The Power of the Small

Proper 6, Year B

TEXTS: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34

“… the kingdom of God … is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

Today, both of our scripture lessons speak about the value—and the power—of small things. Jesus offers us two parables—and in both of them, the Kingdom of God is represented by a small seed. And in our first reading, we hear about how the prophet Samuel was sent to Bethlehem, to anoint from amongst the sons of Jesse the one man chosen by God to be Israel’s king. And which of Jesse’s eight sons did the Lord choose? Was it tall and impressive Eliab? No. Neither was it Abinadab, or Shammah—or any of the older brothers, in fact. After seven of Jesse’s sons have passed before Samuel, he asks, “Are all your sons here?”

And Jesse replies that, “Well … there is one more, but …”

“But what?”

“But he’s the youngest. He doesn’t count for anything. He’s just a kid, for crying out loud! I didn’t think it was worth calling him in from tending the sheep.”

“Send and bring him,” the prophet says. And so they go and fetch David from the pasture, and the LORD says, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

Small seeds. A small boy. Hidden potential—huge possibilities in tiny packages.

Human society, unfortunately, has not always valued the worth of its children. In the culture of ancient Israel—as in all of the ancient world—children were valued (if they were valued at all) for their future potential, but were not seen as all that important in the present tense. That’s why Jesse left his youngest son tending the sheep. That’s why the disciples of Jesus tried to shoo the children away—so they wouldn’t waste the Master’s time with silly games or childish questions. But we all remember Christ’s response: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matt. 19:14)

Small things count, Jesus said. The small, the powerless, the seemingly insignificant—these can astound us, sometimes. Like that mustard seed. The thing about that story, you understand, is that mustard seeds never do what that seed in Jesus’ story did. Mustard simply does not grow into a gigantic tree, so big that birds can make nests in its branches. No. At best, mustard becomes a small shrub. Jesus would have known that, and the people listening to him certainly would have known that. So the seed in the parable must have been some kind of bizarre mutant mustard seed!

Either that, or Jesus was using his characteristic humour and hyperbole to bring home his point about the Kingdom of God; that God’s realm—once it takes root in the human heart—can accomplish far more than we can hope for, or imagine, or understand. Children, it seems, have a better grasp of that than adults do. Or maybe it’s just that they’re more open to the beckoning of the Spirit.

If we’re willing to look around for examples of the power of the small, I think we will find them abundant.

One example I can think of concerns a young girl, whose name was Hayley. When I knew her, she was a child in my congregation in Kamloops.

The worship committee and the church board—with my encouragement—had made the decision to stop using the colourful, pre-printed bulletin covers produced by the United Church of Canada. Instead, we used plain, “recyclable” bulletins.

There was no “cover,” per se—the Order of Worship was printed on what would have been the cover, and prayers were printed inside, numbered so that a different one could be used each week. That way, we were able to get six or seven or eight weeks’ use out of one set of bulletins, before we had to print more.

The idea was to save on paper and printing costs—and also to be more environmentally responsible. And the plan did meet those objectives quite well. However, there was a drawback, and Hayley—who was eleven years old at the time—noticed it immediately. After the second or third service with the re-usable bulletins, she approached me with a concern—and a proposal.

Hayley explained that, if we weren’t going to be using the United Church bulletin covers anymore, then people would no longer get to see the Mission and Service Fund information that was usually printed on the back cover. And that worried her. Hayley felt that, if people weren’t told about the mission work of our church, they might stop contributing toward it. I had to admit, I hadn’t really thought about that. And—although I didn’t say this to Hayley—I was kind of skeptical that anyone paid much attention to those Mission and Service blurbs, anyway. Even so, I was touched—and moved—by her concern.

Hayley, though, came to me with not only a concern, but also with a solution. She had in her possession a copy of the then-current “Minutes for Mission” booklet from the national church. It was a collection of brief reports about the work of the Mission and Service Fund, designed to be read aloud during worship services. There was a two-minute piece for each Sunday in the year, and Hayley asked me if it would be all right if she read one of these each week, to remind people to give to missions.

Of course, I said yes. I didn’t know whether it would make any difference, but I was impressed by her passion.

Anyway, Hayley stood up in church the following Sunday, read the “Mission Minute,” and explained to everybody why she thought it was important that we do more than just take care of ourselves. She did the same thing the next Sunday, and the next, and the next … and in fact, she kept at it just about every Sunday for several years thereafter. Well, if I had been skeptical that people ever read what was on the bulletin covers, I soon realized—with no doubt whatsoever—that people were listening to Hayley. Mission and Service givings tripled within the first month, and—far more significantly—people sustained that level of giving, year after year.

Part of it, I’m sure, was that the grownups—witnessing the passion and deep conviction of this eleven-year-old girl—could not help but respond positively. However, there had to more to it than that. They wouldn’t have kept giving—week after week, year after year—unless, somehow, they had caught Hayley’s vision, and began to care about it as much as she did.

That, my friends, is like watching a gigantic tree grow from a tiny mustard seed. That is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, taking the small effort of a lowly and apparently inconsequential person, and making out of it something immense—something truly great.

Let’s consider our own paths of faith, and look around to see where the mustard seeds might be planted. And where they could be planted. And where they are already sprouting.

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