We love movies, books, and social media posts depicting someone building something big, when they started with small and modest beginnings. These are the stories we watch over and over again when they show up on the TV guide. We know how the story will end and yet we will watch it over and over.
The Pursuit of Happiness, a movie released in 2006 staring the Fresh Prince, Will Smith, depicting a single father, Chris Gardner, who moves from eviction and homelessness to the boardroom. Chris Gardner landed a prestigious internship in a San Francisco based brokerage firm which would eventually lead him to a full-time job in the firm, and elevating him and his son off the streets. We love these kinds of stories.
Last month, a story was featured on USA Today Facebook page highlighted the Abdullahi family. Jamal, the patriarch of the family, came to the United States from Ethiopia as a refugee in 1983. He worked as a high school janitor while completing his high school equivalency, next finishing an associates degree, and ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology. When he realized he would be better equipped to care for his family as a high school janitor he stayed. And for many of us, that is enough to move us to tears, compelling us to share, ‘like’, or tweet. But there is more to the story, in his modest beginnings, his daughters rose. Both of his daughters graduated at the top of their classes, valedictorians. From modest refugee beginnings to the top of the class, stories like the Abdullahi family are ones that move, compels, and change the way we see the world.
We share these stories with friends over coffee, “you’ll never believe what I just read about!” Stories with modest beginnings inspire us to believe, convincing us that we can go and do anything.
We believe that we can be anything in this world. Stories and experiences from modest beginnings move us more than stories of success built upon prior success or wealth. We know success and wealth can create more success and wealth, but modest beginnings make us believe that our modest lives are capable of at the least, changing our world, or at best changing the world. With the outlook that anything is possible we believe everything that we seek to build will be built.
The parables of the mustard seed and yeast show us just how this works. Creating, building great things while beginning with a modest start. These parables challenge us to “see the significance of the insignificant.” Jesus clearly points out that not only is the Kingdom of God a reality in Him, but that it is coming from a modest beginning. There will not be a large army. There will not be a glorious battle. There will not be a new royal families. Jesus’ ministry was not a big endeavor in the way we think of ministry today. He had twelve interns that he was teaching along the way and himself. Jesus’ operated outside the grandeur of the temple.
Jesus and his disciples were a low-budget operation.
The ministry Jesus was doing was not even seen as a true threat to the Roman Empire. He was crucified because he posed a threat to the grandeur of the temple through his modest ministry. In other words, Jesus did not have a large staff, put on over-the-top attempts at outreach, or work within the hollowed walls of institutional structure, and yet, big things happened. The Kingdom of God began to take shape.
Jesus’ modest beginning led to big things happening. Just as a mustard seed, the smallest of the seeds, grows into a large bush and yeast added to three measures of flour, or 50 pounds, can produce over 100 loaves of bread, so too is the Kingdom of God. There was no big event that caused Zaccheus to come down from his perch in a tree. When a few friends were compelled to lower a friend through a roof, it was not because of an over the top event, their over the top actions were possible because they had seen a glimpse of how Jesus’ ministry was changing the world through those he ministered to.
Once we realize the power of modest beginnings, both in the professional world and in ministry, we move with a sense of urgency. The difference between building professional success and building the Kingdom of God is that when we discover the possibilities of the Kingdom and we begin to move, God in Christ moves alongside us. Our lectionary text from a few weeks ago reminded us of this. Yoked with Jesus the burdens of life are less of a burden and more of an opportunity to serve in the Kingdom building work of Jesus.
Our discovery and urgency leads us then to move joyfully. In a world where power is everything, and it is just as important to gain more power as it is to keep the power you already have, joyfully building the Kingdom of God from modest beginnings is counterintuitive to the ways Rome has taught us.
Building the Kingdom of God this way, with little power, goes against everything we are taught. This is why we create ministries within the church that do not model Jesus’ modest beginnings. We live in a “go big or go home” culture and because we see the big results of God’s work we believe we need big events, big ministries to achieve the same outcome.
