Proper 6B

June 19, 2018

Dreaming Small

Mark 4:26-34


26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” 30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 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.” 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.


As you may have noticed over the course of my three years here in Newport, I am not a church growth guru. We’ve increased our membership this morning in a good and significant way, and that’s a wonderful thing, but we haven’t had a massive influx of people in to our church over the past few years. I’m more of a maintainer than an expander. The UMC keeps statistics on these things. I get an email every Sunday night from the United Methodist Church Vital Signs program that invites me to submit what they call our vital statistics. There are seven categories of statistics they want to know:


  1. Worship attendance
  2. Number of professions of faith
  3. Number of small groups in the church
  4. Number of people involved in those small groups
  5. Number of people involved in mission & outreach programs
  6. Amount of money contributed to mission & outreach programs
  7. Amount of money collected for our general operations


I’m not very disciplined at entering these statistics each week. About every two or three months I get an email from my District Superintendent telling me to get caught up and I do. Shirley would and now Lara prints out a sheet every Monday with our weekly contributions and the number of people in worship and Sunday School. I went in last week and sat down with Lara to go over the ledger to see what we spent money on that qualifies as mission and outreach, and I do some educated guessing on how many people from our church have been involved in mission and outreach work.


Jeremy may figure out a better way to track and submit these Vital Sign reports. Being relatively new in to ministry he’s been submitting these numbers from the very beginning, and he will have a lifetime profile of statistics. Just like baseball players who have lifetime Batting Averages and pitchers who have Earned Run Averages, preachers will be known for the number of Professions of Faith they generate – people who come in to the church for the first time. That’s the most highly prized statistic in the UMC world. If you’ve got a high POF number you will probably advance quickly in the hierarchy of the UMC. The interesting thing for me is that my final year in ministry will probably be my best statistical year.


But I’ve never put much stock in statistics – at least not in church statistics. I’m not saying that they aren’t revealing in significant ways, but I’ve never been motivated to be statistically successful. I’m not necessarily proud of this – it’s just the way I am. I’ve never really figured out how to match faithfulness with effectiveness, but there are people who know how to do this well.


Adam Hamilton comes to mind. He’s the pastor of the United Methodist Church of The Resurrection in Kansas City. Adam Hamilton was the founder of that church, and when it began in 1990 it was small enough to meet in someone’s home. Today it’s the largest United Methodist Church in the United States. There are 22,000 members of that church and about 12,000 people attend worship each week. Adam Hamilton figured out how to be faithful and effective. I’ve never attended his church, but I’ve heard him speak, and he’s the real deal – he’s not a megalomaniac. I consider him to be a very well motivated person. He scatters seed, and it grows!


And that’s what we’re talking about this morning. This mystery of spiritual growth.


We’ve got these two parables this morning, and they are interesting parables. This first parable is probably less familiar than the second one. You’ll find a version of the Mustard Seed Parable in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but you only find this parable of the seed scatterer in Mark. Some suggest that the other gospel writers left it out because there isn’t a good moral to the story. The scatterer throws out the seed and waits for something to happen. The surface message of this parable isn’t very motivating. It doesn’t exactly lend itself to missionary zeal. It does serve to promote the importance of trust – which is probably the main point Jesus was making, but it’s also a reminder that the power to produce growth in the kingdom of God is largely out of our hands.


There’s no place for pride in the business of spreading the good news of God’s love as it was revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. We are to do what we can and what we know to do, but how this message gets spread and effectively communicated is a mysterious thing. The Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting in this enterprise, but this is not to say that we don’t have work to do, and we should learn to be as effective as possible.


I think we also have to be careful about how we measure effectiveness. In some ways I think it’s all but impossible to measure the outcome of our work as disciples. As I indicated earlier, I don’t put a lot of stock in the ability of the United Methodist Vital Signs to measure the effectiveness of my ministry. I’ve never been very number oriented in my work as a minister, but I know there’s some meaning behind those numbers. Poor preaching and lazy pastoral care is going to be reflected in the numbers. Good preaching, energetic programming and competent pastoral care are going to produce better numbers. I think there’s some good information reflected by church statistics. I also know they can produce the kind of pride and self-righteousness that Jesus railed against – in preachers and in parishioners.


So I think I’ve been very effective at not generating the kind of spiritual arrogance and pride that Jesus found to be so poisonous in the lives of the scribes and Pharisees. Of course I also know that God can use people who are full of themselves to bring comfort and meaning in to the lives of people who are hungry to hear a good message.


Whether I should or I shouldn’t, I don’t have the same respect for Joel Osteen that I have for Adam Hamilton. And it’s not just out of brand loyalty. I don’t really know Joel Osteen any better or worse than I know Adam Hamilton, but in my opinion, Joel Osteen is a little bit more interested in the money and the fame than Adam Hamilton is. I clearly don’t know the heart of either of these men, but I’m a little suspicious of Joel Osteen’s enterprise.


