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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sermon for June 17, 2012

June 17, 2012
Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
1st Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2nd Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:6-17

We all love a good story about how the underdog overcomes adversity, don’t we? The Little Engine that Could, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bad News Bears. We root for the little Charlie Brown Christmas tree because we identify with that feeling of being small and sad, but hoping that we are wanted and that we can still be useful somehow, that someone would see something beautiful in us and take us home to shine. We love these stories of the small but mighty.

The Mustard Seed is that underdog story once again. The ancient Israelites identified with that story. They had started small, just Abraham looking up at the night sky, childless, alone, an underdog that God befriended and promised a turnaround to. God promised offspring as plentiful as the stars. These stories are all over in the Bible. The Israelites became oppressed by the Egyptians. They were the little guys, and yet somehow, with God’s help they escaped and made their way through the sea, while the Egyptian army drowned. This little band of nomads wound their way through the wilderness and time and again overcame adversity to prevail. And they marched on Jericho around the walls and against all odds this small but mighty band blew their horns and the walls fell. And little David, the youngest and smallest of all his brothers was chosen to become King—small but mighty. When the people of Isreal and Judah were taken into captivity by the Babylonians they eventually made their way home, a small but mighty group to rebuild the temple and begin repairing their relationship with God. And when Jesus came, he was a baby, so small, yet feared by Herod, and he grew up to do mighty miracles and healings. As he hung there on the cross he must have seemed so small again, and as he breathed his last and died, he must have seemed very small and weak indeed. How could such a mighty God, creator of the universe, walk in a temporary body of flesh and bones, aches and pains, all kinds of limits? How could that God give himself over, accept all that human life brings, and willingly die? Of course we know that he was raised in the most incredible miracle yet and came back to forgive those who betrayed him and draw all creation to himself. What was big is small and what was small is mighty.

This small but mighty description can also be used for this congregation, and has been. Our attendance numbers are small and our age numbers are big! This congregation has been through plenty of difficulties over the years: at least one flood, plenty of losses of pastors and members, difficulties paying the bills, low self-esteem, declines in children, arguments of different kinds.

Yet we don’t dwell on the negative here. There is more good that has gone on over the years—deep friendships have been built, children have been born and now grandchildren, ministry has thrived—the Westwood Guest House served homeless families under this roof for years, the pantry serves record numbers of families and empowers them with more than just food but with hope and friendship and love, people have grown in leadership, they have rested when they needed to, people have responded to the community needs in our neighborhood. Just because we’re a small congregation, doesn’t mean that God can’t work through us. In fact maybe it is just the opposite. Maybe because we are small, we have certain gifts that God can use to do ministry through us.

Because we are small, many of us know each other. We have a tight knit community. Because we are small, every person’s gifts are important. We’re calling every last one of you to get your time and talent survey completed because we can’t do our ministry without you. You are necessary in God’s plan! No one is left out. Because we are small, we can identify with the vulnerable and weak and small groups in our neighborhood that really need help. We can notice them because they are like us and we can value them because we know God has a plan to work through them, too.

So here we are, small and mighty. If there is one pitfall to look out for, I see it in the first reading. It says in verse 24, “I will bring low the high tree, and I make high the low tree.” So far this reversal works in our favor. But we want to make sure we don’t get on our high horse, that we don’t get high and mighty about who we are, that we don’t begin to worship ourselves instead of God, that we don’t decide we’ve arrived and doing everything right because we’re small but mighty. “Pride comes before the fall,” right?

That kind of thing is all over in scripture, too. As Israel grows, people start forgetting about the widow and the orphan. They get too caught up in their military conquests. They get too proud, and they are brought low as army after army crushes them until they become small again and remember how much they need God. King David gets pretty high and mighty and decides he should get whatever he wants and that doesn’t end well, although he repents and asks God’s forgiveness and he and God continue to have a good relationship. In the New Testament the Pharisees start to get too full of themselves and decide they’ve got it right so they miss the Messiah right under their noses.

All over the Bible, God is raising up the lowly and bringing low the mighty. Think of the Virgin Mary’s famous song The Magnificat, “You have cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplifted the humble of heart.” Isaiah says, “Prepare the way of the LORD, make his path’s straight. Every valley shall be lifted up and the mountains made low.” In seminary we learn that “God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” But aren’t we a mixture of these two things at all times and bouncing back and forth on a continuum.

I think the way to stay on the right track is to remember what we’re here for. God tells Abraham in Genesis that he will bless him and give him numerous offspring so that he will be a blessing to others. The sprout of the cedar tree grows up in order to bear fruit and in order for the birds to have a nice shady place to congregate and live. And the tiny mustard seed grows and spreads and puts forth large branches, not for its own sake but to shelter others, to house others, to protect others.

So whatever we do in this small but mighty church, we need to always be asking ourselves, is this for others? Does this give glory to God? Is this what God would have us do? Does this help someone? Will this make a difference in someone’s life? Will this enrich our neighborhood? How can we be the blessing God made us to be?

I got a survey call the other day and since Nick was at work, the baby was sleeping, and I was just cleaning kitchen cupboards anyway, I took the survey as I scrubbed. They asked what I thought of the American Dream. Did I believe in it? Did I think that if you worked hard enough you could have the good life? Did I think that my generation would live longer and make more money than our parents? No, no, and no. I’ve seen too many people working hard that got pretty much nowhere. My dad worked as hard as anyone I knew and didn’t make enough to keep his family off food stamps and then he’d come home and roof the house! My generation is the first that won’t live as long as our parents and many of whom still live at home, not for lack of trying but because there is nothing out there work-wise. I like the story of the underdog rising to the challenge and making it to the top, but I think it is more of the exception. Those of us who are small but mighty can use our gifts from God to help lift those who are small and staying small, to lift them to greater possibilities, that God would work through us to make high the low tree and help others achieve the small but mighty designation we’ve enjoyed so much.

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