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Subversive Smallness

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
I Samuel 8: 4-15, Mark 4: 26-34

“Smallness is subversive,” Sarah Ruhl writes, “because smallness can creep into smaller places and wreak transformation at the most vulnerable, cellular level.” When I read that, I think about the garden in our backyard. When we first moved into this house six years ago, the backyard was a disaster. It had been a run for dogs who’d desolated it; then when we were modifying the house it turned into a junkyard of construction material. Not everything we did to transform it was small—we had a big plan. It was a lot of backbreaking effort. But the things we had to count on were small—young plants and seeds. And the enemies we had to fight were also small. We’d plant a big swath of grass but somehow the old crabgrass and the insidious weeds would pop up their little heads. They’d look so innocent at first, but then suddenly they’d be sprouting everywhere. It got to where we had to scout the yard and garden like naturalists, looking for the smallest, tiniest growth, and then digging carefully, carefully, to make sure you got every root. And it seemed endless, this eternal battle against these small, subversive things that we have never quite been able to get rid of, whose roots we can never completely remove, that can sprout up anywhere at any time. Today we have a beautiful backyard, but this business of battling the small has never stopped. This whole digging up and gardening the backyard has also almost been an archaeological project. We’ve discovered the remnants of another beautiful garden that may have been planted as far back as the sixties. It was that garden that actually gave us some the prettier plants that were there when we arrived and that we built our own garden around. But someplace along the way that garden got forgotten, or maybe just neglected. Maybe somebody just thought, wow, we have a pretty garden and it will just always be that way! And so they didn’t bend over over and over again and develop the microscopic vision needed to find those little weeds and get the dirt under their nails to dig up the tiny roots—and before they knew it, the garden was overgrown and all the beauty was lost. Smallness is subversive, because it’s easy to miss it. Smallness is subversive, because it’s hard to uproot. Smallness is subversive, because it can creep under the hard concrete of our plans and make the tiniest crack—and then the next thing you know the crack is larger and that small thing has just undermined your whole structure. Smallness can be good or it can be bad, but our scriptures today want us to focus on what is good about smallness. In our story from Samuel, we hear of David being anointed king of Israel after God grew disappointed with Saul. There are three biblical stories about how Saul was chosen as the first king of Israel, but the one scholars believe most likely is that Saul was a great general whose military exploits made him a natural choice as the first sovereign. But over time, God grew disappointed with Saul, as did Samuel, the prophet who anointed him king; and so God sent Samuel to find an alternate king, a subversive king if you will, to run a shadow government that can ultimately overcome Saul’s rule. God leads Samuel to the family of Jesse, and as each of Jesse’s son pass before him, Samuel is impressed by their natural nobility and leadership skills; but God tells him, not yet. At last the youngest son, who is out watching sheep is sent for; a shepherd, a mere boy. He is David. A child contrasted with Saul the warrior king. But smallness is subversive. God can make smallness the most powerful force of all. In fact, that’s kind of God’s line of work—overcoming our largest plans with God’s smallest, weakest, most humble and least likely subversive agent. One of Jesus’ all-time favorite metaphors was smallness. Our Gospel lesson gives us two of Jesus’ many parables about seeds. He tells us of the mustard seed, a parable most of us know, the small seed that becomes a great bush. But the other one is quite telling, maybe a bit neglected—a parable that is “smaller” in our imaginations than the parable of the mustard seed, if you will: a farmer scatters seed and sleeps and wakes and the seeds grow to fruition “he knows not how.” In the parable, it’s almost as if the farmer forgets the seeds he planted, as if he pays them no more attention once he scattered them; and then one day, “he knows not how,” the seeds become a field of wheat as far as the eye can see. He knows not how. Recently I’m re-reading the Trilogy. Now of course if you’re “in the know” you know what I mean: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I haven’t returned to it in years and have forgotten the simple pleasures of this incredible story in its written form. The Lord of the Rings is all about the subversive nature of smallness. The hobbits are the smallest of all the races of Middle Earth—they’re between three and four feet tall. They are the most fun-loving and least warlike and the most likely to be disregarded by The Great. But it is upon the hobbits that the future of Middle Earth depends. Early on, a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, has the power of life or death over an evil being, Gollum. He does not kill him. Later, others question Bilbo’s decision. “What a pity Bilbo did not kill him when he had the chance!” they say. “Pity?” responds Gandalf the Wizard. “It was pity that stayed his hand! Pity, and Mercy.” Gandalf continues. “My