3-31-19 Sermon “Living Light”
So this past week my older sister came up from Madison to help us out and to be with Lynn while I worked and we had a good visit. At one point I gave her an envelope full of old photos that I had set aside for her as I was cleaning and organizing my basement while I was on leave. In fact, I was so proud of how the basement looked that I took her down there to see it - something that would have struck terror in Lynn before because of the clutter that had overwhelmed that room for so long. As she saw the space, with all of my remaining books neatly shelved by category rather than taking up floor space in boxes, bags, and piles, and as she saw pictures and other things neatly displayed on the walls and shelves, her eyes fell on a shelf containing a long, tall bottle of 15 year-old Scotch that I’ve had for about 25 years.
It’s a unique bottle with a dome in the bottom where at one time, before it was broken during a move, a little figure of a Scotsman in a kilt would dance up and down to the music played by a music box that made up the based of the bottle.
Now, I don’t drink whiskey; I like neither the taste nor the smell. I have this bottle because my mother gave it to me sometime before she died and I’ve kept it as a keepsake, a remembrance of her, and I have a difficult time parting with things that were hers. Well, my sister saw the bottle and asked me where I got it, and I told her that it had been Mom’s, that Mom had given it to me, and that I believe that Dad had bought it before he died. Dad died in 1966, so if he had bought it, and it was 15 years old then - as the label on the bottle says - then that bottle of Scotch would be nearly 70 years old. And while I don’t like or drink Scotch, my understanding is that it gets better, and perhaps more valuable, with age. At least that’s the story I’ve been telling myself.
My sister smiled, and then told me that the bottle of Scotch had not come from Dad, but that it had actually been hers - she’d won it in a raffle at some bar in our hometown - and that she had given it to Mom. All of the sentimental value that I had attached to that keepsake, the belief that it was a direct connection to both my mom and my dad, the sense of loyalty that I had felt for keeping it for a quarter of a century, lay in tatters on the floor. The bottle of Scotch had, in mere seconds, become just another piece of clutter in my house that had, for years, handcuffed me with a sense of guilt or disloyalty to my parents at the idea of parting with it. When I expressed my suddenly sunken feelings about the bottle, my sister asked, “What? Because it was mine you don’t want it any more?” And I responded, “Not because it was yours - because it wasn’t Mom’s. It had no sentimental value to you, you won it in a raffle and then you gave it away. The sentimental value I had attached to it was based on a myth that wasn’t true. So, no, I really don’t want it.” And now, at least, I guess I have no reason to feel bad about getting rid of it.
Maybe you have a story like that as well, about something you sentimentally hold on to - an object or a belief - that may or may not hold true, but that in one way or another binds you through a sense of obligation or guilt. That bottle is representative of many of those types of things I’ve misguidedly clung to in the course of my life. Having and keeping those kinds of things somehow give us a feeling of security, of family stability, a sense of safety even, which is likely exaggerated and unrealistic, but yet there they are. Sometimes, those things we possess… actually possess us.
Father Richard Rohr speaks and writes about what he calls “the two halves of life.” The first half is that part in which we learn and grow, seek and accumulate, and where, in large part, we define the nature of our lives through our careers, education, homes, families, and the accumulation of wealth and possessions in one form or another. These are the things that help shape our safety, security, accomplishment, success, and ultimately, our self-worth.
The second half of life, on the other hand, is when we come to realize and accept the idea that our self-worth, success, security and all those other things don’t come by what we do, what we own, where we live, what kind of car we drive or anything like that, but that they come from our identity as the beloved of God. And I say realization and acceptance because, for many of us, it’s easy to say that we accept those things in church, in our prayers, in our bible studies, with our church friends or the pastor, while at the same time we hedge our bets. President Reagan once said, when asked how we could know Russia was keeping up its side of a weapons treaty, “we’ll trust and verify.” Sometimes, we think about God in much the same way, we trust and we verify, or we trust and we hold out a bit, we hedge our bets. We say we trust God with our lips, but our lives, our actions, tell a different story. And that story holds us captive.
In our reading today, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about what they’re going to eat, drink, or what they’re going to wear. Worrying about those, and other things, are what people of the world do, he suggests, not people who trust in God. Strive for the kingdom, he says, and those things you need will be given to you as well, because God knows you need them. And then he says this, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
And as David Lose suggests,
“This long and fairly well known passage hinges on this one verse.
