Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Some of us like our information brief and to the point. We want tags, especially if they tell us about the practical uses something might have for us. In short, we don't want to think in terms of process. Process seems at best mysterious or, at worst, complicated. It seems to define a place out of our reach or, more darkly, beyond our control. Too many others are involved in the process, and this challenges our self-reliance. Paradoxically, this realization can make us a bit fanatical about process. We suddenly want to supervise and dominate its every detail. This obviously soon becomes self-defeating, because we end up trying to micro-manage the intangible.
That's why Jesus' parables about the kingdom of God probably drove some people crazy. Many of them, like the two we are reading today, focus not on content by on process. It almost seems like, if you don't understand process, you won't understand the kingdom of God, period. Jesus seems to often skip the details of how things are going to work. Jesus never seems to give us the step by step time line of how God is going to do things. Jesus knew deep down that if we knew the process we might end up focusing on the process, each line of God’s computer code and not see the wonders coming at the other end.
One of the many things I have learned to do over my many years is to write computer code. I have noticed that every time I get something to finally work after many days of struggle that I take less then two seconds going well done, before I start trying to make things better. Most of the time I end up using what first worked. I often rob myself of seeing the new wonderful thing I helped create. Maybe that is the reason God does not want us in the middle of the process micromanaging his code.
The first parable (Mk. 4:26-29) really puts the dig in: it seems to say, it doesn't matter if you are awake or asleep! We've all seen ads about this or that product where something like that is the punch-line, usually delivered in a patronizing British accent: "Awk- chewally ..." But in our earnest religiosity we are reluctant to let go that much. If we're not doing it, if we're not fully responsible for progress toward the Kingdom, then who is?
That, of course, is Jesus' point: God is responsible. The invisible workings of the process, its pace and effectiveness, are in more highly skilled hands than we could possibly imagine. Our only problem is in believing that. Jesus' view of the matter seems almost--there's no other word--restful, as though he has reached some deep conviction about how his Father is such an unstoppable force that Jesus no longer feels he has to prove it by piling up rational arguments.
We wonder how Jesus, by all accounts a man of intense action, can seem so laid back at times. His aplomb amazes, no more than in moments like this first parable where he points a languid, worded finger, as it were, at some peasant farmer hacking away there at the soil, shoring up fences, chasing animals off his skimpy garden, pruning a tree, washing up for supper or grunting his way to sleep--his mind seemingly empty at every point as to whether all this, when you come down to it, will ever theoretically work together.
Don't you get it? Jesus says. That's the way it is with the kingdom of God. All this, of course, lies behind the principle of Christian spirituality enunciated by Ignatius of Loyola: "Act as if everything depended on God; pray as if everything depended on you." That's how the activist Jesus got through the day!
The second of today's parables (Mk. 4:30-32) offers an even more expansive view of the process by which the kingdom of God comes about. In the first parable the issue was: is anything happening? The only alternative in sight was nothing. Yet the answer was a firm "yes." But in this second parable, more than "yes" is implied. God's kingdom is taking over on a scope and scale that totally belies appearances, out-racing them, as it were, in seven league boots.
The mustard seed seems a nothing. But what it turns into is relatively enormous. People gape at it; birds flock to it. The return on God's kingdom, if you will, is always lush, lavish, almost surfeiting. We've gone beyond a mysterious intimation that something is happening to an assertion that a whole lot is.
Here, too, as with the first parable, we learn something about Jesus, because parables always say as much about the person who tells them than about anything else. What we get here is a Jesus confident in the performance of his flawed followers. He can see things spewing from their performance--networking, multiplying, extrapolating, edifying, encouraging, embodying. And he attributes all of this to his Father--be-hind the scenes but evident to anyone with faith.
Those parables! They invite you in but they don't point you to any single conclusion. "There was this guy who walked into a camel shop," they begin; or, "One day this huge woman was screaming at her two-year-old..." You're bitten before you know it, but because these stories have to do with God there is a special drama to them. People start taking sides or slip away shaking their heads or simply cop out.
This makes Paul's words in today's epistle lection (2 Cor. 5:10) all the more poignant: that all truth about us will be brought out in the law court of Christ. Now we know that, for Paul especially, God's "law court" is often rigged in favor of sinners. Who can forget the finale of Romans 8, where the verdict on sins that God let pile up for centuries (from Adam to Moses to Christ) is an astonishing acquittal? Still, if we have faked our response to Christ's parables, that will come out. In this case, the only people who have anything to fear are those who kept doubting the process whereby God is bringing in the Kingdom.
