Every book on change says the same thing. Change has changed. Change is no longer incremental. Change is exponential.
Here is what no one will tell you: change is not just incremental, or exponential. Change is infinitesimal. Try baby steps.
So you gained a pound or two this year. It happens. Then it happens again next year. And the next year. Suddenly a decade has passed and you realize that “a pound or two” has compounded into two sacks of flour sitting on your hips! Infinitesimal change has caught up with you.
In the early 1950s farmer Clarence Mauerhan was known as the “Chili Pepper King” of Orange County (“Anaheim peppers,” anyone?). A mysterious buyer was paying top dollar for all the farms in the area, but farmer Mauerhan would have none of it. He was the lone holdout against payments for land that no one had dreamed were possible. Finally it was revealed who was buying up all this land: someone named Walt Disney. Mr. Disney said he planned on putting in an amusement park on the land, and needed Mr. Mauerhan’s farm for the parking lot. But Mr. Mauerhan would have none of it: “When I die I will own this land. No one is taking it from me.”
So without any attorneys, man-to-man, Mauerhan and Disney struck a deal: Mr. Mauerhan would own the land, and lease the land to Mr. Disney for a certain percentage of the appraised value of the land. But Mr. Mauerhan insisted that since it was still his land, every car that parked on his land should pay him something. They settled on 3 mills per car, or three-tenths of a penny per vehicle. An infinitesimal amount of money, you say. Except when millions of cars park on this land in a year. Suddenly the infinitesimal is a golden goose that makes an extended family extremely wealthy over an extensive period of time.
One more example: After 50 years of trying, why have we failed to persuade people that the planet is in peril? Because change is infinitesimal. It’s just as hard to “see” the infinitesimal changes in things like diminishing air quality, or global temperature changes, or the loss of natural resources. A slight elevation in CO2, a degree of added warmth, a dip in oil output — none of those are dramatic. In fact, most are glacial in their gradualness.
But infinitesimal doesn’t mean ineffectual, or fantastical, or chimerical. Infinitesimal change often means radical change, even life-altering, revolutionary change.
Remember the “tipping point,” that moment when gradual and almost imperceptible “tips” over to major and unavoidable? When the “tipping point” is tripped, everything changes. We change the way we think. We change the way we act. We change the way we deal with issues and problems. The revelation of a new reality changes everything.
We are celebrating one of the greatest “tipping points” in life today. The day one becomes a parent, a father or a mother. The day you became a parent is a day of transformation.
Swedish novelists Anders Roslun and Borge Hellstrom described this moment for one of their characters. Piet Hoffman was a convicted criminal recruited by the Swedish police to go undercover to break a huge drug ring. Though he is forced to lie to his family about what he does, he cannot lie about how his children have changed him.
He tried to remember what life was like before these two boys whom he loved more than anything in the world, empty days when he had only himself to think of. He remembered it well, but felt nothing. He had never been able to comprehend how what had been so important, so strong and so absolute, was suddenly meaningless as soon as someone small had come along, looked at him, and called him Daddy.” (Ander Roslun, Borge Hellstrom, Three Seconds [Silveroak, New York: London 2010], 94-95)
The key to parenting is not the big moments, but the little things, the small, almost infinitesimal, run-of-the-mill moments. In fact, it’s the small things that build to those big moments that become the seismic events of our lives.
Renowned Harvard entomologist — yes, a “bug guy” — has made the study of small things, little buggy bits, his life’s work. Wilson’s conclusion, after a lifetime of studying and sampling those 10 quintillion insects alive on planet earth this very moment: “It’s the little things that run the world.” Wilson notes that while we spend about 45 billion dollars a year to kill bugs — employing everything from toxic chemical to sadistic sounding “bug zappers”—-many of those same bugs we are devoted to exterminating are pollinating crucial plant life. If we had to pay for all that free pollination it would cost about 100 billion dollars a year. Without the “little things” that perform the gracious act of pollination, our crops would fail, our food sources would dry up, the flora of the world would be unable to spread its growth and greenery across the planet.
Little is large. The infinitesimal is hugely consequential. The humble is humongous! Just ask your DNA molecule.
It’s not just the little things that run the world, however. It’s also the little things that make life fulfilling and fruitful. It’s not that we just shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff.” It’s rather that we should actively celebrate the small stuff. The key to good parenting, to good fathering, is the ability to celebrate the small stuff.
In the parable of the growing seed, Jesus celebrates the simple miracle of being able to sleep and rise and to observe the amazing gift of growth that emerges from the earth. We might “scatter” the seed. But the power for germination, the energy for growth, lies within the seed itself and unfolds according to its own internal directive. God’s plan for the planet directs all.
Celebrating the significance of small things isn’t always easy. Most of us would rather side with those who have big plans to change the world rather than to accept the incremental moment of grace, the gradually unfolding, ripening, kingdom-crop that God has planted and will reach fruition in the season of divine purpose.
The zealots were wrong to think they could bring the kingdom in through military revolution and political action.
The seers were wrong to thing they could read the signs and predict the moment of apocalypse.
The legalists were wrong to think that adhering to every jot-and-tittle of the Torah would bring the kingdom in more quickly.
Both of the parables Jesus relates celebrate the small, because they are harbingers of God’s providence and purpose. As Jesus revealed the divine intention for the establishment of the kingdom of God, his mission and message were perpetually misunderstood.
