Sermon, 6/13/21: What Metric would you use to mark Success?

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3 Pentecost
Psalm 20; I Samuel 15:34–16:13; II Corinthians 5:6–10, 14–17; Mark 4:26–34

When it is sown, it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs. Mark 4:32

Guilty as charged! Being a mere mortal, I am controlled by an inner urge to showcase my success. When the now ubiquitous smartphone was introduced onto the market, I did not rush to camp overnight in a sleeping bag outside the store in order to be one of the first to acquire the latest advancement in technology. I never believed I was important enough that I needed to be reached 24/7. In fact, I did not purchase a mobile telephone until my daughters threatened either to disown me or to bring me before children’s court because of the stress that I was causing them. Problem solved: they presented me with a simple flip phone as a Christmas present. Their rational was convincing. My task was to remember to turn it on, whenever I traveled to visit them at their respective schools. That was the year 1995, now ages ago!

I did not need a pager or a similar device in order, when it rang, buzzed, or beeped, I could signal to those around me that I had to dash off to a meeting that required my presence. I smiled when I observed fellow air passengers, holding those gadgets to their ears, as they emerged through the exit door. I smiled because I still owned my solitude. Nor have I ever felt moved to replace a perfectly serviceable automobile with the latest model, one with more chrome or more fun gadgets, or a television screen for the rear-seated passenger. I could never imagine driving my vehicle from the rear seat, and moreover, my attention should have been focused on the road. Or so I thought! Likewise, I refused to be convinced by the salesman at the local home improvement store, that my standing in the neighborhood would be enhanced, should my neighbors see me speeding at 1 MPH across my half acre of land, instead of walking behind a self-propelled mower.

But, ah! Guilty as charged. I had other ways, in which to display my success. I could project a humble smile when a friend or colleague, often the same individual, would ask whereto in Europe my travels would take me in the summer, or how I came to be appointed to boards of advisors for government-funded programs for domestic and international scholars. I did not shy away from announcing when, at government’s expense, I had to make scheduled trips to Washington, D.C. And did I not beam with pride when a visitor to my home would see walls lined, from floor to ceiling, with books, many of which I had indeed read, but many more whose spine had not been stretched since the day that I purchased them? But still, in my mind and in my world, they radiated success.

We have perhaps forgotten how governments in the Western World competed with each other to be the first to produce a vaccine against HIV/AIDS. I remember not only because I lost friends and colleagues to that pandemic. That competition is also still vivid in my mind because it placed one of the researchers, whom I came to know, in a quandary. A dedicated, highly talented, and knowledgeable scientist, faced with a serious family health crisis, had to decide at a critical moment whether to postpone an appearance at an international conference and on national TV that would enhance personal success and garner possible nominations for a Nobel Prize, or to attend to the issue before the immediate family. By what metric was success to be marked?

(I rush to lay to rest any thought that you may have that I am opposed to scientific investigation; on the contrary. I repeat what I have voiced constantly during our current pandemic: We cannot, in my mind, heap sufficient praise on the women and men who work continuously to find in our time vaccines that would protect us against an unforgiving, equal opportunity virus.)

Perhaps not surprising to you, I find in Holy Scripture some suggestion to my bewilderment and my own inclination to display my own success. Our Book of Records, the Bible, offers an introductory level course–Success 101: To Investigate Success, Ask Three Questions:
1. Who initiates a call for an investigation of a problem, and provides resources for a solution?
2. Who is responsible for carrying out the task and what are the qualifying requirements for directing the task, i.e. is this a one-person investigation or does it demand a team effort?
3. What are the benefits derived and who are the beneficiaries?

These three questions are held in common in the story of Samuel, as God’s prophet assigned to anoint a new king over the Kingdom of Israel, after the failure of King Saul, and the parable of the mustard seed, which Jesus offered to his followers. Both point to the essentials of achieving and recognizing success. I shall look at Samuel and the parable of the mustard seed. However, first I make two diversions, because the issue before Samuel and who provides the mustard seed are not new.