That being said, I have to give the man his credit. I’m guessing there are a good number of people who are living better lives because of what he preaches. He’s probably helped hundred’s of couples turn their marriages around and become better parents. I’m sure he’s helped people get and stay sober and to show up for work more often. And just this very week as I was carrying a woman’s box of groceries out to her car at the food pantry she started telling me how much she counts on hearing what Joel Osteen has to say every week. She said she’s almost beat by the time Sunday comes, but he pumps her up and gives her the energy she needs to get through another week. She also said she was grateful for the groceries we provide, but it’s Joel Osteen that keeps her going.


So what I know is that I don’t know how God is going to use who we are or what we do to bring good news and comfort and hope in to the lives of other people. This business of discipleship is mysterious business. The work of discipleship is not to be neglected. That’s not the message of this first parable. If we just sit around and wait for God to do something our yield will probably be about the same as it would be for an actual farmer who sowed the seed and went fishing for the rest of the summer.


We have work to do, but aren’t in control. We are to do what we can and trust that our work will be sufficient. And as this second parable so well illustrates, small acts can blossom in to glorious things.


In going through boxes of files and papers I tried to find the essay I wrote for my application to seminary. I had a very average undergraduate transcript, and my bachelor’s degree was in Environmental Science. They weren’t automatically going to admit me so I worked hard on answering the question of why I wanted to attend seminary. And I very clearly remember the opening line of my essay. I said:


I haven’t heard a voice from heaven calling me in to ministry, but I did once receive a miracle from the hand of a Jewish man.


I went on to tell the story of how I had been the leader of a 5-week bicycle trip sponsored by the Metropolitan New York Council of the American Youth Hostel Association. I explained how I had been in charge of these 8 New York Jewish kids. Actually one of them was from Philadelphia, and he didn’t mix well with the others. It wasn’t that he was from Philadelphia, but he was a magnet for problems. Ben was his name and he was the first kid to have a wreck that required hours of work on my part to repair. He left the tent poles at a camp site. Ben was just sort of different, and you know how kids that are just sort of different get treated by their middle school peers.


I was the responsible person in the mix and I frequently got exasperated by his words and actions. I worked at getting along with Ben and protecting him from the barbs of the others, and he made it. In fact we all made it. I was about 19 and I had been in charge of eight 14 & 15 year-old kids for 5 weeks. There were 6 boys and 2 girls and we spent five weeks riding about 500 miles along the New England coast and in to Nova Scotia. I can’t imagine letting my child go on a trip like that, and I doubt if they run those kinds of trips anymore, but it happened and it was a powerful experience.


So when we flew back to New York it felt like a big moment, and I thought all the parents would be so happy to see me and their child, but the bikes had somehow gotten lost by the airline, and that’s all that I was hearing from most of the parents. All of them but one – Ben’s father.


Ben’s father simply walked up to me and smiled and handed me a $100 bill. And I looked at him and I said, I’m not even going to act like I can’t take this money. Because I hardly had a dollar on me and this was 1978 and the only people who had credit cards were my parent’s age. I really didn’t know how I was going to get all of the equipment I had back to the hostel headquarters and it wasn’t a weekday, so I couldn’t just call and ask for instruction, but I hadn’t really worried about it. My focus was on getting everyone on and off that plane, and I had done that. And it turned out that I needed every bit of that bill to get myself and all the equipment I had back in to the city and to get a room at the YMCA.


I don’t know if that story got me in to seminary, but it helped me share my belief that God watches over us in mysterious and surprising ways, and how our largest challenges often turn in to our richest blessings. In some ways I think that gift from that man planted a seed in me that made me want to live a life of trust in God, and I try to maintain that sense of trust.


As I approach the end of my career in ministry I don’t have any amazing statistics to point to. Actually I do have one sort of remarkable number to share, but you’ll have to wait until next week to hear that. But what I know is that we are in the business of scattering these seeds that God has provided for us, and to trust that God will use what we do in ways that we can’t even imagine.


And thanks be to God for this! Amen.


3 Responses to “Proper 6B”

  1. Earl Says:

    I was not aware of all the required numbers by the hiarchy. A more effective measure would be a soul monitor to be worn by. every attendee to be transmitted to them. My soul monitor has always been up every time I have worshipped with you.

  2. Bill Waddell Says:

    The immeasurable achievement is how many lives you have impacted and will continue to do so.

  3. Lara Says:

    Numbers are too cold to represent what you’ve accomplished in your time at FUMC Newport! Daily, I see firsthand the people whose lives you’ve touched deeply & repeatedly! I know that in the few months I’ve known you, you’ve made an incredible impression on me! Not many people in this world share your pure heart & abiding love for others! You don’t need numbers, Pastor, to see the impact you’ve had!

    I love the way you’ve shared your heart in this sermon! I love the privilege of having worked with you! I love knowing that the effect you’ve had on this congregation will last for eternity!

    With love & appreciation,

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