little BIG things – a sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

preachinga sermon, based on  Ezekiel 17.22-24 and Mark 4.26-34, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on June 14, 2015

cedar treeEzekiel, in the poetic language of allegory, proclaims the creative, life-giving providential power of God, who plucks a sprig, a tiny twig, from the top of a mighty cedar and plants it on the higher plane of a mountaintop so that it, too, becomes a tree, bearing much fruit.

mustard treeJesus says that God’s kingdom, the realm, nature, being of God, is like a mustard seed that, though tiny, when planted, grows into a mighty shrub.

Little things can become big things. A principle, the evidences of which, at times, bright and benign, at other times, shadowy and sinister, can be seen in the course of all life and nature. A small stream flows into a delta mingling with the waters of a mighty ocean. A word spoken carelessly can provoke a fight, foment a war. The sound of a solitary note can stir in the mind of a music lover the memory of an entire song and in the heart of a composer, a single tone can be the seed that bears fruit in the creation of a symphony. A rampaging Islamic State, with multiple beheadings and the destruction of ancient Mesopotamian monuments, writ large, painfully reminds us of the historic virulence of all religious bigotry. A kindly, gentle gesture, a soft, sympathetic touch of a hand on a shoulder, an earnest tear falling from the corner of an eye can hearken to a broken heart or heal a wound, making reconciliation possible. Little big things.

I recall a television commercial for an insurance company.[1] Though short, lasting barely a half-minute, it was quite long in its reach. The premise? Small deeds of simple service, random acts of kindness when added together nurture a spirit of larger community or, in the language of the principle of moral causation, good karma.

A man, walking down a street, retrieves and returns a baby’s stuffed animal that had fallen from a stroller. The grateful mother smiles and later in a coffee shop, allows an older woman standing behind her to precede her in placing her order. That woman, later waiting at the curb for the light to change, shares her umbrella with a man caught in a sudden downpour. That man after crossing the street assists to her feet a woman who had slipped and fallen as others passed by. That woman, continuing down the street, pulls a delivery man out of the way of falling crates that had shifted out of balance in the back of his truck. That man, later driving down a grid-locked street, the air filled with blaring horns of frustrated drivers, signals to a man in a car, stuck on the ramp of a parking lot, no one having allowed him into the traffic, bidding him entry. We recognize that man in the car as the one who returned the stuffed animal to the crying baby.

Little big things.

Last Sunday, I spoke of Jesus’ call to us, “Follow me,” to be disciples who learn from him so to be apostles sent by him into the world to proclaim the good news. I then asked us, myself first: “To what do (we) choose to give greater allegiance that restrains, restricts our sharing God with everyone we meet and, with singleness of heart, proclaiming to all in our words and deeds that the kingdom of God is at hand?”[2]

In case you’ve ever wondered whether preachers speak only or largely to you without or rarely speaking to themselves, throughout this past week, I contemplated my question. What I discerned afresh is that there is nothing else to which I grant greater loyalty than my desire with word and deed to declare, to share with everyone the life and the love of God’s kingdom. No, there is nothing else, but, yes, there is someone else. Me. There are moments when I care more for me than for God. When I seek to save my life rather than lose it for Jesus’ sake and his gospel.[3] The demonstrations of which usually are not in the big things, say in conscious, knowing violations of the 10 Commandments, murdering another, adulterating my martial vow, stealing from another, bearing false witness against another. But rather in the little things that, in accumulation, become big things; like a petty peccadillo, repeated enough, that hardens into an aspect of personality. When (note that I did not say if, but when) I am hurt by another, then seethe with anger holding a grudge (silently, for to confess it aloud would reveal my knowing violation of my discipleship and apostleship), the shadow of which resists yielding to the light of forgiveness. When I secretly envy another’s good fortune, waiting, often unconsciously, for a slip, a fall from grace that I might partake of a smidgen of schadenfreude-esque satisfaction.

There are other examples, I have other examples, yet these suffice for me as demonstrable, undeniable proof of the point, the power of little big things. This past week, as I pondered all this. Recalling another of Jesus’ references to mustard seed, I also prayed for greater faith: The apostles said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” and he 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.”[4] Yet I didn’t pray for faith that I might be able to do something, even in God’s name, but rather for greater faith to trust God to accomplish Ezekiel’s prophecy in me – taking the sprig, the tiny twig of my desire to give my loyalty only to God from the hardened cedar of my heart of selfish self-interest and planting that holy longing on the highest mountain of God’s will for me, so to bear the fruit of fulfillment in my singleness of heart of love for God.

This, in faith, I believe and trust and daily watch and wait in hope. Therefore, soli Deo gloria. Glory to God alone.

[1] Liberty Mutual commercial, “Responsibility. What’s Your Policy?”

[2] From my June 7, 2015 sermon, “Choose!”

[3] See Mark 8.35

[4] Luke 17.5-6

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3 thoughts on “little BIG things – a sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

  1. Dear Paul,

    I smiled when I read that you’d contemplated this week the question you raised in last week’s sermon! How to share the life and love of God’s Kingdom…I too reflected throughout the week. I believe I can do some “little things” to improve in this area.

    The commercial you described so well is one of my all time favorites. We can ALL do little things and I believe they absolutely can snowball into a huge and wonderful thing….. Like lots of people working together in a community toward a common goal.

    I think I did what you described in “reverse” today at church. I saw a good friend who is always doing BIG things for people get up during a hymn and walk quickly into the small chapel. I could tell she was in some sort of distress. Instead of ignoring what I saw, I went to the chapel to find my friend in tears. We didn’t exchange any words, but I hugged her for about 5 minutes while she cried. Afterwards she shared that on this date 48 years ago her Mom died and the hymn we were singing reminded her of how much she still misses her mom. What I did was a little thing, that I hope will give my friend the energy to go out and continue the Big things she does for others.

    I love the Responsibility policy…. I hope I showed that today with my friend by being responsible to her in her time of need. What’s my own policy? It’s Engagement. I try to always engage others both in my professional and personal lives. I believe this is my calling and I still strive to improve in this area every day.

    Thank you for your sermon!! Much food for thought as usual!

    Like

  2. Loretta, I posted a reply, but I don’t see it. Ah, once again cyber-technology has baffled me. What I wrote, which I’ll attempt to recall/recreate is that I believe your reaching out to your friend was a wondrous act of responsibility (which I interpret here as “response-able”, that is, being able [and willing] to respond). Your word, engagement, is most fitting AND faithful. Wonderful! Wonderful you!

    Liked by 1 person

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