1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34
God Sees the Potential 3rd Sunday after Pentecost – – – -June 13, 2021
Many of you know the name of Ben Carson, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Still more of you know that he had a career as an acclaimed brain surgeon. But I think that most of you don’t know that Ben was born to a woman who only completed 3rd grade. She married real young, and had two boys—Ben and his older brother. When they were still small, the father left the family. His mom did everything she could to make ends meet—and raise two boys. But there came a time when the boys’ grades were slipping out of control. At school, Ben was known as “the class dummy.” His mother, however, had the cure. She radically restricted the amount of television the boys could watch, and she required them to read two non-fiction books (of their choosing) every week. They had to write a report on each book, and read it to their mother. And, apparently, there was NO arguing with her!
When Ben was in the 5th grade, something happened that was totally unexpected. Let me tell it in his words:
I was still in 5th grade, gradually improving in some of my subjects, but still considered the dummy in the class. No one at school knew about my new reading program.
Then one day our fifth-grade science teacher walked into the classroom and held up a big, black, shiny rock. “Can anyone tell me what this is?” he asked.
I had never raised my hand in class. I had never volunteered an answer. So I waited for the smart kids to respond. None of them did. I waited for the slow kids to raise their hands. None of them did, so I figured this was my chance.
When I raised my hand, I think I shocked my teacher. Everyone in the room turned and looked at me. Classmates were poking each other and whispering, “Look, Carson’s got his hand up. This is gonna be good.”
The teacher finally overcame his surprise to say, “Benjamin?”
I said, “Mr. Jaeck…that’s obsidian.”
The entire classroom fell silent. My answer sounded good, but no one knew whether I was right or wrong. So they just waited.
Finally the teacher broke the silence and said, “That’s right! This is obsidian.”
I went on to explain, “Obsidian is formed after a volcanic eruption. Lava flows down, and when it hits water, there is a super-cooling process. The elements coalesce, air is forced out, the surface glazes over, and…” I suddenly realized my classmates were all staring at me, absolutely amazed at the words coming out of the mouth of the class “dummy.”
But do you know who was the most amazed of anyone? I was.
Ben went on to be a pediatric neurosurgeon. He is internationally famous for separating conjoined twins who were joined at the head—kids whose brains were also conjoined.
Who could have guessed what kind of person he was going to turn out to be?!
Our Scripture readings for today all address this issue: the hidden potential that only God sees. We read of Samuel, instructed by God to begin a search for the next King of Israel. He saw some mighty “kingly” men among the sons of Jesse, but God told him, “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” And we heard the Apostle Paul say, “We walk by faith, and not by sight.” And then we caught a couple of parables of Jesus, talking about the miracle of sprouting seeds and how a tiny seed can grow into a mighty shrub. These are symbols of how things are in the Kingdom of God. Why should these things matter to you? Let’s find out!
The Outward Appearance
Star Wars fans will recognize the wisdom in Yoda as he says, “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not.”
We humans have a habit of “sizing people up.” Often, it’s an instant judgment based on how a person looks—our first impression of them. Anyone preparing a resume’ knows how difficult it is to present oneself on a single page—to give a reader a glimpse into what one can do, who one is. But history illustrates the dangers of making judgments on first impressions, on looks.
King Saul, the first King of Israel, is a great example. At a time when Israel was ruled by Judges, the people started asking for a King (like the other nations that surrounded them). God said to a Judge named Samuel, “It is not YOU they have rejected, but ME.” Through Samuel, God tried to warn the people what would happen if they had a king, but they insisted that they must have a king.
Saul is described as “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others.” It was a superficial way to choose their leader and, despite his impressive appearance, Saul didn’t work out. So, in our reading today, God has sent Samuel to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse, to anoint the next king.
While looking over one of the sons of Jesse, God spoke to Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Eventually, they brought young David in from tending the sheep, and God said, “Rise and anoint him, for this is the one.” And David later became King, and his reign is known as “The Golden Age” of Israel.
Small Is Beautiful
A humble shepherd was anointed to be the next King of Israel. It seems that, in the Kingdom economy, humble beginnings are the best! For example: Mother Teresa was teaching upper-caste girls in Calcutta when she heard “a call within a call” to help “the poorest of the poor.” She started by simply cleaning their hovels and easing their suffering and comforting the dying. Many of the girls she used to teach came to her and wanted to help in her ministry, and they all became a new order in 1950: The Missionaries of Charity. Today, there are over 5,000 sisters who give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.” Pretty amazing for something that started so humbly!
Ben Carson is, of course, another example of humble beginnings and amazing accomplishments!
And don’t forget about Albert Einstein, a man whose name is synonymous with Genius. He was not able to talk until he was 3 years old. He didn’t do well in school. (His teachers described him as “slow” and “lazy.”) Mathematics was his only success. He QUIT school at the age of 15. But, in 1921, he won the Nobel Prize for physics! Who da THOUGHT?!
Our parables for today seem to be telling us, “Start Small.” Even a mighty oak begins as a little acorn. A tiny mustard seed can grow into a shrub so BIG that there is room for bird nests.
Jesus expressed a lot of care for “The least of these.” He spent time with the outcasts, the lepers, the poor, and the friendless. And he loved to focus on children. I am sure he was a wonderful big brother to his sisters and brothers, and I suspect that he loved to engage with children anytime he was able. When people were bringing their kids to him, the Disciples tried to shoo them away (because Jesus was “too important to hang out with children.”) But he said, “Do NOT stop them from coming to me” and he blessed the children. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck!”
