Sunday, June 17, 2012
+ A couple of weeks ago, on the Pentecost Sunday, I repeated a story about the priest who tried to describe the Holy Spirit as Casper the Friendly Ghost. I said then that that story has become kind of a Pentecost Sunday tradition. Well, today, I need to share something that I shared the last time I preached on the parable of the mustard seed—which we, of course, kind in our Gospel reading for today. Who knows? Maybe this will be a “Mustard Seed Sunday” tradition.
But the reason I share it is not that I want to repeat myself. I share it again because I am now at the point in my spiritual life when I can’t hear the parable of the mustard seed without thinking of this poem.
The poem is by one of my all-time favorite poets, (you’ve heard me reference him many times), the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda is not a typical poet you hear in churches on Sundays. He was a Communist and, for all practical purposes, an atheist. But we won’t hold either of those things against him. See how open and welcoming we are, here at St. Stephen’s!
I just love this poem of his. It is called “Oda al átamo” or “Ode to the Atom.” And it is perfect for this Mustard Seed Sunday:
Ode to the Atom
in metal, hidden,
at your tiny
it was man .
he unchained you,
you saw the world,
you came out
into the daylight,
you traveled through
your great brilliance
you were a
of electric beauty…
and seduced you:
he told you,
atom, you resemble
a Greek god…
lie down here
on my fingernail,
climb into this little box,
and then the warrior
put you in his jacket
as if you were nothing but
a North American
and traveled through the world
and dropped you
See what I mean! Beautiful! And this fragment of the poem we just heard just touches a bit on what something as small as an atom can do. An atom—this smallest of all things—can, when it is unleashed, do such horrendous damage. It truly can be, as Neruda said,
of electric beauty…
An atom. That smallest of things. And look at what it could do.
If the people of Jesus’ day knew what atoms where, he would no doubt would’ve used the atom instead as a symbol of the Kingdom of God, Can you imagine that! The parable of the Atom as a Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is like an atom. It is the smallest of all things. And yet, it makes up everything. Without the atom, we wouldn’t be. And yet, there it is. And when we discover it and recognize it and realize its potential, we find it permeating every aspect of our existence. It’s wonderful!
In our Gospel reading is Jesus comparing the Kingdom of God to the smallest thing they could’ve understood. A mustard seed. A small, simple mustard seed. Something they no doubt knew. And something they no doubt gave little thought to. But it was with this simple image—this simple symbol—that Jesus makes clear to those listening that little things do matter.
And we, as followers of Jesus, need to take heed of that. Little things matter. Because little things can unleash BIG things. Even the smallest action on our part can bring forth the kingdom of God in our lives and in the lives of those we serve.
But those small actions—those little seeds that we sow in our lives—can also bring about not only God’s kingdom but the exact opposite. Our smallest bad actions, can, like that atom, destroy. Our actions can destroy the kingdom in our midst and drive us further away from God.
Any of us who do ministry on a regular basis know this keenly. You will hear me say this again and again to anyone who wants to do ministry: be careful about those small actions. Those small words or actions. Those little criticisms of people who are volunteering. Those little snips and moments of impatience. Those moments of frustration at someone who doesn’t quite “get it” or who simply can’t do it. I always tell people in ministry: “use velvet gloves all the time.”
I cannot tell you how many times I hear stories about clergy or church leaders who said or did one thing wrong and it literally destroyed a person’s faith. I’m sure almost everyone here this morning has either experienced a situation like this first hand with a priest or pastor or even a lay person in a leadership position in the church. Or if not you, you have known someone close who has. Now, possibly these remarks by ministers were innocent comments. There may have been no bad intention involved. But one wrong comment—one wrong action—a cold shoulder or an exhausted roll of the eyes or a scolding—the fact that a priest did not visit us when were in the hospital or said something that we took the wrong way—is all it takes when a person is in need to turn that person once and for all away from the church and from God.
Now I’m happy my mother isn’t here this morning. She doesn’t like me telling this story. But….
My mother is a prime example of one of these people. My mother was somewhat active in the little Lutheran church I grew up in for years. But one day, the pastor made plans to have a package delivered to my mother’s home. The package never came—it simply got lost in the mail—and the pastor jokingly made the comment that my mother probably still had it at home. Now, I know for a fact that the pastor never meant to accuse my mother of “stealing” the package. I actually talked to him about all of this and he was shocked to know that my mother felt this way and he really beat himself up about saying such a thing.
But my mother took his comment to heart as an accusation and, for some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to go to church. In fact, she never went back to that church.
That mustard seed all of a sudden takes on a whole other meaning in a case like this. What grows from a small seed like this is a flowering tree of hurt and despair and anger and bitterness. So, it is true. Those seeds we sow do make a huge difference in the world. And I can tell you, I have done it as well. I have made some stupid comment in a joking manner that was taken out of context. We all have.
So, knowing that, we now realize how important those mustard seeds in our lives are. We get to make the choice. We can sow seeds of goodness and graciousness—seeds of the Gospel. We can sow the seeds of God’s kingdom. Or we can sow the seeds of discontent. We can, through our actions, sow the weeds and thistles that will kill off the harvest.
These past several weeks you have heard me preach ad nauseum about change in the church. Well, I am clear when I say that the most substantial changes we can make in the church are not always the BIG ones. Oftentimes, the most radical changes we can make are in the little things we do—the things we think are not important. We forget about how important the small things in life are—and more importantly we forget how important the small things in life are to God. God does take notice of the small things.
There a wonderful poem that the poet Daniel Ladinsky translated from the Sufi poet Kabir (you are getting poems like crazy this morning, aren’t you):
kind of God would [God] be
if [God] did not count the blinks
and is in absolute awe of their movements?
We have often heard the term “the devil is in the details.” But I can’t help but believe that it is truly God who is in the details. God works just as mightily through the small things of life as through the large. This is what Jesus is telling us this morning in this parable. Take notice of those small things. It is there you will find your faith—your God. It from that small place—those tentative attempts at growth—that God’s kingdom flourishes in our lives.
So, let us be mindful of those smallest seeds we sow in our lives as followers of Jesus. Let us remind ourselves that sometimes what they produce can either be a wonderful and glorious tree or a painful, hurtful weed. Let us sow God’s love from the smallest ounce of faith. Let us further the kingdom of God’s love in whatever seemingly small way we can. Let that love be the positive atom which, when unleashed, creates an explosion of goodness and beauty and grace in this world.