Have you ever had a bitter argument over something relatively trivial?
Have you ever stood in the middle of Home Depot with your spouse arguing about the kind of tile you’ll purchase for the bathroom, or gotten huffy when your partner says that you’ll be spending the holidays with your in-laws? Have you ever become sullen or sulky when your friend or grown child wouldn’t see things your way?
In The Secret Life of Bees, a young white girl named Lily comes to live with three African- American sisters. Set in South Carolina during the struggle for civil rights, the story focuses on Lily coming to terms with the tragic death of her mother, and a troubled home life.
One of the sisters, August, becomes a kind of surrogate mother for Lily. One day Lily has a conversation with August about why August chose to paint her house Caribbean pink, a color that is tacky in August’s eyes, but a color that her sister, May, loves.
August says to Lily, “You know, some things don’t matter that much, Lily. Like the color of a house. How big is that in the overall scheme of life? But lifting a person’s heart—now, that matters. The whole problem with people…”
At this point, Lily interrupts, feeling proud to complete August’s thought:.“They don’t know what matters and what doesn’t.”
But August says, “I was gonna say, The problem is they know what matters, but they don’t choose it. You know how hard that is, Lily? I love [my sister], but it is still so hard to choose Caribbean Pink. The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.”
When I pondered the gospel for today, August’s comment to Lily came to mind. I suppose that each of us have struggled, in our own ways, over “Caribbean Pink.” Not the color per se, but the struggle in choosing what matters. We have a tendency to lose ourselves and others in arguing about the trivial.
I began to wonder why this is. I found myself asking why I sometimes put so much time, energy, and stress into the small matters that I lose sight of the larger matters that God cares about. Maybe you’ve wondered too. Why is it so difficult for us to see Jesus?
In our story for today, some outsiders who had come to Jerusalem want to see Jesus. These outsiders are Greeks, not Jews. Rather than going directly to Jesus, they take an indirect approach. Maybe they were unable to reach Jesus any other way. Maybe they were having trouble locating him in the crowd. But their desire to see Jesus is strong. They reach him through one of his followers, Philip. Philip tells Andrew, and then they go to Jesus together.
Now we might also ask ourselves at this point if we want to see Jesus. Is our desire to see Jesus as strong as our desire for other things? What prevents us from experiencing the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached so often about?
John’s gospel offers us some clues. Perhaps one reason that we don’t see Jesus is that we have trouble choosing what matters to God. That is, we don’t want to see Jesus though we talk a good game. We are told in scripture, over and over, that God cares about what happens to the poor, the foreigner, the stranger, and the outcast. But how do we examine how our personal and collective choices contribute to the plight of the poor, the foreigner, the stranger, and the outcast?
How often do we talk about how we may have contributed to our societal problems? We often fear that such discussions will divide us. And yet, perhaps our fear of division is not between ourselves and the person sitting next to us in the pews. Perhaps the real struggle is between ourselves and God. We fear division, and yet we become divided when the values we profess in church have little to do with the choices we make in our families and in the world. We pray, “Your Kingdom Come,” but we struggle to bring our choices in alignment with God’s vision for wholeness in our broken world.
I know that I can’t see Jesus when I only care about myself, my tribe, my country, or my position in life. It’s a long journey of the soul to be able to use one’s freedom wisely and well. It’s a long journey to leave the land of self-interest and take up residence in community with others. There is a dying of self that occurs in the process. “Very truly,” Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Scripture urges us not to love the things of this world overly much. In fact, the gospel writer has Jesus say that we must hate our life in this world. Now that is strong language. He doesn’t mean that we hate our lives because our lives haven’t measured up to what we think we want, need, or deserve. He’s not talking about denigrating our lives in some kind of masochistic way. He doesn’t mean that we are to be depressed or down about our lives on purpose, as if this was a way to become sanctified and holy. He means that those who seek personal comfort and worldly satisfaction at the expense of others will lose out on life. One cannot see Jesus when one is pre-occupied with one’s reputation, one’s net worth, or one’s need for approval. One will come to the end of life only to find what a waste of time one has spent on what does not matter. In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I apparently said on her death bed, “All my possessions for a moment of time.”
Our gospel story takes place just after Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem and just before Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. One of the things that strikes me about this passage is that Jesus struggles with choosing what matters to God. We are told that his soul is troubled. He knows that his death is near, a death that will come because those in power will choose expediency rather than love. He questions, “And what should I say, “Father, save me from this hour?”
Love costs. We often toss about the word love casually. Our notions of love are influenced by romance, by soap operas, by greeting card sentimentality, our parents’ relationship(s), and our own. We talk about the need to love God and our enemies, but sometimes we focus more on love as a feeling, or an accidental circumstance, rather than an intentional action or choice. We forget that love has a cost, and that we must invest our heart and hands, even as we divest ourselves of our constant focus on our own needs and desires.
Henri Nouwen, a gifted writer, once said, “I want to love God, but also to make a career. I want to be a good Christian, but also have my successes as a teacher, preacher or speaker. I want to be a saint, but also enjoy the sensations of the sinner. I want to be close to Christ, but also popular and liked by people. No wonder that living becomes a tiring enterprise.”
Jesus’ knew what mattered. He taught it; he spoke it; he lived it out. Even when it led him to the cross, he did not turn away, but asked God to glorify the hour, which is another way of asking God to transform the cross and his death for good.
We, who call ourselves Christian, are the recipients of Jesus’ costly love. We are also the ones to whom our friends and neighbors may turn when they want to see a glimpse of Jesus. Like the Greeks who turned to Philip and Andrew, the world might look for clues from our lives when they are confused about what really matters. Will we be able to say confidently with Jesus that it is for this reason that we have come to this place, and this time? Or will we be too focused on other matters?
 Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, (New York: Penguin, 2002) 147.
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