Sermon preached July 24, 2011
Text: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46
A few years ago, driving in the car, I heard a woman named Loretta LaRouche being interviewed. Loretta LaRouche is an author and speaker, and when I heard her, she was talking about our remarkable ability as human beings to “awfulize” and “catastrophize” - - - and as she spoke I knew just what she was talking about.
I don’t like to be late, though like most people I am sometimes. There are those times, however, when a relatively minor event becomes like some kind of state dinner with the President, when my anxiety about being late gets overblown and I am less than gracious with my family in hurrying them along. Being five minutes late to a picnic probably does not deserve the reaction I have given it.
My golf game is a great venue for awfulizing and catastrophizing. In two holes I can go from: “maybe I can get better at this game” to “I wonder how much these clubs would fetch at a garage sale?”
Human beings are particularly good at awfulizing and catastrophizing in their relationships. When I work with couples preparing for marriage I tell them that two words should be avoided in a disagreement – “always” and “never.” You never put the your laundry in the hamper. You always squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle even though you know it bothers me. You never put a new roll on the spool.
This week on Facebook, I read a wonderful example of awfulizing. “Playing musical chairs with my multiple personalities today. Not much fun because I keep taunting myself when I lose, the music is horrible, and I’m short a couple of chairs.” This was posted by a relative of mine who does not have any diagnosable mental illnesses.
We can be wonderfully adept at awfulizing, catastrophizing, sweating the small stuff, making mountains out of molehills.
Because of this ability we are often told: “don’t sweat the small stuff” or “don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” When you look at a picture, you can clearly see the difference.
There is wisdom in this advice. Richard Carlson was the author who made a franchise out of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” : Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff- at work, with your family, about money, with love, for men, for teens. The initial book was simply: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: and its all small stuff. There is wisdom in this advice. When we awfulize and catastrophize we are forgetting that many of this things we get worked up about are small stuff.
There is wisdom in this advice, but like much wisdom it has its limits. Richard Carlson later would write a book called What About the Big Stuff. So I guess it is not all small stuff. Tragically for Richard Carlson’s family, he died in 2006 at the age of 45. Big stuff. Wisdom tells us that it is not all small stuff.
But we need to go even further, sometimes the seemingly small stuff is big, is important, matters. Here is someone to whom a molehill matters:
Molehills matter if you are a mole.
The parables of Jesus often communicate this same wisdom – that it’s not all small stuff, even more that sometimes the small stuff is big stuff. What’s the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God like? What’s it like when God is at work in the world? Where do we look for God? You might expect Jesus to answer with images of pomp and power. Kingdom’s are represented by parades and glorious military conquests. Did any of you watch the royal wedding - William and Kate? Now that’s kingdom stuff, isn’t it? Instead Jesus offers up different images. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of God is like yeast, like leaven. The kingdom of God is like something hidden, a buried treasure, or a pearl to someone enamored with pearls. O.k., so the treasure and pearl images are more exotic, but the story never tells us whether the treasure is worth more than the purchase price of the land, only that the person who found it was filled with joy. The parable of the pearl says it was of great value, but remember that it is a person searching for pearls who judges it so.
The kingdom of God, God’s way in and with the world is like ordinary things – mustard seeds and yeast. The kingdom of God, God’s way in and with the world is like things hidden and found, looked for and discovered – and in the finding and discovery there is joy. The kingdom of God, God’s way in and with the world is like little things that create change, ripple effects – the tiny mustard seed that grows, the yeast the leavens the loaf. The kingdom of God, God’s way in and with the world is like the joy in finding something you had been looking for. When I hear that last parable I think of the eleven year old boy I was, buying baseball cards a dime a pack, searching for the Tony Oliva or Rod Carew or Harmon Killebrew, and the joy in finding them.
These parables of Jesus tell us that small stuff can matter, that God’s way with and in the world is often quiet, a little hidden, a little mysterious, but having effects that ripple widely. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued that Christianity got confused when it took the imperial images of the Roman Caesars into its theology, its thinking about God. He argues that there is this other strand in our faith tradition which “dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love” (Process and Reality, Part V, ch. 2). For Whitehead God is “the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by [God’s] vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, Part V, ch. 2). God’s way in and with the world is like a mustard seed or yeast.
Jesus tells us that the small stuff matters because God is often at work in the small stuff. He tells us this not so we will sweat the small stuff. There is still a lot of small stuff that should not be sweated. He doesn’t tell us this so we will ignore the big stuff – birth, marriage, love, illness, catastrophe, death. He tells us this so we will be more attentive, pay attention to the quiet, the small, the hidden.
Jesus parables pose this question to each of us: “If God touches our lives in small ways, where might God be touching my life?” What is rippling in your life that might have the touch of God in it? Where are you finding some unexpected joy? I admit to you that I am a little uncomfortable with language that unequivocally identifies God with some moment in my life. I don’t want God to be blamed for something that was more the result of a bad burrito. But Jesus is telling us that God is at work in our lives and in the world. Jesus encourages us to pay attention and ask the question. For me, I can say, “I think maybe God….” Then I continue to pay attention, to ask questions, to discern.
Jesus parables also pose another question to us. If God often touches the world in small, quiet ways, how might I be part of God’s quiet, tender, loving touch in the world? There are mountain issues out there – big stuff. Somalia is experiencing an enormous hunger crisis. We have managed in our country to paint ourselves into rhetorical corners that make working together and compromising for the common good politically difficult. Wars drag on. Hatreds simmer, as we see in this week’s horrific bombing/shootings in Norway. Mistreatment of the planet continues. What are we to do? Maybe we cannot take it all on at once, and certainly no one of us can solve all these issues, but Jesus wants to remind us of the power of a simple prayer, the ripple effect of a kind word or smile, the leaven of a small gift, the importance of the single act of compassion.
A favorite story of mine takes place on a beach. Once upon a time, there was a wise man, who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day he was walking along the shore. As he looked down the beach, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself to think of someone who would dance to the day. So he began to walk faster to catch up. As he got closer, he saw that it was a young man and the young man wasn't dancing, but instead he was reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean. As he got closer, he called out, "Good morning! What are you doing?" The young man paused, looked up and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean." "I guess I should have asked, Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" "The sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don't throw them in they'll die." "But young man, don't you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it. You can't possibly make a difference!" The young man listened politely. Then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves. "It made a difference for that one!" (Joel Barker, adapted from Loren Eisley, “The Star Thrower” in The Star Thrower)
The kingdom of God, God’s way in and with the world is often in the small stuff. Don’t sweat the small stuff, but pay attention to it, and foster kindness in all kinds of ways. Throw stars into the ocean and bury small treasures of kindness that others can discover with joy. Amen.