Look at the kingdom building work we do on trips like our high school trip to Garret County leaving today, our trip to Haiti, the Jeremiah Project or even community assistance. Planning has gone into every part of these activities. From logistics like food and chaperones to projects and transportation. All of these things are critical in the pulling off a mission event and yet, often, the kingdom building work on these trips occurs outside of the detailed planning we worked so hard on. We forget that the kingdom building during these events happens when we put down the paint brush or hammer and talk for an hour or two to Mrs. Smith, the homeowner we are serving. While this might drive the adult site leader nuts, these are the modest acts where we are able to joyfully encounter the living Christ in a stranger, and in these moments, is when the Kingdom of God gets a little bigger.
It is in these moments that we have to be ‘uncompromisingly patient’ as we are partnered with Christ in this kingdom work. What to us my seem like a waste of time, laziness, or lack of skill is God using us as the branches of the kingdom extend further into the world.
In the parables of the hidden treasure and pearl of great value it would seem counterintuitive for anyone, let alone a farmer or a merchant to sell it all just to purchase one thing – but in these stories the emphasis is less on the task of selling everything and more on the willingness and joy with which the transactions are carried out.
God’s Kingdom is a counterintuitive, counter-cultural kingdom. After urgently searching for and then beginning to build it, the response is not one of dread or burden. Our response is one of joy. Joy is the engine of change. Neither the farmer nor the merchant see themselves as losing anything. Instead, they see themselves as gaining everything.
Selling all of our possessions is a condition of the Kingdom of God because our possessions, and the value we place on them, is an idol that distracts us and prevents us from being fully engaged in the ministry of Jesus. It is the cost of discipleship, but yet from this parable we see that selling all of our possessions, liquidating our idols, does not have to be a burden. Selling is not a requirement in searching for the Kingdom of God, it is instead a joyful, a joy-filled response, our natural reaction, when we realize the shelter we can find in in the branches grown from modest beginnings. Selling all we have when we realize the sustenance available to us in Christ is the beginning of the new life we have when we urgently join Jesus’ kingdom building enterprise. The selling all of our possessions as a result the joy we find in the Kingdom of God is how we abandon our former lives to follow Jesus.
Once we sell all of our possessions, we begin to live disciplined lives as we grow in Christ, just as the disciples did. Jesus tells them pointblank, that evil will be separated from the righteous, “at the end of the present age”. Jesus is speaking in terms of life and death yes, but also in terms of new life. The new life we find in Christ when we die to ourselves through the waters of baptism.
Stanley Hauerwas put it this way, “Our response is constitutive of the kingdom that Jesus has brought. There is a joy that the kingdom produces. It is a quiet different joy than those who live on rocky ground (referencing our scripture reading a few weeks ago) and as a result too quickly receive the seed of the kingdom.”
There is a seriousness with which Jesus speaks about discipleship, and allegiance to the Kingdom of God, a kingdom remember, that is being ushered in by a poor first-century Jew and a few of his friends. The seriousness with which Jesus speaks is an offer of protection to us from the self-righteous posturing we do when we try to convince ourselves that Jesus didn’t literally mean for us sell everything. We justify to ourselves that Jesus was talking more about those people and less about me.
The joy-filled, faithful, and disciplined lives we live are a response to the modest yet powerful ministry of Jesus. We are invited to participate in the Kingdom building Jesus began over 2000 years ago.
We all love a success story that begins from modest means. In the modesty of Jesus’ power and ministry, we discover the reality of the Gospel and who Jesus really is. Our natural reaction to this discovery is to go out joyfully being faithful disciples, selling all we have not out of a nagging obligation but instead compelled to do so because we have experienced grace that is only available to us in the same kingdom we joyfully participate in.
Artwork used with permission of James Janknegt. James lives in Elgin, Texas where he runs an ArtFarm. There he grows artists, fruits, vegetables, chickens, goat, guinea hens, peacocks, and ducks. He also have two dogs. Find out more about James and his Lenten Meditations at http://www.bcartfarm.com/books_lent.html.
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Grace & Peace,