WHAT DOES SIZE MATTER

 

I PETER 2:1-10 

 

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            A woman heard the garbage truck early one morning and remembered that she had not put out the garbage the night before.  This was back in the early 60‘s, and she was barely out of bed – her hair was rolled up in those ugly prickly wire curlers, she had on a shabby bathrobe, her face was covered with a chalk-like white cream.  In other words, she did not look her best.  She went running out and shouted to the garbage truck driver, “Am I too late for the garbage?”

            He took one look at her and said, “No, hop right in!”    

            Sometimes in a small church I wonder if we ever think it might be time to “hop right in!”  I wonder if we have the “small church mentality” outlined in our hypothesis for today.  We are working our way through a series of hypotheses geared to make us think about the world in which we find ourselves, to ponder the question of how much of what’s happening “out there” is seeping “into here,” into the church.  Today we come to another hypothesis.  Listen to it.

 

            Our church is a small, family-centered church.  Many believe that small churches with few resources of members, money, facilities, and leaders are not OK.  The feeling that we have nothing of value to offer is deep-seated, that only big churches with multiple programs can attract people.  We begin to ask, “What is wrong with us?”  The more important question may be, “What is wrong with this picture?”

 

            Speaking of small, there was a time, and some of us grew up in it, when children were viewed as little more than future adults.  We viewed childhood as the sometimes cute, but often annoying transitional state between birth and worth: a time when children were meant to be seen but not heard; when they were sequestered in other rooms and seated at other tables until graduating to the conversations that mattered.  Big people counted.  Little people could only wait and eat their Malt-o-Meal and drink their Ovaltine and Tang and hope that one day they might grow big enough to be real people, too.

            Somewhere along the way, most – but by no means everyone – figured out that children are not merely potential people; they are precious human beings in their own right.  They don’t grow into value; they are valuable.  Their diminutive size neither diminishes nor delays their significance. Regardless of their age, their test scores, their physical prowess, or the straightness of their teeth; regardless of their selective deafness, and their genius for leaving the sharpest toys in precisely the spot where you will step in the dark, and regardless of their preference for ignoring our advice, “Jesus loves the little children – all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

            I can’t help but wonder if our view of children reflects our view of smallness in general.  Little things don’t fair very well in our culture.  Sure, some exclaim on Christmas morning that “Good things come in small packages,” but the point is only a matter of scale.  I have yet to meet a person who wouldn’t prefer in that little package a large diamond over a small one.  We are into bigness – big cars, big houses, big ideas, big malls, big stores, big packages, big bottom lines.  Companies are proud to boast that they are the biggest in town, the largest in Nebraska, the national leader. I think of the man whose job it was to plan the company Christmas dinner.  He rented out an all-you-could-eat buffet restaurant located nearby.  “The food isn’t all that great,” he admitted, “but there’s a lot of it and that’s all that matters.”

            But the cracks in “bigness” are beginning to show.  Ask American auto makers how they are doing with all their big cars.  Ask any doctor around how healthy we are with our “super-sized” diets and two liter fountain drinks.  Ask any mortgage broker how we are doing with our big houses and our big adjustable rate mortgage payments.  Our addiction to the large is starting to catch up to us.

            “Bigger, better, and more” carry some bitter costs, but still we often discount the value of anything beneath “whopper” status.  Why are we are so infatuated with size?  Maybe it’s just human nature to envy whatever it is that makes us feel small, to whimper in the face of whatever makes us feel inadequate.  Maybe we simply can’t bear the prospect of ever being – or being for very long – the 97-pound weakling who gets sand kicked in his face.

            But if it is human, it is certainly not biblical.  Scripture consistently goes the other way.   When Moses was preparing the people to enter the Promised Land, he reminded them, “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples.  It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery,” (Deut. 7:7-8).

            In the book of Judges, which we will look at after the first of the year, God directs Gideon to defeat the enemies of Israel. Gideon, intimidated, responds, “how can I deliver Israel?  My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”  To which God replies, “I’ll be with you” (Judges 6:15-16).

            When it came time to anoint a ruler over Israel, God targeted Saul, who sounded a lot like Gideon: “I am only a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel, and my family is the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin” (1 Samuel 9:21).