And he said, “If you do it to one of the least of these, you do it unto me.”
Jesus makes it clear that, in the Kingdom, small things are important. Small beginnings are auspicious. We would be happiest if we were able to let go of our infatuation with all things BIG!
God Gives the Growth
The Apostle Paul also understood this concept. We see in his first letter to the Corinthians a visual image of how God is at work. He says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow…we are God’s servants, working together.” Only God makes things grow.
In today’s text, he says “We walk by faith and not by sight.” This means that we have faith to do the small things at hand (instead of only caring about something if it is huge and “successful.”) You and I may not live to see the results of the seeds we plant—or we may. It’s just best to trust God, who sees the whole picture, to do God’s quiet (and sometimes invisible) work. Even when we don’t see what God is doing—God is at work!
I want to finish today with a story from Father John Powell. He was a professor at Loyola University in Chicago, and was known around the world for his books: Why Am I Afraid to Love? And Happiness Is an Inside Job and Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? along with other titles. His story is about a student he had in his class back in the 60’s—a student named Tommy. Here is his story:
Some twelve years ago, I stood watching my university students file into the classroom for our first session in the Theology of Faith. That was the day I first saw Tommy. My eyes and my mind both blinked. He was combing his long, flaxen hair, which hung six inches below his shoulders. It was the first time I had ever seen a boy with hair that long. I know in my mind that it isn’t what’s on your head but what’s in it that counts; but on that day I was unprepared and my emotions flipped. I immediately filed Tommy under “S” for strange…very strange.
Tommy turned out to be “the atheist in residence” in my class. He constantly objected to, smirked at, or whined about the possibility of an unconditionally loving Father/God. We lived with each other in relative peace for one semester, although I admit he was (for me, at times) a serious pain in the back pew.
When he came up at the end of the course to turn in his final exam, he asked in a cynical tone, “Do you think I’ll ever find God?” I decided instantly on a little shock therapy. “NO!” I said very emphatically.
“Why not?” he responded. “I thought that was the product you were pushing?”
I let him get five steps from the door and then called out, “Tommy! I don’t think you’ll ever find Him, but I am absolutely certain that He will find you!” He shrugged a little and left my class and my life. I felt slightly disappointed at the thought that he had missed my clever line, “He will find you!” At least I thought it was clever.
Later I heard that Tommy had graduated and I was duly grateful. Then a sad report came. I heard that Tommy had terminal cancer. Before I could search him out, he came to see me. When he walked into my office, his body was very badly wasted and the long hair had all fallen out as a result of chemotherapy. But his eyes were bright and his voice was firm.
“Tommy, I’ve thought about you so often. I hear you are sick,” I blurted out.
“Oh, yes, very sick. I have cancer in both lungs. It’s a matter of weeks.”
“Can you talk about it, Tom?” I asked.
“Sure. What would you like to know?”
“What’s it like to be only twenty-four and dying?”
“Well, it could be worse.”
“Well, like being fifty and having no values or ideals; like being fifty and thinking that booze, seducing women, and making money are the real ‘biggies’ in life.”
I began to look through my mental file cabinet under “S” where I had filed Tommy as strange. (It seems as though everybody I try to reject by classification, God sends back into my life to educate me!)
“But what I really came to see you about,” Tom said, “is something you said to me on the last day of class. I asked you if you thought I would ever find God and you said, ‘No!’ which surprised me. Then you said, ‘But He will find you.’ I thought about that a lot, even though my search for God was hardly intense at that time. But when the doctors removed a lump from my groin and told me that it was malignant, that’s when I got serious about locating God. And when the malignancy spread into my vital organs, I really began banging bloody fists against the bronze doors of heaven. But God did not come out. In fact, nothing happened. Did you ever try anything for a long time with great effort and with no success? You get psycho-logically glutted, fed up with trying. And then you quit.
“Well, one day I woke up, and instead of throwing a few more futile appeals over that high brick wall to a God who may or may not be there, I just quit. I decided that I didn’t really care about God, about an afterlife, or anything like that. I decided to spend what time I had left doing something more profitable. I thought about you and your class and I remembered some-thing else you had said: ‘The essential sadness is to go through life without loving. But it would be almost equally sad to go through life and leave the world without ever telling those you loved that you had loved them.’
“So, I began with the hardest one, my Dad. He was reading the newspaper when I approached him. ‘Dad?’
‘Yes. What?’ he asked without lowering the newspaper.
‘Dad, I would like to talk with you.’
‘I mean…it’s really important.’
The newspaper came down three slow inches. ‘What is it?’
‘Dad, I love you. I just wanted you to know that.’
The newspaper fluttered to the floor. Then my father did two things I could never remember him ever doing before. He cried and he hugged me. We talked all night, even though he had to go to work the next morning. It felt so good to be close to my father, to see his tears, to feel his hug, to hear him say that he loved me.
It was easier with my mother and little brother. They cried with me, too, and we hugged each other, and started saying real nice things to each other. We shared the things we had been keeping secret for so many years. I was only sorry about one thing—that I had waited so long. Here I was, just beginning to open up to all the people I had actually been close to.
Then, one day I turned around and God was there. He didn’t come to me when I pleaded with Him. I guess I was like an animal trainer holding out a hoop, ‘C’mon, jump through. C’mon, I’ll give you three days, three weeks.’ Apparently God does things in His own way and at His own hour. But the important thing is that He was there. He found me! You were right. He found me even after I stopped looking for Him.”