The Stuff That Matters

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Preached at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – Tifton, Georgia

Exodus 20:1-17      John 2:13-22


I bring you greetings
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ
from your sister congregation of Espíritu Santo
and from all your fellow Episcopalians
in the Diocese of the Dominican Republic.

As most of you know,
Nancy Bryan, Jeannie Rigdon, Josh Hendrix, and I
all just returned yesterday
from a week of mission work
in the village of Las Carreras
where St. Anne’s has developed
a long-term relationship
with the local congregation.

This year’s trip started off
sounding like a bad joke:
“What do a social worker, a nurse,
a coroner, and a priest
all have in common?”
But it ended up being a wonderful week
full of friendship, surprises,
and the love of the living God.

Our main focus over the last seven years
has been to help this little congregation
to build their church.
For forty years they’ve been waiting
while they celebrated Mass in an open yard
with a small aluminum folding table
as their altar.

Thanks to your love,
involvement, and generosity,
they are in the midst
of the finishing touches.

A large part of why we go each year
is to continue building relationships,
but physically speaking,
our task this year was simple.
We were there to help them
paint the interior and the exterior
of the church.

A couple years ago
we did paint just the front
to make it look presentable
even though the building was still in progress.

Back then, the paint we were given
was a beautiful baby blue.
It looked as though
the church just reached up
and blended into the sky.

This year, however,
we stood around and watched
as the priest and others opened
the big five gallon bucket of paint.
A simple task like that often takes a while in the D.R.
because they rarely have just the right tool at hand.
So as he and the guys were
bending, pulling, and prying,
we all stood with bated breath.
Finally, the lid popped off and revealed
what can only be called Smurf blue!!

I thought, “Oh man, the people back home
have got to see this!”
So I picked up a couple rocks,
painted them with the color,
and brought them today for you to see.

Imagine an entire church painted this color!
Imagine an entire church painted Smurf blue!

I told the priest,
“Ai Padre,
este pintura
es muy bonita
pero muy audaz!”

“Oh Father,
this paint
is very beautiful
but very bold!”

His exuberant response was,
“Sí, sí, sí!
Yes, yes, yes!
I chose this color because
it will ‘pop’ in everyone’s eyes.
When people walk by this church,
or drive by this church,
or talk about this church,
they will say, ‘Ah yes!
The beautiful blue church!
I know that church.
I want to go to that church.”

Never underestimate
the evangelical power of paint!

*   *   *

While we have returned
with dozens of wonderful stories to tell,
this trip—combined with these readings today—
has reminded me of one simple, important truth:
There’s the stuff that matters
and the stuff that doesn’t.

Today in our Old Testament reading
we watch as God gives Moses
the Ten Commandments:
truly, the stuff that matters.
And why do the Ten Commandments matter?
They matter because they’re about
the right ordering of all our relationships.
They’re about how we relate to God,
and how we relate to one another.

But fast forward a couple thousand years
to today’s Gospel reading,
and you see how warped
everything had become
by the time Jesus shows up.
It’s no longer about relating to God.
It’s no longer about relating to one another.
Jesus walks into the Temple
and finds that they’ve turned it into a shopping mall:
truly, the stuff that doesn’t matter.

Why do we always do this?
Why do we humans have such a proclivity
toward all the stuff that doesn’t matter?

Aside from the word “sin,”
I’m not sure I have a good answer.

But I can tell you without hesitation
that there’s nothing quite like going
to a developing country
and building long term friendships
with people who have so little compared to us
to make you realize a fundamental truth:
There’s the stuff that matters
and the stuff that doesn’t.

You and I sleep on soft beds
in heated and air conditioned homes.
We get in the car and drive anywhere we want to go.
We shower in drinking water every day.
And yet, is it not true that most of us
are worried and frustrated daily about
all the complexity we’ve imposed on our lives?
Our mortgages, our credit card payments,
all the things we’ve built up around us
to establish our false little empires.

We complicate our lives,
and we get so bent out of shape
when we can’t get our way,
or force our way,
or purchase our way.

