An important discussion was taking place in the mid-priced hotel just five blocks from the church. It wasn't so much a deep theological discussion about atonement through Christ's sacrifice on the cross. It wasn't about the level of poverty in the inner-cities of our nation or the poor high school graduation rates of at-risk youth. It was about socks or no socks! That's right! The clothing we wear next to our feet that keeps our skin from touching our shoes. It was an animated discussion. It was the Sunday of my call sermon to what would become my new Connecticut parish that I would serve as its Senior Minister. Along with the worship leadership I had been asked to attend a coffee--a get-acquainted time, an hour and a half prior to the worship service. The lively discussion was over whether two children--then in their pre-teens--would wear socks with their blue shirts, their ties, their blazers, their tan slacks, and their loafers. It was all the fad--regardless of the season--to go sockless. Since I believed good first impressions are made with socks--I was wearing them--therefore I thought it was even more important that my sons, in spite of their charming personalities, should also wear socks. My wife was the mediator. There became two options: wear shocks and not go to the coffee hour before worship or wear no socks and go to both the welcoming coffee and the worship service. They attended both events wearing no socks and, believe it or not, I still got the job. I had raised my blood pressure unnecessarily and made the family less enthusiastic about attending the coffee. I made small stuff big stuff!
In our Scripture lesson from Luke it would seem that making small stuff into big stuff is part of the human DNA, at least in religious circles and probably throughout all community relationships. The Sadducees, one of the powerful parties in the Jewish religious hierarchy, in an attempt to trap Jesus by his saying some heretic statement, asked him a question about marriage and resurrection. One of seven brothers married a woman and had no children, and then he died. As was often the custom, to care for the widow another brother married her, and the same thing happened to him--no children and then death. All seven brothers married the widow and all met with the same fate--you guessed it--no children and death. The seven-time widow eventually herself died. Now came the perplexing question. "In heaven whose wife of the seven is she?" Jesus reflects for a moment before answering. If I were Jesus, I would have begun my answer by saying, "You would have thought by the time the fourth brother had died that the rest of them would have thought twice about marrying her." But instead he reminds them that God is God of the living, not the dead. The question they had asked was inconsequential. He is basically saying, "Our concern should be about the living."
The Gospel of Mark's account of this same encounter gets to the heart of Jesus' answer. After Jesus has silenced the Sadducees with his thoughtful response, in Mark we read the following passage:
28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he had answered them well, he asked, "What commandment is the first of all?" 29Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' 31The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." 32Then the scribe looked at him and said, "You are right."
What's the big stuff? To love God and to love neighbor as yourself! Jesus says to his inquisitors that that is the only big stuff in life! The essence of Jesus' message is that the overseers of The Law had spent too much time on the minutia of The Law--turning the two basic commandments into over 600 commandments. Who cares who will be married to whom in heaven; it is all about loving God and loving neighbor!
As we all know, we live in a society that is more stressed out, on more anxiety reducing medications, and has more therapists and mental health counselors than any other time before. Depression, rage, anger, physical violence--we all know that these are by-products of a society that makes everything big stuff....a society that proclaims you must have it all or you are deficient. The search for the stuff that the world considers big stuff makes us feel more insufficient and drives us to seek more and more of this world's unattainable dream. To be happy you need this trinket or that title or this victory? Oblate priest and writer Father Ronald Rolheiser on reflecting on the emptiness that many feel as they search for the supposed big stuff writes: "Always there are deeper hungers that are being stifled. And always, as Karl Rahner so poignantly puts it, we are suffering the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable as we are learning that here in this life there is no finished symphony." We are driven by our insufficiency to seek things that are unnecessary.
Unlike many in our world who are living or near poverty line, many of us are obsessed with seeking the big stuff that is really small stuff. We cherish greed for unimportant things in a world of great need.
A bride and her mother came to me with a Martha Stewart book, of all things, in hand. They were here to plan the wedding. They were expressing their concern whether the floral arrangements that they were considering would coordinate with the simple plainness of a Colonial Congregational meeting house. They further inquired about the length of the wedding service. This was crucial so they could coordinate the opening of the bar and the serving of the hors d'eouvres exactly at the moment the first guest arrived at the reception. They even expressed concern about whether the bridesmaids' dresses would clash with the red carpet, not loving God or loving neighbor. Their anxiety was off the chart--all over inconsequential, unimportant minutia.
Contrast this scene from a marriage of over 50 years. I arrived at the home of Dave and Mary on a dark, chilly fall evening. The image through the front window offered an American gothic moment. The silhouette of an attentive and loving wife sitting next to the bed of her very sick husband. They were witnessing to their marriage vows--in sickness and in health. That's big stuff! But the reality was that David had just died and I was coming to pray and sit with Mary until the funeral director arrived. It was two weeks earlier that I had been talking to Dave about his life journey. While I knew much of his family history, he needed to repeat it again just one more time before he left us. "Bob, for so many years of my marriage to Mary, I was obsessed with my work and my golfing and trying to prove to myself that I was important. As you know, that led to years of my excessive drinking. I was fortunate that Mary and the children hung in there with me. I am glad I figured it out--what was really important--or I might have been dying alone at this time." David had learned what was really important stuff--the big stuff. Loving God through loving his wife and his family, David had comprehended not only the Gospel but maybe the words of Richard Carlson from his book Don't Sweat the Small Stuff -- And It's All Small Stuff.
Something wonderful begins to happen with the simple revelation that life, like an automobile, is driven from the inside out, not the other way around. As you focus more on becoming more peaceful with where you are, rather than focusing on where you would rather be, you begin to find peace right now, in the present.
This probably leads to some questions we all need to ponder and reflect upon as we look at the text from Luke. And the questions are these:
- What do I need rather than what do I want?
- How am I blessed rather than how am I shortchanged?
- How much in my life is concerned with the accumulating of possessions and how much of my life is focused on building community with and caring for others?
- Do I spend more time considering what I don't have rather than what I do have?
- How would others who live in poverty look at my lifestyle?
- What can I do to alleviate the worries of others who are facing hardships much greater than any I have known?
To love God and to love neighbor--so simple, yet we make it so difficult. And the truth is to find the fulfillment that comes with fulfilling these two commandments comes not with addition or multiplication but by subtraction. The noted writer/theologian Richard Foster writes:
Contemporary Culture is plagued by a passion for possessions...more is better...the result is that the lust for affluence in contemporary society has become psychotic....We feel strained, hurried and breathless....Christian simplicity frees us from this modern mania....People once again become more important that possessions.
Who is married to whom in heaven: small stuff! What car to drive: more small stuff. Driving a nail into wood and building a home for the poor: BIG STUFF. What floral arrangement for a wedding table: small stuff. Serving at a table in a soup kitchen or helping a third-world family plant a garden to feed themselves: BIG STUFF.
I wonder whether Jesus would consider wearing loafers without socks big stuff? I think I know the answer!
Let us pray. Ever giving and ever generous God, pour your Holy Spirit upon us so that we might be wise in our discernment of what is small stuff and big stuff. We pray that we will keep our passion for loving you and our neighbor far above our love for possessions. Holy Spirit, come and take possession of our hearts! Amen.