“Small Change” by Mark W. Harris – May 14, 2006
May 14, 2006 – First Parish of Watertown
Sermon – “Small Change” Mark W. Harris
Opening Words – “Give Us the Child” by Sara Moores Campbell
Give us the spirit of the child
Give us the child who lives within —
the child who trusts,
the child who imagines,
the child who sings,
the child who receives without reservation,
the child who gives without judgment.
Give us a child’s eyes, that we may receive the beauty and freshness of this day like a sunrise;
Give us a child’s ears, that we may hear the music of mythical times;
Give us a child’s heart, that we may be filled with wonder and delight;
Give us a child’s faith, that we may be cured of our cynicism;
Give us the spirit of the child, who is not afraid to need; who is not afraid to love.
Juggler by Richard Wilbur
A ball will bounce; but less and less. It’s not
A light-hearted thing, resents its own resilience.
Falling is what it loves, and the earth falls
So in our hearts from brilliance,
Settles and is forgot.
It takes a sky-blue juggler with five red balls
To shake our gravity up. Whee, in the air
The balls roll around, wheel on his wheeling hands,
Learning the ways of lightness, alter to spheres
Grazing his finger ends,
Cling to their courses there,
Swinging a small heaven about his ears.
But a heaven is easier made of nothing at all
Than the earth regained, and still and sole within
The spin of worlds, with a gesture sure and noble
He reels that heaven in,
Landing it ball by ball,
And trades it all for a broom, a plate, a table.
Oh, on his toe the table is turning, the broom’s
Balancing up on his nose, and the plate whirls
On the tip of the broom! Damn, what a show, we cry:
The boys stamp, and the girls
Shriek, and the drum booms
And all come down, and he bows and says good-bye.
Tomorrow, May 15th is the anniversary. What, you say you don’t know what anniversary? Well, it is the day when Horton the Elephant was in the Jungle of Nool, and he heard a small speck of dust talking to him. You may remember that this piece of dust is actually a tiny planet, where there is a city called “Who-ville”, where the most miniscule creatures live. Even Horton cannot see these little creatures , but he can hear them due to this wonderful ears. They proceed to ask him to protect them from harm, and Horton agrees. Thereafter Horton develops a repeating mantra “a person’s a person, no matter how small”. His respect for and protection of these small creatures leads to his being ridiculed by the other animals, because he believes in something that they are unable to see or hear. Horton tells the Whos that they needed to make themselves heard to the other animals, or they will become part of “beezlenut stew.” We could draw lots of meaning from this story. Every small world needs to be listened to and respected lest it be swallowed. A small voice can be heard, and it will make a difference in the world, but it is up to us who have small voices or who hear small voices to demand that they be listened to.
Someone once speculated that Horton Hears a Who was Dr. Seuss’ protest against the atom bomb. I remember seeing pictures of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, and I recall it was nicknamed “big boy.” We often have had a problem with size, assuming in our culture that bigger is better, including church size and house size so that we define ourselves as a small church meaning insignificant or lucky to be alive, and yet we are a vibrant institution. With houses there is a trend to build McMansions on postage stamp size plots of land without regard for efficiency or need, but apparently simply to show off that big is more important or prestigious. Suddenly there is a panic in our culture over super sizing all the fatty foods we consumed because everyone is overweight. This has especially been noted in the obesity rate for children. Many years ago E.F. Schumacher tried to convince us that Small is Beautiful, but small cars were soon replaced by SUVs, and children ended up expanding their smallness because they ate too much, and never got enough exercise.
As many of you have heard before, I was overweight as a child, and had poor balance and was not very coordinated. I learned to ride a bicycle when I was 18. This made physical feats performed by circus artists especially magical to me. When I tried to swing on a high bar or juggle balls it felt like I was carrying the weight of the world with the one and watching falling spheres with the other. How could anyone watch one while catching the other, while the third was in the air? It seemed impossible, and yet my eyes convinced me of this truth. Richard Wilbur in “The Juggler” reminds us that the balls want to fall, and it takes a juggler to shake our gravity up. They did seem a small heaven against the sky, in perfect synch, and continuously in motion. “Oh if only I could do this, I thought. And then it was over, and he took the heaven back into himself to go on to the next magic trick. It was a small heaven of perfection around his ears, almost like a universe in motion. It looked like one of those solar system models. Whoville was also that small universe in motion. The juggler reminds us that things tend to fall to earth unless we hold them up in a juggle. And Dr. Seuss reminds us that tiny things in this universe go unseen, and can be easily swamped in neglect or abuse by those who are more powerful, and so may we never forget “a person’s a person no matter how small.”
