Imagine ... Greater Things

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached May 22, 2010 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Genesis 11:1-9: "... let us make a name for ourselves"
John 14:8-20: "the one who believes in me will ... do greater works than these"
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Our first song is a hymn and, compared with other songs in the hymnal, it's a relatively new song. "In the Bulb There is a Flower" was written by Natalie Sleeth in response to her daughter's lament that church songs were "soooo boring." She wrote other hymns including "Go Now in Peace."

She wrote this song as she reflected on the contrasts of life and death, spring and winter. Judee Archer Green writes that "Sleeth planted a tulip bulb to watch it become a flower. The pairing of the words bulb and flower, song and silence, end and beginning points to continuity in the midst of seeming discontinuity.

"This hymn was first sung in 1985 as part of a choir festival concert but has since become a congregational song. In the midst of the January blahs or the dry, dreary times in our lives, this hymn reminds us of God's promise of new life and 'at the last, a victory.'"

Feel free to sing with me as we go along.

In the bulb there is a flower, in the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons, a hidden promise, butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there's a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Have you "backrubbed" today? I have - in fact, I "backrub" nearly every single day. It's both fun and educational. I learn a lot when I "backrub" - things I never knew before! I have been known to "backrub" friends, family, enemies, even strangers. I have even "backrubbed" famous people - names you would know! Occasionally, I "backrub" alone but I'll do it even in a crowd. I have "backrubbed" in the airport. I have "backrubbed" at the office. I have "backrubbed" in hotels. I have "backrubbed" in coffee shops. I have "backrubbed" in the privacy of my own home.

If you're honest, you too have "backrubbed." Many of you did it this morning. Many of you will go home and do it - especially after this sermon. Many of you will "backrub" one another, or "backrub" this church, or "backrub" someone you're interested in, or even "backrub" something you're not interested in at all.

What does it mean to "backrub"? Well, back in 1996, that was the name of something we all do now without even thinking about it. "Backrub" was the original name for the search engine "Google." The name was probably a reference to the underlying algorithm which counts back-links as affirmative votes. That's what makes a page popular in searches and it's the same approach that Google now calls "PageRank".

These days we use the word "Google" in all those sentences I used - we "Google" our friends, families, strangers, ourselves. We "Google" anywhere we can reach the Internet - airports, coffee shops, hotels. Employers regularly "Google" job applicants to check them out. Sometimes it's even better than a criminal background check at uncovering things you may not want your employer - or future employer to know.

"Google" has become such a common thing in our world, we don't even think about it anymore. Google offers us everything from a search engine, to a Web browser, to email, to online books, to maps, news, and even a bird's eye view of Earth.

But, Google wasn't always this big. Google had very humble beginnings - it was just an idea between two guys - Larry Page and Sergey Brin - at Stanford University. They were frustrated with the early versions of search engines on the Web and all the unrelated pages that would come up in searches. They set out to make the world's best search engine - they imagined ... greater things - and now they're a company that makes more than $5 billion (with a B) in profits.

The company started in a friend's basement in Menlo Park, California, before moving to Palo Alto. In 1997, they decided the search engine needed a new name. Google's history page said the name is "a play on the word 'googol,' a mathematical term for the number represented by the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros. The use of the term reflects their mission to organize a seemingly infinite amount of information on the web."

So, thankfully, now we're talking about "Googling" each other instead of "backrubbing" each other. Aren't you glad? I know I am.

The Google story is reminiscent of early stories of other companies that started small, in garages, like Microsoft and Apple. From these small beginnings, huge things have grown because they all could imagine ... greater things. Like tiny apple seeds that can produce an entire orchard of trees, like a bulb that becomes a beautiful flower or the hidden promise of a cocoon - from small things, big things one day come.

There's a song in every silence, seeking word and melody;
There's a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future, what it holds, a mystery,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

As we have recently learned, however, in our "too big to fail" economic woes, bigger is not always better. Those who decided to build the tower of Babel found this out - that the idea of being "too big to fail" is a deeply flawed idea. This story is actually a piece of political satire written by the ancient Hebrews to mock their Babylonian captors who dreamed of being so big that they could unite all the people of the world and storm heaven.

They said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."

"Let us make a name for ourselves" ... the motivation here is fame, fortune, and ultimately power over not just all the earth, but heaven too. This is the danger when we imagine ... greater things, but only for greater personal gain. Yahweh sees all this nonsense - Yahweh, the very breath of the life of these arrogant people - takes a look at this new building project and realizes these folks have failed to get a permit - and there's a penalty for that.

