Do Sweat the Small Stuff

The following is my homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. The readings can be found here.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Last weekend I was at the wedding of one of my college friends, and I heard this bit of advice quite a bit. In the toasts, the speeches by parents and friends, people who had been married many years, they all said the same thing: don’t sweat the small stuff. Besides being a bit a of a cliche, I think it can be great advice. Don’t go crazy over things that don’t matter—okay, so he forgot to make the bed—sure, she left a mess in the bathroom with ten thousand types of makeup everywhere. Oh well. Is it really worth fighting over? Probably not. Focus on what matters, and let the little things slide.

At the same time, I think there is something a bit misleading about this advice, something that can actually hurt more than it helps. In saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” there is an implication that small things don’t matter, that if it’s small, you can do anything you want. As long as you love your spouse, are always faithful, help in taking care of the kids, show humility and listen well—big things—then nothing else matters: never make the bed, leave messes everywhere, forget to put things on the list, whatever. They’re just small things, right? No sweat.

My guess is that our relationships would really suffer if that’s the way we treated them. 

Small things do matter. Maybe not as much as the big things—forgetting to take out the trash is nowhere close to cheating on your spouse—but they do matter. If you were to forget to take out the trash every week, you forget to make the bed every other day, you act just a little rude, a little distant, a little passive aggressive on a regular basis… these things add up over time, and actually, I think they point to the fact that there are actually some problems on a much deeper level.

In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis reminds us that everything we do is connected: “We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.’ We can hardly consider ourselves to be fully loving if we disregard any aspect of reality.” We have only one heart. 

When I hear our Gospel today, this is what comes to mind. Jesus says, “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones.” You are but one person, you have but one heart, and so if you are considerate and attentive in small matters, I imagine that you will be considerate and attentive in great ones as well. But if you are lazy or forgetful when it comes to small things, if you are selfish or even hurtful, it is only a matter of time before that same heart causes you to act the same way in big things. Put another way, what Jesus is getting at, quite simply, is integrity, being the same person when things don’t matter, when no one is watching, as we are when things really matter, when everyone is watching. Anyone can put on an act for an audience; anyone can show up to the big game when everyone is watching. And we might be able to fool people who only see us in those situations that we are loving, humble, caring, and live by the values of the Kingdom. But we are the same person in rehearsal, the same person at practice, the same person in the small details of preparation. We have only one heart… and Jesus knows our hearts.

I think it’s easy, sometimes, to justify our bad habits by diminishing them. “Yeah, I do that thing, and I know it’s bad, but c’mon! It’s not that bad, and it’s only one thing. Look at all of the great things I do. That one thing isn’t that bad!” We can look to our first reading and hear how the business leaders were abusing the the poor, selling them into slavery, hating God’s feasts because it meant they couldn’t do harm, and think, “My thing is nothing like that. It’s just a small sin. I’m good. I don’t need to change.” This is rather unwise. 

The great contemplative Thomas Merton once had an analogy that I find very poignant. He once wrote that being killed by a single enemy and being killed by an entire army leaves you just as dead. What difference does it make how many people kill you if you’re dead regardless?It takes but one mortal sin, one act of hatred, of pride, of deceit, of some deadly habit to keep us from living in Christ for all eternity. It doesn’t matter if we are a “good person,” if we have hundreds of virtues—it takes but one deadly sin to keep us from God’s grace. Why? Because that deadly sin affects everything we do; that deadly sin is done by the same heart that does everything else.

Now am I saying that we need to be perfect to a disciple of Christ, that we have to be completely without even the smallest sin to live in eternity with him? No, of course not! I’m honestly not sure if it is possible to go a day without some sort of venial sin let alone our whole lives. There are some small things that we work to prevent, but sometimes fall, and so we come to the Eucharist, this sacrament of mercy, and we are forgiven. In that sense, the popular wisdom of weddings is true: don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t let the unattainable goal of being perfect derail us and let us fall into scrupulosity, worried that every single impure thought, uncharitable word, or minor act of selfishness is going to keep us from heaven. Come to the eucharist, be forgiven, let those things go, and strive to do better.

No, in offering the Thomas Merton’s image of being killed, in bringing up Pope Francis’ words about having only one heart, my goal is not to have all you beginning to worry that every little thing you do could prevent you from heaven. No. My goal is to remind you, maybe even awaken you, to the fact that sometimes the small stuff is big stuff. Sometimes we overlook what is actually killing us, ignore things that are real problems in our lives, deceive ourselves into thinking that we can do lots of good things to make up for the bad things we do. That’s not the way God works; that’s not the way we work! True conversion to Jesus Christ means giving up our entire selves, our whole heart: who we are at our best but also who we are at our worst. They are the same person, because we have but one heart.

It may not be the most conventional marriage advice, but I say, “do sweat the small stuff.” This is our salvation. This is the heart that we’re giving over to Jesus. If it’s true that “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones,” it seems to be in our best interest to be trustworthy in small matters too, to be trustworthy in everything. 

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