Third Sunday after Pentecost
The Texas historian of a generation ago, Walter Prescott Webb, has a wonderful paragraph in his classic book, The Great Plains. He contrasts the West with the East in the raising of cattle and notices that even though the West raised fewer cattle than the farms of the East, it was the West that defines for us what cattle raising is all about.
Webb writes, “A thousand farms in the East will each have six or seven cows, with as many more calves and yearlings – ten thousand head. But they will attract no attention … In the West a ranch will cover perhaps the same area as the thousand farms, and will have perhaps ten thousand head, roundups, rodeos, men on horseback, and all that goes with ranching. … The East did a large business on a small scale; the West did a small business magnificently” (p. 227).
I like Webb and I like what he says. The romantic notion of ranches, big cattle drives, cowboys, horses, spurs jingling, dust blowing, with perhaps some rousing Elmer Bernstein music in the background is magnificent. Nevertheless, I am more taken with his line, “The East did a large business on a small scale.” It was the small farms that did the large business of raising cattle.
Webb’s line reminds me of one from the Welsh poet and Anglican priest R.S. Thomas who wrote, “I was vicar of large things in a small parish.” It is a line, along with Webb’s, that keeps telling me of my vocation and the vocation of the church.
Jesus says, “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 puts forth large branches so that birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Not long after I first moved here twenty-five years ago, I was attending a Baptist meeting in a nearby larger city. No one knew me; I had only recently arrived and had not met anyone. I don’t remember the context of the conversation I overheard, but two big-church preachers were talking and one said something like, “Well, there is Austin Heights in Nacogdoches.” The other preacher, pastor of a very large and successful church said, “Austin Heights? They don’t amount to anything.”
It was a statement that has stayed in my mind. I’ve never forgotten it. I know he meant it in a way that was dismissive, a put-down, but I’ve learned to think of it as kind of prophetic. He spoke more than he knew (which I think was a common occurrence with him). So instead of resenting his comment, I’ve sought to embrace it.
Jesus does not say that the kingdom of God comes through magnificent institutions with spectacular results. He did not say, “You are a great army marching into the world.” He did not say, “You are the loudspeaker for God put up in the malls of the world to shout the gospel to everyone.” Or, “You are to build a political organization that will change this world.” Or, “We’ll use shock and awe and power.” Instead, Jesus spoke of mustard seeds, the smallest of all seeds.
Jesus’ method of ministry was not one calculated to make a big impact. No fireworks, no big advertising campaign, no television ministry. Instead, he healed one person at a time. He taught and spoke and gave hope to a person here and a person there. The one time he went big, feeding 5,000, was the one time things threatened to get out of control, with the crowd wanting to make him king. Jesus retreated into the wilderness to get away. He knew how easy it would be to use power to try to bring about the good news of God. But in using power it would no longer be God’s good news.
Finally, when the powerful of this world got organized enough to put a stop to Jesus, Jesus did not take up the sword, as his followers wanted him to. He did not call down “ten-thousand angels,” as the old song said he could. He gave away his life. He surrendered power. He died on the cross.
Three days later, he was resurrected but there was no fanfare, no fireworks, and no press conferences. Mary discovers him in the garden thinking that he was a humble gardener (was he planting tomatoes?) and he unassumingly joins three disciples walking back to Emmaus.
Why does God do it this way? Why does God choose to use the small, the weak, the insignificant, the ordinary, the overlooked, the poor, the foolish, the humble, the powerless, the broken – the mustard seeds? I don’t know. I do know that the small and the weak, the powerless and the humble have a greater chance of knowing God than the powerful and big. Micah says, “What does the Lord expect of you? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” In order to walk with God, one needs to be humble.
I also know that when the small and weak are used by God, then there is a greater likelihood that they will be a witness who point to God and not to themselves. Rather than our first-rate marketing plan, our strategic location, or our wealthy and influential church members, we hope that what we do points to God. Our witness to Jesus is in our smallness and lack of power.
Jesus also says that the mustard seed will grow to where even birds can nest in it. Not wanting to push Jesus’ analogy too far, I do believe, however, that Jesus is giving us hope that through such small and humble efforts God will bring about great results. God works in and through simple things like bread and wine, singing hymns, prayer, reading the Old Book, serving the needy, forgiveness and being forgiven, and on and on.
Every act of service, every effort of justice, every act of peace, healing, and reconciliation will not be overlooked by God, but will someday grow to bring forth results that we cannot imagine. God is redeeming the world through mustard seed churches and ordinary people who give themselves to the love and grace of God.
Thereby we can join R.S.Thomas in saying that we are vicars of large things in small parishes. So let it be.