Mark 4:30-32 30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet 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.”
Since April, my brother in law Bryan has been hiking the Appalachian Trail. He walked about half of it several years ago, but an injury sidelined him from finishing. This year, he’s trying again, from the southern trailhead at Springer Mountain. Bryan walks between 4 and 20 hours a day. And, bit by bit, he’s making his way across14 states and five national parks for 2,178 miles all the way to Maine. This is no easy gig; carrying a 30-pound pack burns about 450 calories an hour.
As I follow his progress on Facebook, I’m amazed by two things: First, it seems to be such slow going and his daily progress of 8 to 13 miles seems so small. Second, over time, he’s making amazing progress. Last week he pushed beyond the halfway point.
Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. Through the ages, people have wondered what does he mean to compare the whole massive, boundless Kingdom of God to something as finite as a tiny mustard seed? I think he is teaching his disciples how to look at the world around them. Pay attention to the ways God is always active, always present. And it’s not just the sunsets and miracles in which we can see God’s power and love. Jesus is saying, notice the small things.
Today we baptized a toddler in worship. Little Adalyn is saying, “Notice me! I’m walking! I can melt your heart with a smile! I need you to help me grow up! I need you to love me—and my parents! I need a place to grow up! And when I get older and less adorable, and I start growing through my teen years, and when my parents become a little boring, I need you to challenge my faith. Now I need you to volunteer in the nursery. Soon I’ll need you to volunteer chaperoning mission trips so that I can see the church in action in other parts of the world.”
Notice the small things; notice the small people. God speaks through small things.
I read a story about a young American Marine who was lost in one of the Islands in the Pacific during WWII. He was a forward scout who spoke Japanese. In a fire fight, he had gotten separated from his men deep in enemy territory. He was certain that he’d be captured or killed by the Japanese Army. He hid in a tiny rock cave to rest. He prayed for God to shield him, to hide him, to deliver him, to save him. A tiny spider began to make a web over the opening of the cave. The man wished that spider could obscure the opening of the cave. One gossamer strand at a time, the spider knitted its web. The Japanese got closer. The Marine heard them speaking. They stopped at the opening of the cave. A soldier began to poke his head in. The hiding Marine prepared for his last fight. He knew he was about to die. As the Japanese soldier got closer, another pulled him back, pointing to what was by now a very small spider web that covered the opening. “Nobody’s in here,” he said. “The web would have been disturbed. This cave is empty.”
That Marine believes he was spared because God protected him with a spider web.
God uses small things. Consider the beauty of small things. Consider the profundity of how those small things point to larger realities. Small things are tell-tale signs of bigger things.
My brother-in-law Bryan considers each step on the trail. Every rock. Every twist in the trail. Every arbor of shade. Every patch of sun. When you add up all the steps—in the neighborhood of 4,400,000 of them—he’ll be in Maine. Small steps are getting him there.
God uses our small contributions for good. They add up. This is a small part of God’s intricate design. Jesus points to the widow giving two pennies to the temple treasurer (Mark 12); the disciples see a small thing: two cents compared to people stroking really big checks. Jesus sees something very different. A woman giving her all. It’s no small thing at all.
A few loaves and fish. And five thousand people (Matthew 14). But all were fed.
The shepherds came to Bethlehem (Luke 2). They were shown the baby Jesus. Scripture says when they left they told everyone what they had seen, and they were amazed. But I’ll bet people were more amazed by the angels flapping around. Flying, singing angels: that’s amazing. But a baby? In a manger? What can a single baby do in this great big world? And when Jesus became a man, what can one man do in the world to make a difference?
God can do big things with small things.
Look for the small things, Jesus is saying. Pay attention to how God is close at hand. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, Jesus said. One seed can make a bush large enough to give shelter to birds later on. Small things yield not-so-small results.
Seven years ago, the children in our VBS planted a tiny bush on our campus near the parking lot. I don’t know who picked the bush out, but it was a Charlie Brown Bush: small and very ugly. It looked like a messy weed to me. What good can become of this messy plant, I wondered. I parked by the ugly bush every day for years. I secretly hoped one of our grass cutters would lose control of the John Deere and run that bush over. It never happened. But guess what I noticed this summer? That bush had grown up. Somebody had gently trimmed it over time. Now it’s blooming; it’s a profusion of tiny purple flowers. I walked up to it the other day. It was full of bumble bees. Birds hopped around in its top branches.
I don’t know a lot about pollen, and bumble bees, and birds. But I know enough that that pretty bush is doing good for our world. Ecologically, this bush is doing its part to cool global warming and to cleanse the air we breathe. It provides a little shade for the birds who need a rest. That once hideous, sad bush now makes our campus more beautiful.
In 2008, our VBS children planted an ugly bush and I didn’t have the eyes to see the possibility. I didn’t have the eyes to see what God was doing with little hands and happy faces and with a sickly looking bush that looked like a weed.
