(Watch video here.)
This is a core value: “Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful in much, and whoever is dishonest in little is dishonest in much.” I believe the divine is seen and experienced in the small and ordinary spaces of life. The daily habits, the random acts of kindness, the quality of relationships, integrity, helping the one person in front of me. We discover the Holy Spirit in the small decisions and practices. As Mother Teresa put it, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Jesus often talked about the power of small things. Mustard seeds, the leaven in dough, the widow’s mite, all these bring forth what God desires.
But this parable also brings a powerful challenge. Do the small things really matter? As I often do when I have big questions, I decided I would Google “the power of small things.” Guess what? There is a book called “The Power of the Small,” by Linda Kaplan Thayer. She is an advertising executive responsible for campaigns like the Aflac duck, and “I’m a ToysRUs kid.” The book is full of lovely anecdotes where being kind, offering encouragement to your co-workers, thanking people, and being grateful make a huge difference. She tells the story of a hairdresser who was passionate about making people look good. She cut a man’s hair and he felt so good about it, people complimented him, and he started feeling more confident. He credits that hair-cut and that hair dresser for launching his career.
As I read the 5 star reviews, I thought, “Are these small actions enough, especially in the face of climate change as hurricane winds obliterate homes of hundreds of thousands, as major cities like Jakarta sink, and crops in Africa burn to a crisp, while crops in Iowa flood away. Are small things enough in the face of rising white nationalism and multiplying swamp monsters of corruption in our government? Its hard to keep the faith in the power of small things in light of the massive challenges.
The parable of the unjust steward goes the core over my values struggle. This manager knows he may not have his job long, so he goes out and cuts special deals, does favors for his boss’s debtors, to secure himself for when he leaves. When the boss finds out, rather than being even more angry, he commends the dishonest manager for being shrewd. Jesus even says, “Make friends for yourself with dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” What?! That sounds so wrong. Was Jesus being sarcastic? In fact, the annotations in my Bible say, “This parable defies any satisfactory explanation.” No kidding!
But I think Jesus was dead serious, and here is why. This parable is so shockingly relevant, in fact, I saw it play out on the evening news. Assistant secretary at the Department of the Interior, Joe Balash, pushed hard to open up the National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Two weeks later he took a consulting job with an oil company to help them drill in the Artic. The Sierra Club responded:
“Throughout his time at Interior, Joe Balash spearheaded efforts to suppress science, ignore indigenous rights and sell off the Arctic Refuge for drilling at all costs. Now, he’s shamelessly seeking to profit from this destruction while the American people and our public lands pay the price.”
It feels like unjust stewards are the norm. The revolving door, moving from public service to cashing in on your connections. How do we continue to believe in the power of the small acts for goodness, when these gigantic injustices seem to defeat us at every term?
While Joe Balash sells out the Artic Refuge, here I am trying many small things to keep my carbon footprint low. I ride my bike to work. I eat less meat, local food, buy local products. I write on paper with no printing on the back, whatever I can to do. I believe we are facing an existential, planetary crisis. But if we drill in the Artic, and scrap environmental protection, it feels so futile.
Bill McKibben recently wrote, as commendable as it is to reduce our individual carbon footprint, consumer-driven environmentalism, which has been around for 20 years, will barely make a dent in the herculean task. McKibben says there are too few of us changing our daily habits, and not enough time to convince enough people to change. We need structure policy changes like a carbon tax. We need huge incentives and laws to change the way be build houses, the cars we drive, and move us away from carbon-based fuels. We can’t solve our problems one consumer at a time.
So do the small things still matter, or are they an excuse for a lack of courage? Let’s repeat what Jesus said, “Those who are faithful in small things will be faithful in large things. Those who are dishonest in little will be dishonest with much.” I hear Jesus saying never neglect the small things. Actions like kindness, integrity, encouraging others, and gratitude are the foundation. But he didn’t tell us to stop at the small. The mustard seed grows large. The leaven expands the dough. So I need to modify my small is beautiful philosophy. Do small things with great love, in the service of big things. Never neglect the importance of small gestures, to the smallest of people and situation, in ordinary life. But also, we need to recognize the opportunities when the many small things add up and serve a larger vision. Suddenly we find ourselves in a new situation, where bigger things are possible.
The small is the gateway to big. I am not saving the world by eating less meat and riding my bike. But it does shape my consciousness. As I ride my bike, I notice things-I see the flaming magenta tree out ahead of all its still green friends. I’m more likely to see the bees scrambling to get the last nectar from flowers before blossoming ends. I see who really uses the bike trail for transportation, and the homeless encampment under the bridge. All of this would have been out of sight. As I do my small share with cloth bags and learning new recipes, it has moved my spiritual life in a new direction, becoming more aware of the world around me and the inter-connection to all living things. These little disciplines expand my worldview and sense of spiritual connection. I find hope, joy and tranquility in doing them. I don’t know where that is going to go, but it changes me to do the small things.
I think the people who stay faithful in the small have the practices and courage and endurance to do the big. Friday we had the largest protest for dealing with climate change in history. Perhaps you have seen the photos of Greta Thernburg skipping school with her sign and sat alone outside the Swedish parliament for three weeks. This was a tiny spark, as others joined her, and yesterday the streets of nearly every major city in the world were full of people, mostly young people, urging action. Small can grow to very powerful.
Doing small things with great love is the root of most big things, and that changes the world.
We are always asking people to do small things. Help set up coffee hour, be a greeter, sing in the choir, come to the annual meeting, sign up today. We are not just trying to keep you busy. Every Sunday, we say “No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” How will people know they are truly loved by God or anyone else, unless we practice extravagant hospitality? You may not know what a difference it makes to welcome people at the door, and bringing your children along to help. Or introducing yourself to someone new, because coffee hour can be such an obstacle course to many people.
Why is this important? Because the biggest reason for church decline is the radical inhospitality of churches. Christianity is now seen as a narrow-minded, bigoted and nationalistic religion by many people. The biggest challenge to our future of our church and Christianity is to overcome the ocean of hostility generated by divisive and judgmental Christianity. We certainly are not going to overcome this by shaking hands at the door or better coffee hours. But if we don’t do the small things, we never get the chance to tell the bigger message.
My last story happened while I was trying to finish my sermon this week. I have been trying to get to know the folks who sleep around the church at night, and contacting social workers to help get people housing and support. After a month, many people who were here in early August are in a better situation. One got sober and went to Grove Street, two others got mental health housing. And then an entire new group of homeless people moved in. I was discouraged. We don’t have enough affordable housing. Addiction takes its toll, mental health services are cut. I ran a shelter and case management for people experiencing homelessness for 8 years, and it is getting worse.
Thursday night I was at the open house for the new offices of the Lumber Yard, new affordable housing on Pleasant Street. I was talking with Greg Richane and another man about the challenges we were having with so many homeless people downtown. At the end of our conversation, the man said, “I have a confession to make. My 19-year -old son is probably one of the people who is hanging around your church. He can’t find his way right now and is out on the streets. I’m glad there is someone out there who might catch him from falling.
I don’t need any more encouragement than this. Sometimes small things don’t seem to matter in the big world. But the small things done in great love are the gateway to everything that truly matters.