November 10, 2019: "Small Stuff"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 10, 2019
It wasn’t really something I had ever thought much about, but whether or not to wear socks with my shoes became a very real thing for me a little over seven years ago now. You see, it was the evening of the ice cream social where I was going to have the chance to meet you fine people for the first time. The next morning was my first sermon from this pulpit, followed by the congregational vote on whether or not to call me as pastor. As I got dressed for the ice cream social, I paused for a moment before I put my shoes on. In the back of my mind, I could hear my granddad shaking his head when I showed up to a family event one summer wearing loafers without socks. That made me freeze. For just a moment, I sat there in my hotel room, frozen, trying to decide not on some profound atonement theory of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross but on whether or not wearing a thin layer of fabric between my feet and my shoes would have any impact on whether or not I was called here as your pastor. Would it come across as sloppy? Would it make me look careless and unprofessional? Would it offend anyone? In the end, I changed by entire outfit and opted for a pair of khakis that would cover the tops of my shoes so no one could tell if I was wearing socks or not. But guess what…I wore the socks anyway. And this whole episode made me about 15 minutes late for our first gathering.
In our Scripture lesson from Luke today it would seem that making small stuff into big stuff is part of our DNA. That is exactly what I did with thinking my footwear would somehow change the course of God calling us together—that was something small that I made it something big. The Sadducees are doing the same thing with death, resurrection, and remarriage in today’s lesson. The Sadducees where one of the most powerful parties in the Jewish religious hierarchy and they were smart. The hypothetical question they set up for Jesus involves seven brothers, one of whom marries a woman and has no children before he dies. Since Judaism is so deeply concerned with caring for widows, the custom and law was that one of the other brothers had to marry the dead brother’s widow. One after another, each brother marries the widow and dies childless. Eventually, the seven-time widow also dies. “In the resurrection,’ the powerful religious leaders ask, ‘who’s will the woman be?” Jesus thinks for a moment but he does not answer their question. Instead, he says, “God is not the god of the dead, but of the living.”
In other words, Jesus is saying, “Our concern should be about the living because God is concerned with the living.” Jesus will never answer the Sadducees’ question because the question is inconsequential. The God that Jesus had come into the world to reveal is not concerned with untangling hypothetical questions about the law. The God that Jesus reveals to us is the God who opens eyes, causes lepers to dance and sing, and raises the dead to life. A question about who will marry a widow in the resurrection isn’t even on Jesus’ radar. The gospel of Mark records this same exact event, and it gives us a glimpse into why this isn’t on Jesus’ radar. After the death and resurrection and remarriage question, another religious leader comes to Jesus and asks, “What commandment is first of all?” Jesus answers, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you 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.” Then Jesus takes it a step further and says, “The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
From a narrow question about what marriage looks like in eternity, to distilling the law down to two commandments, Jesus has taken the Sadducees’ focus from something small and inconsequential to one great big thing that matters above all else: love. Love of God and neighbor is the big stuff for Jesus, it is why he came. By not giving into the Sadducees’ games, Jesus is actually indicting them for spending too much time on stuff that doesn’t matter. Who cares who will be married to whom in heaven! God has that under control. The only thing that really matters in life, and the thing for which all will have to answer before God, is how and if we spent our lives loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
I don’t really need to tell you this, but 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. For many in the world, access to these medications and counselors is life-saving and absolutely necessary. But as study after study has found, much of the depression, rage, anger, and physical violence in our world is the by-product of a society that makes everything big stuff. We are constantly bombarded with messages of deficiency and scarcity. It might be your weight, it might be your hair color, it might even be your lack of hair. A few nights ago I counted no less than 13 commercials during an hour-long TV show advertising a product to remedy something that has, in my opinion, no effect on one’s ability to live. One of those products was a serum used to lengthen one’s eyelashes. That is not something that I have ever thought about, and maybe there are people for whom short eyelashes cause suffering or shame, but longer eyelashes don’t affect breathing or heart rate or how the body absorbs nutrients or any of the other trillions of things our bodies do every moment to keep us alive. Its small stuff.
