Exodus 25: 1-2, 10-22 and Luke 12:32-48
For the second week in a row,
Luke or the Lectionary,
…Jesus or God…
are trying to say something to us
about our material possessions.
(Never the most popular topic for church!)
And also about being ready.
Or for those of us not so in tune with Jesus imminent return,
focusing on what really matters in the time we are given.
Last week, it was a warning,
about a false sense of security —
…when we store up whatever security we think will see us through:
ever bigger barns of grain,
or bank accounts,
or insurance policies
or retirement resources.
And none of our provisions is really ever enough to override what is ultimately and only God’s choice.
No one knows the time or the hour.
This week, it’s not so much a warning against false preparedness.
Not about what we often mistake for mattering.
Instead, it’s an exhortation towards a better way —
not putting all our eggs in any worldly basket,
and rather, leaning into hopes and plans,
investments and treasures of a heavenly magnitude…
Church, the passage says that what faith promises if we adhere to them fast
can make a real difference well beyond this warp and woof of all worldly dynamics.
And it insists we have some choices about being faithful.
All this reminds me of something my friend Martha said to me recently.
Martha still lives in the NYC coop she grew up in.
I did Martha’s mom’s funeral more than 20 years ago.
Earlier this year, after Martha stayed with me,
when she was guest lecturing at a class at Penn,
a box of clothes pins arrived in the mail,
with a note:
“Finally, I’m purging.
Why did my mom have clothespins?
We never head a clothesline.
But you do.
Use them well.”
Last week, Martha updated me on what’s she’s come to see as “her deep cleaning,”
“As I go deeper and deeper, she explained,
I am starting to wonder if I was raised in a cult…
some cult where the main objective was to never throw anything out.
Do I really need my mother’s report cards?
And what’s the point of holding on to every date book I ever kept,
all of which peter out by October anyway?”
So people discard with abandon,
like surgeons in the middle of some operation, one of those -ectomies!
…with hardly a nostalgic wince for what needs to be removed.
But, most of us probably don’t need much of the stuff we keep.
And, I bet, many of us have fairly ambiguous relationships with material goods.
…A little more attachment than we need or makes sense or is good for us.
Those of you who tease me about my politics may smile, but I wonder if our avarice and acquistiveness don’t relate to our capitalism?
Or is it just about being incarnate beings, made for and posited in a material world?
Or a symptom of our fear — we grab and hold close as some reaction to protect ourselves?
I don’t think Jesus is saying we all have to be ascetics,
but his use of the image of slaves does suggest we can be enslaved to our stuff:
What we think we own often turns out to own us.
Then is the only way to be faithful some vow of poverty by which one is left possessionless?
Is there a problem with all of our attachments?
The text or our teacher are asking us to do a bit of deeper investigation
into what we have and hold on to,
and why certain things matter to us….
* * * * * * *
I don’t think of myself as too materialistic.
At least, I haven’t worried too much about, or determined my life around
how much money I make or how many things I have.
I just sent off a check to my son and future daughter-in-law this week,
something to help with their upcoming wedding.
It was a lot of money for me,
but not so much in light of the cost of their wedding
or what others are contributing.
With the check, I wrote on a card,
“I wish the most for you as you begin your married life.
This is how I can help with the wedding…
I work for the Lord,
and he isn’t the highest paying of employers.”
Still, I’m satisfied with my life such as it is.
Even with what I have been able to give to my kids.
I don’t have, but I don’t miss
some of the usual status markers.
And that’s a gift in itself.
Luxury items aren’t really my thing!
I’m pretty generous with what I have.
(Ironically giving is the biggest gift of all.)
I was thinking the other day because of this money I needed to get to Simon and Ari for the wedding,
“if I suddenly had extra money with no claim on it,
I don’t really know what I would do with it.”
But I DO still have a lot of things.
My friend, John, last time he visited, said,
“Maybe you’re getting a bit cluttered here.”
When he said it, I chuckled and thought of what it could be like by the time my kids need to clean my house out!
