Small

Ezekiel 17:22-24

Mark 4:26-32

The title of my sermon today is “Small”…

We live in a society that emphasizes bigness. We build big houses, drive big vehicles, and eat Big Macs.

Being small seems like a problem in a world that values big. And this is especially true of the local church.

Close your eyes and imagine what a successful, vibrant church looks like……

Whether you realize it or not, most of you just imagined a worshipping community of over 150 people. When we think of “strong” churches, we think of “large” churches.

Without realizing it, even the Christian publishing world has contributed to this misconception. If you open a catalog for Cokesbury or Family Christian Stores or even our own Judson Press, you will find gobs of Bible Study literature for every demographic:

Preschoolers; Grades 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-9, 10-12; and college students;

Some studies focus on decades: those in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and seniors;

There are Bible Studies for singles and for married couples; for those with children and for those without.

There are studies for African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and European Americans, as well as studies aimed at immigrants.

There are studies in English, Spanish, Polish, French, German, and other languages by special order.

But none of this literature can be used in the average “small church,” because small churches do not have the people to warrant such specialized literature. A few publishing houses have begun to wise up in the past years, providing “intergenerational” literature to encompass those from cradle to grave.

But it’s hard to look through these resources without thinking that your church is not a success until the day your church can check all the demographic boxes, the day it needs this variety.

In the book The Little Church That Could, authors and church consultants Steven Burt & Hazel Ann Roper address the self esteem problem created by the word “small” when used to describe churches. The book opens with an illustration from a doctoral seminar they conducted. They engaged in a word association (you know—like I say “water” and you say things that come to mind, like “wet” or “rain”).

Their word association exercise was for the word “small.” What kinds of things do you think they said? What kinds of things come to your mind? Let’s do our own exercise right now… I say “small”; you say………

[Take a few minutes to do the exercise]

Like our own exercise, Burt & Roper’s class produced a large number of negative combinations. So they turned to Roget’s Thesaurus for guidance. Guess what they found?

Roget’s offered: scarcity, insignificance, minimum, trifle, scrap, shred, tag, rag, handful, drop in the bucket, stunted, sawed off, tiny, puny, wee, runty, miniature, scanty, limited, lesser, meager, few, sparse, slight, inappreciative, inconsiderable, mere, unimportant, trivial, and inconsequential. (The Little Church That Could, v.)

Now I’m someone who has lived his entire life in “small churches”; I’m a minister committed to the “small church” context. And I found that depressing.

When “small” is combined with “church,” it is no wonder we believe we have a huge strike against us. And maybe through a series of self-fulfilling prophecies, we associate “small church” with things like:

limited human resources, faithful remnant, handful, too few doing too much, dependence on denomination, petty bickering, lack of privacy, money worries, inexperienced and entry-level clergy, limited programs, physical plant millstones, building upkeep difficulties, clergy turnover, and [so] many more. (Little Church, v.)

These aren’t my associations, these are those compiled by Burt & Roper over many years of research, consultant, and pastoral work.

But Burt & Roper also point out that “small church” has many positive connotations as well. Things like:

close-knit, community, family, friendly, caring, intimacy, fulfilling, participatory, skill developing, trusting, cooperative, mutual support, and valuing.

The book by Burt & Roper seeks to be a corrective to the maligned image of “small” in our society. They work to provide valuable tools to pastors and congregation leaders of small churches, guiding them in the task of rediscovering a healthy self-image and recovering small church self esteem. It has been an eye-opening and transformative read for me.

But throughout my education (and even still) I’m a primary source guy. That means I don’t want to read what someone else has to say about something; I want the data, the hard numbers—I want to read the original source, the primary source.

The Bible is a primary source that many of us are afraid to approach. I believe thousands of committed Christians open a Bible every week (some every day), but never dare to do so without some sort of Bible study book to do the interpreting for them.

Somewhere along the way we’ve gotten confused and began to think that inspiration is something that happened thousands of years ago. Well I beg to differ. Inspiration happens every time someone reads the Bible, as the Holy Spirit prompts and prods, queries and questions, convinces and convicts.