Diversion One: That the biblical Hebrews should overlook the centrality of God in their success was nothing new. After their liberation from servitude in Egypt, God established judges who would explain the Commandments of Moses. During the administration of the Judges (Judges 7), when Israel had to go into battle with Midianites, God chose Gideon to lead their army. The problem was [that] Gideon had an army of 32,000 men. The Hebrews had to be made to focus on question “1” of the essentials of success, namely: who initiates or establishes a course of action for a successful outcome? A troop reduction had to take place, “lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying ‘My own hand has delivered me.’” (Judges 7:2) Thirty-two thousand troops became 10,000 who, in the end, were reduced to an army of 300 men. With that greatly reduced troop, Gideon was successful. The Hebrew were brought to see the hand of God, not their own strength, at work in saving them again from slavery.

Diversion Two addresses the second and third points for determining the essentials needed in success. I offer you from a children’s storybook, without an intention to insult your intelligence, a form of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand men plus women and children. It is the European folktale “Stone Soup,” which I do not repeat in its entirety. When two strangers arrive in a village, no one offered them hospitality. However, through a bit of wit and humor, the entire village is introduced ultimately to a meal, the likes of which they had never before partaken. While not announcing that they, the two strangers, were going to instruct the villagers of the value of sharing, a lesson was taught and learned.

And so, I return to the examples with Samuel’s story and the parable of the mustard seed. While reading this week these biblical accounts, a related thought emerged. Cleary in the Samuel account, the people would have been perfectly happy to have had someone in leadership whom they knew, who had a history of allowing them to continue their lives under the old normal. But for what lay ahead, God asked them to consider someone different. And that was so, because different times and different challenges required a fresh set of eyes and new ideas, a leader who challenged the Hebrew to look forward, towards the future, who respected but still challenged the traditions of old.

Further, what I saw, and see, are two stories about a vision for mission, so desperately needed, as we resume our mission as a beacon of hope in Somerville. Together, these two stories are a powerful reminder of the ways that God works among us and through us. As I look around me and am often overwhelmed, in a positive way, by the world in which we live, I discern a God at work who did not create once and walked away, saying it is done. Good, yes; but finished, no! Let us not forget the charge that was placed on Adam and Eve, which would not have been placed had everything been complete. Rather, if we but look, we discern a God who sows daily the seed of new life. Jesus’ entire ministry was a challenge to the old way of thinking. And we, you and I, the farmers and caretakers of creation, often overlook that this is happening still. But I also believe that the God of Creation has a way of helping us to refocus on what is important, and how we are to achieve success.

On the surface, the parable of the mustard seed does not appear to address directly the needs of a village. Yet, it does, for a seemingly small, insignificant seed takes root, thrives and provide shelter for creatures of earth. It is Stone Soup in biblical guise, announcing an invaluable, life-reassuring and -reaffirming truth. Our Creator God provides the moisture for growth, a needed rain that falls while even as we, the farmer sleep, and while we sleep, what is planted continues to grow. God’s reign over all creation will surely come even without our praying for it. But we pray that it may also come for us.

We are the farmers and caretakers of earth who were not present when the seed of the church was planted. We are branches of the universal church that has been pruned, and trimmed, and fertilized, that will continue to grow if we but tend our gardens and prune and water, and should we but be diligent, we become in our own time that mustard seed.

We pray that God’s Spirit will continue to give each of us energy and eagerness to tell the story of God’s providence and grace in our lives. God reigns, to use an almost outdated phrase, because of the care that God has for that which God created. We pray also, that we may come to understand and to accept as essential to the success of building community, the belief that God offers again and again opportunity for participation in mission, which is none other than to further creation. As individuals and as a congregation, we thank God for the blessings of life, by inviting all whom we meet to share in this same grace. Amen.