Mark’s Gospel begins with John, the wild-eyed prophet who lived in the wilderness, and called the Jewish people to repent, and turn away from their sinful ways. His call to a life of faithfulness, included a ritual washing, a baptism, to clean away the stench of bad living.
John called out, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” He went on, “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie, “ as if to say, “Wait until the real thing appears, it is going to be huge!”
John expected big things from Jesus. He expected the coming of the Kingdom. He attracted people who were also looking for something big to happen. Landless peasants who lived under Roman rule, and saw no earthly way to a brighter future could be keen for something world-shaking.
When I was 18, I had a powerful conversion experience. It was overwhelming, and emotional, and very confusing. I had grown up in the United Church, and God, and Jesus, and the Bible had always been part of my life. But now these things had a special hold on me, and claimed a large part of my attention.
It was like always knowing there is the possibility of life on other planets. It can be fun to watch a movie about aliens coming to earth, but it doesn’t really matter, unless it actually happens- until an alien lands on the lawn at 24 Sussex Drive, and says, “Hello, Mr. Prime Minister.”
When I had the conversion, and felt touched by a power bigger than me, beyond my little life, it was like having that close encounter. Now what do I do?
At first I didn’t have anyone to talk to about my alien invasion. My parents thought I was going through another weird phase. The minister at our church was not much help. It was almost a year before I connected with Bill, the minister at a neighbouring United Church, who became a mentor, and helped me sort out a lot of things over coffee.
Before I met Bill I spent a lot of time in the local Christian bookstore. A lot of the books, music, posters, and gift items reflected a religious culture concerned about getting people saved, in exactly the right way. I remember a whole shelf of books with titles like, “What’s wrong with the Mormons/Jehovah’s Witnesses/Roman Catholics/Anglicans/United Church of Canada/Buddhists/Hindus/Sikhs/Muslims/fill-in-the-blanks.”
Apparently a lot of faiths were getting it wrong, according to the authors of these nasty little word-bombs. You can find examples of this mean-spirited garbage online, if you really want it.
Before I became more discerning, I read a lot of junk. Sometimes, being seen with a certain kind of book in my hand, and a look of confusion on my face seemed to invite conversation from people in the Christian bookstore. They would ask me to church, or bible study, or to pray with them.
I met a guy named Ken, who worked near the bookstore. Ken talked about how he sensed God was doing big things in our town, and he could just feel something huge was about to happen. There was going to be a holy spirit revival, and hundreds and thousands of people were going to be saved, and we could be part of it! Looking back, I can see Ken was a sad and lonely guy who hated his job, and it would have greatly bolstered his ego to be part of something big.
In the passage we heard from Luke, Jesus compared God’s kingdom to tiny seeds that grow into bushes that provide resting places for birds, or yeast spread into kneaded dough, which causes bread to rise. The kingdom of small things.
In many aboriginal and tribal cultures around the world, each village had keepers of the flame. While others were out tending flocks, or hunting, or fishing, or harvesting crops, there was a small circle of people, often elders, who kept the fire burning. The fire was always needed for warmth, or cooking, or for light, or to mark the gathering place for a time of celebration. The keepers of the flame fed the fire enough to keep it going over time. It did not have to be a big fire, just enough so that it was still there. The kingdom of small things.
I helped with two funerals this week. The first was for Diane Harte, and there were a lot of Trinity folks involved in tending the fire that day. The warmth of God’s love was shared with sandwiches and sweets, with hugs and smiles of welcome, with directions to the bathroom, with prayers, and with many other small and important actions.
At the other funeral I heard great stories about the man who had died. When his first grand-daughter was little, he renovated his back yard. He turned it into a wonderful garden, through which he built a long winding path of inlaid brick. He painted each brick bright yellow. The path took those who walked it on a wandering route through the whole back yard, amongst bushes and flowers, and trees, and bird feeders, over a small bridge, to a little house where the little girl shared tea and cookies with her grandmother.
This man and his grand-daughter shared an enthusiasm for the Wizard of Oz, and she loved her yellow brick road. In the summer time, the grandfather would spend hours meticulously pulling out every weed, every blade of grass that pushed up between the inlaid bricks. He showed his love in hundreds of small ways. The kingdom of small things.
Each little thing matters. Paying attention to the details may not be all that exciting, but can keep us real, and help us live in the present. It can help us find meaning and joy in the right now, rather than focusing our hopes on some time in the future, when the big thing will happen.
Worlds are created one leaf, one branch, one flower at a time. People are shown grace and welcome one cup of tea, one sandwich, one cookie at a time. Cultures and countries are changed one heart a time. God’s kingdom comes. Amen