Good is the enemy of great. At least, that’s what we’re told these days. For instance, the book Good to Great goads its readers to strive for greatness and chides them for settling for the merely good.
Commencement speakers routinely urge new graduates to do great things: end poverty, fight for justice, save souls, change the world.
You will probably never hear one of them say, “Show up, be reliable, put up with the ordinariness of the ones you love, do the limited good you can do today and really mean it.” This would be too small, too mundane, for those who clamber for greatness.
And yet, I’m struck by something Mother Teresa reportedly said. “There are no great things. There are only small things, done with great love.”
|Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid”|
Apparently, what makes for greatness is not what we do in life but how and why we do it.
We’ve been laboring under the misconception that life is about making ourselves great by doing something great. The Gospel teaches us that life is about loving God in all the small, ordinary moments of life.
Or, as Jesus puts it in the famous parable, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
I’ll explain what I mean by addressing three questions:
What makes life fulfilling?
How do we often misunderstand what will make life fulfilling?
What does God want from us?
So, let’s start with that first question. What makes life fulfilling?
We don’t all want to do headline-grabbing, history-making things. But we all share the same desire that drives some people to pursue greatness. We want our lives to matter. We want to know that the world is a different place—a better place—because we were here.
God created us this way. Here is what it says in Genesis: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15)
We want to have an influence on the world around us because that is exactly what we were designed to do.
|Gauguin’s “Yellow Haystacks (The Golden Harvest)”|
Our sense of fulfillment derives from being able to nudge the world along. We feel that our lives are significant and valuable when we can see that we have made a difference.
Somewhere along the line we got the idea that God put Adam in the Garden of Eden to see what sort of job he would do.
In other words, we accepted the misguided notion that God assigned Adam a task in order to assess the quantity and quality of his work. Adam’s whole purpose, as this misconception goes, was to make himself acceptable to God by what he accomplished.
No wonder so many people exhaust themselves trying to justify their existence! We have assumed that our worth comes from what we have done and what we have.
Sex, Money, and Power
That leads us to that second question. How do we routinely misunderstand what will make life fulfilling?
Even though God did not originally give Adam a job so that Adam could prove himself to God, at some point or other we all end up laboring under the misconception that our value and the significance of our lives comes down to what we accomplish in this world
For the most part, our attempts to justify ourselves fall into three categories: sex, money, and power. All three paths lead to misery
Let’s start with sex. Some people seek their value in being attractive to other people. But placing your bets on beauty and sex appeal will always leave you wondering if you are attractive enough. There is always someone more beautiful, younger, more fit. You could always lose the love you’ve won by being less attractive.
Money promises security, but look at where those who seek wealth above all else wind up. There is always the nagging sense that there is not enough. You could always have more, and wealth can be lost through circumstances completely beyond your control.
Those who think that political, social, or cultural power will justify their existence inevitably discover that such power is fleeting. There is always someone waiting in the wings to replace you and even to undo all that you have done.
No matter how we seek to justify our lives, we commit ourselves to pursuing our own agenda. We begin to love control, because we believe that when we are in control, we can make things turn out the way we think that they should.
Precisely because control is an illusion, this path leads to perpetual anxiety, conflict, and despair.
We will all grow old, the wealth we have accumulated will one day belong to others, and whatever power we accumulate will eventually be wrested from our hands. As the writer of Ecclesiastes put it, this is all vanity.
But God wants something very different for us. And that brings us to the parable of the mustard seed and our final question.
What does God want from us? Let me start with an illustration.
If you are a parent or a grandparent, you have probably received as a gift a handmade craft from a small child that you love. Maybe it’s a drawing, or a sculpture, or a collage, or a painting. Your heart leapt into your throat when you got it.
Whatever that craft may be, it sits in a place of honor and you would never dream of throwing it away. Now you know a little bit about what God wants from us. He wants our mustard seeds.
Let me back up just a moment to Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed to explain what I mean. Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Although the mustard seed is the tiniest of seeds, it eventually grows into a very large shrub.
God calls us to help him push along his kingdom, to help make it a reality. All we have to offer is mustard seeds.
Too often we mistakenly believe that God is disappointed with anything short of a great shrub. But this is not true. God designed us precisely with mustard seeds in mind.
Let’s return to that analogy I started a moment ago. Parents and grandparents are touched by their little one’s gift. The reason the gift makes such an impact is that the child made it as a gift.
The child was not feeling the pressure to do something great so that Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa would love him or her better. Children make crafts for someone who already loves them and whom they love in return. The craft is made as sign of love for the one who loves him or her.
That’s why parents and grandparents make such a fuss over gifts that will never make a splash in the art market. These gifts embody love.
|Matisse’s “Yellow Curtain”|
Now think about your own life. Each day, you will do a list of very ordinary things. If you’re like most of us, God has never told you to drive kids to school, unload the dishwasher, go to the office, or attend a regularly scheduled meeting. These are your mustard seeds.
True, you might do these things out of a sense of duty. But God is hoping for more.
He designed you and me so that we will devote each of our mustard seeds to him. Like our little children, we can do each thing we do today with the idea that we will offer it to God.
God already loves us. As a gift of love to each one of us personally, he forsook the splendor of his heavenly courts to be born in squalid manger and died an agonizing death on a cross. He wants us to be so confident in that love that we never feel compelled to do anything to earn his love or prove our worthiness.
He has set us free to offer everything we do to him as an expression of our love for him.
After all, if we wait around until we have something great to offer God, we may never offer him anything. Life is composed of ordinary moments, of mustard seeds. And that is all that God wants of us.
But here is where the analogy breaks down. Parents and grandparents can never make a child’s artwork into a masterpiece. By contrast, God receives our little mustard seeds and does something with them that we could never do.
He changes our ordinary mustard seeds into the very kingdom of God. When we offer God not our lives in general, but all the specific, easy-to-miss, commonplace routines and comings and goings, then God transforms them into something great.
His very kingdom could not be the same with out us. Who we are and what we do are always only anonymous particles in the vast expanse of the cosmos. But in the hands of God, our life is a precious mustard seed from which he makes his kingdom grow.
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, Louisiana, on June 17, 2012.