Sermon delivered by David Burrow July 24, 2011 - First Congregational Church, Algona, Iowa
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If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at the ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also is your tongue a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. … With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field: it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
He continued, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all he had and bought it.”
I’ve got to tell you—I’m kind of excited to be here today. That’s because today marks the end of one period in our church and the start of something new. For the better part of four years our church has been going through a time of transition. We’ve faced some tough times, and we all know that we just barely managed to hang on. We did, though; and next week our new pastor will be starting, and we’ll be working with him to strengthen our church and build for the future.
As a baseball fan, when I think about what our church has gone through, I’ve sometimes seen my job here as being like a closing pitcher in a tight ball game. The closer’s job is to hold on to a narrow lead and get the save, and I hope that’s what I’ve helped our church do. I must say, though, that after all these extra innings I’m glad to be down to the final out. It will be good to have our new rookie ace on the mound next week.
When it came time to prepare this message, I began by looking at the lectionary readings that some vague authority had said would be appropriate for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost. I looked at the gospel selection we read today, and I was amused to find the main reference there was to mustard. When I thought about mustard, a lot of things came to mind, but not many of them were very religious.
The first things I thought of were food. Perhaps it’s the love of baseball that made me think of the classic Chicago-style hot dog: a beef frank with pickle, onion, tomato, neon relish, marinated peppers, and celery salt—all in a poppy seed bun slathered with bright yellow mustard. I thought of the potato salad I love to eat at graduation parties. Then I thought of my mother’s cooking—she put mustard in just about everything she made, often mixing it with brown sugar for a sweet and tangy combination.
I thought of the classic commercial line, “Pardon me—would you have any Grey Poupon?”, and the movie Wayne’s World, where they parody those commercials. Finally I thought of the board game Clue and Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the lead pipe.
Today’s reference from Matthew is one of four times Jesus mentions mustard in the Bible, and when he does he’s not talking about a gooey yellow spread. Jesus refers to mustard seed, and he chooses this particular plant because its seeds are extremely tiny. In other places Jesus talks of “faith the size of a mustard seed” being sufficient to move mountains, and here he talks of the tiny seed growing into a huge tree and uses that as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven.
The other examples Jesus uses in his parables also talk about great treasure coming from small things. We hear of a tiny bit of yeast leavening a huge quantity of flour, and a little pearl being so valuable someone would sell all they had to get it. James also talks of the value of small objects. He mentions the bit a rider uses to guide a horse and the tiny rudder that can steer a huge ship. Then he focuses on the tongue, one of the smallest body parts, and he notes we can use that tiny part to glorify God—or to get ourselves into a heap of trouble.
Those readings led me to choose the title for today’s message: “Think Small”. Those two words were the title phrase of what Advertising Age magazine named the #1 best ad campaign of the 20th Century. From the 1950s through the 1970s “Think Small” was the motto for the original Volkswagen Beetle. I may have a special place in my heart for those ads, because the first car I ever drove was an old VW bug. Volkswagen recognized that there were a lot of people who didn’t think cars needed to be big and luxurious; they just wanted cheap, simple transportation. That’s what the Beetle was, and that’s why VW made more of them than any company has made of any other single car in history—21½ million Bugs. While they sold for as low as $900 in the ‘60s, getting all those people to “think small” earned Volkswagen income that in today’s money would be worth more than $200 billion. That’s a lot like the tiny mustard seed that grows into the greatest of trees.
Once I came up with a title, I went back to the scriptures, and the more I read them, the more I felt they had to say to our church in this time of transition. The scriptures speak of smallness, and while we might wish it were otherwise, the fact is we are a small church. Sometimes we have members who get frustrated by that. They remember times in the past when our church was larger and we were able to support different programs, and they wonder why it is that we don’t have that same membership today.
The fact is, though, we’re hardly alone in being smaller than we used to be. Rural Iowa overall has a lot fewer people than it once did. Since I moved here in the early ‘80s, Kossuth County has lost more than 6,000 people. The city of Algona has 700 fewer people than it did back then. I’ve taught almost 3,000 high school students in the past three decades, but the vast majority of them no longer live anywhere near Algona. Many schools around here have closed, and those that remain open all have fewer students than they once did. With so many fewer people in our area, it really should be no surprise to anyone that our church is not as big as it used to be.
Some look at those statistics and say the area is dying. I don’t believe that, though. I see the downsizing—in our community and our church—as an opportunity. Being smaller helps us to get to know each other better, and it gives us a new chance to re-invent ourselves for the situation we’re in. We can’t relive the past, but we can make the best of where we are today. God is challenging us to be the little rudder that steers the ship, the pinch of yeast that leavens the bread, or the tiny pearl of countless worth.
Christ’s words remind me of the old British proverb, “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” and those really are words to live by. They also bring to mind what I’d still say is the single most important event in my lifetime—July 20, 1969, when human beings first landed on the moon. People sometimes question the value of space exploration, but if you ever use a computer, a cell phone, a GPS, satellite TV, or just about any other modern electronics, you can thank NASA for pioneering it. The space race also led to innovations like Velcro®, cordless power tools, and charcoal water filters that people take for granted every day. Our modern world would be very different if it weren’t for that “small step” Neil Armstrong took forty-two years ago.