I’m a primary source guy, so I appreciate a book like Burt & Roper, but I also can’t help but turn to the Bible too.

And you know what I find?

While our children may sing “My God is so big! So strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do!”; the Kingdom of God is described in surprisingly small terms.

In the Ezekiel reading, God transforms a “tender, young sprig” into a “noble cedar” on a high place, providing a spot for birds of every sort to nest and raise their young.

In the Matthew reading, Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed, which grows many feet tall and provides somewhere for birds of all sorts to nest.

Small beginnings…big endings… It’s the way of God; it’s the way of Christ; it’s the way of the Kingdom.

Remember, it is the Kingdom of God that is described in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

It is a place where the poor in spirit have much,

Where mourners are comforted,

Where the meek inherit the earth,

Where those who hunger & thirst will be satisfied,

Where those who show mercy receive it,

Where peacemakers are not orphans, but children of God,

Where those who are persecuted and reviled will be glad and rejoice. (Matt 5:3-12)

It is a place where the small are big, where the weak are strong, where the broken are healed, and where the poor are rich.

It is a place, looking back at Ezekiel again, where the big tree is made small, and the small tree is made big; where the well-watered tree is dried up, and where the withered tree becomes vibrant again.

It sounds like a remarkable place, this Kingdom of God, if not a bit fearful. These glimpses of the Kingdom of God are a bit like falling through the rabbit hole with Alice, or being carried over the rainbow with Dorothy, or even entering the chocolate factory with Charlie.

Things are so different—and that can be dangerous. Not knowing how things work could cost us our head with the Queen of Hearts, or cause the Wicked Witch of the West to send flying monkeys after us, or it could cause us to swell up and turn purple like a blueberry.

But our God loves us, and certainly does not want to see us chased by flying monkeys. So God has disclosed some of the most important rules of life in the Kingdom of God. We encounter these glimpses in many passages of the OT, like our Ezekiel reading, where we cannot but recognize that the values of the Kingdom are different than our own world. We encounter these glimpses in the life, teachings, and parables of Jesus. One set of these teachings, known as the Sermon on the Mount, has even been called the “instruction book” or “manual” for living in the Kingdom of God.

All this “small talk” is good news to us. Because in the Kingdom of God, small is good; and God shows us how to be small.

Being small involves capitalizing on those strengths that Burt & Roper identified, not just because playing to our fortes makes good strategic sense, but because the Kingdom of God values the same strengths—things like love, community, compassion, trust, and cooperation.

There’s some mercy for us in Jesus’ parables in Mark as well. As small churches living in the world of “big,” we can get pretty focused on the idea of growth. There is nothing wrong with growth, of course; and the Christian journey is one of constant growth as we are transformed into God’s likeness. But “growth” is also the way we see ourselves becoming “big”—and hence “successful”—so I do feel some caution with the term.

But here, in these parables of smallness recorded in Mark 4, growth is addressed as well. Theologian Jay Wilcoxen comments,

These parables present the process of growth, from small insignificant things to full harvests and large imposing trees. Both the grain and the mustard seed are fast growing plants. Things move right along, whether the humans around pay attention or not.

And they move toward an end, toward a climax. The grain gets ripe—and after that it will rot in the field if not harvested. The mustard bush gets very large, supporting many bird homes. Their growth is INEVITABLE, and when it is complete, something must happen. The kingdom of God is at hand; it is at a climax. There is no putting it off to a more desirable time. That, undoubtedly, is the punch line of these two parables, in Jesus’ time and since. (http://www.thecommongood.org/blogs/detail/829/)

You see, in the Kingdom of God, small is a pretty big thing. And growth?—Growth is something that God is doing all around us, in us, and through us; whether or not we are paying attention or investing in it.

But where are we at harvest time?

The answer to that question has nothing to do with the size of our roll and everything to do with the size of our hearts.