If you believe this, everything else falls into place.
If not, then it becomes remarkably challenging to believe any of it.”
So the question this poses to us is simply this: do we believe that God desires to give us the kingdom or don’t we? If we do, then we should have no qualms about giving away those things that possess us, about being generous with those things upon which we rely for our sense of safety, security, and self-worth. And if we don’t believe that about God, if we don’t believe that God loves us and that our self-worth comes from our belovedness from God, and that God desires to give us what we need for our safety, security, and self-worth, then what does that say about us and about our faith? And further, why are we here?
The Lake Institute of Faith and Giving, part of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI, reports that 55% of Christians say that their charitable giving is largely influenced by their faith. While the Bible instructs us to give a tithe, or ten percent of our income to support the work of the church, their research reveals that the average Christian gives only 2.43% of their income to the church or to church-related charities. And when broken down by denomination, United Methodists are even lower than the average, hovering at around 2% over all. So, what does that statistic say about our level of trust, of our faith in God, and of how we hedge our bets? And what does it suggest about how we define or where we obtain our sense of safety, security, and self-worth?
Many of us live with what Marcia McFee calls, “the tyranny of measuring up that keeps us weighed down.” When we allow our self-worth, our self-value, to be determined by outside factors, by our possessions or our wealth, when we allow our self-esteem to be shaped by the “shoulds” that are imposed upon us by others or by the world at large, rather than by our faith in God as God’s beloved children, then we get overloaded with expectations that lead to fear, insecurity, and a sense of scarcity. If our sense of safety, security, and self-worth are based on the accumulation of things then we will never have enough - we always fear running out. And when our lives, our homes, and our hearts are cluttered with all of these perceived “security blankets” born of scarcity, we lose sight of the promise of God, as spoken through the life and teachings of Jesus, that what God most desires is to give us the kingdom, and with it, all that we truly need. God’s economy of abundance is lost on us as we hoard the trappings of the false gospels of materialism, consumerism, and exclusivism.
So how do we create space to flourish in the ways God intends? How can we “minimalize” our possessions so that they don’t possess us? I think it begins with decluttering; decluttering our lives, decluttering our minds, and decluttering our homes. I recently watched an episode of the show Grantchester on PBS. Have you seen it? It’s a murder mystery set in 1950s England with an Anglican priest as the main character. And the contrast between life then and life now was striking - there were no cell phones ringing or beeping all the time, no internet or Facebook to spend time on, very little television to watch, and very few possessions. The simplicity of that life stood in stark contrast to my own, where an app on my phone tells me that, on average, I pick up and look at that same phone 3 times an hour and spend 2 and a half hours a day - 10% of my life - looking at a screen, which is still 1 hour and 46 minutes below the national average; where even after bringing 9 cases of books from home and moving 3 more cases from my office, I still own more books than I can possibly read in my lifetime, and where I own a couple of hundred 33 rpm albums and 45 rpm records, and have for decades, even though I don’t own a working turntable on which to play them. While I spent hours and days trying to develop a healthier relationship to my stuff - and I daresay I’m likely not alone there - the characters Grantchester, on the other hand, focused their time and efforts on building and furthering relationships with others and with their vocations. What a contrast!
That kind of simplicity is really appealing to me at some level, and it brings home for me our scripture reading for today, where Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.” We live in a world where there are so many things clamoring for our attention that it’s easy to lose track of what’s truly important. In this text from Luke, Jesus is calling us to prioritize activities that give eternal life. Such a call to center (or re-center) our lives on God, to trust in God’s promises, might seem extremely difficult in our world, but they’re essential for our lives as Christians. Because the thing is, there are some people who do not have enough clothing or food or other things they need. And when we see that, we sometimes fall prey to the false narrative of the world; the story that seeks to tell us that there is not enough to go around and so we should toil and worry and scheme and covet and hoard.
But if we truly believe that God really does want to give us the kingdom and all good things, then a worldview of scarcity evaporates, replaced by a sense of abundance. (or at least, of “enoughness.”) Trusting God’s provision, not only do we discover that we have enough for ourselves but also see that we are equipped and able to share with others. Hunger in the world, for example, is not a problem of scarcity - there is more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet - it’s a problem of distribution, of waste, and of some storing up while others go without. Most of us, I would venture, have more food stocked in our cabinets right now than over a billion people on this planet will consume in the next year - maybe even two.
