Beth Hoffman Faeth August 18, 2019
Scripture Romans 12:1–18
What matters most?
This was the question I posed during my sermon on July 28, and I asked you to take seriously the fill-in-the-blank homework assignment: “Nothing matters more than __________.” If you missed church that morning, I am happy to fill you in sometime on an agonizing experience during sex ed health class in which the teacher delighted in humiliating me—all because of my amazing mom’s life-changing work with Planned Parenthood. Yes, there is a connection there, I promise.
These reflections were ignited by the passage Anne read from Kate Braestrup’s book Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, during which Kate reveals this significant fill-in-the-blank statement to a class full of 13-year-olds during the “values” portion of a sexual health and reproduction unit. It is what Kate says at the conclusion of the passage that has resonated in my heart since first reading it years ago:
You will probably spend the rest of your life not only answering this question, but also figuring out how to live your life according to what your answer turns out to be. Once you’ve filled in the blank, this sentence will become, in effect, your working definition of God.
Many of you have received a gold star for taking some time to think about it. I mean, you actually did your homework! And I have delighted in the responses I have received. Perhaps my favorite comes from Karen Barstad, who thought about this so much the question invaded her dreams. But it was my answer in the dream that was most perplexing . . . apparently my fill in the blank (which I promised to reveal today), at least in this nocturnal vision, was “Nothing matters more than . . . sadness and grouchiness.” All I can say is that I must have been having a very bad day in this dream, and on most days this would not be my answer, nor my working definition of God. And if this answer resonates with you . . . can we talk? It’s time for an infusion of joy.
I have received some compelling messages and had some interesting conversations over the last few weeks. More than one of you would fill in the blank with kindness: Nothing matters more than kindness. “Kindness is the action verb of love,” someone wrote to me. “Just as faith without works is dead, love without acts of kindness is lifeless. The root of kindness is in family (kin), and yet its blossom radiates to all others (humankind).” And Karen thankfully decided not to go the grumpiness route, instead also choosing kindness as her answer. Karen writes: “Kindness covers so much. I can be kind to others, kind to the planet, kind to animals and kind to myself. Kindness comes without conditions. It’s loving and gentle, but it’s also uncompromising. It doesn’t take shortcuts, rationalize inaction or make excuses. Kindness is steady and reliable. It doesn’t show favoritism, but it does focus on the needs of the oppressed because it understands that we’re all better off when those needs are met. When I remember that nothing matters more than kindness, I’m aware of a warmth I have toward others, particularly those I don’t even know. I experienced this on Saturday when I was biking on the Midtown Greenway. I was pondering the importance of kindness, and I felt my heart opening to the people I passed along the way. It was a simple thing, but it was a good reminder to me to keep this top of mind as I go about my days.”
Someone else wrote that compassion was his answer. “Compassion for the earth, its creatures and its people. I don’t think of it as “pity” or “sympathy,” as Webster suggests, but rather a “suffering with” others and the world. The Greek word is often translated with words like goodness, uprightness, kindness and generosity. Life is a matter of giving rather than always taking, as seems to predominate in this culture. I have said on numerous occasions in the last several years that the most relevant and applicable Bible verse that speaks to our situation these days is 1 Timothy 6:10. ‘For the love of money (greed, in other words) is the root of all evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.’ In other words, greed is a ‘self-inflicted injury’ for failure to be compassionate.”
The answer that I have heard most often, beginning just moments after preaching the last sermon, is love. It’s a good answer. It also happens to be the way Kate Braestrup herself fills in the blank. Nothing matters more than love. Kate explains to her classroom full of teenagers that while we use the word love to express our appreciation for everything from condiments to our soul mate, other languages are far more creative
“Other languages have many words for all the various emotions and intentions we call love,” Kate writes. “And if we weren’t so lazy, Americans would say ‘I am awfully fond of mustard,’ or ‘I have a great affinity for hip-hop music.’ Instead we end up saying ‘I love ice cubes’ and ‘I love justice,’ and ‘Ooooh, I just love Leonardo DiCaprio!’ all with the same word.” She then launches into a brief lecture on the three words for love in Greek: eros—romantic love; philia—familial or the love between friends; and agape—the love that is known to humanity from God, the love that inspires a new way to love one another. Agape became the Latin word caritas, from which we get our word charity. “Agape, or caritas, is unconditional, selfless and self-giving. It is love that is offered entirely for the well-being of the beloved, a love that earnestly desires the wholeness of happiness of the one who is loved.” Love as a working definition for God does certainly seem accurate, for it is stated quite clearly in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love.”
