Sunday, August 01, 2010

One Big Thing

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
August 1, 2010

Year C, Proper 13: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
(Colossians 3:1-11)
Luke 12:13-21

The One Big Thing

The story of Mary and Martha is still on my mind. This past Thursday was their feast day and you may remember that a couple of Sundays ago we heard the story of Jesus and his disciples visiting the home of these two sisters who react to his presence in very different ways. Martha is busy with her many tasks while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, hanging on every word. Martha expresses understandable frustration at her sister, but Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

“There is need of only one thing.”

An ancient Greek poet famously said, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” And when it comes to how we live our lives we’re really supposed to be spiritual hedgehogs – knowing and focused on that one big thing.

But, what is that one thing Mary has chosen? What is the one big thing we’re supposed to know and focus on? Well, when Jesus summarizes the Law, he tells us that the one big thing – the one big thing we are to know and focus on, is love of God and love of neighbor. We are meant to be spiritual hedgehogs living our lives focused on that – loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Over the centuries, many Christians have offered their own takes on the one big thing – on how to live as spiritual hedgehogs. One of the best definitions of “the one big thing” comes from Ignatius of Loyola, whose feast day, it so happens, was yesterday. (It was a good week for the church calendar!)

Ignatius, who lived during the first half of the 16th Century, is best known as the founder of the Jesuits and also as a master of discernment. He wrote an entire manual to help people figure out how they could choose “the better part”, to help people recognize the one big thing, to help people be spiritual hedgehogs – living lives focused on the one big thing.

At the start of his manual, called The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius defines the purpose of human life. He writes, “Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by means of this to save their souls.”

For Ignatius, that’s what it’s all about – that’s the one big thing – to praise, reverence and serve God. His next sentence is interesting. He writes, “The other things on the face of the earth are created for the human beings, to help them in working toward the end for which they were created.”

So, for Ignatius, the material world exists to help us live as spiritual hedgehogs knowing and focused on the one big thing - praising, reverencing and serving God, loving God, loving our neighbor.

And then Ignatius continues, “From this it follows that I should use these things to the extent that they help me toward my end, and rid myself of them to the extent that they hinder me.”

So any material goods that help us live as spiritual hedgehogs, praising, reverencing and serving God are perfectly fine. But, Ignatius insists, if material things get in the way of knowing and focusing on the one big thing, then we need to get rid of them. Material things are means, not ends.

Finally, Ignatius throws us a tough one: “To do this, I must make myself indifferent to all created things…”

Indifferent is kind of a funny word. At best, it sounds neutral, right? “Where do you want to go to dinner tonight – Houlihan’s or TGI Fridays’s?” “Eh, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter, I’m indifferent.”

Or, sometimes there’s a negative meaning to indifference, like when all too often we are indifferent to the suffering of others.

But, Ignatius actually puts a positive spin on indifference. Of course, Ignatius believed that we should be caring people – that’s really the whole point - but he believed we should be caring people who care only about the one big thing. Ignatius insisted that we should be indifferent about everything except praising, reverencing and serving God. We should be indifferent to everything except loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Ignatius believed we should be indifferent to material things because he understood the dangers of idolatry. Loving material things more than we love God and our neighbor - idolatry - never really satisfies us. Loving material things more than we love God and our neighbor – idolatry – is a distortion of who we are meant to be and who we really are. Loving material things more than we love God and our neighbor - idolatry – means forgetting the one big thing and instead focusing on and trusting in the fragile and the temporary. And, in the end, loving material things more than we love God and our neighbor – idolatry – leads to disaster.

Which brings us to today’s gospel lesson – the parable of the rich fool. Just as an aside – I don’t know whether it’s on purpose or by accident, but the setting of this parable in Luke’s gospel is a nice, subtle example of putting our needs first, of forgetting or missing the one big thing. Here’s the scene: Jesus is teaching a large group of people. Jesus is speaking very seriously about the costs of following him, but also offers reassurance. According to Luke, Jesus says,

“When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” Serious business, right? A reminder of the one big thing of how we are meant to live our lives – despite the cost. Probably the best response to Jesus’ words would be to be quiet, think and pray. Instead, the very next verse is the start of today’s lesson:

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’” It reminds me of my teaching days, when we’d be in class talking about something important, like, say, the First Amendment, and some knucklehead would raise his hand and ask something like, “Mr. Murphy, why do you still call it a blackboard, when it’s actually green?”