Trusting in God’s provision, we realize that the reason that some do not have their basic needs met is, it turns out, not that there is not enough, but that too many of us, dominated by a sense of scarcity, don’t share what we have.
Trusting God’s provision, we recognize that worry really is a waste of time. Not only does it not add an hour to our life as Jesus correctly points out, but – as recent medical research shows – it actually decreases both the length and quality of our lives. When trust replaces worry, we in turn discover all kinds of time and energy to devote to building relationships and serving others.
Shifting from a scarcity outlook to one of abundance takes time. We’ve been fed, and have believed the lie of scarcity that our culture preaches for so long that we may find it hard to believe that it’s not true. At these times, remembering and repeating Jesus’ warning about our hearts and our treasure may help, but so also will practicing abundance by sharing a little more of what we have with others. Generosity and trust are like muscles, and by exercising them we grow in these traits.
Typically in Scripture, the words "Do not be afraid," are the prelude to an announcement of God's mighty and saving deeds and is the starting point and anchor for everything else in the passage. It is God's good pleasure - God's intention, plan, and delight - to give you the kingdom! If this is true, and I believe it is, then disciples can, indeed, resist the seduction of the pursuit of wealth, not fall prey to constant anxiety about worldly needs, share what they have with others, and wait expectantly, even eagerly, for the coming of the Son of Man.
The point of charitable giving is not to elevate poverty, but rather to extol generosity as a mark of the Christian life. What Jesus is commending is faith - faith that frees us to be generous; faith that enables us to leave anxiety behind; faith that creates in us confidence about a future secured not by human effort or achievement but by God alone.
Jesus, however, doesn’t simply hold out faith as a model and goal, and certainly not as a standard by which to judge us. Rather, Jesus creates faith by announcing a promise: Like a parent loves her children deeply and desperately and wants all good things for them, so also is it God's good pleasure to give God's children the fruits of the kingdom. Some have put it this way: Think of the most loving person you’ve ever known in your entire life, and know that their love pales in comparison to God’s love for you. Promises create a shared expectation about the future and binds together the giver and receiver of the promise in that shared anticipation. Promises create relationship. Promises create hope. Promises create faith. All of our instruction about the Christian life - whether about prayer, money, watchfulness, love of neighbor, and more - are anchored in the gospel promise that it is, indeed, God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom.
And so anchored by the promise that God wants to give us all good things, we can hear Jesus’ commands and injunctions differently. God wants us not to be weighed down by worries, to keep our priorities straight, to not be consumed by greed or love of those things that do not bring real happiness. Rather, God wants us to have and enjoy and share the abundant life that comes from authentic community and right relationship with God and with each other.
As for being on the lookout, being ready for the coming kingdom, Jesus isn’t trying to scare us, he just doesn't want us to miss when God comes in ways that might surprise us, that are different from what we might have expected -- in generosity instead of in accumulation, in building community instead of looking out for ourselves, in vulnerability and relationship rather than in strength. It's easy to miss the God who comes in love and grace, you see, when the story we tell ourselves or that the world tells us, is to expect law and punishment.
But even when we recognize that God's gracious motivation changes the way we hear these commands, we have to admit that they're still hard to keep. Why? Maybe it's because so much of the rest of our lives are filled by demands both great and small: like the demand to accumulate more and more in order to appease a false sense of security. Or the demand to prove our worth day in and day out. Or the demand to worry about innumerable things because we’ve been convinced that we’re always at risk. In this kind of climate, it's hard to trust God's promises and give over our worries and live more fully and generously.
The bottom line is, we all choose to trust in something. We can either trust the promises of the God who created us, who knows the number of hairs on our heads, and who loves us enough to come and be one with us, to live our life, to face our fears, and to die our deaths, or we can trust the promises of those of the world who sow fear and death and mistrust as false gods. We can let go of the things and the ideas that darken our days, clutter our heads, our hearts, and our homes and scream a story of scarcity at us, or we can live lightly and embrace the God who embraces us in love and generosity and share God’s message of overflowing abundance, love, and hope. If we can have the faith to trust in the promises of the God of Jesus Christ, then we have no need to worry, no need to fear, because that God desires to give us all that we need. What more could we ask? Amen.