June 17, 2018
I begin today with the end of the reading. “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables,”. What is a parable and why did Jesus use so many of them? And why didn't explain them to us most of the time?
Jesus in fact told his disciples why, but it is not the clearest answer. When they asked this question, he told them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’” (Luke 8:10) To paraphrase, the disciples were given a level of understanding that the crowds did not have. In fact, there is a level of understanding that comes to those who are interested in hearing God's word that is denied to those who refuse to heed God's word.
I heard this story about an amazing feat by a tiny dog. This nervous little man walked into a biker bar. He cleared his throat and nervously asked, “Which one of you gentlemen owns a black pit bull which is chained outside to a parking meter?
A giant of a man, covered with tattoos, several chains and his leather jacket sporting many patches answered, “It's my dog. Why?”
“Well sir,” squeaked the little man, “I believe my dog just killed your pit bull.”
“What?” roared the big man in disbelief. “Just what kind of dog do you have?”
The little man answered nervously, “It's a small Pekinese, sir.”
“That's ridiculous! How could your Pekinese kill my pit bull?”
The little man, swallowed hard, said, “It appears it got caught in his throat.”
The power of little things is my title. Jesus used the tiny mustard seed to emphasize the power of little things. But he also used seeds in general in the first parable; small seeds planted which grow...how they grow is a mystery. Science can explain a lot and when I taught Ag I taught how a seed grows...the parts of a seed, how the embryo gets its food from the cotyledon or endosperm. But we don't really know how life comes from that little, dead seed.
Each of us here today grew from a tiny, microscopic egg joined by an even smaller sperm cell. We mostly take this process for granted until it doesn't work so easily. Then we realize what an amazing process life is. And how tiny beginnings grow into wondrous beings.
Perhaps if we look at the mustard seed parable with an eye toward the humor in it, we may get a picture of what Jesus is saying. For one thing, the mustard seed is not the smallest seed on earth and the mustard plant is not the greatest of all shrubs! A joke? What is the largest plant on earth?...it is the giant Sequoia. The largest of the Sequoias is called the General Sherman. 275 feet tall, girth of 102 feet, it weighs approximately 2756 tons. The seed of the giant Sequoia weighs 1/6000 of an ounce. Now there's an example of great things coming from a tiny seed! Jesus said that God's kingdom is “like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs.” In another place Jesus tells us if we have 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.” The mustard is not the point, in fact as a youth I spent plenty of hours pulling mustard plants out of the oats field. It is most generally considered a weed; another joke? Like the seeds the farmer plants, weed seeds sprout and grow and we don't know how. And like the seeds of the mustard or the Sequoia, God's kingdom grows from tiny seeds.
Consider where the bearer of the gospel of the kingdom began. Not in mighty Rome or even the great city of Jerusalem. Jesus was born in the tiny village of Bethlehem. He grew up in tiny Nazareth. He was crucified outside of Jerusalem on a tiny hillside called mount Calvary.
When he was gone, the mission of carrying on his truth was left with a tiny band of twelve men and some women. None of them held positions of power but were fishermen or tax-collectors or homemakers. Tiny seeds that have grown into a church that spans the globe. Of the 7 billion plus people on earth, one out of three claims the name of Jesus. The power of tiny seeds!
A few of you are gardeners who raise your plants from seed; Orville with flowers and vegetables, I know Carol has for years raised a garden but I'm sure this heavy rain has been tough on you with your heavy soil, Emily has raised a few tomatoes and such over at Ecumen across the street. Ackman's and Johnson's-- farmers who more and more rely on scientific advances to constantly increase yield...but the seed still must do its work of germination and growth. A single soybean seed can produce 100 beans, and on an acre that comes out to roughly 9 million beans to the acre...lots of beans from a relatively small seed.