Karl Rahner was a catholic theologian who once said, “We are suffering from the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable as we are learning that here in this life there is no finished symphony.” Listen to that again: “We are suffering from the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable as we are learning that here in this life there is no finished symphony.” What Rahner is saying here is that in all times and all places, human beings have been held captive by the idea that life can be as perfect as, say, Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Because we have been held captive by the idea that life can be perfect, we have chased and will continue to chase anything that says it will help us reach that perfection. The truth is that none of us is perfect and we will never experience perfection on this side of eternity. The other truth is that all those things we chase after are unnecessary, small things, insufficient in saving us, inconsequential at their best and harmful to us and the people around us at their worst.
When I was serving as an organist at a church in New Jersey during my last in seminary, a couple came to the church wanting to be married. This began an email chain between the church’s pastor, the couple, and me as the one who would help plan and coordinate the music for the service. We set a date to sit down and plan the service and we all agreed to it. I arrived to the church on that day a little earlier than the couple and after grabbing some books of music and a pen and pad of paper, I joined the pastor in his office to wait for the couple. Suddenly, and enough that it made us both jump a little, the bride and her mother busted through the church office door and blew into the pastor’s office like a tornado. Immediately the bride and her mother jumped in to conversation about floral arrangements, the length of the service, who would let the club know that the service was over so they could open the bar, and even how the bridesmaids’ dresses would clash with the pew cushions and could we remove them for the ceremony. After about an hour of this, the bride’s phone rang and she said that she and her mother needed to go for another meeting, and out the door they went. By the time they left, we had not talked even for a moment about the content of the wedding ceremony.
Contrast this with a scene in the same congregation about six months later. Sometimes the pastor of the church asked me to make pastoral visits to church members—I was almost done seminary and he was giving me a chance to stretch my legs a bit. He asked me one day to visit Mary and David after Mary had called asking for one of us. Mary’s daughter opened the door for me that day, and she showed me into the living room where Mary was sitting by David’s hospital bed holding his hand. I had visited Mary and David a few times before and it was always the same, Mary sitting by the bed holding David’s hand. But this time, it felt different and that’s because David had died just a little while before. I sat with Mary and their daughter until the funeral director arrived.
At David’s funeral, Mary read a letter that David had written for that occasion. “For so many years,’ David wrote, ‘I was obsessed with my work and my golfing and trying to prove to myself that I was important. This led to many years of excessive drinking. I was fortunate that Mary and the children hung in there with me. I am glad I figured it out eventually—what was really important—or I might have been dying alone all these years later.” David had learned what was really important—the big stuff. Loving God through loving his family, David comprehended exactly what Jesus had to say to the Sadducees and scribes several millennia before. And that’s not to say that the bride and her mother did not comprehend the gospel. These scenes remain in my mind as a reminder of just how easily I can be distracted from the things that are really important. You better believe that flowers and timing and dresses are important on a wedding day. But what is most important at a wedding is celebrating God’s covenant love, a love that David found and lived by for the remainder of his days.
If we’re going to transition from sweating the small stuff so we have time and energy to focus on the big things of God, I think there are some questions we need to ask ourselves:
What do I need rather than what do I want?
How am I blessed rather than how am I shortchanged?
How much of my life is concerned with getting things and how much of my life is focused on building community with and caring for others?
Do I spend more time thinking about what I don’t have rather than what I do have?
How would others who live in different situations look at my lifestyle?
What can I do to alleviate the worries of others who are facing hardships?
My friends, to love God and to love neighbor—it is so simply, yet we make it so difficult. But the good news of the gospel is that fulfillment in life comes from fulfilling the greatest two commandments of all. Who is married to whom in heaven: small stuff. Wedding flowers: fun, but small stuff. What car to drive: small stuff. Driving nails into wood and building a home for someone in need: big stuff. Taking time to listen: big stuff. Offering a hug or a kind word or a warm casserole: big stuff. Wearing socks with loafers: small stuff. Being open to community and being ready to be surprised by God: big, big stuff! Warm clothing, as we’ll hear in just a few moments: that’s big, big stuff too. The more we focus on and lean into the big things of our faith, the more we will find true and lasting fulfillment in this life. The more we love, the more meaning we will find. The more we share, the more we will have. The less we worry about the small things and the more time and energy we give over to God, the more life we will have in the days God has given to us. May it be so. Amen.