And the Lord said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

Traditionally, this passage has been read to mean that God actually feared people - that God was afraid the people would, indeed, storm heaven and take over, so God had to punish them and put them back in their place. Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes that:

"This diversity was not so much a punishment as a consequence of and a cure for their disease: Try to unify all humankind into a single empire, talking the same language so as to storm Heaven -- and the almost inevitable consequence, as well as the cure for this disease of arrogance, is that the top-heavy empire will dissolve into many, many peoples, grass-roots communities of many tongues and cultures."

So, it's not so much that Yahweh fears us as much as Yahweh knows us. If we ever got to the point of speaking one language and uniting into some One World Order, Yahweh knows that we'll be overcome by our arrogance - we'll be overcome by our lust for ultimate power - and we'll take to killing each other instead of being united as one.

Thousands of years later, a British man named Douglas Adams, affirmed this view in his book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It details the story of Arthur Dent, an earthling, who is saved by his friend Ford Prefect, just as the Earth is demolished by the Vogons to make way for an intergalactic hyperspace bypass. Once he becomes a hitchhiker in this vast galaxy, however, he finds nobody really speaks English outside of the planet Earth. Ford fixes him up with a little creature called a "Babel fish" that, once inserted in your ear, will help you to understand any language you hear. The Hitchhiker's Guide notes that "the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything in the history of creation."

Of course, even in our small, confused bands, we continue to kill one another for our differences, because as humans, we simply have a penchant toward destruction instead of creation. But God knows - and is trying to teach us - that our true strength lies not in our similarities, or even in our unity, but in our differences.

It is through our differences that we challenge one another to grow, to change, to be vulnerable, and to ultimately seek to make the world a better place - not just for ourselves, but for everyone around us.

Breathe deeply.

In our end is our beginning, in our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing, in our life, eternity,
In our death, a resurrection at the last, a victory,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Put a Little Love in Your Heart was a hit for Jackie DeShannon back in 1968. She wrote it with her brother Randy Myers and Jimmy Holiday. The song did not do as well as her other hit What the World Needs Now is Love but it's been covered by a lot of other performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Annie Lennox, Al Green, and even Leonard Nimoy - Mr. Spock from Star Trek! And now, the Jubilee! Circle version:

Think of your fellow man, Lend him a helping hand
Put a little love in your heart, You see it's getting late,
Oh please don't hesitate, Put a little love in your heart
And the world will be a better place
And the world will be a better place
For you and me, You just wait and see

In our Jesus story today, we find our guy in the middle of what theologians called "The Farewell Discourses." He's talking to his disciples before his crucifixion, trying his best to leave some final words of wisdom for them to follow.

The disciples are worried by this kind of talk. How will they get by without him? Here they are with Jesus, this man who had sparked their imagination and had them already imagining ... greater things. They had seen this guy do miracles. He had shown them the power of God in the world - he had shown them what a difference a very small group of people could make in this world, and they were anticipating this greatness - they were ready to break on through and be rock stars in their world.

What the disciples missed, however, was Jesus' clear warning that what the world considered great was not what he considered great. When he promised that the Holy Spirit would come to guide them after he was gone he was clear that the world would not be able to receive this spirit, because it doesn't understand it.

This is the Spirit that does not seek worldly recognition. It does not seek fame, fortune, or to make a name for itself. It is content to remain small, while still imagining ... and doing ... greater things.

Jesus tells them that those who believe in him - who receive this indwelling Spirit - will do "greater works" - greater things - than he did in this world. How is that possible? Have any of you walked on water lately? Healed any blind people with just a little dirt and spit? Anyone arisen from the dead lately? How in the world are we to do greater things than that?

Author and pastor Tony Campolo writes about an evening he spent in Haiti where he was approached by three girls, who were no more than 15 years old, who promised to give him a good time ... all night long ... if he knew what they meant. Campolo knew what they meant and asked if he could have all three of them all night for $10 apiece. They agreed.

When the girls arrived at his hotel room, what awaited them was not what they thought. Instead Campolo had ordered Disney videos and ice cream sundaes. He writes, "we sat at the edge of the bed and we watched the videos and laughed until about one in the morning. That's when the last of them fell asleep across the bed. And as I saw those little girls stretched out asleep on the bed, I thought to myself, nothing's changed, nothing's changed. Tomorrow they will be back on the streets selling their little bodies to dirty, filthy johns because there will always be dirty, filthy johns who for a few dollars will destroy little girls. Nothing's changed. […] but the word of the spirit said this: but for one night, for one night you let them be little girls again."

