The Bradshaw family have just taken delivery of an African Pygmy Hedgehog called Josephine. Not, I have to confess, a pet I ever expected to keep – not that I am the official keeper I’m happy to say: that’s Daisy. The hedgehog is approaching eight weeks old and still quite little. Although of course not as tiny as when she was born hidden from view for a fortnight by her mother.
But since Josephine has taken up residence in Roker she hasn’t ceased to make an impact. Whether because of her spiky beauty, her little black nose, the occasional prick she administers to someone’s finger or the copious amounts of wee and other things she suddenly produces just when you pick her up. I’m hoping she’ll grow out of that!
But insignificantly sized as she is Josephine has certainly made an impression.
In his first sermon to the Diocese – stating his intention to encourage us in the big challenge of growing our churches – our new Bishop Paul Butler stated: “Never underestimate the small!”
Certainly smallness never bothered Jesus. He never seemed remotely interested in it in any negative sense. Quite the reverse, in fact. Smallness, apparent insignificance, was itself, for Jesus, very significant. In the busy Temple precincts it was the poor widow putting her final copper coins into the collection box which caught his attention, not the great amounts donated by the wealthy. On another “big crowd” occasion his attention was drawn, literally, to the physically small when he spotted the tax collector Zacchaeus up a tree – before inviting himself to tea at his house.
And for all that they followed him wherever he went in Galilee it wasn’t ultimately the big crowds that Jesus really, truly engaged with. It was individuals: real people – the boy with the loaves and fish; the woman with the haemorrhages; Bartimaus the blind beggar. Individuals in the crowds each in their own way drawing Jesus’ attention. One to one. Small scale ministry. At least numerically. Particular people. Here. And there.
Or small groups. Of twelve – or so. Or three: the sisters Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus. Even the smallness – the frailty – of the disciples’ faith – faith so small in fact that when the reckoning moment came all but one or two ran away – wasn’t really a worry for Jesus.
Which is all very encouraging for us, of course.
And the gospel readings over the last couple of Sundays, as today, have laid emphasis on the small. In particular on seeds. Sowing, planting; God the farmer, scattering the seeds: these small, insignificant – even dead looking things – things you’d find it difficult to see if you dropped one on the carpet, let alone on the soil – and yet with the potential of budding to life and fruitfulness.
Clearly, not underestimating the small has always been God’s way. Not simply encouraging words from a newly arrived Bishop. And of course Paul Butler would agree entirely. That’s why he said it.
But, and I don’t know about you, I feel I’m being bombarded by big things at the moment. Overwhelmingly big sometimes. Massive. What on earth is going on in the Middle East? Gaza. Children, women, men. Lives wiped out in a dreadful instant. What on earth? What on earth is going on when hundreds of totally innocent people, young and old, families, young couples, lose their lives when their aeroplane is shot from the sky? It’s almost too much to take. The sheer destructive, murderous evil. The bigness of this incomprehensible stuff is almost overwhelming. And what answer is there to give when people ask: “Where is your God now?”.
What do we say? How do we respond to these impossible situations in our own minds, let alone when others ask, when we long – along with good, reasonable people who have no faith at all – that God deals with the dreadful stuff going on in the world right now, once and for all.
A read of a few of the psalms – and I think we need to use the psalms more often than we do – will reassure us that this is quite a normal response and we’re certainly not the first to think these thoughts. Feel these feelings. Cry out from the bottom of our hearts for God to bring an end to the anguish felt by regions of our world today.
But what do we say? What, at the end of the day, is our faith based on – at least in the historical sense? Well, it’s based on a baby born in a stable, in an obscure town in an insignificant backwater of the Empire of Rome, twenty centuries ago. It’s based on a man being nailed to and dying on a cross alongside who knows how many others that particular year? In terms of world, national – even local – significance at the time this was smallness, smallness and smallness again. In terms of Jesus as merely a man, it was pretty small beer.
It’s no wonder that St Paul saw instantly that this must be incomprehensible – “foolishness” – to many people. This notion of faith in a so called “Son of God” who died on a cross. What significance was that to the big questions of life? How was that meant to solve the problems of the universe? And so he wrote in his first letter to the church in Corinth.
And it remains true today. Many think we are hopelessly naive. Gullible. Lacking any real thinking capacity. Yet Paul himself – and many, many others since – have brought along supremely keen intellects and have found themselves convinced of the truth of the Gospel.
And going back for a moment to that picture, that idea God gives us, of the seeds. Holding a few in your hand they feel so lifeless. Dead. Almost.
And yet not.
This is why Easter is not simply a wonderful springtime celebration of an extraordinary event which happened sometime around the middle of the first century. The Resurrection of Jesus is a fact which we must carry with us in our hearts and lives every day of our lives. It is simply too significant to leave in March or April.
The Resurrection tells us that all the terrible, dreadful things in the world can never be stronger, greater, more powerful than the death of Jesus on the cross and the utter love that God was demonstrating there for the whole world. None of it. None of it has the last word.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” asks Paul. “Will hardship or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?” Or we might add: our worries about our health or that of someone we love, or a relationship that’s gone wrong; or maybe the guilt over something or other we have carried for years; or our own doubts and fears about whatever else? Or indeed Israel and Palestine and the appalling loss of life there; Northern Nigeria, the innocent victims of Flight MH17.
No! No! says Paul (and heaven knows he lived in a world every bit as incomprehensively, appallingly violent as our own, and had many of his own personal troubles besides): “No. In all these things we are more than conquerers through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”.
Nothing. Nothing. Whatever it is. However big, how overwhelming it seems. However threatening to any possible hope for peace in a world like ours – groaning as in labour pains – as Paul writes a few verses earlier. However things may, from time to time, threaten to swamp us, knock us from places that we feel we are clinging to by our fingertips. There is nothing. Nothing that will ever separate us from God’s love for us.
The cross and the Resurrection of Jesus says God loves this world so completely that he will never, never give up on it.
Yes, there is often an invisibleness about love which makes it seem as though it is not there. Who knows, apart from God, how many acts of loving, courageous, service are going on – right now in Gaza? Or in any of these places? I’d lay a bet that there are many. Love doesn’t make grand gestures, look for recognition or reward. How could it then, truly be love?
But it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. That God isn’t there. Working through the compassionate spirit of the humanity he made in his image. And this is particularly God’s purpose for the Church – us, ordinary-extraordinary people that we are – as he gets on with growing his Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Yes, of course great love, great acts of kindness, grace, courage, exemplary, inspirational compassion can be shown by people of other faiths and of no faith at all. But it is particularly through God’s Church, as was his intention and design and which has at its very heart the self-giving love of Jesus on the cross – a self-giving love which has the power to transform our hearts – that God’s love – his commitment, his compassion, his servanthood, needs to be seen. And as I say, that’s you, and that’s me.
It’s back to those seeds again. Planted in good soil. Quietly growing. In acts of service, generosity and joyfulness. Enlivened with the Living Water, that is: trusting, day by day, Jesus Christ. Nurtured with God’s word, the bible. Like…well, like a mustard seed, which, though tiny, with the potential to grow and grow. Or perhaps like yeast spreading through flour to leaven the dough, producing bread which is good, wholesome, tasty, life-giving.
And then sharing this goodness with the world like a great treasure which has been hidden and is now found. Or a pearl – a wonderful, beautiful, priceless pearl – against which there is no match for all the riches of the world.
That is what we have been given in Jesus. Let’s live it and share this great hope for the world.