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Crazy Talk

Mark 3:20-35

Oh, Jesus…… Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

You’re doing it again. You are pushing the envelope. You are undermining yourself. You are alienating those who care about you.

Why, Jesus? Why do you insist on being with these people? How do you expect anyone to take you seriously when you keep antagonizing everyone—especially the religious authorities? How can we help you when you keep distancing yourself from everyone—the crowd, the religious leaders, and even your family?

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…

This text from Mark is one of those texts that most of us would rather avoid.

Jesus and his family experience a flash-mob of attention that is so intense they cannot even sit down to eat. This may, in fact, be the first instance of the paparazzi going overboard. His family—concerned for his well-being—try their best to get him out of there. They go so far as to claim Jesus is insane—”He has gone out of his mind” (3:21).

A part of me wonders if they might actually believe it. I mean, they’ve been with him through much of this peculiar journey so far. We ourselves know that the strangest is yet to come, and we know (as well) how the story ends…

If we are honest with ourselves and with Jesus’ family and immediate followers, we have to admit that something frequently seems off-kilter with Jesus. He just doesn’t seem to think or feel the way we expect. He doesn’t seem to understand enough of how the world works to live in it without harming himself. And, on some level, the Gospel accounts of Jesus suggest that his crucifixion was the inevitable consequence of his increasingly intense conflicts and rhetoric with the “establishment.”

His family’s plea of insanity—whether or not they have begun to believe it—is a desperate attempt to save Jesus’ life. That very claim, however, ends up being lifted against him by the Pharisee elite, who claim that Jesus truly is “out of his mind”—he is possessed by the devil, Beelzebul, the Lord of the Flies.

Jesus, like some presidential hopefuls of the last couple elections, simply cannot keep his mouth shut and let their wild accusations run their course. He has to weigh in himself in verse 23:

“How can Satan cast out Satan?

If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.

And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.

And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.

But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”

OK. So Jesus makes his point: their accusations that he is possessed don’t make logical sense. But Jesus makes this point five times: first about Satan, then using the example of a kingdom, then using the example of a house, then back to Satan, and finally using the parable of a strong man being burgled.

Come on, Jesus, obsess much? This much repetition is actually strengthening your family’s claim that you have lost your marbles.

And, of course, Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on in verse 28:

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

What? What does that have to do with anything? And you’re sounding more than a little intense again, Jesus. Need to dial it back a bit…maybe take a Prozac……

And of course, at this point, things go from bad to worse as Jesus reaches new levels of obscurity and self-alienation. Mary and Jesus’ brothers start calling to him over the raucous, trying to convince him to simply come inside the house. Some in the crowd pass along the message into Jesus’ hearing, telling him that his mothers and brothers are asking for him.

Jesus, in response, disavows his biological family, stating instead that this crowd of strangers is his family, as is anyone who does God’s will.

Come on, Jesus. This is crazy.

Crazy is right. One definition of insane is “to be in a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction.” And we have to admit that Jesus doesn’t perceive things normally, he doesn’t act normally, and he certainly does not interact socially in a normal way. His “state of mind” seems the opposite of normal.

Worldly wisdom says things like: Protect yourself at all costs. But yet Jesus instructs his followers to knowingly walk into danger.

  • Jesus tells his disciples “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves… Beware…for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me” (Matt 10:16-18).

Our culture tells us to grab all the success and notoriety possible. But Jesus says to turn your back on worldly success and acclaim.

  • He tells a rich man: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matt 19:21).
  • He also says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt 19:24).

The world says: You are number one. Put yourself first. Jesus says to deny your own needs and desires.

  • To his disciples, Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24).
  • He also said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt 6:25)

The world says: Do what’s best for you. If you don’t take care of yourself no one else will. But Jesus says: Lay down your life.

  • “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matt 16:25).

