Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 12 2023

Posted on February 13, 2023, Pastor: Pastor Timothy Weber

Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service. 

February 12, 2023

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany 

Matthew 13:24-43
Psalm 84:1-7

Worship Service Video Sermon  Video Sermon  Audio

Sermon Title and Text:

“Our Smallness Meets God’s Muchness”
Matthew 13: 31-32

(*The word “muchness” comes from Alice in Wonderland when the Mad Hatter speaks to Alice about having lost her “muchness.”  We borrow this wonderful, strange word and integrate it into the sacred story of God.)

At 86 years old Margareta Magnusson is shrinking.  Aging does that even to Swedes like Margareta.  But shrinking has its surprises.  As she has lessened, she has become more. Her glow has brightened the skies. Don’t under estimate the power in aging.  When she was 81 she wrote her bestseller “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” which in her own words was a call to “not leave a mountain of crap behind for our loved ones to clean up after we die.”  But sometimes when we clean out the old, new things can happen.  And so it happened with Margareta.  She just wrote her second book, “The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly:  Life Wisdom from Someone Who Will Probably Die Before You.” Amongst her three top tips for living well regardless of your age, was this one: “embrace kart besvar” (sounds like “shairt” “bessvair”) which means “cherished” “pain”—a strange combination.  Translated it means living with gratefulness in the midst of painful and difficult circumstances, not letting the hardness of life undermine a thankful spirit.  We’ll return to kart besvar, cherished pain.  But for now, let’s try to find out how all this links with Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed in Matthew 13.

As was common in the day, Jesus taught in parables, word pictures that pointed to something bigger and beyond.  The sacred was to be found in the simple stories, plain pictures. There are 33 parables in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  The gospel of John is absent of parables.  In our reading today from Matthew 13, there are parables that draw upon simple farming images to illustrate the workings of the Kingdom of Heaven.  One of Jesus’ shorter parables is here, two verses, the parable of the mustard seed.  The artistic Jesus paints a parable picture—the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed sowed in the field…the smallest of seeds..but a seed that when it grows becomes a tree, big enough for the birds of the air to make nests in the branches.  That’s it.  The key point—something so small, so insignificant, so unimportant can become much more than it seemed at first possible.

But let’s step back for a moment.  Smallness is a big thing in God’s world. We have a strange God who has been described as “the upside down God” or “the God of great reversals,” where the small blossoms into surprise, the lowly are lifted up, the outsider comes inside, what is dead begins to breathe again.  This is God’s wheelhouse.  This is the life of Christ.  But our own world accents different values—escalating power, bigness, strength, and most dangerously, our unlimited human competency.  Smallness doesn’t win in our world.  This afternoon, we are invited to attend the iconic symbol of our culture—the Superbowl—another punctuation of how “super” and “supersizing” defines our world.  There is nothing wrong with striving, nothing evil about the right use of power.

But in this super stoked world, it is easy to gloss over our essential human brokenness and smallness and, therefore,  we also discount the wonder of God’s muchness by diminishing the wounds of our smallness. This is one of the great heresies in the church.  God muchness and marvel fade, while our own mission, mandates, and muchness in the world command most of our attention and energy.  We render our nod to God, but reduce our faith to a teaching lesson and dedicate ourselves to the muchness of our mission.  Indeed this discipleship is a good gift of the Spirit, but it is also dangerously misleading.  Our smallness—our brokenness, our incapacity, our delusions, our egos, our greed—all these core themes of the faith are diluted.  Then the work of Christ is less about redemption and more about education—lessons from Jesus on how to love. Our job is to go out and do it. God’s muchness in response to our smallness and the necessary, surgical work of redemption is minimized and our work in the world is maximized.  The nucleus of our faith rests on the reality that our smallness is deeper than we believe, and God’s muchness is greater than we could imagine.  The parable of the mustard seed attempts to correct our delusional living.

