From Small Things, Mama, Big Things One Day Come

Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21

This morning’s song comes from our hymnal and, compared with other songs within these pages, 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. This is what an early page for Backrub looked like. 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. This is what the original Google page looked like back in the late ’90s. That’s a crude page given what we’re used to seeing nowadays. 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, and now they’re a company that last quarter posted 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. 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.

I had originally hoped to use a Bruce Springsteen song for today’s song. The title of the song, “From Small Things, Mama, Big Things One Day Come” captures the theme of the sermon perfectly. But the song, written in the early ’80s and recorded by Dave Edmunds, is like most Springsteen songs — about the despair of high school sweethearts morphing into the despair — and murder convictions — of middle-aged adults. So even though we aren’t using the song — the phrase still works. From Google, to Microsoft, to Apple, to apple orchards: from small things, Mama, 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.

Before Google, or even Bruce Springsteen, was a glimmer in someone’s eye — Jesus was all about teaching his disciples and those who came to hear him speak about how small things can be transformed into big things.

Today’s Gospel reading is a familiar one where he feeds 5,000 people with just a few loaves of bread and some fish. In fact, it’s one of the few stories about Jesus that makes it into all four Gospel accounts of his life. There are some parts that vary with each story, but overall story is the same. That tells us that this event was pivotal to Jesus’ followers and contains a message that is so important we still need to hear it today.

However, many churches and church people get sidetracked from the real message of this story because they get hung up arguing over whether or not a miracle really took place. Many people believe that miracle stories are literally true — that Jesus took these loaves and fishes and multiplied them so the crowd would be fed with much left over. Others believe that the miracle stories are more metaphor than fact — meant to point to a larger story outside of any literal sense.

What all the arguing misses however, is the real, raw power of this story. What this story really illustrates is Jesus’ power to take even our smallest gifts and infinitely multiply them. No matter how meager we think our talents or our gifts may be, in the hands of Jesus they grow tenfold, twentyfold, a million-fold into eternity, feeding all those who come in contact with us, with more than enough left over.

So often, we’re afraid to use the gifts God has given us. We look around at the gifts other people have and lament. “I can’t sing, so I can’t be in the choir.” “I can’t preach, so I’ll never be a minister.” “I can’t act, so I’ll never be in the drama team.” “I can’t do home repairs, so what’s the point of going on a mission trip?” “I don’t think I’m good at prayer, so I can’t be on the prayer team.” “I get nervous around kids, so I can’t serve on the children’s ministry.”

On and on it goes — we look at the gifts of others. We compare ourselves believe that we can’t measure up. We worry that we’re not good enough, or that we simply don’t have enough to give. The disciples had this worry. Philip was worried that even if they spent six month’s wages they still couldn’t feed the crowd. But, it’s not always money that Jesus needs to feed the world. That’s our hangup — we think we should measure success by how much money we have to spend or give away. Jesus knows better.

What Jesus tells us in this story is, “bring me what you have.” Jesus doesn’t want you to bring the gifts of others. Jesus only wants what you have — and “gift” doesn’t equal money. Jesus wants the gifts that you do have — perhaps it’s the gift of time, the gift of an understanding ear, the gift of a ride to church, the gift of a smile for a stranger, the gift of old clothes for those in need. These are gifts that Jesus can take and multiply to infinity — blessing not just us, but the multitudes. In the same way that God grows a small apple seed, or peach pit, into an entire orchard or grove of trees that produce even more fruit to feed the multitudes — so God can take our smallest gift of love, or time, or prayer, or generosity, and transform it into a gift that keeps on giving not just in our community, but in our state, our country, and around the world.

Our mission trip to South Dakota is a perfect example. A group of people will go to the Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, in September to help the indigenous people there with building projects and other things. Pine Ridge is the poorest Indian reservation in the United States. Almost half of its residents live below the poverty line and unemployment is around 80 percent.

The trip began with a seed of an idea that was lovingly tended until that seed spread in the good soil of this Garden of Grace. The idea took root in the hearts and minds of a group of people who found a way to raise the thousands of dollars they needed in just a few short months. They worked hard. They sweated and toiled and sold hot dogs and beer to hungry and thirsty people. They used their gifts to literally feed the hungry masses and at the same time, they, themselves were fed in fellowship and love. The result will be that even more people get fed and clothed and housed, thanks to their tireless efforts.

Their effort has not been without trial, temptations, and setbacks. They had problems along the way — but they never lost hope. There was a dawn within that darkness, and they never tired or lost sight of their goal. They knew — even if it wasn’t on a conscious level — this group knew that if they gave their small gifts to God — those gifts would be multiplied, the masses would be fed, and there would be more than enough left over. From that past toil will come a better future for the residents of the reservation in Pine Ridge.

How does our garden grow? One small gift — one small seed — at a time that will be revealed in its season.

From small things, mama, big things one day come.

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

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul offers this prayer:

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Just as Jesus filled those gathered with fish and bread, so we are filled with the fullness of God who is “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” What small gift do you have that you have not brought to God yet because you feel ashamed, or you feel that it is not enough? What are you holding onto that could be blessing to everyone in this church, and everyone in the world?

The message of this Gospel passage is this: Whatever you bring to God will be more than enough. There is no lack in God. There is nothing but abundance. There is more in God than you could ever ask or imagine. God stands ready, every minute of the day, to transform even the smallest act of kindness, or mercy, or generosity, into a gift that will feed the multitudes and result in baskets and baskets of left over blessings.

What Jesus is trying to teach us is to give up any idea of lack, any idea that we’re not good enough or that we have nothing to offer this world. We all have gifts. We all have something to offer to God — a gift to be blessed, broken and passed among the world.

This is not a feel-good message of wishful thinking — this is God’s promise to us that when we give we receive, when we come to God with our gifts, they will be multiplied and the blessings will overflow not just in our own lives, but in the lives of those around us and around the world — and “at the last, a victory”!

I can hear Jesus now, singing The Boss’ lyrics: “From small things, mama, big things one day come.”

Please join me in song:

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.