The main point of Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed is not how big it becomes which is wonderful, but let God be in charge. Step back and let God make things happen, stand back and let God be God. The real underlying point is do not spend too much time trying to out guess God or figure God our just stand back and let things happen knowing God is in charge.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Jesus wasn't the only one to find in nature and animals illustrations for spiritual insights. This letter from someone working in a health clinic for the poor in Mexico is similarly eloquent: "In November the chanates flock to Guaymas. They are dark migratory birds that come to roost on the trees between us and the Bay of Guaymas. When disturbed by a passing train or the ferryboat's horn or the whistle from the nearby thermoelectric plant, they take flight, etching intricate patterns against the eastern sky with fantastic maneuvers in incredible unison. Then all of a sudden, they head west flying over the dispensary building. You can hear the swish of their wings as they fly overhead.
"I enjoy standing out in front of the dispensary under the tabachin tree, watching the chanates blacken the sky with their magnificent antics. It is a refreshing break from my work. The people who come to the dispensary are poor and sick. They arrive with wounds full of coffee grounds or covered with strange leaves of a local medicinal plant. They come with their burns smeared with lard, their bumps covered with toothpaste and their swollen joints wrapped with garlic cloves. Old men come leaning on makeshift canes complaining of a new pain they didn't have yesterday. Often as not, after they have seen the doctor and been handed their medicine, they ask their simple questions before leaving: Can I eat seafood? Can I eat chili? Can I eat pork? Can I shave? Can I enjoy my wife?'
"People! People! People! They come a hundred a day from near and far to roost on our dispensary benches like the chanates, waiting for that sudden moment when they will be able to fly again."
It seems clear that Jesus drew his parables from a quiet observation of things he saw around him, whether nature itself or the way people behaved, and the different fates people suffered. He carried all these things into prayer and prayer, in turn, influenced what he observed.
In our day, this cycle would be called meditation or focusing or contemplation or something equally “hi-fall-utin”. But it only works if there is a basic instinct or commitment present to see the secular and the sacred in relation to one another. This takes practice. It also takes time. That is why Christians must think in terms of spending some formal time in retreat or on a day of recollection or some similar parenthesis from our routines. These experiences help us process things
There's a thin line between "resting" in God's providence and simply simmering in our usual passive-aggressive way at the fact that matters have been taken out of our hands.
"Process" is the operative word in today's computer world. Since the micro-processor revolution began in the early 1970s, we've seen productivity increase by a factor of more than one million, compared to the 100 years of the industrial revolution (from mid-19th century to mid-20th century). In 1975, the year before Apple computers was founded, there were only 50,000 computers of any kind that had ever been built. Today, more than 50,000 computers will be sold in one day.
So much is processed today, from information to financial trans-actions, that we can be said to be a world "in process." (facts from John Sculley, when CEO of Apple Computer, Inc. in speech Feb. 2, 1989, in San Francisco to the Business in Education Conference).
This is a far cry from the process of growth in the parable: First the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. Or the miniscule mustard seed slowly growing into the greatest of all shrubs. But is it better processing? Modern technology has made many of us complacent, tempting us to a false reliance of human answers to life's problems. Life in the high-tech, rapid-processing lane can lead us down the road to unfulfillment--and even to tragedy.
Admiral Richard E. Byrd was experiencing information processing underload in the Antarctic winter of 1934, yet it is hard to believe that he was hallucinating when he wrote these beautiful words: "I took my daily walk at 4 p.m. today in 89-degree frost ... I paused to listen to the silence.... The day was dying, the night being born—but with peace. Here were imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos, harmonious and soundless. Harmony, that was it! That was what came out of the silence--a gentle rhythm, the strain of a perfect chord, the music of the spheres, perhaps.
"It was enough to catch that rhythm, momentarily to be myself a part of it. In that instant I could feel no doubt of man's oneness with the universe. The conviction that came that that rhythm was too orderly, too harmonious, too perfect to be a product of blind chance ... that, therefore, there must be purpose in the whole and that man was part of that whole process and not an accidental off-shoot. It was a feeling that transcended reason; that went to the heart of human despair and found it groundless. The universe was a cosmos, not a chaos; man was as rightly a part of that cosmos as were the day and night" (quoted in the book The Uses of Solitude, author unknown to editor).
"Drop Thy still dews of quietness
Till all our strivings cease"
The hymn writer's happy phrase suggests that strivings are not part of the process of living. If anything, they're an interference, a stoppage to the natural, spiritual flow of life.