Now don’t get me wrong.
I don’t mean to say
that our friends in the D.R.
are totally happy and carefree
or that poverty and struggle
are big ol’ blessings.
They’re not.

But what I do mean to say is that
every time I go there,
I am quickly reminded of the simple truth:
There’s the stuff that matters
and the stuff that doesn’t.

Someone who knows this well
is a boy in Las Carreras named Wilson.
Wilson is probably about fifteen;
he has a keen mind, a happy smile,
and is always willing to help.
We met him on last year’s trip
when he would come by after school
to visit with us and assist us with our work.

Midway through this year’s trip
he came up to the church
not knowing we would be there.
I tapped him on the shoulder,
and when he turned around,
without missing a beat,
his eyes filled with surprise
as he yelled, “Loh-neeeee!”
I couldn’t believe he remembered my name.
Truth is, I had to ask him
to remind me of his.

Two days later when we celebrated Mass
on our final day in Las Carreras,
Wilson couldn’t join us
because he had to be in school.
Even so, he sent a gift via his parents,
who found me and said,
“Este es un regalo para ti de Wilson.”
“This is a gift for you from Wilson.”

It was a little Christmas gift bag
complete with a prancing reindeer on the side.
When I opened it up,
I found two small, beautiful red apples.

Wilson spent money he probably didn’t have
to buy a gift for a priest he hardly even knows
just to make sure I knew beyond a doubt
that I am loved and appreciated.
Of all the gifts I’ve received in my life,
those two apples rank among the most precious.

Wilson knows that
there’s the stuff that matters
and the stuff that doesn’t.

So, too, does the local priest, Padre Manuel.
Toward the end, I asked him,
“Padre, que sigue?”
“Padre, what’s next?
The church is almost finished,
but our relationship is just beginning.
What do you want to see next?”

Do you know what he talked about?
He talked about a daycare.
Without a moment’s hesitation,
he spoke of his dream to start a daycare
as a ministry of the church.
Ultimately, yes, to build a separate building
behind the current church,
but for now he’d be happy to start small
and to use the new sanctuary for both purposes.

And why a daycare?
So that the women of Las Carreras
have a safe place to leave their children
in order to go find meaningful work.
This is an answer to one of our ongoing concerns:
that the women and girls of this village
have a way to live fully and vibrantly
without having to resort to desperate means
in order to eke out a living.

“La Iglesia no es solo para
decir Misa un día a la semana,” he said.
“La Iglesia—con la gracia de Dios—
es para cambiar vidas todos los días.”

“The Church is not just here
to say Mass one day a week.
The Church—by God’s grace—
is here to change lives every day.”

Amen to that.
Padre Manuel knows that
there’s the stuff that matters
and the stuff that doesn’t.

*   *   *

On our last day
in the capital city of Santo Domingo
I found this painting by Haitian artist Louis Luma,
painted in a style reminiscent of the original Taino natives.
It’s called “Jesus Provides”
and depicts Jesus holding
what looks like a Christmas tree
but is actually a bunch of bananas.

Why bananas?
Because in the old days,
when a man would ask a woman to marry him,
he would give her and her family
a large bunch of bananas
to show that he would be able to provide for her.

So here Jesus stands, as if to say,
“There’s the stuff that matters
and the stuff that doesn’t.
I. Am. Your. Provider.

“You run around like crazy
trying to manage your life,
trying to make it a success,
trying to make it as perfect as possible.
But don’t you know?
I have everything you need.”

So on this beautiful morning,
fresh off the airplane
bearing greetings and grace
from your sister congregation,
I bring you this one simple truth.

Whatever your worries may be,
whatever payment you’re struggling to make,
whatever relationships are broken,
whatever continues to keep you up at night,
whether your church is Smurf blue concrete
or ivory-colored brick,
whether you have two apples to your name
or you are a millionaire . . .
remember this:

There’s the stuff that matters
and the stuff that doesn’t.

And in all the things that matter most . . .
Jesus provides.