My youngest son has been having a problem with recurring warts on his feet. We often have a negative notion of warts, and so when we talk about a family member we say we love or accept them warts and all, meaning all of their faults or negative characteristics. I had a problem with warts when I was small, and remembering my dermatologist using liquid nitrogen to try to get rid of them. My older son Joel had wart problems, too. The science writer Lewis Thomas says that warts are wonderful structures. Now we usually think of them as small annoying growths that we find hideous, and want to rid ourselves of. These tough, impenetrable mounds are actually the elaborate reproductive apparatus of a virus. The wart, Thomas says, is what the virus truly wants; it can flourish only in cells undergoing this kind of overgrowth. I have heard all kinds of cures for warts, including gasoline and recently we tried duct tape. The thing about warts is that they tend to go away. In fact, they come to the end of their lives and disappear. They are also open to suggestion. Thomas says that tests results show that we can be hypnotized, and rid ourselves of warts. As bizarre as this sounds, Thomas confirms that the unconscious can figure out how to manipulate the mechanisms needed to get around the virus, and for deploying the various cells needed for tissue rejection. I know that shutting off the blood supply to an area will kill off unwanted tissue. Lewis says that this suggests that there is a super intelligence in each of us, that can help us deal with the nature of certain diseases, but we simply don’t understand it. This control of reproducing viruses in us might be a key to health and wholeness.
What is intriguing about this to someone who struggled with the annoyance of warts is that something this small and revolting to us, might be a key to how we could understand and manage certain diseases in us. It is a small and complex heaven inside of us. Religiously speaking, cultures have often imagined God as the large God who is the ruler of the world. In the Hebrew scriptures the revelation of God to Elijah in I Kings comes with the expectation that God will be revealed in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the end God comes as the still, small voice. This is the small, quiet voice of God that we must stop and listen to you. What child of my generation can forget that Walt Disney imagined the guide of our conscience to be Jiminy Cricket, that small creature who told us to look within to see what was the right thing to do in difficult circumstances. When the Puritans feared that God was angry with them, they thought it was expressed through some large scale disease that struck the whole colony or a terrible storm. God was a big, powerful voice when he expressed displeasure with human sinfulness.
This distinction between a large God and a small God is what the novelist Arundhati Roy refers to in The God of Small Things. For her the big God howls like a hot wind or demands our allegiance in prostrate submissive form. We bow before this big God. Theologically, we would mostly argue that the big God that ancient cultures conceived of as running the universe no longer exists. It is Roy’s small God who is cozy and contained, and private and limited that seems more approachable to us. This cozy God is with us in the every day embracing of our children, or in the trial of quiet sitting with a pain or illness and finding the inner resources to deal with it through talking with our friends, or finding a diversion through working or the like. The small God must skip to the beat of the music, and juggle balls in a small heaven, and find little things to enjoy like the bursting of a flower in bud, or the rhythmic motion of digging in the dirt to till the garden. The small God knows there is a universe in motion out there, and it wants us to notice every small part, even the warts, because they all play a part in the reproductive generations that look to the future. The small God helps us realize that even when there are tragedies all around us there is much beauty in life that we can grasp hold of and experience. So when we find joy in the small heaven of juggling, we can get through tragic moments, and know these small events give us the promise of life and joy. It is akin to Jesus saying the last shall be first, or see the power in a mustard seed. The most insignificant thing holds all the beauty of the universe in its life giving potential. The acorn becomes the giant tree in nature, or the smallest thing holds the potential for the greatest spiritual depth. While the small Gods may be our personal issues and daily life, they are truly the stuff that will make it possible to see a big God, not in the traditional sense of creator and controller, but in our connectedness with all of life. We cannot understand the big God unless we see and listen to the Whos. God or the divine is in the details: in the plant we place in the wet ground that it might grow, in the ice that cools our hot tongues in summer to melt to refreshment, in the smile and glowing eyes we impart to the stranger that says yes, we can know one another.
