Large Things in Small Parishes

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 4:26-34

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. Read more

Just a Kid. Just a Seed. Just a Church.

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

He was just a kid, so young and apparently insignificant that his own father didn’t consider him worthy even to attend the sacrifice offered by the traveling prophet Samuel. Sure, he was good looking, and he was tough, and he had some talent, but by and large everyone who knew him assumed he’d spend his days as an adult the same way he’d spent those of his adolescence: tending sheep, playing with his sling, writing poetry, and playing music. He was hardly a suitable replacement for a great warrior like Saul. Yet David, the least of Jesse’s sons and the unlikeliest of leaders, was chosen by God and anointed by Samuel to be King over God’s people Israel.

It was just like the God of Israel to do something so totally unanticipated. He had, after all, chosen to redeem the world through the as yet unborn descendants of a pair of skeptical senior citizens named Abram and Sara. When those descendants were enslaved and oppressed by the mightiest political, economic, and military power the world had known, He called upon a hot-headed, inarticulate fugitive named Moses to take up their cause and lead them to freedom. Read more

Shrubs and Kingdoms

a divided line drawing. On the left, a person plants a seed. On the right, birds in a large shrub. “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.” — Matthew 13:31-33

It has often been pointed out that when Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a shrub, he is having a bit of fun with us. But finding the humor in the Bible isn’t something we overly-serious modern readers are very good at. We’re more likely to treat parables like this one as if they were folk-wisdom formulas for personal or group success. Think about sermons you’ve heard on finances (“your small gift, sown in faith, will produce a big return!”) or church growth (“if we’re faithful, God will make us grow!”). Read more