The phenomenal contrast between our smallness and the majestic muchness of God is the core of the Biblical story.  Some examples:  The Jesus of cradle and cross–the small little one of the cradle, and the dying, shrinking one of the cross…this Jesus is lifted up in life and freed up from the prison of death by the power and wonder of God’s muchness. Another example:  The small, insignificant, irrelevant teenager Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel who announces God’s stunning plans for her motherhood.  She thinks she is too inadequate.  Gabriel responds with this reminder: “For with God, nothing is impossible.”  Oh, do we forget that so much.  Another example:  By the sea of Galilee surrounded by hungry crowds, Jesus’ disciples lament “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?”  There is nothing here.  But when there is nothing, God’s muchness makes something–thousands are fed with leftovers. Then we turn to St. Paul who writes, “God has chosen the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of this world to shame the things which are strong.” This is the upside down God.   Later in Philippians 3, Paul adds that all his good work, all his community service, all is mission efforts…all this is really rubbish, cow crap he says, in contrast to the magnificent muchness of Christ.  Paul knows where to shine the light.  His service in the world is important, but he makes it very clear that it is all very secondary to the majestic muchness of God.  Another example:  In the Old Testament, God’s people are returning from captivity in Babylon.  They are rebuilding the destroyed temple.  Things are slow, discouraging, too little, too late.  So Zechariah the prophet speaks these simple mustard seed words full of strength, “Do not despise the day of small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.”  Our little lives become magnified in the muchness of our Lord’s rejoicing.  And then, our greatest smallness:  In our last hour, when we lie at the edge of death and sink into the smallness of our final breath, are you ready to be stunned by the muchness of God who, in the words of the hymn will raise you up to more than you can be? The beauty of God’s presence in our small lives permeates everything from beginning to the end and  beyond the end.  But for now, let’s apply all this to a specific problem we all face:  non-reciprocal disappointment and the relevance of our parable to this problem.

In all our relationships, most of the time, we aspire to do well and we hope to create good outcomes with our endeavors.  Sadly, however, our best intentions often disappoint.  In spite of giving our best, we might not get anything back, even a simple appreciation.    Even worse, our genuine well-intentioned efforts might trigger push back and hostility in the other to our great surprise. We may work hard in our labors, but our good work seems invisible.  We may try and try again, only to experience further rebuffing or disinterest.  At some point, many will just give up.  Or we might stay steady at the wheel with weakened spirits since it seems we don’t matter.   The pattern of non-reciprocal relationships is all too common in life.  The good work of A is ignored or attacked or dismissed by B.  Stalemates are born.  Relationships are frozen by fear and fatigue. The landscape of our world is packed with this kind of suffering where good effort is met with nothing back or worse hostility.  Many families are hurting from painful cutoffs where adult children have left the home, refusing to see their parents or siblings, avoiding conversations, as if their family did not exist.  A friend doesn’t return phone calls again and again and there is no explanation.  A spouse moves toward the other spouse with good will, but again hears the refrain, “It’s not good enough.”  Members of congregations take hard positions, refusing to soften or budge, until someone leaves or dies.  Warring family members insist that the other one goes first, apologize and meet other demands before they will budge an inch.  None of these stories hit the national headlines.  But all this suffering is right under our noses, packed with a lot of pain, sin that sucks the life from our souls, sorrow that binds our spirits.  We seek a way out.  We hunger for redemption.  But when we are much and our work in the word is the centerpiece and our God is small, we are in store not for long haul covid, but long haul suffering.

