Too Small A Thing

We’re having our Annual Congregational Meeting today at North Church, so I don’t have a sermon to share.  But my wife, Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee, is preaching at First Presbyterian Church in Decatur, MI.  Here is her sermon on Isaiah 49:1-7.

In 1954 a 25 year old pastor, fresh from seminary, started serving his first congregation in Montgomery, AL. It would have been so easy for the church to eat up all his time. To teach him everything he didn’t learn in seminary. To rely on him to keep their doors open and their bills paid. But they knew that focusing on what was going on inside that church building was too small a thing for their pastor. They supported him as he took leadership in community organizations, and within his first year as their pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. involved with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and at 27 he helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This young pastor had such a tremendous influence beyond the scope of his own congregation that we honor him with a national holiday tomorrow. It was too small a thing for that church to demand their pastor’s energy be focused solely on them and their needs. They knew they were called, and he was called to something bigger—to be a part of God’s work of changing the world.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

When I was in college, I had the privilege of meeting a homeless man named Bill Smith. In the course of volunteer work I did, I heard stories from Bill about how frustrated he was by churches in the area around Charlotte, NC. Many of them would send vans downtown to the rescue mission each Sunday to pick people up and bring them to church, which seems like a really great ministry. The problem was that once they got to the church building, these homeless men and women were usually ushered into the back pew, where no one would see them, and they were treated like an evangelism project. The church members seemed intent on sharing Jesus with them, despite the fact that most of them were Christians, already. As Bill put it, “Most of them would not have survived this long if it weren’t for their deep faith in Jesus. Those churches should stand those men and women up front to tell their stories, not stick them in the back and treat them like outsiders.”

One day, during my junior year of college, an excited Bill Smith shared with me how one congregation in town had partnered with the rescue mission to give Bill a part time job counseling other homeless men and speaking as an advocate for the homeless in area churches. That congregation recognized they had an opportunity to experience God in new ways, through new eyes, and sticking those homeless brothers and sisters in the back pew and treating them as outsiders to convert—it was too small a thing. They needed to hear the stories and learn about God from people who were struggling in different ways than they were.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

A few years ago a congregation in Tulsa, OK took a big risk, and decided to give all of their undesignated plate offerings away to other organizations. Disaster response, relief work, humanitarian projects overseas—there were a number of groups they already gave to, and they would add more. They are a large congregation, and in 2003, those undesignated offerings amounted to about $20,000 that many church leaders worried they couldn’t spare. But they took the risk in faith, and in 2004, the congregation gave away $150,000 in plate offerings.

But the biggest surprise? Not only did the weekly offering increase dramatically, the money given specifically to the budget increased by 10%, too. The leaders of this church recognized that meeting their own institutional needs was too small a thing—they needed to give generously to the world. And when they took a leap of faith, they discovered that their whole congregation understood this, too. Funding their own programs was too small a thing. When they saw the opportunity to give toward a bigger purpose in the world, the congregation rose to the occasion and was more excited about supporting the institutional needs, too. They could see that the institution was serving a higher purpose.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

In our gospel text for this morning, we see John the Baptist after he has baptized Jesus, and what is he doing? He is redirecting his own disciples to Jesus. Here is a man with a meaningful ministry, drawing people from far off cities into retreats where they confess sin and get baptized in the Jordan as a sign of cleansing and a fresh start. But when John encounters Jesus and sees what he has to offer, he realizes that his own ministry is too small. He cannot offer what these followers really need. Jesus is the one who can really give them new life.

In traditional paintings of John the Baptist, he is always pointing his finger away from himself. It’s as if he is always in that posture of redirection—I am not the Christ. I am not the one you need. Look to Jesus. Follow him. That’s the way.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

This passage from Isaiah was written during a time when a large proportion of Israel was in exile in Babylon, and the nation was in ruins. The prophet spoke of a servant of God who would lead the nation back to Jerusalem and back to prosperity and health. But here, in these words of God spoken to the servant, we hear the heart of God. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.”

God’s dream for Israel was bigger than rebuilding the temple, or returning to Jerusalem from exile. God’s dream for Israel was that it might shine out as a beacon so that the whole world would see God’s love and justice and recognize that the God of Israel was on their side, too.

Some people describe the current situation of the Mainline Protestant church in North America as a kind of season of exile. Generations ago, the Protestant church stood at the center of American culture. Attending church, or at least sending your children to Sunday School, was practically a civic duty. Nearly everyone knew the Lord’s Prayer, and Amazing Grace, and Psalm 23.

That is no longer the case, is it? Sending kids to sports programs is a much higher parental duty in today’s culture than making sure they get to Sunday School. And most Americans have far more commercial jingles than hymns memorized. Church is not anyone’s default setting, anymore.

And we feel it, don’t we? We see Sunday School classes getting smaller and smaller, and budgets getting tighter and church staff growing fewer, with fewer hours to work with. Most churches I’ve encountered spend a lot of time worrying about these changes, which are for the most part completely out of our control. We cannot change the tide of our culture any more than those Israelites who were carried off to Babylon could wish themselves back to Jerusalem. We can grieve the losses. We can remember who we have always known God to be. And we can learn to look for God in our new situation.

But it is too small a thing to focus on our own survival. As numbers shrink and budgets tighten, it is so tempting to focus our energy on keeping what we still have. Keeping the building in repair. Keeping all the same staff, but cutting their hours and benefits. Keeping all the Sunday School classes, even though we only have one or two kids in each age group. Keeping the Presbyterian Women’s program on a weekday morning even though all the younger women in the church are at work, then.

It is too small a thing to try to preserve the church, or restore it to its former glory. We need to discover the new possibilities God has in store for us. It is too small a thing to worry about our programs and budgets, when there is a whole world out there, and God is in it!

So, how are you pointing away from yourself, and toward Christ? How is your congregation and its money serving a higher purpose in the world? How are you seizing the opportunity to discover God in new places and in new people? How are you supporting your pastor and your members to be agents of change in the world?

If these questions are intimidating, or challenging, or frightening, that’s okay. You don’t need the answers today. You need only a desire to listen again to the heart of God—the God who called you to this community in the first place and marked you as a beloved child. Because God has a dream for you and for this church, and it is not a small dream. It is a big dream.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

2 thoughts on “Too Small A Thing

  1. Gayle Sparks

    I read your wife Sarah’s sermon after seeing the post on Sara Dorrien’s facebook page. I am part of the Beyond Ourselves Group and was there yesterday and today sharing fellowship with your congregation as we prepared breakfast together. I love Sarah’s sermon and would like to share it with the Beyond Ourselves group members. Would it be possible for me to print it and share it with the group. Not all of us are on facebook. Would it be possible for you to email me a copy (with Sarah’s permission) to sparks1ga.@gmail.com. Thank you. I was not able to stay for your installation, but know that it must have been a wonderful event.

    Blessings, Gayle Sparks

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