Anyway, here’s Jesus, here’s the messiah, right there in front of you, talking about the one big thing, talking about the cost of following him, promising the gift of the Holy Spirit, and this guy is concerned only about his inheritance- a nice little example of idolatry – loving material things more than loving God and neighbor.

In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus gives us an almost cartoonish example of idolatry. The rich man has an abundance of crops and instead of offering his surplus to his family or to his neighbors – he builds larger barns, thinking he’s now guaranteed himself security. His kind of idolatry is concern only for himself – he thinks that taking care of “number one” is the one big thing. Big mistake. Sure enough his idolatry leads to disaster.

God says, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus concludes the parable, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

It’s one of Jesus’ clearest parables – to be honest, it pretty much preaches itself.

And after getting to know you over these past three years, I can say with confidence that this parable doesn’t really have much to do with us. I’ve never met a single person here who is concerned only with himself or herself. I can’t think of a single person who only looks out for “number one” and then sits back, relaxes and says, “Now I can eat, drink and be merry.”

That’s not our kind of idolatry. Our kind of idolatry is Martha’s kind of idolatry. For some of us, idolatry is when all the many tasks and concerns of life – all good things as far as it goes – prevent us from the one big thing – praising, reverencing and serving God, loving God and loving neighbor. For some of us idolatry is getting so attached to certain places and things, that they become little gods to us. For some of us idolatry is focusing on our work so that our career becomes a god to us. Our idolatry is thinking there will always be time later on for love of God, and for love of neighbor; there will always be time later on for our families and friends. Big mistake.

Our kind of idolatry isn’t as blatant as the rich fool of the parable, but it is idolatry all the same. We get distracted and forget the one big thing. In our idolatry the means becomes the end.

If it’s any consolation, all the different kinds of idolatry have been around for a long time. The prophet Hosea was a near-contemporary of the prophet Amos, from whom we heard a couple of weeks ago. Hosea lived in the 8th Century BC when the Jewish people were divided into two kingdoms, Judah in the South and Israel in the North. Hosea is actually the only purely northern prophet in the Bible. This was a time of great prosperity – at least for some – in Israel. But, it was also a time when many people forgot the one big thing – love of God and love of neighbor. In some cases, their idolatry may have been more obvious than ours – at the time a lot of people’s names included “Baal,” the name of a major Canaanite god. But, I’m sure in most cases they were people trying to get through the day, earn a living, get ahead in the world, and do right by their families. I’m sure most of them were people like us, who because of our many distractions and pressures forget the one big thing, people who grew too attached to places and things.

A couple of weeks ago we heard Amos warn Israel that the Day of the Lord – the day of God’s anger and punishment – was coming.

But, in the passage we heard today, Hosea offers a different message, a profound and very comforting insight into the nature of God. Hosea takes us into the mind of God. Hosea depicts God as sad and disappointed.

God seems to be talking to God’s Self, saying, “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” But despite God’s disappointment, God can’t seem to turn away from God’s people. God says, “How can I hand you over, O Israel?”

In a sense, God is a spiritual hedgehog. God is love, knowing and focusing on one big thing, love for us and for all of creation.

God is love, and we are made to praise, reverence and serve God. We are made to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s who we really are. That’s what life is all about. That’s the one big thing.

So, my fellow spiritual hedgehogs, we’re not like the rich fool, caring only for ourselves – storing up our material goods so we can eat, drink and be merry. That’s not our kind of idolatry. But, we are like Martha – distracted by our many tasks and problems. We get so attached to places and things; we get so focused on our careers and our work, that we forget the one big thing. We put off for some other day what’s most important. We can become foxes who know many things, who focus on many things, but forget the one big thing.

But, here’s the good news: Hosea shows us that despite our idolatry, God is always, no matter what, focused on loving us.

So, maybe this is a good time to take Ignatius’ advice and ask God’s help to refocus our lives on the one big thing – praising, reverencing and serving God; loving God and loving our neighbor. Maybe this is a good time to be like Mary, to be a spiritual hedgehog, knowing and focusing on the one big thing.