heart tells me Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that time comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Ballentine, 1965. P. 65) And as it turns out, that small act of mercy ends up being the hinge of the story. That one act of mercy, the pity of Bilbo, ends up overcoming evil and saving Middle Earth. But Bilbo didn’t know that when he saved Gollum. He just knew that pity and mercy were the right things to do. But as is often the case when we choose to be kind when we’re tempted to not to be, we do it despite our instincts telling us: This person doesn’t deserve this kindness. But we do it. We know not how this kindness or act of mercy or simple choice is going to end up being the right thing to do. But we do it. And by the miraculous grace of God, God prospers that simple act of goodness into something we cannot imagine that accomplishes good for the sake of the Kingdom. By the grace of God, that simple momentary act of kindness can and does have eternal consequences beyond anything we can ask or imagine. I want to emphasize this. Because I think that all of us feel small. There is great pressure on all of us to do something great or at least noticeable in the world. After all, those are the people about whom books are written, whose names end up in the newspapers. Have you ever googled your own name on the Internet? I haven’t but I know people who’ve done it. The more hits your name gets, the more you feel like you’re important, that you matter. But the truth is most of us aren’t going to see our names in the history books. Most of us barely find much beyond our addresses when we google our own names. And these days we feel like the problems of the world have gotten bigger and bigger and we have less and less impact on them; whereas we ourselves feel tossed about by forces beyond our control. All of us wish we had more control. I think somewhat this guides the temptation all of us face to believe the first conspiracy theory we come across that suits our taste. It’s because to feel like we’re in the know, to feel like we are subversive, makes us feel like we have control. But friends, the most subversive thing we do, the most world-changing way we impact the world, is just by being Christian. It is by trusting that God is in control no matter what else in the world seems out of control. Jesus is telling us in this parable of the farmer whose wheat grows “he knows not how” that what God’s people do is plant seeds and then let God do the work, “we know not how.” “We know not how,” and we don’t have to. God knows how. I invite you to consider the many things in our lives that start out as small innocent acts but turn out to have major implications that we would never have imagined. Often we take them for granted. I received a surprising Facebook message from a young woman named Jenny who had attended my last church, Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD. Jenny had been a child in that church and she wrote me to thank me that “you started me down that path more than 20 years ago. I never understood what it was to put your faith in God when I was young but I have really grown and I now teach Sunday school and sing every Sunday!!!” She was thanking me for planting a seed that had really made a difference in her life, introducing her to faith in Jesus Christ. I was really moved. I was even more moved because, to be honest, I do not remember her. I don’t remember her, or her family, or anything particular about her at all. It’s likely that I don’t remember her because she was so young. I probably had more interaction with her parents—though to be honest I don’t remember them either. My guess is that to the extent I influenced her faith it was indirect, perhaps just because I happened to be the pastor of her church at that time. Whatever it was, the seed had been planted and grown, I knew not how. In ministry you often evaluate yourself by big things, and other people evaluate you that way too. But the real impact is in little things, perhaps things you didn’t even intend. I think of my daughter’s Sunday school teachers at Bethesda when she was growing up. They had all been members of the Washington Elite of the sixties and seventies. They were also members of the Greatest Generation. They had distinct values about what created good civil society that they put into action throughout their lives. They had been on the Mall when Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech. After Dr. King’s death in 1968 Georgia Avenue exploded with rioting and violence. A lot of those same women had gone down there to help serve food and staff volunteer shelters. These women had deep and deeply ingrained Christian values that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from the Washington elite. They were strongly committed to equality and social justice. For them, it was what Christians do. Then, when our daughter came here to St. Stephen as a youth, Beth Fultz emphasized mission and outreach in her work with the youth. I see my daughter today, and many of her millennial peers, deeply concerned about social justice and helping the needy and changing the world for the better. I believe her whole generation is in a position to have an incredible positive impact on the world. If they do it’ll be because many of them had “Greatest Generation” Sunday school teachers and also youth directors like Beth. The seeds they planted will bear fruit we perhaps can’t yet imagine. We know not how—but God does. And that’s all that matters.

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