Nothing matters more than love, kindness, compassion. This is the beginning of a beautiful list; gorgeous words to build upon a functional definition of God. While I had my answer before I asked you all the question, I believe it is a weaving together of the responses I have received. You see, for me:
Nothing matters more than relationship.
Connecting with another, whether it is someone with whom you share a home or someone you encounter on a sidewalk, is opportunity for transformation. For years my mantra has been “it’s all about relationship,” because all of life’s meaning stems from how we interact. All of the maladies of the world could be resolved if we only looked upon another—or the other—with an intention to build relationship. Creating relationship implies a feeling between two or more people—kindness, compassion, love, honor, respect, interest. If we make relationship our first priority, we build community, and with community comes the possibility of revolution, of transformation, of changing the status quo. We all know what happens when we lose focus and pay little attention to relationship in our lives. Hearts are broken, families are fractured, individuals lose hope. Relationship is the beginning and the ending of all possibility. Nothing matters more than relationship.
This is the crux of our message from the Apostle Paul today as he shares his guidelines for living with the church in Rome. God has gifted us as individuals with talents as unique as the way we walk and the timbre of our voice. Not one talent is better than another. Not one person is better than another. We are to use our talents to better the community, to strengthen relationship, because alone we are nothing, Paul is saying. Together, with God as our center, we are everything. We belong to each other. Paul’s list of “do’s and don’ts” are all about the building up of another while staying rooted in God’s unconditional love. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” Relationship begins through God’s creative love for us and continues as we express creative love for each other.
Progressive Christian theologian Bruce Epperly explains the priority of relationship in this way: “within the church, we are called to live by an ethic of service and loving-kindness, recognizing that in caring for our brothers and sisters, we are responding to God’s presence in our midst. In the spirit of the Benedictines, we are to treat everyone as if he or she were Christ. Spiritual maturity involves growing from self-interest to balancing self-care with care for the whole. What I give to another nourishes me. The success of another contributes to my own well-being. The walls of isolation are broken down; we are intimately connected with one another, constantly creating and re-creating each other in our relationships.”
Nothing matters more than relationship.
Nothing matters more than kindness.
Nothing matters more than compassion.
Nothing matters more than love.
Nothing matters more than __________ . . . than what? There are no wrong answers. Well, except maybe grouchiness. There are no wrong answers—except to not have an answer. Last week Seth implored us to be a witness. “To listen to a witness is to become a witness” was the mantra throughout his sermon, reminding us of the sacredness of another’s story and the relationship and responsibility that blossoms when we hear another’s story, therefore becoming a part of that story’s narrative. However our heart leads us to fill in the blank, in order for our answer to have any meaning at all we must become its witness. We must, as Kate Braestrup reminds us, spend our lives living into whatever the word we believe fills in the blank. We must bear witness to what matters most, or it matters not at all.
I look forward to more conversation about this. Let us continue to talk about how you are filling in the blank and how you are bearing witness to the answer. And while seeking an answer is important for our individual spiritual growth, I continue to ponder a question I raised in my last sermon: Could we as a congregation find consensus in a communal answer? In a church where we celebrate a diversity of opinions, beliefs, paths and practices, is it possible to find unity for this Plymouth community around the question: What Matters Most? And if we could—would it change the way we do church together?
I believe so.
I sure would like to try to fill in the blank with you. One thing I know for sure, my passionate, loving, faithful, kind, compassionate, justice seeking, Congregational friends—sadness and grouchiness would not even make it into the top 10.
Kate Braestrup, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2010), p. 158–159.
Ibid., p. 162.