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The Big Stuff

December 3, 2012

“The Big Stuff” Luke 21:25-36 Advent 1C © 12.2.12 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Our society delights in reducing complex matters to one-liners, bumper stickers, bullet points, and slogans. The news media, politicians, certain churches, and advertising are particularly guilty. I usually disapprove of such tactics, but this morning I’m going to engage in them by suggesting to you that life is divided into little stuff and big stuff. Micro and macro. Trees and forests. Brush strokes and big pictures. Particular and universal. Or, for you word lovers, quotidian and quintessential.

Both are important, of course, though we might be inclined to focus more on one than the other. Let think about details, the little stuff, for a moment. At the very least, they mean and make the difference between the merely good and the truly outstanding. On a car or an appliance, we might call them “features”; in a hotel or B&B, “amenities.” When we dress, we talk about “accessories” and when planning a party, we want every little thing to contribute to the “wow factor” that makes the event memorable.

Or consider relationships. Isn’t remembering someone’s name a “detail”? Or how about who their daddy and mama are or what their dog’s name is or what their favorite soft drink might be? Isn’t a birthday or an anniversary a detail? You know those dates are important if you’ve ever forgotten one. Such attention to the little things in peoples’ lives builds trust and a reserve of good will that helps to smooth over the rough spots that inevitably come.

Small things count in business. A missed phone call, ignored text or email or a cultural faux pas can be disastrous. On the other hand, some bit of lagniappe that sweetens the deal or some particularly attentive hospitality can beat out your competition. I once knew a miserable failure of a businessman whose constant refrain was “that’s just details.” But it was those details that lost him prospect after prospect for his city’s industrial development. His idea of a “business presentation” was spreading a map out on the hood of his car in an dusty, windy industrial park. A breakfast for well-heeled prospects was Hardee’s biscuits laid out on the conference table in their paper wrappers and coffee from Styrofoam cups.

Details have been terribly consequential in the history of theology. There’s the famous controversy over the nature of Christ that resulted in the Nicene Creed. Arius, a theologian, argued that Christ was like God, homoiousios. Athanasius, another teacher, said that Christ was the same as God, homoousios. The difference in Greek is one letter, an iota, our letter “I,” but the importance of that detail was monumental. Athanasius and his party won out. We now say in the creed that Christ is “very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.”

And of course, the tiny stuff is sometimes a matter of life and death. Little pieces in toys pose a choking hazard to small children and infants. Seconds matter in battle or in a car accident. The firefighter rushes into the burning building and rescues the child just before the place collapses or explodes.

Little things from a minute detail to a single letter to split second make a big difference. Having said that, though, we can drown in details and be overwhelmed by all the minutiae, the little stuff, of daily life. Information overload is a constant problem in the age of the 24/7 news cycle, Facebook news feeds, the blogosphere, and the Internet. We can become so attentive to every little word in a document, making it go through constant revisions, that it never gets published. A proposal can die the death of a thousand qualifications. An anxious man or woman can go through every possible scenario and never take action or take it too late, missing out on relationships, opportunities, the good things life has to offer someone who doesn’t try to figure out every contingency in advance. There’s even an acronym for that now: FOMO, which stands for “fear of missing out,” and it’s a real problem among affluent emerging adults.

Jesus is particularly concerned in the morning’s text that we not be overwhelmed by these sorts of cares. He warns against dissipation, which means debauchery, but it also can be defined as “scattering” or “disintegration.” How often do we feel like that as we try to do a thousand things at once? We lose focus; we can’t think; we barely know who we are. The root word means to squander energy and resources, and that also describes us. We try to attend to everything, all the little stuff, and end up accomplishing nothing or close to it. Our Lord’s warning against being weighed down by the worries of life is, of course, straightforward. Who of us has not felt burdened like that, maybe right now? So we constantly are attending to matters which may or may not be urgent, and we can’t or don’t focus on renewal, reflection, and the big questions.

This season, which is supposed to be about just that very sort of reflection, repentance, and attentiveness, is ironically the hardest of all in which to gain insight and probe deeply into the meaning of life. We are bombarded earlier and earlier with strident ads urging us to buy, buy, buy; with carols and holiday movies even before Thanksgiving; with all the noisy and bright trappings of a Christmas season that is over in the culture on December 26, but is actually just beginning that day on the church calendar.