In the Mary and Martha instance in the gospels, this point is made--work and chores are necessary to survive--they're part of the process-- but not at the expense of the spiritual process which is necessary for the soul. How wonderful to sit alone, with one's own life parts gathered together, and sense the whole of one's interior landscape's being invaded by a blanket of calm--by the still dews of quietness.
Process occurs when one is asleep. When faced with a problem to which there is no obvious answer, conventional wisdom recommends "sleeping on it," and conventional wisdom is right.
Most people have had the experience of being unable to make up their minds when faced with a difficult decision, and of going to bed with the decision still not taken. On waking in the morning, they often find that the solution has become so obvious that they cannot understand why they could not perceive it on the previous night. Scanning and reordering process has taken place during sleep, although the exact nature of the process remains a mystery. Africans say about proverbs: "If you have to explain them to some-one, then that person is a fool." Apply that to parables too, which are extended proverbs: They are understood by those not foolish ... or not sleepy.
Absolutely no one likes to be micromanaged. It’s frustrating, demoralizing, and demotivating. Yet, some managers can’t seem to help themselves. Dealing with a controlling boss who doesn’t trust you is tough, but what if you’re the one doing the micromanaging?
If you’re like most micromanagers, you probably don’t even know that you’re doing it. Yet the signs are clear: You’re never quite satisfied with deliverables. You often feel frustrated because you would’ve gone about the task differently. You laser in on the details and take great pride and /or pain in making corrections. You constantly want to know where all your team members are and what they’re working on. You ask for frequent updates on where things stand. You prefer to be cc’d on emails.
Let’s face it. Paying attention to details and making sure the work is getting done are important. So, it’s easy to chalk all of the above up to a necessary part of managing. But they aren’t necessary all the time. The problem with micromanagers is that they apply the same level of intensity, scrutiny and in-your-face approach to every task, whether warranted or not. The bottom line is: you need to stop. It’s harming your team’s morale and – ultimately – their productivity.
Take Steve (not his real name), a senior-level executive whom I coached. He got some feedback from his boss and employees that helped him realize that his propensity to micromanage had greater repercussions than he realized:
• “He has difficulty letting go and is always asking for the details. He needs to figure out when the small stuff is no longer worth his time, and at what point can he trust his people to get things done. Otherwise, he’s going to burn out his employees, and himself.”
• “He’s so much more talented than some of the tasks he performs. He’s down in the weeds and could be spending his time on higher-level strategic issues. He needs to determine what his priorities are organizationally, rather than having his hands in a lot of small details.”
• “He gets too involved and becomes the bottleneck.”
While micromanaging may get you short-term results, over time it negatively impacts your team, your organization, and yourself. You dilute your own productivity and you run out of capacity to get important things done. You stunt your team members’ development and demoralize them. You create an organizational vulnerability when your team isn’t used to functioning without your presence and heavy involvement.
We need to let it go. The difference between managing and micromanaging is the focus on the “micro.” At the core of moving away from micromanaging is letting go of the minutia. This can be hard, but the key is to do it a little at a time. Start by looking at your to-do list to determine what low hanging fruit you can pass on to a team member. Engage in explicit discussions with your direct reports about what level of detail you will engage in and where they will need to pull you in. You should also highlight the priorities on your list — the big-ticket items where you truly add value — and make sure that is where you are spending most of your energy.
Just as no one wants to be micromanaged, no one wants to be the much-abhorred micromanager. But with a commitment to focus on the big picture and on motivating your employees, you can redirect your efforts to be the most effective manager you can be. (https://hbr.org/2014/11/signs-that-youre-a-micromanager) So how foolish are we thinking that we can understand every detail of how God works. Can we micromanage God?
A few years ago, I heard Jon Acuff speak at Atlanta. He shared with us how we can stop getting lost in the process. They’re simple ways, really. They’re right in front of us. They’re easy to recognize. And we reject these ideas.
Remember who you are: We’re flesh and blood. We’re frail and weak. We’re also more than that. We’re created in the image of a loving God. We’ve been given authority by the one who created us. We are builders. We are dreamers. We are makers. We are doers. But we are not what we build. We are not what we dream. We are not what we do. Remember who God is: God is awesome. He is powerful. He is creative. He is loving. God is a multitude of things. And He’s longing for you. But he’s not a reflection of who you are. He’s not limited by what you can do on your own. He’s not chained to rules and regulations. He’s not passive. God is good and He’s cheering you on. To stop losing yourself in the process of growth, remember those two things. You won’t get lost when you remember who you are and who your God is. (http://www.jmlalonde.com/stop-getting-lost-in-the-process/) You can almost hear Jesus saying I told you so quietly in the background. Jesus is just saying step back and let God stay in charge.