I like my things,
but I hope they aren’t getting in the way.
I don’t want so much so there’s not a sense of clean openness, even spareness.
Or, I think more to Jesus’ point in our lesson today,
so much that its in between me and what really matters.
Jesus says, Luke reports:
“Sell your possessions, and give alms.
Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out,
an unfailing treasure in heaven,
where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Be about the things that matter in heaven, church,
and they will outlast you and earth, my friends!
Beloved, think for a moment about the stuff you keep.
Do you really need it?
Why are you holding on to it?
I think what Jesus is aiming for becomes obvious with our most treasured possessions.
Are they valuable objectively, in some dollar value society might readily assign.
Or are they important for us,
because of some meaning they carry?
Like the plastic plate one of my kids made in kindergarten (showing the plate) —
with a 5 year old’s sketch of the church I first served
and where we lived then.
It has some brown spots in “the sky”
that leaves it mostly unusable
because it once got too close to the heating element in the dishwasher.
At a yard sale, it’d be one of the things no one would buy,
But it’s just as valuable to me.
Holds a place of honor on my counter so I see it every day.
What is close to your heart?
When we cleaned out my mom’s house,
it wasn’t anything of monetary value we were looking for —
that we could offload to take care of expenses. ;
it was the keepsakes
(different for each of us)
that very personally signified memories —
of our childhoods,
of our family,
time itself —
what had slipped away,
what was now in our past,
what we feared losing but knew we were richer if we could bring along with us.
We wanted to make sure we had something, signs of what was dear to our hearts.
The possessions we end up holding close…
they have everything to do with how we see the meaning of those possessions.
In other words, I just want to keep the silly plastic plate because my little boy is all grown up,
and getting married,
and probably wouldn’t even recognize the plate
if he were standing in front of me right now.
I kind of guess in the world to come, those treasures of our heart stay with us
even without the keepsakes,
but in this world of loss and fading memory,
sometimes a momento is a Godsend.
So here’s what I think the text this week is asking of us —
Is there something you can think of,
something you hold on to
because it’s a sign of what’s most important to you?
My house is full of things because they remind me of people who continue to be dear to me,
in some cases long after the people themselves have ceased to be.
~ Grandma Caine’s royal nippon saucer — the matching tea cup of which my father broke in a rage years ago.
~ The candlesticks my dear friend and former parishioner Mercedes gave me one day because I admired them.
~ The copy of Giovanni’s Room my late best friend Donald gave me when we left for college.
~ The bookshelves in my office the Women’s Guild of my second congregation gave me.
~ The picture on my kitchen wall that came from Althea’s funeral bulletin.
~ The train paraphernalia that John and Marian and David and Mike and Katsu gave me, just because they knew I love trains.
~ The copper bowls that Cindy gave Miriam and me for our wedding.
There are things that are important too because they represent commitments or experiences:
~ The Nicaraguan clay pot for keeping rice and beans warm — that I have never used, never will use, but that says, nonetheless, how cultures beyond my own have enriched my life.
~ The menorah that says that Miriam and I raised our children knowing both their parents’s faiths.
~ The stainless steel cabinet, found in the basement of a nursing home whose board I served on, that says what volunteer service has added to my life.
~ The poster I searched all over Berlin to find, the first time I realized I could be me in another language.
~ The bracelet Luis and Amparo gave me for my 40 birthday to convince me I was capable of more than I expected.
~ The collection of old door knobs that speak to me of all the trash trauling I have done and the power I find in reusing and repurposing.
When my time comes,
I’d like to think my sons,
going through my stuff
will recognize some of these things,
because these people have been part of their lives too,
and because they can recognize their father’s commitments
and have heard all my stories about my experiences.
But my stuff won’t be half as valuable to them, because it’s the momentos of this life.
Though they are already fighting over that poster I got in Berlin in 1982!
What are the things that are close to your heart,
because they evoke memories of people or places or times or accomplishments?
As I finish, I think there’s one further challenge in our text.