            When God became displeased with King Saul and directed Samuel to the home of Jesse for the purpose of finding a replacement, God nudged Samuel past the big and strong and brawny older brothers.  Ultimately it was David, the youngest in the family, who got the nod.

            God routinely demonstrates a preference for the boy with a slingshot and stones over the giant with muscles and grunts; for the peasant baby in a manger over the powerful king on a throne; for the mustard seed over more promising tools.  In fact, once upon a time Jesus’ disciples asked him “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus called over a little child and observed, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven“ (Matthew 18:1-4).

            I wonder what it would take for people of faith to let go of their “size envy?”  I’m not suggesting that we flip the coin and acquire a prejudice against anything large and grandiose.  Trading one prejudice for another hardly seems an improvement.  No, my proposal is immanently more modest: why don’t we simply delete size from our list of attributes that matter one way or another?  Why don’t we begin to value every contribution to the common good regardless of its size?

            That, I think, is what Peter was suggesting in our passage for this morning.  Let’s take a closer look at it.  Verse one:

 

            Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.  Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

 

            By the way, did you notice when we first read this passage just before the message, how Peter seems to get caught up in the emotion and inspiration of what he is saying and grabs every image he can to get his point across?  He’s writing to people in modern day Turkey.  He’s attempting to encourage them in the face of coming political persecution from the arm of Rome, and he uses mixed metaphors to do it.  He begins here talking about babies and milk.  Then he moves to an image that would warm a contractor’s heart.  Listen to what comes next. 

 

            Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

 

            But he’s not done.  He switches metaphors again.  He moves from babies, to buildings and finishes up by playing the race card.  Verse nine:

 

            ... you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

 

            In other words, Peter says, “You are significant.  I’m saying this in every possible way I can.  You are as precious as a baby.  You are important to the kingdom God is building.  Not as important as the cornerstone, but you are important, critical to this project.  Never forget how important you are.  You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.  Even if you don’t feel all that important, you are.”  And he was saying this to a very small church.  He was writing to folk in modern Turkey, who met in house churches, not even in a church building. 

            At the bottom of the stairs into our basement and wine cellar - yes, we have a wine cellar, mostly filled with communal wine, of course -- we have ceramic tile, and the tile came in three different shapes.  It makes for an interesting pattern in the floor.  I went downstairs this week, and I was working on this sermon, and I thought to myself, “Is one of these three sized more important than the others?”  After all, other than size, there was no difference in the substance of each tile or the quality of each tile, or the manufacturer of each tile, or the durability of each tile.  In fact, laid together the three variations created an interesting pattern that would be diminished without all three.   None is more important to the pattern or to the floor than the others.

            What would happen if we came to that recognition with churches?  What if we abandoned our prejudice about size?   Large churches, for example, could be celebrated for their ability to command attention and generate specialized programs and ministries.  Like Costco and Sams, they can harness some economies of scale and move things in bulk and influence by their sheer mass.  Small churches, on the other hand, could be celebrated for their personal touch and intimate connections and their ability to respond agilely to needs and concerns.  Small churches are like the corner bakery that recognizes you as soon as the bell on the door signals your entrance and knows in advance what you’ll buy and whether or not you want it sliced; or the neighborhood pharmacist who hands you his card and insists that you call him after hours if you should find yourself in an emergency.

            We all, big and small and in between, have something to offer.  We all have spiritual blessings to contribute to the work of Christ in this time.  There is a spiritual house under construction and spiritual stones of all sizes are needed. 

            In closing listen to these words from Shirley Erena Murray.  Shirley Erena Murray is a hymn text writer, born in Invercargill, New Zealand in 1931.  She was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001 for services to the community through hymn writing.  One hymn she wrote she titled Take My Gifts.  Here are some of the lyrics to that hymn. 

 

            Take my gifts and let me love you, God who first of all loved me.

            Take whatever I can offer – gifts that I have yet to find,

            Skills that I am slow to sharpen, talents of the hand and mind,

            Things made beautiful for others in the place where I must be:

            Take my gifts and let me love you, God who first of all loved me.

 

            And we can do that in any size church![1]



[1] Most of this message borrowed from a sermon preached by The Reverend Tim Diebel, on August 3, 2008 titled A House Under Construction.