In a practical sense this also helps us reflect on the role of children in our culture. Today we have dedicated two lives to the care of this church, and have charged their parents with the awesome responsibility of bringing up these young lives to reference all of life, and develop their own ability to love and understand others. “A person’s a person no matter how small” is a vital lesson here as well. Children play an odd role in our culture. Modern life has made being a child very difficult because too often we take childhood away from our kids and give them a complicated schedule to fill up every minute of their lives, when they and we could spend much more time just being together playing games and taking walks on the beach while collecting rocks and shells. One thing we could do for our small charges on this day when we reflect on families a great deal is to give them more time to just enjoy their lives and not plan on what might bring success, but what might bring joy. I also think we share too much of adult conversation with children, and make them into confidants of too much pressure and information that is better left in the adult world. As with the fun times we often deprive them of, I think when it comes to information as well, let kids be kids. The third thing that concerns me is that we rarely listen to children. Yes, we give kids a lot of things, and we may even spend a lot of time with them, but how often do we truly listen to what they have to say. There is a small God to be discovered in a conversation with a child. Just yesterday we saw the new movie, “Hoot,” with our kids. It tells the story of endangered, burrowing owls whose habitat is threatened by a developer of a pancake house. Three teenagers make their small voices heard in a variety of clandestine ways to protect the even smaller voices of the owls.
There is a cosmos within each of us waiting to be discovered. It is not that gigantic thing out there in space. It is that small universe of life waiting to be born in us, or small discoveries we make on a daily basis. For the past couple of months there has been a Wayside pulpit quotation out front that I just love. It us by James Freeman Clarke and it says, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.“ Most of us have come to realize that there is no great God providing overriding meaning to our existence. Life is made of fits and starts and bits of meaning here and there, and now and then. We would like that big God, but he is not going to suddenly appear. I remember quoting Rosa Parks on MLK Day, that she just wanted a seat on the bus because she was tired from work. Of course it was more than that, but that small thing did start a great big revolution. It was her standing up for herself, it was her compassion for others, these are the every day small Gods that will help us build a big God.
Remembering all the mothers of all the generations doing small things in a great way is fitting on Mother’s Day. May we listen. May we guide. May we embrace. May we teach. All these small things done with love and understanding make their own earthquake when we find the divine within the ordinary. Our former intern, Sue Kingman shared the following poem called Song of Small Wonders by Carole Fontaine in a recent newsletter from Sanford, Maine. It is more about the cumulative effect of small acts of justice and mercy, like bringing bread to the hungry, or visiting the sick. It also tells us that all small things build to make a whole. The child who is listened to, and given time and attention will know a larger wholeness in his/her family life. The Whos down in Whoville represent all the small people of the world who demand to be seen and heard. The other day Asher and I were walking home, and he said, I know that spring has returned because the birds are in the trees singing to us again. The small things that we listen for and do are the things that truly connect us to each other and the larger whole.
We say it doesn’t matter;
We think it can not matter;
Our miniscule acts of justice
Trickling into a bucket of grief.
Such little works, so dispersed,
Only one tiny resistance,
Then another and another;
Is this the way a flood begins?
Bit by bit, we stack our deeds,
Like bags of seed or lifesaving grain,
With determination that will follow,
Providing more. again. again.
We make of them a bulwark of caring
A seawall when tragedy seems to sway
Our fragile bridges with awesome waves.
We view to cross them anyway.
It doesn’t seem like it can matter.
That we could bend such global pain,
Until we note the sound of thunder
Followed by drop after drop of rain.
The rivers flow, but the sea does not fill;
Yet tides of love swell repeatedly,
And sweep their knowledge to our shore’
Justice grows from you, from me.
From all of us together,
Undeterred by compassion’s drought,
Undaunted by the size of tasks,
Unabashed by deluge of doubt.
We admit to no futility —
One drop can color the whole wide sea.
Closing Words – from I Kings 19
And behold, the Lord passed by and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”