Campolo knows that doesn't really compare with walking on water, but he notes:

"If Jesus was to make a decision which is the greater work, walking on water or giving one night of childhood back to 3 little girls who had it robbed from them -- giving one night of joy to 3 little girls that armies had marched over -- which do you think Jesus would consider the greater work, walking on water or ministering to those 3 little girls?"

This is what Campolo knows that we need to learn - every miracle Jesus performed was not done to make a name for himself. It was not done for fame or fortune or to storm heaven in some manner of coup. No, Jesus' motivation, in every action of his life, was love - and love performs miracles.

Breathe deeply.

Another day goes by, And still the children cry
Put a little love in your heart, If you want the world to know
We won't let hatred grow, Put a little love in your heart
And the world will be a better place
And the world will be a better place
For you and me, You just wait and see

As I said before, Yahweh knows us well - God knows our selfish impulses - our self-serving ways, and our lust for power and wealth. We can't do this love thing on our own. No, we need help - and we get that through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that puts a little love in our hearts - the love that can imagine ... greater things, and make the world a better place.

As Campolo writes: "Now if thousands and thousands of people go out tomorrow morning and each of them performs one act of love in Jesus' name, then it can be said -- you can hear Jesus uttering these words -- "The work that I do you are doing and you’re doing it greater than I did it because thousands are greater than one. I could only love one person face to face at the time. But there are thousands, yea, millions of you now and each of you at any given moment can love someone intimately and powerfully."

So, it's not that big is bad - it's the motivation behind our need for being big that can be suspect. What is our goal? Is it to love others, to help others, or is it personal gain, personal wealth or ultimate power? At the tower of Babel, the goal was not love, but power. The tower paid homage to human greed and selfishness - and Yahweh destroyed it - saving us from ourselves.

If you look around right now, you'll notice that Jubilee! Circle is small - very small. We don't have worldly power. We don't have wealth. We don't even have our own building. What we do have, however, is a power greater than any earthly power.

We have the Holy Spirit that puts a little love in our heart - and that means we have the opportunity - the possibility - to imagine ... greater things - and actually make the world a better place. Not just a world a little bit better - but a whole new world - totally different from this one.

Peter Block, in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging insists that "The small group is the unit of transformation." That's because in the small group, every voice is heard, every voice is valued.

In this small group we're invited to be accountable to one another, to take ownership of this small group, to listen to one another, and to challenge one another to grow

in our love and commitment to imagining ... greater things.

This is the weekend that the Christian church celebrates something called Pentecost. On this day, it's said, the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and all those gathered with them. Acts 2:4 tells us that the events of the tower of Babel were reversed, even if just for a moment - because everyone there who spoke different languages were able to understand one another. It was a unifying event, but unlike the tower of Babel, their unity was not about power or greed - but about love, and their mission was to spread that love, to Jew and Gentile alike. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they were able to imagine ... greater things.

What are you imagining? What do you hope for? Are you hoping for personal wealth, personal gain, a little more power over the people and situations in your life? I invite you this morning to examine your motivations, and imagine ... greater things done not with the motivation of personal gain, but motivated by the Holy Spirit of love that seeks gain not just personal gain, but gain for the whole world.

Can we imagine ... greater things that benefit others, that benefit our world, and ultimately will benefit us in ways we cannot imagine? Can we imagine, even as a small group of people, really being a unit of transformation in this hurting and dying world?

Where will we get our motivation to live in this way? From our human nature that seeks unity for ultimate power, or from the Spirit that gives us our very life - the very breath of our bodies?

Rabbi Waskow proposes this answer: "Instead of storming Heaven with a surfeit of carbon dioxide, instead of jamming our oil-rigs, our subterranean Towers, deep into the raped and wounded body of our earth, we will have to live by the power of the Wind. The power of the unpronounceable, only breathable, Name: YHWH, "ruach ha'olam," Wind/ Breath/Spirit of the world."

Breathe deeply. This is where your power truly lies.

Take a good look around, And if you're lookin' down
Put a little love in your heart, I hope when you decide
Kindness will be your guide, Put a little love in your heart
And the world will be a better place
And the world will be a better place
For you and me, You just wait and see
Put a little love in your heart

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright © by the author All Rights Reserved

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Endorsed by such religious leaders as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop John Shelby Spong and named one of the Best Spiritual Books of 2008, Whosoever founder Candace Chellew-Hodge's first book Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians is making an impact in the lives of LGBT Christians.

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