In this midst of all this, what do we listen to?  All relationship stories have their own complications.  Professionals assist.  Books may help.  But the parable of the mustard seed, suggests a deeper direction into the workshop of God.  In this place, we hear the promise that our small steps will be met by God’s muchness.  We also hear the invitation to trust the harvest to God’s muchness, and focus on our seeding, not harvesting.  We get killed by our over ambitious life where we attempt too many things, demand too much of ourselves and others, because we hunger for good results.  Drop you ambition.  Give the harvest to God,  and embrace the simple work of small seeding.  This is called non-contingent loving, loving for the sake of loving only, instead of being imprisoned by the other’s response or lack of it and basing our attitude on the nature of the response.  Loving non-contingently means we don’t need to be validated by the other because we are already validated, blessed by God.  Loving non-contingently means our focus shifts from our horizontal relationships with others to the vertical relationship with our Lord. In this vertical place, we don’t have to rely on our wonderful wounded and crippled skills, but on the gift of grace that grounds us and guides us in the right direction.  We can serve horizontally with grit if we are grounded vertically in grace.  When we live in the light of the resurrection, we don’t need to be taught how to love non-contingently.  John the Baptist’s confession before Christ is sufficient: “ You must increase, Lord, and I must decrease”  This is the formula for loving, not working harder.  Loving non-contingently means remembering Zachariah’s message to embrace the moment of small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin. Some examples of non-contingent loving and small beginnings:

I remember a brief story called “the hundred hugs”—a son visiting his father in a retirement home, always hugging his father with no return.  Son, patient and persistent in love which is necessary in non-contingent loving.  And then with hug 101 there is a squeeze back from dad, just enough.  The son loved for the sake of loving, not the response.  Another example:  In the book of Genesis, Joseph, one of Jacob’s 12 sons, is sold into slavery by his jealous and resentful brothers.  Over time Joseph ascends to power in Egypt.  Years later, the brothers’ journey to Egypt because of a famine in their land.  They stand before Joseph, but they don’t recognize him.  But Joseph knows who they are.  He could annihilate them, treat them as he was treated.  Instead Joseph’s ego becomes small, and he says to his brothers as we read in Genesis 45:  “Come close to me…I am your brother, the one you sold into Egypt.”  “Come close to mez’”  This is what it takes, the moment of small beginnings and trusting God’s muchness will take over. Another example:    A strong willed father has a long history of fighting with his strong willed daughter—multiple misunderstandings over the years, accusations of stubbornness in both directions.  The father demands apologies and other acts of repentance from her. And the months move on.  Father’s diagnosis of cancer hits him hard and softens his heart as disease often does to us.  He begins to hear the voice of non-contingent loving, the voice of small beginnings, the quiet voice of God’s invitation.  He approaches his daughter not with demands on her or a defense of his past.  He comes with desire not demand, and he says, “I’m sorry,” and tells her that his relationship with her is what matters most.  The daughter has no reason to believe him, but somehow the spirit begins to loosen her heart.  Non-contingent loving begins with no assurance in the other’s response, only confidence that God’s hand will lead us and God’s love will support us.  Another example:   A mother in her 50s was abused by her father years before and witnessed by her mother.  After her father died, she tried to have conversations with her mother to no avail.  Talk led to denials, detours, and agitations.  The daughter could have thrown up her hands and walked away in the face of her mother’s stonewalling. The daughter had her own children.  Why not just let her mother go and turn elsewhere. Many professionals would advise this.  And the daughter did to some extent, but not completely.  Christmas vacation comes one year.  Everyone is home, and the daughter invites her mother who lives thousands of miles away to her home for a couple of weeks with the mission to transcend her hostility with the gift of hospitality…simply to love her mother for the sake of loving, a love can only be born of Christ and a love that can only be gifted by the Spirit.  This is seeding well and giving the harvest back to God.

So we come full circle, back to Margareta’s “kart besvar,” cherished suffering…the integration of love with pain. Non-contingent loving is cherished pain, love that can only be gifted by the Spirit, love that does not depend on the response of the other but continues, sustained by the power of the cross and the beauty of the resurrection in the face of the headwinds of living.   May we all take heart that our Lord rejoices in the beginning of our simple work, the moment of small beginnings because the Lord knows what can happen when things start small and are planted in the soil of love and watered by the power of the Spirit.   May all this be so.   In the name of Jesus.   Amen.