Jesus is also giving us permission for possessions
that carry for us the promises of our faith,
things that signify God,
and of the Kingdom.
Is there anything that if someone asked you about it,
your explanation would give witness to your relationship to God,
your commitment to follow Jesus,
your confidence in the presence and strength of the Spirit?
Is it a bible gifted to you?
The baptism gown passed down?
A favorite hymn or bible verse?
A picture that hung on the wall in your grandmother’s house?
A Christmas Tree ornament?
For many, it’s the church building itself…
According to Jesus,
the possessions that encapsulate for us
the meaning of the Kingdom of God
is where our heart should be.
In one of the congregations I served,
we had a big dust up
when the Senior Deacon forget to pick up the linen communion table cloth from the dry cleaners on a Communion Sunday like this.
The Senior Deacon, she showed up at my office early, about 8 am, to say, “people are going to be furious, and at me, and I am going back home and staying there.”
I thought she was being ridiculous.
I got in the car and drove all the way downtown in Brooklyn,
to our sister congregation, Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, that Sunday morning,
to borrow a clean, pressed white table cloth.
I knew people wanted church to be a certain way for communion,
and though this didn’t have the embroidery on it, it looked presentable, even formal.
Anyway, surely the Lord’s Supper is more than the linen table coverings.
You know what? The Senior Deacon was right; I was wrong.
Folks were really p’ed off; some refused to receive communion.
Later that week, still upset,
I complained to a colleague that my folks were too caught up in the ritual or the trappings
that they weren’t seeing the spiritual forest for the details of all the trees.
She was patient with me:
“Michael, folks find tangible things to stand in for the Holy which is ineffable:
That cloth is sacred to them
— it signifies purity or your community or continuity or God’s presence, and maybe all of these.
And without their linen cloth, embroidered with the IHS,
the meal was lacking for them.”
…Maybe the things of God,
what we think about God,
Believe about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit,
even how we live out our faith
can not be as rich without the sounds and sights,
even touches with which we experience and know them.
I know that the passing of the peace isn’t for some of you,
your favorite part of the service.
But you know what?
One of you said recently, “When I’m moving around and shaking hands and hugging and talking, that’s when it feels like we’re being church.”
The sights and sounds and even touches are how we recognize the Holy!
Our very own ark of the covenants!
Not the commandments themselves,
Or even the actual stone tablets,
but THE BOX (albeit fancied up with all sorts of dudads, sparkles, maybe even sprinkles)
…the box which was fashioned to carry them around the wilderness with God’s people.
A sign itself for the importance of what it signifies.
An visible image of how the invisible defines you.
Something outward that points to something inward.
A stand-in of course, but that which expresses the depths of who you are nonetheless.
* * * * * * *
We have a sort of peculiar faith here at Old First,
I was thinking what some of these “possessions of faith” might be:
~ the Creche’ out front at Christmastime.
~ the cascarones and all their confetti – especially when we break them in here in the Sanctuary on Easter.
~ a Saturday breakfast meal or a shelter dinner.
~ the sound of “our particular collection of church music” in worship.
~ or the sound system that isn’t reliable.
~ the flying bible.
~ the Crismoms on the Xmas Tree.
~ the worn carpet under my feet, or window pains that keep falling out.
~ Carrie’s French Onion Soup Bowl used for communion that’s become as dear to some of us
as that bowl under the communion table that Peter’s son made for us may someday be.
If you are a newbie and you don’t know what any of these things are,
please let us know, ask one of us afterwards.
One of you, said to me recently, it’s the hodge podge of folks we gather,
I think it was Julie Steiner who compared us to the Island of Misfit Toys.
Or along the same lines,
one of you told me one that you hope we never get rid of the friendship pads.
The red plastic-covered attendance pads that I inexplicably forget.
For this person, these silly, red plastic pew pads,
reassure her as soon as she comes in the sanctuary,
that Old First is a sacred community
BECAUSE it’s welcome is big enough to include everyone.