Seth Godin wrote a number of books on the premise small is the new big. Small in all measurable ways is working better. You can now run a business, listen to a symphony, study for a degree on an iphone, a thing so small as to be miraculous. Mega churches used to be have huge attendance and wealth. But average membership was 3 years, then people left. Even the Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles, famous for thousands of members and weekly televised services, founded and led by the great Robert Schulman, closed down, and the building was sold. I heard a priest describing his ministry in Manhattan before the pandemic. When I meet Wall St executives at gatherings, he said, they always ask the same question: how big is your church, how many people come? I say, he said, counting me, usually 8. To which they always say: well how can you justify it and keep going? To which I say, he said, it only needs 2 or three actually, for God to be with us. That was, he said, Jesus' promise.
That the Kingdom of God is wherever faithful believers make it. Small may be the new big. The seed of something that in time, if we do it right, will become something mighty and enduring.
When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed sprouting into a tree so big that birds could nest in it, what was the point of this metaphor? On the face of it a clear image, tiny and unlikely things surprises and even encourages us. From small beginnings or actions, great things can result.
Think of the 69 people – many fleeing religious persecution - who survived the Mayflower voyage, and seeded this great nation of billions of people in less than 400 years. Think of Abraham fathering a child when he was past 90, answering God's call and fathering an entire nation.
Or Mother Teresa. That irascible little Albanian nun had insights into the Kingdom of God that many found hard to understand. She rescued babies abandoned in rubbish heaps and on the streets of Calcutta, because they weren't wanted, or were sick, or the wrong gender, and she and her small band of sisters cared for them. She helped the world sit up and notice that while the affluent Western world enjoyed prosperity, the helpless rejects of impoverished societies should be loved and cared for. She built the kingdom of God in the back streets of Calcutta.We can do no great things, only small things with great love, she said.
In Matthew’s gospel today Jesus wants His followers to see beyond the thrill of his miracles and understand his greater mission. He’s preaching from a boat on the sea of Galilee to crowds, and asks how are we to describe the Kingdom of God? And to hold their attention He comes right out with a parable that would have been, in first century Palestine, verging on the ridiculous. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed…..
Mediterranean mustard was a tall spindly herb, grown from a miniscule seed to make into oil. The idea that birds would try to nest in it was ridiculous. But that’s the point! The Kingdom of God is like a common plant growing everywhere, that suddenly shoots out unexpectedly, and grows strong enough even for birds to make their nests.
What Jesus was asking then and now is: are we open to unexpected possibilities if we plant seed and wait in hope, like the farmer in the parables. We might wake in the morning and the seeds will have sprouted and be growing, we do not know how. But the important thing is to keep on planting them. That, said Jesus, is what the Kingdom of God is like. His listeners then and we now surely get the meaning using everyday images they can relate to.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast – transforming and raising flour to become bread for life, life changing and nourishing. And like a hidden treasure or pearl beyond price, not easily obtained and needing to be sought after. The final comparison is that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net, catching diverse kinds of fish, some good some not. Just as the fish exist together in the sea, we also must live together, exist peaceably making the Kingdom together, and leave judgment to God.
Lastly Jesus says how important it is for His teaching to be relevant. For us that’s surely about making church real and relevant for here, through COVID now, and for the future. It’s surely about people living truly and kindly, making church relevant in the community and the world. Maybe after months of feeding 95 people weekly our St Mark’s food pantry can qualify to be an adjunct of Long Island Cares, the seminal food charity founded by Harry Chapin. An unexpected ministry some deemed not needed or relevant yet it sprouted big enough for birds to nest in.
Alas, the dominion of God may not always appear to be succeeding in the world, and the Church itself is a mixed bag of good and not good But God is in charge, and He promises to discard the harmful choking tares, so that goodness, truth and righteousness will be God’s bountiful harvest.
One example of how this happened in our time was how the Christian church in China fared during the communist years. Christians were persecuted and oppressed, and the church all but died out during those years. Now, contrary to all human calculations and expectations, the Church in China is by far the fastest growing in the world. They don't quite know how, but the Kingdom of God is certainly very great there.
So how can we build it - and do we want to? People often say in our high-achieving world I'm not special, I can’t make a difference. Well, a carpenter from Galilee made a huge difference, and he never traveled further than his own district.
We all have gifts and have ourselves to offer, our selves our souls and bodies. We can do little things or not so little things according to our gifts. We can share, pray for others, visit someone homebound or lonely or in the hospital, volunteer to help some project, read to children, be kind to people who are homeless or living on the street, write letters to soldiers far from home or prisoners incarcerated and lonely. As much as you do it for them you do it for me. These things bear fruit in the Kingdom of God in their own time. We might not know how, but we all can do our part in cultivating them. God does the rest. John Wesley used to say Do not give me the big ecclesiastical battalions, give me a hundred men who fear nothing but sin, and love nothing but God, and I will shake the gates of hell.
In some small way, we too might decide to shake those gates every day, and reach beyond to the Kingdom.