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The Greatest of Shrubs

June 18, 2012

“The Greatest of Shrubs” Mark 4:26-34 © 6/17/12 Ordinary 11B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The Crystal Cathedral is no more.

In 1955, in a drive-in movie theater, Robert Schuller and his wife began what has been called “the iconic California mega-church.” From such humble beginnings, the congregation grew and grew until a glass edifice held together by silicone glue was constructed. Originally called Garden Grove Community Church, the new name was taken from the structure itself when the congregation moved into it in 1981.

The Crystal Cathedral became known not only for its unique look but for its dynamic minister, now 85, who retired some years ago and has left the church and its board. The “Hour of Power” TV show that Schuller started in 1970 attracted millions of viewers.

But bad decisions, family squabbles among Schuller’s children, falling attendance, and questions from potential donors about how the church was run put the congregation in bankruptcy in 2010. Among three bidders, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange was awarded the building and campus, at a price of 57.5 million dollars. It will now be called “Christ Cathedral” and will actually be a cathedral. (Sources: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/09/california-mega-church-cr_n_1583696.html; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/crystal-cathedral-robert-schuller-downfall_n_1368321.html;http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystal_Cathedral.)

In a similar way, the ancient Israelites had now fallen on hard times after rising to the heights from humble beginnings. The tribes had been slaves and wanderers, then conquered mercilessly the land of Canaan which they believed God had promised them. After experimenting with a loose confederacy under leaders called “judges,” then experiencing a time of anarchy, the Israelites crowned a king named Saul. He was a failure, but then David came to the throne, and after him Solomon. Under them, Israel became a power to be reckoned with, a mighty nation-state. But civil war after Solomon’s death tore the country in two. The northern kingdom was conquered by the cruel Assyrians in 721 BC and the ten northern tribes were never heard from again. The two southern tribes continued as the Kingdom of Judah until they, too, were overrun by the Babylonians in 586 BC. From then on, other than a brief period, Judah was under the thumb of foreign rulers.

The latest occupier, of course, was Rome, a formidable enemy. But even given the overwhelming power of their oppressor, there were those who dreamed of being delivered and setting up a new kingdom of David. Judah would become a mighty cedar once again, towering over the other trees. And God would bring all this about.

So Jesus’ listeners must have thought he was joking when he compared the coming kingdom of God to a shrub. Yes, a big shrub. The greatest of shrubs, in fact. But still nothing more than a bushy weed. Where was the grandeur, the power, the opulence, the lording over it others, standing so high you were tempted to say “‘cuse me, while I kiss the sky?”

The answer, of course, is that the way of God is not like that. “Not with swords’ loud clashing or beating of the drums, but with deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes.” The kingdom of God was about giving shelter to those in need, symbolized in the story by nesting birds. Shade at the scorching noonday so that the young hatchlings are protected and hidden. The kingdom of God is a humble, understated thing, but it is great and productive in its humility and reserve.

Let’s unpack that a bit by reflecting on a line from the classic romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail. If you recall, Meg Ryan plays Kathleen Kelley, who owns a small New York children’s bookstore called The Shop Around the Corner. Her nemesis is Tom Hanks, whose character Joe Fox has a huge superstore just down the street. Kathleen says in one scene “I live a small but valuable life.” And her business philosophy and practice mirror her personal approach. Her goals are modest, but important: to carry on her mother’s legacy; to stock on her shelves wonderful volumes that enrich the lives of children; to provide personal, expert service; and to express the character of her neighborhood. Fox Books, on the other hand, is a generic place that could be put anywhere. Joe sells cheap books and designer coffees. He is interested in what a book costs, while Kathleen talks about what it’s worth.

Kathleen’s store, and the woman herself, are the greatest of all shrubs. Small but valuable. Unassuming but unforgettable. Humble in approach, but making a difference in a particular context, especially for coming generations. She and her little business provided branches that shaded nests.

In their study Good to Great, business researcher Jim Collins and his team found that the best executives did and were something similar, remaining shrubs even if their companies were or became giant cedars. Collins terms these men and women “Level 5” leaders. They display extraordinary personal humility while producing outstanding results for companies in transition. For example, Darwin Smith took Kimberly-Clark over a 20 year period from mediocrity to greatness, gaining stock returns valued at four times the general market. Yet the Wall Street Journal never wrote a splashy article about Smith. Says Collins “A man who carried no airs of self-importance, Smith found his favorite companionship among plumbers and electricians and spent his vacations rumbling around his Wisconsin farm in the cab of a backhoe…. He never cultivated hero status or executive celebrity status” (18).

