Stephen Montgomery: The One Big Thing


One favorite game that I've discovered children like to play when they go to the zoo is to imagine, of all the animals, which one would I choose to be? The elephants, who despite their size have more agility than many humans? The lions, sleek and strong? The tigers, quick and graceful? The monkeys, fun-loving and agile?

I took an online survey this week and found out that the animal that I am most like (depending upon where I like to vacation, sleep habits, social networking, personality, and so forth) is the owl. As my daughter said, "Well, dad, you do like to ask a lot of questions, and not just 'whoooo' but why and how and what."

I suppose psychologists would tell us that the animal you choose sheds light on your personality. I don't think any of us would want to be an iguana, or a squid. Some of us might choose to be a fox - quick of wit, clever, fleet of foot, crafty. I doubt many of us would want to be a hedgehog. Hedgehogs, which are better known as porcupines, are not particularly noteworthy except for the fact that their coats consist of spines. Their only claim to fame seems to be their ability to ball themselves up. None of us would readily identify with a porcupine on a literal sense; but figuratively, well...

A churchman by the name of Peter Fleck began an article with a line found among the fragments of the work of a Greek poet: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Listen to Fleck:

The poet may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense. But taken figuratively, the words yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide human beings in general.

He goes on:

For there exists a great chasm between those, on the one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system - in terms of which they understand, think and feel - and those on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way - related by no moral or aesthetic principle; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, without seeking to fit them into one unchanging, all-embracing, inner vision.

Now, forget your biases about animals for a moment. Forget the hedgehog's back full of spines. Forget about the beady-eyed slyness of the fox. See them as symbols: the fox knows many things, the hedgehog ONE big thing.

Jesus had turned his head toward Jerusalem. He knew that this was the direction he had to go. There was no turning back. "I must be on my way." Some Pharisees, of all people, came up to warn him. Really, Pharisees! The ones who often sought to entrap him. But there were some Pharisees who were friends with Jesus. They came to warn Jesus that Herod sought to kill him.

You know Herod - Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Put there by Caesar as Tetrarch of Galilee to keep the peace. Herod was doing quite well until a few folks tried to disturb the peace. John the Baptist was one. Herod ended up beheading him.

And now Jesus was disturbing the peace. Herod didn't understand the kind of kingdom Jesus was talking about. A kingdom governed not by fear, but by love and forgiveness. A kingdom knit together not by show of force, but by faith and hope. A kingdom ruled not by human power, but by the very power of God.

Jesus had just finished saying "people will come from east and west and north and south to sit at table in the kingdom of God." The Pharisees knew that Herod didn't want all those people sitting at the same table. He didn't understand that kind of talk. And he was afraid.

"Get away from here," the Pharisees warned. "Herod wants to kill you." And Jesus responds, "Tell that fox I'm busy casting out demons and performing cures. Tell that fox I was working yesterday, I am working today, and I'm going to be working tomorrow. Herod and I are on two different planes. He is running around like a fox, using his wiles, pursuing many ends, but he doesn't know what life is all about. As for me, I must be on my way, for a prophet should not perish away from Jerusalem."

There is a self-assured confidence here within Jesus, a man who knows that he is on his way to the cross. He laughs at Herod: "Go tell that fox that I know one thing he doesn't know."

For decades, once a year members of the Ku Klux Klan would don their robes and march down Sweet Auburn Avenue, the heart of black Atlanta, right by Ebenezer Baptist Church. Every year in those Jim Crow days, the African-Americans would close up their shops and retreat into their homes in fear. The Klan's strategy was working. Keep fear alive!

But then, one year, some people in that community began to get a vision of their purpose - of God's plan for them. And the Klan began marching down the street, and all the residents came out - and laughed. Laughed at the silliness of it. The Klan never came back.

"Tell that fox I'm too busy healing people to worry about him." That laughter comes from as deep a place as tears come from, except that it comes not as an ally of darkness, but as its adversary; not as a symptom of darkness, but as its antidote.

The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.

Herod could stand for us all. Many of us are like foxes. We know many things. There is an avalanche of information available. We know how to walk on the moon. How to decode the DNA. Think of what we can harvest into our computers. Mysteries that have baffled our ancestors since time began are now being solved at a dizzying pace.

We know how to create life in a petri dish and how to destroy all life in a matter of moments. We are like foxes, and we are as scared and frustrated as Herod. We have facts, but we feel fragmented. We possess knowledge, but we seem more bewildered than wise.

