September 23, 2013

The Small Stuff


Text: Luke 16:10: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much...”

This is a sermon about small things. And so appropriately, I hope, it has a pretty small focus, and maybe a simple idea.

Some of you may remember now nearly twenty years ago the publishing of a book by a man named Richard Carlson called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff... And It’s All Small Stuff. Richard Carlson was a psychologist and a therapist who had a very clear and very simple idea, which was: The key to happiness is perspective.

One of the little rules of life that many folks remember from Carlson’s book is this little standard of measure: When you find yourself really worrying about something, really fretting about something, when you find yourself arguing with your colleagues or your spouse about something, ask yourself this question: Will this matter a year from now?

Needless to say, a lot of what we get bogged down with in our lives often doesn’t meet that standard. And seen by the scale of that measure, a pretty large share of the stuff that occupies our heads and our hearts from one moment to the next doesn’t really deserve the worry we lavish on it.

The scientists say this same thing by pointing out that we predictably, and incorrectly, discount the future; we care a lot more about stuff right in front of us than what’s down the road. The short form of that is we’re terrible at savings accounts, but great at credit cards.

So there is something, at least, to this idea. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Carlson’s simple little idea was published in one of those books that you find in the self-help section of the bookstore. And like the most successful of those books, it became something of a mini-industry. There were books called things like Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Teens and Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Women and Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff at Work. There might even have been a Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff at Church—I’m not sure. Hundreds of thousands of people bought copies of these books.

I suppose it’s a comforting idea—we should only worry about the big stuff, and there’s very little big stuff. When the big stuff comes, we’ll be ready for it, because we haven’t been wasting our energy worrying about the small stuff.

Well, maybe. I don’t know about you, but my experience teaches me otherwise. And the last words of Jesus we heard this morning, after a pretty confusing teaching about a very crafty servant, seem to point in a very different direction.


Jesus teaches nearly the opposite of Carlson’s message. He says that the small stuff is exactly what we should worry about. This isn’t just because Jesus wants us to have more to worry about; we’re being taught something about our own nature.

It turns out that the big stuff really is made up of a lot of small stuff. When we meet the big stuff, the major decisions, the critical choices, we will be in over our heads unless we’ve actually had the experience of making well-shaped choices on matters of lower stakes.

We’ll do a lot better if we’ve had to figure out on a smaller scale how to overcome the things about us that tend to point is in the wrong direction—our impulses, our self-justification, our preference of immediate satisfaction over a more worthy goal in the future.

We know this in the way we raise our children. We try to construct scenarios for our kids in which we try to gradually increase the degree of responsibility we give them. It can be an allowance, or it can be a job, or anything else you can event.

And one major challenge parents face today—I’m inclined to say, one major challenge children face today—is that social media and the pervasive glowing screen has taken away a lot of the domain over which parents used to be able to have control, and to use that control doing the work of parenting.

Sometimes the results of this can be pretty disturbing. Not that many years ago I was asked to help a young student walk through the unhappy process of a disciplinary proceeding at the college where I worked and the student studied. This was a brilliant, intellectually capable kid who had not managed to get out of the first year at college without confronting a pretty basic moral challenge: What do you do is you know your roommate is stealing things of value from other people, and stashing the loot in the room you share?

This first-year student, confronted with that choice, chose to do nothing; and the stealing continued until the roommate was finally caught.  When it became plain that my young friend could not possibly have failed to know what was happening, and yet did nothing, there was no avoiding an appearance before the disciplinary board, which ended in a college career that took a very different shape from what this student had at first imagined.

It was hard to reconcile this kid’s behavior, this failure to act, with what was clearly a very capable intellect. But as I came to know this student over a number of meetings after the initial crisis it became clear that the whole realm of morally charged choices was one that simply was unfamiliar.

For eighteen years, this student had been coached and drilled and tutored and trained for the single, exclusive purpose of getting accepted into the best college possible. There simply hadn’t been any other experiences—no sports, not a lot of socialization, a little music. There was really only one regular engagement outside the task of getting the best grades and the best scores—and that, believe it or not, was church on Sunday.

I guess not a lot about that really stuck. Here was a kid for whom anything outside the focused purpose of admission to a top-rated college was small stuff, stuff to be regarded as a distraction and a waste of time. Maybe it won’t surprise you that the parents in this picture were a big part of shaping and enforcing that focus in life. And they were devastated at the outcome.

But what no one apparently was able to see was that the small stuff, that seemingly unimportant stuff about growing up, is the basic building material we use to craft our moral compass. And this kid had managed to get to college pretty much without one.

The one who is faithful in little will be faithful in much. Little things become big things, and big things quickly overcome our capacity to manage.

Yesterday I spent most of the day coming to think about small stuff in a new way. We are a small church, and I think most of you know that we’re involved in a study of small churches with the folks at the Hartford Institute for the Study of Religion. A few of us went down to Somerset yesterday to meet with folks from twelve other small churches that have been chosen to be part of this project.

I’m really happy we’re involved with this project, and I suppose I’ve secretly been hoping that we’re going to learn some sort of magic formula that will suddenly double our membership rolls and increase the endowment and allow us to do all the great stuff we would like to do.

But instead what I heard yesterday was an incredibly thoughtful talk about the importance of first impressions when it comes to visiting a church.

When we think about what we would want people to know about Saint John’s, we say things like: We’re a warm, welcoming community. Which is pretty much what every other church in every other place would say of itself.

But what we really say to people when they first come here happens in the first sixty seconds after they arrive. And we say things like: Can you find the front door? Is the lawn mowed? Have they dusted place in the last year? Was the person who greeted me smiling?

First impressions, for good or ill, are made up of small stuff. First impressions are the classic example of why we really do need to sweat small stuff—because without attending to the small stuff we won’t have much of a chance to do great work.

So Jesus turns out to be right. Little things mean a lot. When we attend to the things that may seem trivial or unimportant or unnoticed or overlooked by others, when we do things that we think no one else may even notice, we are being faithful in exactly the way we are called to be faithful. And we are preparing ourselves, little bit by little bit, for the great work that lies ahead. Amen.