Contrast Smith with Lee Iacocca, who saved Chrysler from disaster. The company was giving returns of about three times the market halfway through Iacocca’s tenure. But then, Collins notes, the CEO started making himself the center of attention. He was regularly on talk shows and starred, as some of you may remember, in over eighty commercials. Iacocca became as famous as a rock star on the strength of his best-selling autobiography. He contemplated a run for President, bragging that he could fix the economy in six months. But while his fortunes were rising, Chrysler’s were sinking, even with the CEO still at the helm. During the second half of his tenure, Chrysler stock fell far behind the general market. When he finally left and retired, Chrysler rebounded for a time, but ultimately was bought by Daimler-Benz (29-30).

Smith nurtured the company’s next generation and put its interest above his own. Iacocca did the opposite. Collins says that Level 5 leaders are ambitious first for their companies and set up their successors for even greater success. They display compelling modesty as they lead their corporations to be better, as contrasted with executives whose egos led to the demise or continuing mediocrity of the company. Corporations damage themselves when their boards of directors select leaders with dazzling personalities, charging in to fix things, and don’t have the wisdom to look within to find those who are modest, but extremely capable and committed to the future (39). In the terms of the parable, leadership content to be a bush that spreads large branches to shade the nests of coming generations is key.

It’s so shameful, amazing, and sad when business leaders and even script writers for movies grasp kingdom concepts better than the church. In my 35 years in ministry, I have seen presbyteries neglect their small churches in favor of the big, usually affluent ones. They regard the little congregations as somehow inferior because they don’t have even 200 members and punish them for being small by not providing the resources to help them be the best small church, the best shrub, they can be. I have in mind particularly the lack of help with leadership, money, and encouragement. And that’s so odd, since we are a denomination of small churches. We usually get about 1% of the population anywhere we are, whether on college campuses or towns or cities. But we tend to be a bunch of wannabes. We see the success of independent or Southern Baptist mega-churches, and we want desperately to be like that. Because we have bought the lie that bigger is better, bigger is important, bigger has value. Small but valuable? Not for a minute. Instead of helping our congregations be the greatest of shrubs, providing shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship for the children of God, we want big cedars in every town. Close the Shop Around the Corner, so to speak. Nobody wants that. That’s not worth anything. Give us Fox Books with a PC(USA) seal stamped on it.

But there’s a problem that those who know something about mega-churches would remind us of. Pastor and writer Tim Suttle commented soon after Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy about the unnatural growth of the mega-churches. This is a bit of a long quote, but stay with me. “The solution is to stop focusing on strategies meant to help a church become the next big thing, and simply be the church in your neighborhood in whatever form that takes. In the end, the age-old parish model, or neighborhood church is still the healthiest option. Tensions are present, but close proximity requires the fidelity which is essential to a healthy church. Small churches celebrate diversity. They no longer copy the mega-churches, because they don’t have the resources to replicate their programs anyway. The small church doesn’t ask, ‘What program can we create for single mothers,’ but rather, ‘What do we do for Sara? She’s raising her kids all by herself.’ The result is a wonderfully diverse response to the challenges of communal life. When the solution to each local issue is not a program, but a relationship, then it is sustainable over time, and is free to grow without artificial means.

“…The task given to the smaller Christian community is not to achieve success (i.e. size), but simply to be faithful within their particular context. Faithfulness is about organizing our common life together in such a way that we image God to all creation and experience peace…. We need churches who are content to grow more mature and not necessarily bigger and if perhaps they do grow bigger, to simply divide and multiply while never leaving the neighborhood in order to become the regional mega-church. Because when it comes to church, bigger is not better—and there is a point at which bigger inevitably becomes unsustainable and unhealthy” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tim-suttle/the-failure-of-the-megachurch_b_954482.html).

But what does any of this mean for you and me where we live most of our lives, in the day to day world? Just this: be the best we can be at whatever we do, wherever it is God has called us. You or I may not change the world, but we can change someone’s world by pouring our energy and time and talent into the calling we have. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” says the ancient sage (Ecclesiastes 9:10). How sad if we had something great God had given us to do, right in front of us, with the people around us and in the place we live, and we spun our wheels and wasted our energy always trying to be something other than we are? The kingdom doesn’t come in big, spectacular bursts of light. It’s not a huge tree that touches the sky. It’s a shrub, the greatest of them, but a shrub nonetheless. Consistent with that reality, are invited to be humble, yet effective; to open our hearts to the ways God works, sometimes in secret and mysteriously; to accept both our limits and our gifts. We are not tall cedar spires brushing the heavens, awing others with our magnificence, but branches spread over the hopes and dreams and potential of the future, shading and protecting and helping.

What a noble calling!

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