Remember Abraham and Sarah? Abraham needed to know only one thing: that God can be trusted. And that was all he needed. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, despite the fact that he and Sarah were advancing in years and had no heirs, despite all the barriers there were to a future of hope, Abraham went out one night at God's urging and looked at the stars. And that was all it took. No lawyerly brief, no philosophical proof, no argument, just revelation. Just the stars which created in him a primal awareness that God is God. God can be trusted. It became his center.

As for us, well, doesn't Donald Miller, a sociologist of religion, speak correctly of us when he says: "We pay our tribute to the church, the YMCA, the League of Women voters; we are responsible, we read newspapers, we remember birthdays and worry about our children's futures. The guilt evoked on Sunday morning may actually make us feel better than worse. Religion is a part of our life, but not at its center. We are moral in a conventional sort of way, but not exemplary. In lifestyle we resemble the rest of the people in our corporation or profession or suburb."

Oh, we try to fill that vacuum at the center of things. One perennial candidate for the ONE big thing is ourselves - our own self-interest.

I saw a sermon at one of those lube job places not too long ago. It was one of those places where they change the liquids in the car. (Now, if I'm getting too technical for you, just let me know.) While I was waiting, I was delighted to find a paperback book rack, but when I looked more closely, I realized that every single one of the books had at its theme - how to get ahead; how to make a killing on the stock market; how to succeed at sales; how to master the gold market; how to be number one at whatever you do.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong in striving; the problem is that when the one thing that matters to you is you, well, as the poet Yeats so warned years ago: "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold."

Jesus' own life was not the center of who he was. He knew the one big thing - he knew the mustness of his mission. "I must be on my way today and tomorrow."

Now, Christians need be like foxes and hedgehogs, knowing many things and the one big thing as well. How sad it is when we know only one thing - when Christians act simple-minded, scared of knowledge, afraid of the insights of science, wary of the world. "We just want to love the Lord, so don't confuse us with the facts of archeology or medical science or environmental science. If you'll excuse us, we'll just ball ourselves up for the duration of the modern age."

People who want God to be strong so that they can be weak forget that in Christ, God became weak so that we could be strong - in heart, mind, and soul.

Certainly, it took that kind of strength of heart, mind, and soul for Jesus to turn his head toward Jerusalem. Oh, Jerusalem. The city of God, the heart of religion. And Jerusalem, the place where God's prophets were killed. Jesus knew many things, and history was one of them. Jerusalem, the city of violence that kills the prophets and stones those sent by God, and Jerusalem, the city that God would cradle like a mother in her arms.

Jesus knew all of these things, but he also knew the one big thing. And he went to Jerusalem, and sure enough, the same city that blessed him and honored him, rejected him and killed him.

Why is it that those who are the very apple of God's eye - the people of God - are often the very ones that are the greatest obstacle to God's plan?

Every now and then we need to be reminded of certain stories that have helped shape who we are.

It is hard to believe that it was only a little more than 50 years ago that people of faith in the city in which I have served for 19 years, Memphis, Tennessee, were locking arms around their churches and refusing to admit people of color to worship. Some of those church leaders had guns! Those were tense, emotional times. Fortunately, there were a few people of faith that were convicted otherwise. There was a rabbi, an Episcopal bishop, a Methodist minister, and a few others including one of my predecessors, Paul Tudor Jones. In a sermon one Sunday morning, amidst the cacophony of voices urging him otherwise, he stood in Idlewild's pulpit and said clearly and unequivocally: "This is not my church, but it is not your church either. It is God's church, and any child of God, regardless of color, can worship here." That sounds simple...and enough these days. But back then it cost our church about 500 members who left the church.

Now, Dr. Jones knew many things, but he didn't let all that knowledge get in the way of knowing the one big thing. Do you see what I'm saying?

Abraham only had to look at the stars to remember the one big thing. Jesus told his followers to remember the lilies of the field. If God can create these heavens, if God takes care of these lilies, then just imagine how God is going to take care of you. If you seek the kingdom, and that is your center, your focus, your one big thing, then you too can laugh with confidence, and tell Herod in whatever guise Herod comes to you, "Tell that fox I've got work to do. In the name of God, I've got work to do."

When you look at the stars, when you consider the lilies of the field, when you look at the life of Christ, you begin to wonder what is real...that kind of life, or the kind of life you are living.

Repent and believe the Gospel. The big thing.

Let us pray.

It is so easy, O God, to focus on ourselves, for you have created us in your very image and called us your own. But in the busyness of our lives, we forget. Help us to realize that our futures are in your hand as well, your good hand. So, fill us with promises of well-being, justice and mercy which might move us beyond our own fears and anxieties and self-interest and into your land of goodness as we seek first your kingdom and its righteousness and justice. In Jesus' name, amen.