(Thanks to http://www.newhopedigital.com/index.php/2011/08/embrace-the-crazy-wisdom-of-god for assistance in the above section)

Jesus is the one who does crazy things, like overturning tables and assaulting people with a whip in the Temple (Matt 21:12-13); like waiting to visit his sick, best friend Lazarus until he has been dead for four days (John 11:1-11); like quickly returning to a town where he was almost killed (John 10:31-39; 11:16).

Jesus is the one who teaches crazy things, too, like “the last will be first and the first will be last” (Matt 20:16); like instructing people to love their enemies (Matt 5:44); like telling an old man he must be born again (John 3:3); like claiming the way to life is the cross (Matt 10:39; Luke 14:27; John 3:16).

Years before the movie “The Matrix” came out, a theologian argued that the dramatic reversal of the End of Days is really an unveiling of the way things are; that we have been deceived—blinded—from seeing the truth; and that the End of Days will be that moment in history when our blinders are pulled off, and we can see things as they truly are. The moment when we take the red pill and find our way out of the devil’s Matrix, the Matrix in which we have been trapped ever since that “fruit of the knowledge of good and evil” incident back in Genesis.

This means, for instance, that when Isaiah predicts “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Isa 40:4), those changes have already happened, but we are blind to see them. Though they already exist around us, we do not recognize them as reality.

This also means that when Jesus talks about the first being last or the meek inheriting the earth, strength in weakness or wealth in poverty, he is talking about the real reality, not the Matrix-like deception we know so well. These conditions and their underlying rules are still in play, we just don’t know to tap into them.

Is Jesus crazy? Maybe, if “crazy” means he lives according to a reality different than us.

But I’m also reminded of the humorous expression: “It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you.” If Jesus is the one seeing things straight, he’s not the crazy one; we are.

When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, he’s not talking about some far-off time and place of the fulfillment of divine initiative. He is talking about the here and now. The Kingdom of God, Jesus says, is here…and not yet.

It is here, because it is the real reality. It is not yet, because we still fail to recognize everything as it truly is.

This is probably the most amazing insight God has ever blessed me with in my entire journey with God: the “rules” of the Kingdom of God are the actual rules that undergird everything, even though they go against the popular wisdom of our world.

When Jesus says the last is first and the first is last, he is describing things as they are. Weakness really is strength. Love really does conquer all. Death really does bring life.

A part of the world looks at Christians as though we are crazy. They point out those who look different, who act different, who appears as fools to the wisdom of the world. Some of them, I sheepishly admit, look crazy to me as well.

But I have been redeemed by a crazy Savior, who challenges me to be crazy too, to live in the Kingdom of God even though it has not been fully revealed, to believe and prove things like:

  • People matter more than ideals.
  • A relationship is more valuable than the pain anyone causes me.
  • Doing what I love is more valuable than money.
  • The best thing I can do as a parent is have fun like a kid.
  • Presence is more powerful than any words you might say.
  • Success is overrated; genuine ministry happens when love is shown even though the hoped-for changes will never come about.
  • Mono-tasking is always better than multi-tasking.
  • Less is more; simple beats complicated.
  • God is real, and cares for us.

In the Kingdom of God, God is the judge of others, so I don’t have to be the judge of anyone. God loves me and provides for my needs, so I need not be anxious for anything. In the Kingdom of God, the worst thing I can do is trust myself.

It is an aspiration, of course. The pull of the Matrix in which we live is strong. It is hard to go on believing in what no one else can see, struggling to keep focused on living like a crazy Christian.

But from time to time, usually during moments of great vulnerability and selflessness, God pulls back the curtain just a little bit. I take a risk, make a choice as though God’s Kingdom were already here, and it plays out just the way God said it would:

  • I have invested in a hopeless situation, and something positive developed.
  • I have maintained an openness to reconciliation with someone who has severely wronged me, and somehow that relationship was restored.
  • I have experienced great wealth in poverty.
  • I have found great fullness in simplicity.
  • I have discovered God in places the world said a god would never go.

The Kingdom is here. It’s crazy talk, I know, but it’s true.

And as Jesus says in John 8:31-32, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Feel free to be a little crazy. It’s part of our job description, after all.