Sermon preached June 14, 2009
Text: Mark 4:26-34
It has been awhile since I have attended the Tuesday morning Men’s Group here at church. During the school year I drive Sarah to school on my way to the church, and the group meets earlier than I am able to attend. School is out, so I came this last week. The group is reading through a book called This I Believe which includes brief statements of the personal philosophies of “remarkable men and women.” This week’s essay was by the poet Carl Sandburg, and in it were these words: I can remember many years ago, a beautiful woman in Santa Fe saying, “I don’t see how anybody can study astronomy and have ambition enough to get up in the morning.” She was putting a comic twist on what an insignificant speck of animate stardust each of us is amid cotillions of billion-year constellations. (207-208) Insignificant speck of animate stardust – all we are is dust in the wind, to use the language of a 1970s song - - - sure glad I got up early to come!
But then I think of other events, stories, moments.
It was 1995 at the Minnesota Annual Conference in St. Cloud. A year earlier I had returned to Minnesota from completing my Ph.D. at Southern Methodist University. At the 1994 Annual Conference, my name had been drawn to be the conference preacher in 1995 – an entire year to work on one sermon, and a sermon to be preached in front of all one’s colleagues in ministry. So the moment came - 1995, and I preached, and the sermon seemed well-received. I sat down next to then Minnesota bishop Sharon Brown Christopher. She turned to me and said simply – “God works through you, David Bard.” Six simple words taking only moments to speak, coming from a woman who had spoken countless words to all kinds of clergy – but those words touched me deeply and I have never forgotten them.
There is a verse in the Buddhist text, The Dhammapada (122, 9:7): Do not underestimate good, thinking it will not affect you. Dripping water can even fill a pitcher, drop by drop; one who is wise is filled with good, even if one accumulates it little by little.
In early May I was the main speaker for a Minnesota United Methodist Women’s spirituality retreat. During the retreat I was part of a small group and in that group was a woman named Jill. I thought I had seen Jill before somewhere, but I could not remember when or where. During one of our small group sessions Jill mentioned that she had been at the United Methodist Women’s School of Christian Mission in 1996 where I was the keynote speaker. The topic was “Shalom Salaam, Peace” so we talked about war and peace that summer. Then she told me how helpful I had been to her in a conversation we had had. Her son was in Iraq at the time and she was understandably anxious and I had said some things that comforted her. I then remembered where I had met Jill, but I could only recall the conversation in the vaguest terms – that is, I remembered it happened but little else. I was left marveling at the power of a few words, a few moments.
Bemidji writer Kent Nerburn tells the story of a neighbor and a friend (Small Graces). The neighbor is a woman named Myra – ornery and hard to like. Raised on the plains of North Dakota, she asks no quarter and gives none…. Our relationship has been an uneasy truce. Though we are neighbors, we have never become close. “She’s had a hard life. She’s got a good heart,” I tell myself. “Treat her with kindness.” But it is not so easy. She turns every conversation to herself, berates people I know to be gentle and generous, and shoots at our cats with buckshot. Nerburn would simply dismiss her were it not for something he had learned years earlier from his friend Craig.
Craig had been in Nerburn’s life only briefly, but in that time, he taught Nerburn something important about human relationships, a lesson the author expresses succinctly: I was coming to all my encounters with a fear that others were judging me, when in fact, they were worrying about how I would judge them. We were all living in fear of each other’s judgment, while the empty space between us was waiting to be filled by a simple gesture of honest caring.
So one day Kent Nerburn finds his neighbor Myra “standing in her front yard, glowering. She is jabbing at a patch of offending leaves with a rake.” She cusses at the leaves as she piles them in a corner of the yard, and Nerburn responds: “A conspiracy between God and gravity.” He pauses, then continues. “That’s a pretty sweater,” I say. She snorts. “If I didn’t have a wife,” I continue, “we’d go out dancing.” She snorts again. I continue on my way. But as I pass, I see her push an errant strand of hair back into place and adjust the collar on her sweater. She looks around to make sure no one was watching, then returns to her raking.
Insignificant animate dust speaking a few words in a world awash with words, offering a small gesture of kindness in a world filled with gestures, many cruel and hateful – a war-torn world, a world where a person can nurture hate into his late eighties and take a gun into a place meant to mark inhumanity, and with violence perpetuate inhumanity.
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs…. The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
How is it that a few moments, a few words, can make such a difference? I don’t know, but they do. The promise is that God uses our small acts of kindness, our brief gestures of compassion, our few words of care, to build up God’s dream for the world.
We may, in some ways, be dust in the wind, but when the wind is the Spirit of God, great things are possible. Amen.