How can we ask the big questions when everybody else is focused on what they want for Christmas and the place settings at the holiday dinner? How do we resist the pressure to conform and join the riotous, self-focused consumers on Black Friday? This is the time of year, when in addition to Lent, liturgical Christians ask of ourselves things like: “What am I called to do and be? Why am I here? What have I done with my life? What do I want to do with it? How have I been faithful in the year gone by? Do I live as one prepared to die? What legacy of faith, hope, and love will I leave?” It’s also the time to dream “worthy dreams” as Sharon Daloz Parks puts it, to wonder about what can be, to commit ourselves to seeing the kingdom come.

Perhaps the strength to stand comes from being gripped by a vision so much larger than ourselves that it fills us up, empowers us, and brings us overwhelming joy that causes the distractions of the culture to fade into insignificance. Someone has written that this season “uses unimaginably large language to anticipate unimaginably large events” (Beverly Gaventa). C.S. Lewis spoke of a story “written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see” (quoted in CTS Vantage Fall 2012: 55). That’s the big, global, cosmic story Advent tells.

The first big theme of that story is what happens at the end of things. We call this “eschatology,” from the Greek word that means “the end.” Eschatology is about the Second Coming, the parousia, of Jesus. The gospel text this morning is an eschatological, and also an apocalyptic, text. “Apocalyptic” means “revealing,” though it’s come to be associated with destruction. Such writing is all about turmoil in the universe, global troubles, fear and hardship. And the gospel for the day has it all. I don’t intend this morning to get into the meaning of all these details. It’s enough for us to affirm today with our creeds that Christ will come again, the “Son of Man descending in a cloud” in glory to put things right, to redeem, to restore everything to the way God intended it.

But if the coming of Christ is one big theme of Advent, another is being alert to what’s going on around us. That may sound like “sweating the small stuff,” as the old book title put it, and maybe it is, but rather than burden us, this kind of sweating the little things redeems and transforms us.

You may know that when it comes to learning, there are basically two types of people. One is field-dependent. The other is field-independent. These are sometimes called “global” and “analytical” thinking. The former is not attentive to detail, needs a good deal of structure and instruction given, but is on the other hand socially oriented and sees the big picture, the relationships. The latter, the analytical, breaks down what he or she observes into component parts, can develop a structure and define goals for themselves. On the other hand, these folk tend to be impersonal and learn social skills only because they have to. One sees the forest but not the trees; the other, the trees, but not the forest. Obviously, both have their strengths and weaknesses and are useful given the right situation.

What Jesus recommends to us, though, is a third alternative, which I’m going to call “field-interdependence.” This way of thinking, of seeing, can perceive the trees and know they are part of the forest. It can figure out the whole from the parts. It can see relationships, but value the individual components for themselves.

People who are mature spiritually have what we might call a “third eye.” It’s an ability to perceive things others don’t notice, that they are even blind to. Maybe it’s a sort of intuition, maybe a gift of the Spirit, maybe an openness others don’t want or have.

This third eye of mature spirituality looks at the world in the field-interdependent way. Jesus says for us to be alert to the signs of what God is doing around us. As Atlanta pastor Joanna Adams has put it: “He wants us to be able to see things for what they are and not be fooled by the powers of this world. He wants us to be able to take the long view so that we can see the arrival of a world marked by God’s justice and righteousness” (http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-11/light-candles).

So we interpret the events of our lives not with the poor lenses of mere human sight, but with the enhanced perspective of people who know God is doing something exciting and is moving history toward his goal. Not the goal of fallible and corrupt human beings who worship at the altars of their own accomplishments and think they themselves are gods. But the goal God has purposed, which is nothing less than the redemption of all humankind, the renewal of creation, the renovation of the universe. Talk about big! And it’s the trees growing around us, so to speak, that reveal the forest of God’s intent.

Finally, and briefly, we not only attend to the end of things, and look at the world with a new perspective. We live confident in the reliability of God’s Word. I’m not sure there is anything bigger than that these days. We live in a world full of lies and half-truths and spin, where obsolescence is planned and what was current just yesterday is immediately out of date. Nothing lasts. One day even the sun will burn out, the stars will grow cold, the universe will contract in the Big Crunch. What do we have to rely on, especially in our time of need, when we feel cold spiritually, crunched by the pressure of life, wondering what is true anymore? The Word of God. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” says Jesus. His words are ultimate hope when everything else has gone.

Let’s allow Tom Ehrich, a writer from the Episcopal tradition, to close out this message: “Jesus invited us to raise our eyes to the ultimate. We still live day-to-day [with daily tasks and concerns]. But we needn’t dissolve in anxiety over such things. God is doing something far larger, grounded in love” (“On a Journey,” 11.23.09).

In other words, the big stuff.

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