As an adult I’d rather get a cavity filled than go to Chuck E. Cheese’s, but as a kid I enjoyed running around the ball pit, eating ridiculous amounts of pizza and celebrating birthdays with friends. Sure, I could have done without the singing stuffed animals, but the unlimited pizza, cake and soda made up for it.
I remember walking to the soda machine to refill my cup during a friend’s party while we waited for her mom to cut the cake. A few of the girls in our group followed me, ready to give their bloodstream another hit of sugar, too.
“Let’s make suicide sodas!” someone suggested.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, looking back at her like she was crazy.
“You know, when you fill your cup with a little bit of each of the drinks in the machine,” she explained.
All peer pressure aside, the idea of suicide soda intrigued me, so I decided to give it try. From my first sip I knew suicide soda was going to be the drink of choice for the rest of our elementary school parties. After all, why have one soda when you can have them all? Excess is best, right?
For much of my life, I filled my cup with as much as it could possibly hold. Like the little girl standing in line at Chuck E. Cheese’s, I craved control over the things that made up my life’s unique flavor. I held my cup tightly to make sure that whatever I wanted got in and whatever I didn’t want stayed out. And I said yes to whatever came my way because if I said yes, that meant more control over something.
But things have a way of catching up to us, and after trying to add and control so many things, my cup became so full that it slipped right out of my hands. Suddenly I lost control. All I could do was watch as the soda spilled all over me, drenching me in an unrecognizable, foul tang.
Everything was out of my hands.
After years of filling my cup with more, more, more and trying to control the matters of my life, I had to learn how to stop and let go.
Soda is addicting. Science has proven this. The sugar, the caffeine buzz, the carbonation – it tastes and feels so good. Who wouldn’t love it? The problem with addictions, however, is that if left unchecked, they can eventually kill you.
While I’ve never been addicted to soda, I used to be addicted to control. The satisfaction of having a say over how something turned out was sweeter to me than a Coca Cola sugar buzz. Or at least, that was until God stepped in.
Trusting in God is a lifelong process. Like many aspects to the Christian faith, it’s a choice that we make every day. We need to remind ourselves that God holds the world in His hands — but we’ll never fully grasp the power and extent of those hands if we’re not tuned in to and focused on Him. When we surrender control, wait and trust in God’s plan, we can know that he will be faithful to lead us where He wants us to go. (https://www.ibelieve.com/faith/5-ways-to-surrender-control-and-let-god-handle-your-life.html)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
(Based on Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15)
Leader: It is wonderful to be grateful and to sing Your praises, Lord Most High!
People: It is wonderful each morning to tell about Your love and at night to announce how faithful You are.
Leader: I enjoy praising Your name to the music of harps, because everything You do
makes me happy, and I sing joyful songs.
People: Good people will prosper like palm trees, and they will grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon.
Leader: They will take root in Your house, Lord God, and they will do well. They will be like trees that stay healthy and fruitful, even when they are old.
People: And they will say about You, “The Lord always does right! God is our mighty rock.”
O God, we confess that we have a very, very hard time leaving things just in Your hands. O mighty and unfathomable God we admit we often want to tweak the way You do things in our lives and the lives of others. God, we admit that we can hardly keep our hands and minds off the many ways You do things in our lives. We keep thinking again and again, that You need to do this one thing to make it all better. O God we confess that we want to get into all the details of the way You have run our universe. We confess that we think we can totally understand it all in the name of science. But we must confess that we often do not just seem to be able to appreciate Your wonderful love we see around us. O God stop us from trying to micromanage Your world and each other, we pray for this in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Take these gifts and use them Dear God, in ways that we hope will help Your vision for our world. We pray in Jesus name. Amen.
Dear God, sometimes we have a hard time just enjoying what we have. We have a hard time just seeing the wonder of our lives. O God, we come this morning to ask You to give us the ability to be humble. We ask for the humility to sit back and let You grow our world closer together. We ask for the humility to not think that we always need to be in charge. We ask that we learn to follow You, Dear God, in every moment of our lives. We ask for the ability to follow You, so we can enjoy each moment and soak up the love we have. We pray for this in the name of love, Jesus Christ. Amen.