A sermon preached for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 4:26-35 dated June 17, 2018. Happy Father's Day!
Have you even felt like “nothing burger?” A nobody? A might-have-been? A small potato? For a number of years after I finished seminary, I struggled with an inferiority complex every time my seminary’s Alumni magazine came in the mail. I would thumb through it, reading about all the great stuff everybody else was doing, like getting a PhD, speaking at global theological conferences or becoming a missionary.
At seminary, a friend and I talked about getting a PhD; while I was home with three small children, she got her PhD and became a favorite professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. It's not that I think raising three amazing people into adulthood and contributing them to the world is unimportant; I just felt like I wasn’t making as much of an impact as a leader in the church as I had imagined when I was in my 20’s. Nothing burger.
After I went back to work, sometimes that feeling of inferiority would sneak up on me when I heard the ads for the “celebrated personalities” who were coming to the Maryville University Speaker Series in St. Louis. I have noticed that there are “celebrated personalities” coming here, too--the SMU Tate Speaker Series is promoting Leon Panetta, Thomas Friedman, and Kathy Bates. Or the AT&T Performing Arts Center Speaker Series is hosting Steve Wozniak, Billy Murry and Michelle Obama.
Our life can feel insignificant in the grand scheme of things, like we are not making a big impact for good or for God. Nothing burger.
A visit with my old high school church youth director, Joani, several years ago, helped cure me of feeling like a nobody. She enabled me to shift my focus from myself and what I wanted to accomplish, to what God can do and what God wants to accomplish.
For many years, Joani has been the Chief Creative Officer at Group Publishing in Colorado—they publish all kinds of resources for youth, VBS curriculums, mission trips, day camps, leadership and evangelism training, and mission all over the globe. Joani always has great stories and this visit was no exception. She showed me this Prayer Bear (pictured) and told me it could be made in VBS, by youth, or a sewing group, and used on mission trips, and by members in their daily life. If you’re out and about and you see or talk with someone who’s having a hard time, you write an encouraging note or prayer, put it in the pocket and hand it to the person. Tell them that you’re praying for them and that God loves them and is with them. In my Prayer Bear, Joani wrote, "This bear is stuffed with love! Let it remind you that God's love is always with you along with the love of old friends!"
A member of their staff, "Ellen" was flying here, to Dallas to do a training for one of their programs. Ellen always had a stash of Prayer Bears with her and when she sat on the plane, there was a man serving in the army sitting next to her, coming home for his leave. They struck up a conversation and Ellen found out that he had received a Dear John letter from his girlfriend and he was so upset as he went home to deal with this painful break-up. When he got up to go to the bathroom, Ellen got out a Prayer Bear—wrote him an encouraging note, promised to pray for him, and that God would see him through this. She put it on his airplane seat and he found it when he came back. He was so touched and grateful! When the plane landed, he gave her big hug and thanked her for her love and support.
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how (Mark 4:26-27).
At the end of the weekend of training, Ellen got back on a plane in Dallas to go home back to Colorado. It just so happened that she was sitting next to another soldier who just completed his leave and was headed back to his unit. Of course, they struck up a conversation. This soldier told her about a buddy of his from home who just got back from serving a tour of duty and his girlfriend had sent him a Dear John letter. He was having a hard time, but he told this soldier that he met a lady on the plane who gave him a little stuffed bear and promised to pray for him. It meant so much to him, and he thought it was such a great story, he wanted to share it with Ellen. He got up to go to the restroom, so Ellen got out another Prayer Bear, wrote him a note and promised to pray for him, that God loved him and is always with him, and put it on his plane seat. He came back from the bathroom, saw the bear and said, “You're her! Oh my gosh, you’re the lady who gave my friend the Prayer Bear!"
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It 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).
Who knew a little Prayer Bear seed could produce such a great harvest of love and hope and strength! How many people were uplifted and encouraged by one Prayer Bear whose story has been multiplied and shared many times across families, friends, flights, and army units?!
