinary people.  And the people who were drawn to his movement were often people others looked down on for one reason or another—a woman caught in adultery, another woman in Samaria who’d had more husbands and affairs than you could count, a tax collector who’d made a lot of money cheating people, several blind, deaf, and sick people—not people you’d read about in the society page of the Sunday paper. 

 When it was all said and done, his strategy for bringing his kingdom into being was not to amass power and wealth, but to let those things go.  His strategy could not be mapped out neatly in a glitzy power-point presentation, but was finally defined by the symbol of failure and judgment prevalent in his time—a cross.  His own life was a testimony to the truth of this parable of the mustard seed—that God takes small things, ordinary people, experiences others regard as signs of utter failure, and turns these things into the seeds of a great movement that brings shelter, healing, life, and peace to any who will receive it.

 Small Things Can Change the World

 It’s not such a strange notion when you think about it.   I know it’s not the way the world normally operates, but it is true, that sometimes great things do come from small beginnings!

 Imagine a giant sequoia tree, one that is between 500 and 750 years old, the age at which these trees reach their height.  It is 250 feet tall, and 30 feet around.  How did that tree begin?  It had its beginnings from a cone that possessed seeds the size of a flake of oatmeal—a great sight to behold from such a small seed. 

People grow and mature at different rates. Thomas Edison's teacher said he could never amount to anything and advised his mother to take him out of school. Winston Churchill was admitted to school in the lowest level classes and never moved out of the lowest group in all the years he attended Harrow. Albert Einstein seemed so slow and dull that his parents feared that he was mentally deficient.   You can’t always predict how a person’s life will turn out just by the way it begins. 

John Buchanan is a wonderful preacher.  He just retired as the pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.  He tells about returning to be inducted into the 50 year club in celebration of his class’s graduation from his alma mater, Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Five of his classmates were scheduled after a nice luncheon to tell about what they’d accomplished since their graduation from college.  Buchanan wasn’t very excited about hearing these stories.  The first, a man named Earl he remembered as being studious and quiet told about his work as a neurologist doing groundbreaking research into the causes of Alzheimer’s disease and his work to find new methods of early detection and treatment.  Buchanan said his presentation was breathtaking.  The next presentation was from a man who’d been one of Buchanan’s fraternity brothers.  He’d gone on to earn a Ph. D. in inorganic chemistry and after working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and for Union Carbide, he landed at Michigan State University where he taught and did research into what makes tumors grow and had developed an anti-tumor drug used by oncologists everywhere.  After hearing these presentations, Buchanan admitted how surprised he was.[2]
He wrote, “The presentations were thrilling, and I began to look around the room at my old classmates in a whole new light. What an unpromising group we were as freshmen: unsophisticated, naive, full of ourselves, and so young—still adolescents mostly. And what an interesting group we had become: physicians, business executives, attorneys, research chemists, college professors, clergy, and a White House assistant to President Ronald Reagan in charge of First Lady Nancy Reagan’s office. Each with a fascinating story to tell; each of us with a story to tell that began with a seed or two or three planted at that college fifty years ago.”[3]

The seeds Jesus planted were small.  He had a few dedicated followers, he died on a cross.  But that movement spread until the point that it became the official religion of the empire that had once persecuted it—a mixed blessing to be sure, but nonetheless, testimony to the power of the ideas Jesus proclaimed.

Howard Zinn was a historian who studies history from the side of ordinary, forgotten people rather than from the vantage point of winners and rulers as is often the case. 

In an article in the National Catholic Reporter written shortly after Howard Zinn’s death, the writer told of hearing him advise a  group of students who wanted to make an impact in the world:

 “Look for a peace movement to join,” he told students last November in a talk. “It will look small, pitiful and helpless at first, but that’s how all movements start.”[4]

The writer of this article said that over lunch in Santa Fe a few years ago Zinn told a group  that every major movement for social change in our history was hopeless.

To John Dear , Zinn’s words sounded hopeless.  He summarized Zinn’s thoughts, “Hopeless from the beginning, hopeless through the middle, hopeless up to the very end -- people laboring toward a hopeless goal. But then, like a bolt out of a blue sky, a breakthrough.  The key [ Zinn]said, was that ordinary people kept at it despite all evidence. Ordinary people doing their small acts for justice every day -- here was the key. Over time peaceful acts add up to something big. What the powerful fear most, he said, are the grass-roots movements that won’t go away.”[5]

And then these words of encouragement from Zinn,  “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can quietly become a power no government can suppress, a power than can transform the world.”[6]

So, my friends, I invite us to keep looking, not for the big things that make a splash for a moment, but those small acts of faithfulness and love that Jesus promised would change the world.  Pray—for your friends and your enemies, for our church, our city, and our world.  Share your faith—not in some condescending, brash, off-putting  way, but by letting other people know what God’s love has done for you.  Invite someone, or better, bring someone to worship with you and let them experience the joy of worshiping God and being loved and accepted just as you are.  Serve—whenever and however you can.  Give—of yourself, your time, your money.  God’s promise to us is that when we sow the smallest of seeds, God will use our efforts to change the world, to increase the reality of the reign of God’s love, until one day that reign of love has the final word!

        [1]“The World According to Steven Wright,”  accessed June 14, 2012,   

        [2] John Buchanan, “Seeds Planted,”  (sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, June 14, 2009)
        [3] Ibid.

        [4] John Dear, SJ, “Howard Zinn:  Small Acts Multiplied by Millions,”  National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2010, accessed June 14, 2012,

        [5] Ibid.

        [6] Ibid.

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