Small Things Add Up

Today’s scripture readings:
1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Today’s service was an online broadcast as worship in our sanctuary has been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was the early 1950s and Ed Lorenz was a meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He and his colleagues had been working hard on long-range weather forecasting. Some scientists at that time believed it would be possible to predict the weather weeks or even months in advance by analyzing historical records to see what happened previously when conditions were the same as today. If it’s 85 degrees and sunny with a 62-degree dewpoint today, just go back and see what happened last time it was 85 degrees, sunny, and the dewpoint was 62 degrees. Find a weather map from the past that looks like today’s weather map, and then look back and see what happened next. That should tell us what kind of weather forecast we can expect in the days ahead.

Ed Lorenz wasn’t so sure. He thought that our atmosphere was too complex, that weather patterns were too complicated. It turns out he was right.

One day, so the story goes, he was trying to rerun a weather simulation on his computer, such as it was in those days. But as a result of an accidental rounding error, the numbers he punched into his computer were ever-so-slightly different from the numbers in the original simulation. He put the numbers into the computer and then went off to grab a cup of coffee while the computer crunched all the data. When he got back to his office, he discovered that the results the computer had returned were dramatically different from the original simulation. Ed Lorenz’s big discovery was that the tiniest change in the initial inputs can end up having an enormous impact when a model is projected into the future.

Around that same time, the author Ray Bradbury wrote a piece of science fiction called “A Sounder of Thunder,” in which the characters travel back in time 65 million years to go on a dinosaur hunting expedition. Before they depart in the time machine, the guides warn the hunters about the importance of minimizing their impact on the past, since even the tiniest alterations could snowball into catastrophic changes in history. Without spoiling the entire story, let’s just say the trip doesn’t go exactly as planned, and when the expedition returns in the time machine to the present day, they discover that things are a little off. Words are spelled and pronounced differently. People behave differently. Someone else has been elected president. One of the hunters then notices the mud on his boots and when he looks closer he discovers that, 65 million years ago, he had stepped on and crushed a butterfly, whose death had apparently triggered a cascade of events through the millennia that had resulted in this alternative present reality.

The tiniest action, projected into the future, can have an enormous impact.

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That insight helps me as a try to make sense of the micro-parables Jesus tells in this Gospel lesson today.

Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” And another one: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

When Jesus started speaking about the kingdom of heaven, the crowd who had gathered to hear him must have been shocked by what he said. I doubt they were expecting to hear that the kingdom of heaven is like a farmer with mustard seeds or a woman mixing yeast in with some flour. Jesus doesn’t give them a grand vision of the kingdom. What Jesus describes is much more mundane. It’s so boring. The kingdom of heaven is like the most common things in life. There’s nothing extraordinary here, just a few people living their everyday lives.

And then there’s the fact that, no matter what Jesus says, a mustard seed does not become the “greatest of shrubs” and could hardly be considered a “tree.” If you had asked the crowd gathered around Jesus that day to imagine a great tree that represented the kingdom of God, they probably would have imagined the famous cedars of Lebanon, not a scraggly, ugly mustard plant. And then Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a woman mixing yeast into flour? In that ancient patriarchal culture, women never played a starring role in the story, and holy bread was unleavened bread, made without yeast. In those days, yeast was actually a symbol of corruption and impurity.

I think that’s exactly the point: If God can use mustard seeds and yeast, of all things, to grow the kingdom, imagine what God can do with us.

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The author James Clear has written a book called Atomic Habits, which is pitched as sort of a manual for self-improvement. His major insight is that miniscule changes in our behaviors can have life-altering results. Usually people think that when you want to achieve an ambitious goal you need to think big, but James Clear says that real change often results from the compound effect of many, many small decisions. He talks a lot about making tiny, insignificant choices the help us do just 1% better each day. He says, what’s the difference between eating a hamburger and fries for lunch rather than a salad? On any given day, not that much. At the end of the night you look basically the same in the mirror and the scale hasn’t really changed, but that 1% improvement compounds into remarkable results if you stick with it over time. He says, small things add up.

I think about the enormous challenges we face these days: a global pandemic caused by a virus that continues to spread through our communities; the pandemic of racism and white supremacy that has infected our society for generations and continues to fester inside each one of us, whether we realize it or not; an economic recession bordering on a depression that has left so many of us unemployed, underemployed, furloughed, or anxious about the future; a climate crisis that poses an existential threat to the entire human race. These are challenges that do require big ideas and collective action. But I wonder if the message of these parables today is not to discount the value of each one of us ordinary people doing small, simple, everyday actions that, compounded over time and joined with the sincere and humble efforts of others, bring us ever closer to the kingdom of heaven.

The Apostle Paul writes in that passage from Romans—which happens to be one of my favorite passages in all of scripture—that we don’t know how to pray as we ought, or for what we should pray. We don’t know all the answers. What we do know is that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and that God is in the midst of our suffering working to bring about our salvation. Standing firm in that promise, we can answer the call in today’s Gospel reading, to sew miniscule seeds of hope and pray that they grow and thrive; to mix a tiny bit of yeast in with the flour we’ve got trusting it will be the leaven that’s needed; ordinary people whose everyday best gives a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. Amen.


Resources consulted:

“A Sound of Thunder,” on Wikipedia, accessed July 22, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Sound_of_Thunder&oldid=957578406.

Talitha J. Arnold, “Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).

James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (New York: Penguin, 2018).

Jeremy Deaton, “The butterfly effect is not what you think it is,” in The Washington Post, February 2, 2020, accessed July 22, 2020,https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/02/02/butterfly-effect-is-not-what-you-think-it-is/.

Nathan Hilkert, “From a Preacher – July 26, 2020,” in Sundays and Seasons: Preaching 2020, Year A (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2019).

J. David Waugh, “Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).


The featured image for this post, “Mustard seeds close-up,” is copyright (c) 2018 Marco Verch Professional Photographer and Speaker and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


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