God can do so much with so little! It’s terrific that some people can have a great impact on the national or global stage, but more often, it’s the little things that mean a lot. It's the small, unexpected gestures that have the biggest impact. Think for a moment about the times in your life that have meant the most to you, that communicated love or forgiveness or acceptance or hope. It’s probably not the grand gestures or the big moments like graduations and big parties and holidays.
It’s probably the little things—the little seeds of love, kindness, and encouragement that people have offered:
• the unexpected card in the mail that encourages you—my sister, Julie has done that many times for me.
• the friend who listens to your bad day;
• the phone call just when you needed to hear a familiar voice;
• holding hands on a quiet walk;
• a cup of hot chocolate in the middle of a storm;
• a cup of hot soup when you’re sick;
• that moment when your grown child says, “you were right, Mom” or “thanks for the great advice, Dad.”
• when someone takes time that they didn’t have, to be with you.
• when your spouse surprises you with your favorite dinner, or flowers "just because."
Jesus says this is the nature of God’s reign. Something very small—a gesture of love and hope--morphs into something much larger, and it expands and spreads and multiplies from person to person, from community to community and around the world—just like that little Prayer Bear on an airplane seat. It can have a global impact that we don't necessarily see. Something that appears minor and insignificant—one little seed in the ground—one little message of encouragement or one little act of kindness turns into something magnificent because each of us, perhaps without even thinking about it, pays it forward.
That’s how God’s kingdom grows—it’s inevitable, it’s unstoppable! A mustard tree can grow to 9 feet, it has medicinal qualities in addition to great flavor, and though a shrub, it provides a home for birds and shelter for God’s creatures. Who knew a tiny seed could do all of that? Every kind act, every small gesture of encouragement, every expression of love, every offer of hope and help, becomes a life force that nourishes and sustains, a community that offers hope and healing, a place where the creatures and people of the earth find shelter and security and home. The inevitable, unstoppable kingdom of God grows among us and through us for good and for God! God can do so much with so little, because it’s the little things that mean a lot.
In thanksgiving for my Dad who’s here on Father’s Day, I’m going to conclude with a story about a mustard seed that my dad planted in me when I was about 7 or 8. It was a Saturday afternoon; my three siblings were otherwise occupied, and I was playing alone in the family room of our home in southern California. My dad came in and asked me if I wanted to go play Miniature Golf—or Putt Putt as it is often called. I was so excited! Being the extrovert, I asked if I could bring a friend, and he said, “Nope, just you and me.”
Off we went. With 4 kids, it was hard hard to get a lot of 1:1 time with Dad, especially because he traveled for work. The Mini Golf place had windmills, and little castle doors that opened and closed, and we just had a blast. I felt so important, so loved. In fact, every time I play mini golf, even when I have lousy game, I still always feel loved and important and happy. Nearly 48 years later, a seed of love and affirmation planted long ago, has become a mustard tree that still sustains and nourishes me, providing me with love that gives a sense of shelter, and security and home. When it’s my turn to pick the family activity to this day, guess what I pick? Mini-Golf! (I can’t wait to try the one up on Coit Road—maybe the youth and I can go in December--is that when it gets below 95* here?!).
All of us have a Father who wants to spend 1:1 time with us. God our Father is happy when we’re all together like this, worshipping and singing and loving each other. And, He also wants to spend time with us 1:1, so He can plant seeds of love and kindness, hope and encouragement in us, that we can spread throughout our day, and throughout our life! God has a role for each of us in helping to bring about the inevitable, unstoppable love of the Kingdom to heal and transform the world. Whether we take 10 minutes with our morning coffee, tea, or diet coke, or 5 minutes in the car before we go into work, these small acts of love flow from us when we're nourished by time with our heavenly Father.
We may not be destined for the national stage, but like Ellen, we are a “celebrated personality” in God's Kingdom, filled with the grace and hope of our risen Lord! As Mother Theresa said, Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love. And God can do great things with our small things.
That’s where God does his best work, because the little things that mean a lot. God uses the little things to spread love and hope in the unstoppable Kingdom of God!