One day our little Adalyn will do something hair-brained like that. She will plant a bush at Vacation Bible School. I hope we notice what good can come of it. If we pay attention, dare I suggest that we just might see the kingdom of God at hand.
* * *
In Charleston on Wednesday night in the oldest historically black church south of Baltimore, a white man killed nine people at a Bible study. The City of Angels—and the nation—is stunned.
Heath Rada, moderator of the PC(USA), wrote in a joint statement with other Presbyterian leaders, “Arresting the shooter is the job of law enforcement. Arresting hate is the work we are all called to do as disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Arresting the hate anywhere begins with arresting the hate in myself. That’s a scary place to go, because hate exists inside my heart. There is a darkness inside of me that hides from the light. Am I brave enough to go there? To touch that? To lance that festering boil?
At a court hearing, Nadine Collier, daughter of murdered 70-year-old Ethel Lance, told the alleged killer (who had been arrested), “You took something very precious away from me.” She spoke with anguish. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again.”
And then she said four very small words: “But I forgive you.”
We can talk about gun control—and we must. We can talk about bringing down the confederate battle flag flying defiantly over the grounds of the state house in Columbia. But for those and many more conversations to be fruitful, we need the spirit of Nadine Collier.
Nadine Collier’s act seems like such a small thing. Four words. But she knows what Jesus knew: Hate isn’t the answer. Living in fear isn’t the answer. Love is. So Nadine Collier said what Jesus said on the cross to his killers: “I forgive you.”
From there, from right there, we will move on to bear shalom to our community and world. Words like that—and the step-by-step actions that follow words like that—have power to transform everything.
Those words may seem like such a small thing. Like a mustard seed. But that’s where healing begins.
And therein lies the kingdom of God.
A l l e l u i a . . .
Many people have emphasized the need to understand the attack in the broader context of racism in the U.S., rather than seeing it as an isolated event of racially motivated violence. Don Gordon, director of Furman University’s “Riley Institute” wrote that “While the Riley Institute cannot fix the acts of individuals, we do work to build collaboration and provide frames of reference that challenge prejudice and work for the common good.” The Riley Institute works to get community leaders to be aware of the blinders we all wear when it comes to racism.
This is Don’s letter
Last evening an unspeakable crime, a hate crime, took place at a Wednesday evening prayer meeting at the Emanuel AME Church near Francis Marion Square in Charleston. Eight parishioners and their pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, were shot and killed during the service in what is being described as a racist hate crime. The shooter is a young white male, who allowed one parishioner to live “so you can tell everyone what happened here.” Two others survived the attack.
Reverend Pinckney is also State Senator Pinckney, someone whose integrity and sense of justice was strong and who spoke “with a booming voice” for justice and fairness.
This morning, the Reverend Joe Darby, the head of AME churches in the Lowcountry and graduate of the very first DLI Lowcountry class will be holding a prayer service for many in Charleston. Joe will be beginning the healing process so necessary after a crime that rends the very social fabric we all depend on to carry out our daily lives in a civilized way in our communities and our country.
Another DLI grad, Charleston Police Chief, Greg Mullen, whose efforts at community policing have gained a national reputation, is leading the investigation
It is this kind of senseless crime, shaped by racism and fueled by hate and hate talk, that the Riley Institute’s DLI program is conceived to fight. It is this kind of brutal, unfeeling and desperate act that shocks us deeply and hopefully will bind us all together as one in opposition to the evils of racism and other deeply held prejudices that poison minds and lead to this most heinous crime.
While the Riley Institute cannot fix the acts of individuals, we do work to build collaboration and provide frames of reference that challenge prejudice and work for the common good. Our hope is that through you, DLI alumni and Riley Fellows, we can make a real difference in our state and build a brighter future for all South Carolinians.
Don Gordon, Executive Director, Riley Institute at Furman
A prayer adapted by Matt Matthews from the PCUSA webpage:
In our confusion over the murders in Charleston, we appeal to you, O God, for understanding and courage to continue to fight for justice. We pray for the families of those who lost lives, for those who knew them, loved them, served with them, needed them. For their coworkers and neighbors; for their families and friends. We pray for your church; help us by your grace to arrest the hatred and the “isms” that plague us. We pray for the churches of Charleston as they pray and work together to bear the light and hope of Christ to that community. We pray particularly for Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal.
Likewise, we pray for an end to the continued racial unrest and violence that permeates the United States and the world. We pray for the unrest that resides in us. Forgive us for those hatreds and stereotypes that our fathers and mothers have passed down to us and that we have let fester. Heal us that we might pass along hope. Guide us to work earnestly for changes that make our communities healthier.
We ask these things in the name of your son who is able to keep us from falling. AMEN.
 Christin Communicator, vol 18, issue 05, page 7.
 (PCUSA website, homepage, June 21, 2015)
 New York Times, Saturday, June 21, 2015.
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...