He was reamed out by the religious authorities.
He was rejected by his own family.
He was misunderstood and misused by those closest to him.
But Jesus knew that his mission was to “scatter the seed.” Even a mustard-seed size planting would be enough. God would see to the harvest. God would see to it that the crop would grow and thrive and eventually, according to God’s timetable, be ready for a rich harvest. Jesus planted the word and Jesus has promised to preside over the harvest. The in-between time is not for us to worry about. It is shrouded in the mysterious providences of God.
Because Jesus had supreme confidence in God’s promises to bring in God’s kingdom, there was no one who celebrated the “small stuff” quite so well and publically as Jesus. Jesus went to weddings and banquets. He dined out with friend and strangers and sinners. He kept company with respected authorities like Nicodemus and despised tax collectors like Levi and Zacchaeus.
Jesus took time and he took exception. He took time to play with the “little ones” and included little children in his work and words. He took exception to the dismissal of “outsiders” — the cursed, the criminals, the crazies, the lepers, the Samaritans, the sinners and demoniacs — from the graces of God and God’s kingdom.
No small thing changes a man more than a small hand slipping softly into a big calloused paw. A big, tough guy is suddenly a teary softie at the sound of one word: “Daddy.” Every day there are small moments, small gestures, small experiences, small windows that enable us to catch a glimpse of the kingdom. Those small “kingdom moments” are the small things that transform and energize us for the world to come.
Every parable Jesus told was based on one message: the Father is in charge. Will you slip your hand into the hands of the one who holds the future in his hands?
The future is not in our hands. The future is already secured . . . in the cross and the resurrection of Jesus.
Only holding the cross in our hands, can we say, “the future is in our hands.”
Only holding each other in our hands, with all of each “other’s” otherness embraced in love, can we say, “the future is in our hands.”
Only holding the hand of our Father, can we say, “the future is in our hands.”
So go from here slipping your little hand into the hand of the one who holds the whole world in his hands.
This gospel text offers us the only two parables in which Jesus explicitly names the “kingdom of God” as their content. The somewhat stilted formulaic introduction of both these parables (v.26, 30) clearly makes the focus of Jesus’ remarks the kingdom of God itself.
The first of today’s parables, the parable of the growing seed, begins much like the previously told parable of the sower (4:1-9). But the activity described is decidedly different. Instead of being “sown,” the seed in today’s parable is simply “scattered,” an action that suggests an even more random and haphazard method of crop propagation than that described in 4:3. Once this seed is “scattered” the success or failure of the crop is apparently out of the hands of the one who dropped the seed. The focus is not on any human effort to tend the seed, but rather on the mysterious, unknowable power that causes the seed to “sprout and grow” (v.27).
There is an almost sing-song quality to Jesus’ descriptions — first of the individual sleeping, waking and the inevitable passage of night to day; then of the sprouting and growing; finally of the measured predetermined nature of the grain’s development into stalk, head, and full grain. The rhythmic quality of the text paints a picture of an unfolding process that is controlled by an unknown, unseen force.
It is not until the grain is fully and finally ripe that the one who scattered the seed once again takes action. It is time for the harvest. The image of the sickle echoes Joel 3:13: “Put in the sickle for the harvest is ripe,” suggesting an eschatological action. Despite the unknowable quality of the grain’s development, the eventual harvest of the crop is fully expected and never in question. The sickle is always at the ready for that day.
The second parable in today’s text is also declared to be specifically about “the kingdom of God.” It similarly features the unique, inexplicable growing nature of seeds. The mustard seed, while tiny, is certainly not the smallest seed on earth. But it was proverbially known as that in the Palestinian region. While other small seeds produced small flowers or vegetables, the mustard seed produced a large, shaggy shrub that could grow to a height of as much as six feet. According to Pliny it was also an intrusive plant. After germinating the mustard seed was likely to take over any garden space in which it was located (Pliny, Natural History, 19.170-171). Both the size and vigor of the plant that emerges from such a small seed were deemed extraordinary.
The leafy largesse of the mustard plant makes it capable of offering shelter: “the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (v.32). This declaration would surely bring to the mind of Mark’s readers the scriptural references to the huge trees used to illustrate national strength and stability. But in Ezekiel 17:23 it is a mighty cedar, planted by God, which offers up a shady place for birds to nest (“hypo ten skian”), not a mere mustard shrub. Not only is the great growth from such a tiny seed unexpected. But the form that growth takes is also outside the norm for a pillar of strength and a place of refuge. Jesus is elevating, not a stately cedar, but the stubby, shrubby mustard bush.
Mark concludes this series of seed parables with a comment about the reason for Jesus’ unique teaching method. The parables Jesus spoke were his way of gradually unveiling the word about the kingdom of God. As Mark had noted earlier, the crowds that followed Jesus heard these parables, but comprehended them on various levels (see 4:10-11). Only Jesus’ chosen disciples received a private “unpacking” of the symbolics and significs of the parables.
Yet the crowds kept coming. The people kept listening, kept learning. The parables of Jesus were retold and remembered both by those inside and outside the budding community of faith. The power of the parable made it possible for those in Mark’s day to listen “as they were able to hear” and consider the word that was being spoken.
The seed was “scattered.” Whether it would germinate and grow to full fruition was part of the mysterious work of the kingdom as orchestrated by the Spirit.
Leonard Sweet Sermons, Leonard Sweet, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 2012, 0-000-1415