Sermon by Todd Weir

June 14, 2015

Mark 4:26-34

I like mustard as much as anyone, and I even prefer it over katsup, but it is not going anywhere near my garden. Mustard is an invasive species, like mint or kudzu, which will cover the hillsides. I prefer tomato plants in cages, carefully placed in neat geometrical order, with straw between plants so I don’t have to weed. So apparently my garden does not look like the kingdom of God.   I think the Kingdom of God should look like my neighbor Mimi’s garden, but apparently Jesus’s garden looks like a vacant lot overrun by mustard bushes, threatening to engulf its neighbor. That is great if you are a bird looking to nest, but bad for property values. But Jesus knows God’s eye is on the sparrow.


I wish Jesus had said, every oak begins with an acorn, the greatest journey begins with one step, or at least quote Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon. I would like to bend this parable to my own desire and stick with the standard theme that great things come from small beginnings, which is a great theme for an annual meeting. Sow the seeds, plant and grow and harvest. But I think Jesus is talking more about thriving in chaos, finding God in situations beyond our control, meeting God in our cognitive dissonance. I wish Jesus had read more Aristotle, who said in all things moderation. But I think he was foreshadowing Darwin’s “Origen of species” that adaptability is the key to survival.


I think this is a very modern parable, because mustard is everywhere, invading nearly every part of our lives. In fact, you are carrying dangerous mustard seeds with you right now. Pull out your smart phone for a second. This is one of the most disruptive technologies in the history of humankind- the wheel, the printing press and the IPhone. What Steve Jobs figured out is that if you put a telephone, a computer chip, and a camera, a GPS tracker and voice and video recording into one device, human creativity will spread like mustard into every available piece of ground. I can see if it is going to rain or get a message from Jeanne to pick up bread. Or I could do a “how-to” video in my garden, or a “how-not-to-do” video. Arab Spring went viral and people toppled the Egyptian government by outsmarting government forces with Facebook and text messages. A Japanese woman wrote short stories on her cell phone on the subway to work, and posted them every morning. Her audience grew into millions and she published a book. Now half the Times best seller list is half self-published. People now record a traffic stop, and it is harder to cover up police misconduct.


digital 1The cell phone means Bangladesh has an internet penetration rate of over 60 percent in one of the poorest countries in the world. In fact, my preaching blog has 500 views from Bangledesh. Jeanne started a bed and breakfast in our home in April, we were full every weekend in May, and she runs the business from her IPhone. She actually booked a room while shopping at Lowe’s. Air BNB is now the largest hotel/motel business in the world, even though they have no real estate. They have half the rooms booked per night in New York City, and 2000 new rooms in Cuba. Do you know how many rooms Marriot has in Cuba? Zero.


My job is affected by it. I think 60 percent of pastoral care encounters start through the internet. I get an email, text or Facebook message about something being wrong. By the time we meet face-to-face I have a background. I now know what you are doing with their lives. I can see your vacations, your kids birthday parties, who you vote for, and I know why you don’t come to church. And apparently many of you adore your cats.


This week Sarah was going crazy learning to do movies because the UCC wants a 2 to 3 minute video about Common Ground to show at General Synod in a month. You are probably aware we do not have a video-editing studio in the church. It all starts with her IPhone. This smart phone can turn you into a millionaire, a celebrity or a zombie. Tiny mustard seeds quickly invade everything, even your mind. A wise and successful pastor recently said to me, “Todd, I am so technologically inept, I think I will retire sooner than I expected. I can barely answer my phone, let alone social media. I can’t keep up.”


You may feel like you are the only one, but multi-billion dollar corporations are struggling to deal with the disruptive technology of the information/digital age. It is an adaptive moment in human history, like moving from flat earth to round earth. It effects what we know and who knows us, how we communicate, volunteer, how we think and how we understand ourselves in community. If it effects community and relationships, it effects church. As individuals, we have choices to opt in or opt out of the digital revolution. You don’t need an IPhone or email to be a loving, faithful person. I think the Amish are beautiful, faithful people. But as a church community, we adapt or become increasingly irrelevant.


Maren Tirabassi is a pastor, poet and writer well known among UCC pastors for her beautiful liturgy and writing workshops. I think of her as our Mary Oliver-authentic, connected to the earth, wise and nothing like a tech-driven, hyper Facebook posting, screens junkie. Her latest book is called, “Psalms to the cloud: Connecting to the Digital Age.” The book is a group experiment in brining prayer and spirituality on-line, learning to write prayers in 140 character tweets, for example. She writes,

“We cannot stand still because people are lonely and needy and passionate, both behind their screens and in person. We cannot stand still because the desire for connection has not faded even if the methods for reaching out have changed….A living church should constantly and humbly seek to learn new ways to reach and touch and care for people.” So use every app, link and method possible!

From the Psalms to the Cloud: Connecting to the Digital Age (Kindle Locations 58-60).


Here are some examples of recent changes we have made at the church office. We have learned about Care Pages, which is a website dedicated to creating caring circles for people going through health challenges. In today’s world, a solid church goer attends half the Sundays of a year, so how to you keep up? You may not even know someone you care about has cancer if you miss a couple of Sundays. But you open your email from Vanessa while visiting family in Arizona, and you can still connect. And Care Pages gives someone with a chronic illness the control to share what they want with who they want, only with people who want to know.


And we know in the office that you read your email. We recently switched to Mailchimp for our weekly email, and it has analytics that tell us 70 percent of you open our emails, and the average for religious organization is 35 percent. This is in part because Vanessa writes in a way that connects and expresses care and compassion. She is from the generation that is a digital native and does this naturally. (This is partly why you see her hours going up in our budget.) She is ready to start teaching you how to survive the digital world, because it is much like learning a second language.


Here is what I don’t want to do. I do not want to be a pastor on the internet staring at screens all the time. I want to do what I love. I want to preach and teach with people who are in the room with me, I want to visit and council people face to face and one on one. I want to help build a vibrant spiritual community where we pray together and care for each other. I want the church to be a haven on Sunday morning from the demands of the world, and I don’t want you Tweeting during worship. But I also don’t want to continue doing this with fewer and fewer people until there is not the critical mass to be church. So maybe a few of you should be tweeting or posting how much you liked being in church and quote something from the service that was meaningful to you.


So here is our challenge. How can we be both high tech and high touch? How can we maintain authentic spirituality, real connection with God, and meaningful community in the digital age? If something new makes us better at loving one another, getting things done and finding more people with our message, lets adapt and do it. But our vision and mission must come first, not the technology or marketing. Mustard is invading our garden. This doesn’t mean we have to give up our tomato plants, or that we have to kill the mustard with Roundup. As every good gardener knows, you have to adapt to your climate to get the harvest for which you hope.