This past week in the devotional “These Days”, the author wrote about gardening. Some things she shared: “The unseen is a key aspect of gardening. We may not see beneath the top layer of dirt, but that’s where the real growing takes place. Roots form, the soil provides nutrients, and plants spring up.” She uses this analogy to relate to our Old Testament lesson. The prophet Samuel is looking for the next king of Israel, and judges the sons of Jesse according to if they look like a king. But like the growth taking place under the soil, we often miss what is in the heart of those around us. Samuel says, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” In the scope of the world of faith, we are a tiny church. The world may see our outward appearance; a small, dying church. But what does God see when He looks at First Presbyterian? What do you see? Can we expect great things from this tiny seed of faith in which we operate? If we trust in our own wisdom and hard work, probably not. But if we put our church in God's hands, anything can happen. Does God's plan include becoming a maga-church? It sure doesn’t look like it. Does God's plan include touching lives with the hope of the gospel? Yes it does. Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God and that kingdom comes one person at a time. We reach out in various ways and we realize that sometimes the results have been less than overwhelming. We've invited neighbors to share a meal and had two people show up, we've hosted workshops with few participants, our special services we invite the community to are sparsely attended. We've had some successes; Patti Wetterling brought the community together to look for ways to make our children safer. Side note here, Jesus said, “ “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18: 16-17) If we have a calling to touch the lives of children, know that little children are our example and hold a special place in God's eyes.
Back to our church's efforts for the kingdom; we reach out to the children of Headstart, the youth at WINGs, host MAM meetings and contribute to housing. We also seek to bring joy and meaning to the lives of our church members, social events, home communions, fellowship gatherings like today's potluck. For a smaller, aging church, these are significant, but in the whole scheme of things, tiny seeds.
On May 12, 1807, a man named Robert Morrison boarded a ship in New York on his way to China where he would be the first Protestant missionary in that country. He worked hard, traveled extensively, learned the ways of the Chinese people. Seven years he worked before his first convert. Someone asked him if he really thought he could convert China. He said, “No, but I expect God will.”
Finally, after he baptized his first convert, he wrote, “May he be the first fruits of a great harvest, one of millions who shall come and be saved.” Millions? If it took seven years to get one convert, it would take 7 million years to reach his goal. But he put his small seed of faith in God's hands. Morrison served 27 years in China, dying at age 52. You could say that the Christian faith had established a tiny foothold on the coast of China, certainly not millions, but others followed and the church grew.
Today in China, it is estimated that the church numbers between 70 and 130 million! It is an amazing story of growth; there are now more Christians than members of the communist party. This despite the fact that the government continues to persecute the church. That tiny seed of faith has grown and grown and grown. It looked like a hopeless cause, but in God's hands, the seed multiplied many times.
We don't know what the future of our church holds. From a purely practical standpoint, it looks as if we are dying off. But in every meeting we hold, every time we gather, we pray for and seek God's will. Another notes from “These Days”, “Once you plant seeds, you have to wait patiently before you see any results.” We continue to plant seeds of faith and seek to trust that God is bringing us where we ought to be.
At our leadership training day last January, I shared a summary of an article entitled, “When is it Time to Close the Doors?” Small churches often feel, or are pressured to feel, that the only options are to grow or close. The point of the article is that those are not the only two options. The third option is to be a healthy small church. We understand that generally, healthy things grow; and that is kind of the point of my message today. Growth does not have to be in numbers; growth in faith, growth in purpose and mission, growth in love are more important than growth in numbers.
What factors indicate that a small church might need to close? Three factors were identified: people, mission and money. If we were to be missing any one of these, we'd need to consider our options. And when we look around the sanctuary, we can't help but notice the number of people is growing smaller. But for now, we are still gathering, we have our missions, and we have sufficient funds in the bank (which are shrinking but that's another sermon). Our tiny church needs to keep fighting on for the kingdom. God has made promises that it is not the size of the seed, or the mission group, or the church that matters.
Today's parables teach that growth comes in ways we don't always understand and that God can use even tiny seeds, tiny churches for his glory. Be on the lookout for ways God is growing your faith and growing our ministry. And expect great things from our great God. Amen.