Every one of us is part of many different things that seem little, but can make a huge difference. Each fall for the past several years the youth in our church have collected what they call “change to make a change”. They’ve encouraged people to give their nickels and quarters in a special offering that is donated to Heifer Project, a group that provides farm animals for needy people throughout the world. One thing I really like about Heifer Project is that they tell you precisely what a gift of any size will provide. A modest gift of $20 will provide a flock of chicks or geese, $30 buys honeybees, and $60 supplies a trio of rabbits. Those are small amounts of money for most of us, but they’ll do a world of good for those in need.
There’s a lot of other ways that small things can snowball to have a major effect. For many years I was on the missions committee at this church, and I remember several times delivering Christmas gifts from our church to needy families. There’s one specific family I remember our church adopting. At the time I didn’t know them at all. They lived well outside Algona and had come into a sudden and serious need. I remember going over there a couple days before Christmas and watching the young children in that family stand wide-eyed as we carried in load after load of toys and other gifts. I might have completely forgotten that family, except that those kids ended up going to the school where I teach, and years later one of them told me how he remembered our church helping them out the year they didn’t think they’d have a Christmas.
In more recent years our church has focused on helping one specific family on the Omaha reservation at Christmas, and Phil has had that honor taking our gifts to them. When we give those gifts, it’s not that big of a deal for any one of us, but combined they really are a big deal. You can tell that from the fact that the family felt compelled to thank our congregation by presenting us with the lovely quilt that now hangs in our parlor.
There’s a lot of members of our congregation who have made a difference in people’s lives, but I’m going to mention a former member whose legacy has helped literally hundreds of people. Gladys Mahana lived frugally and squirreled away her money. When she died, she was able to leave a trust worth a million dollars. Our church administers that fund, and each year we provide scholarships in Gladys Mahana’s name to help dozens of area students go to college.
So it’s OK to be small. Little things—like our church—can still have can have a huge impact on the world. We need to focus on the strengths we do have and use them do God’s service in the best way we can.
The gospel talks about the wonderful power little things can have. James also highlights the small, but he cautions that little things can be used for evil as well as good. In particular, he warns us against misusing the little tongues God has given us. I’d bet all of us at one time or another have felt the pain of other people’s words. James talks of actual cursing and blasphemy, but name-calling, catty remarks and jokes at another person’s expense can be far more hurting.
More and more the misuse of the tongue seems to be taken for granted. It’s hard to watch the news on TV without hearing caustic comments from self-proclaimed “experts”. I’ve often thought that if our politicians would just work together instead of ripping each other apart, we might actually be able to get something done about our country’s problems.
Words aren’t the only little things that can spiral into a huge negative effect. Think of addictions. No one sets out to become dependent on drugs or alcohol or anything else. It starts small and gradually, and then compounds. A lot of us know the same thing can happen with debt. We buy a few things on credit, and then a few more, and it doesn’t take long to get in over our heads. James reminds us that we need to control those little things to keep them from mushrooming into real problems. That’s not always easy, but it’s something we can ask God to help us with.
One other thing stood out to me when I went through today’s readings. That was just how many different similes Jesus used in his parables for the kingdom of heaven. In the portion of Matthew 13 I read, Jesus says the kingdom is like mustard, yeast, hidden treasure, and pearls, and in other parts of that chapter Jesus tells parables about sowing seed, burning away weeds, and casting a fishing net. Some might wonder why Jesus told so many parables, all in an effort to explain the same thing. I think it goes back to a very simple phrase my mother said: God speaks to different people in different ways.
My mother used that phrase a lot—and it was her explanation for why there were many religions around the world. Sometimes she’d roll her eyes when she said it—like after she’d politely bid goodbye to Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses who had come to our door and interrupted her day. Mostly, though, she meant it as a positive thing.
While both she and my father had grown up Methodist, they had family members who were Lutheran and Evangelical—and others never set foot in a church except at weddings and funerals. My mother had friends who were Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Mennonite, and even Congregational. One of my mother’s biggest hobbies was writing to penpals around the world, and among those were women in Asia who followed non-Christian religions. My mother genuinely believed that God loved all these people, and that their different faiths had come about because God was speaking to them in the way that made the most sense for their own lives.
My mother didn’t feel a need to save people or get them to believe exactly as she did. It didn’t matter to her if people went to the same church she attended, if they went to another church, or whether they prayed on their own. If God was speaking to them and they were listening and acting on His words, she felt that was what religion was about. What mattered to her were the little things they did that made them good people.
While it wasn’t the church she was a member of, I think my mother would have fit in well in today’s United Church of Christ. One of the things I like best about the UCC is the slogan the church has chosen in recent years: no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here. We’re not a church that judges people or thinks that some are better than others; we really do try to be a place where everyone is welcome.
As we begin a new era in our own local church, I think we need to remember that slogan. We need to work on those little things that make people feel welcome here and let people know all the little reasons that we like our little church.
In preparing today’s service, I chose three of my favorite hymns—but I think the middle one especially sums up what I’m trying to say today. I first heard “Pass It On” when I was in about fourth grade. I remember it was done to guitar accompaniment, and it started out soft grew to a dramatic finish. I really love the words, and I think they have a good message that all of us can learn from:
It only takes a spark to get a fire going,
And soon all those around can warm up to its glowing;
That’s how it is with God’s love—
Once you’ve experienced it
You spread His love to everyone;
You want to pass it on.
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