Lenten Surrender

This week I was invited to be a guest preacher at my good friend’s church up in Greenwich for a Wednesday night Lenten dinner and worship service. The theme for these services this year is: “Lenten Surrender.” My Theme was “Surrendering Your Stuff.” The text of my sermon is below…

Surrendering your Stuff
Text: Luke 12:13-34
A sermon preached by Rev. Julie Emery
First Presbyterian Church, Greenwich, CT
March 17, 2010

Luke 12:13-34: Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 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.

Every year in early February our church has a kids garage sale to raise funds for Heifer International. If you don’t know about it, Heifer is an organization that sends animals and teaches sustainability to communities around the world. After the sale, the Sunday School kids get to take the funds raised and vote on which animals they want to buy. The kids love it, and each year they gather toys and books they no longer want and cart them in to our fellowship hall, selling their wares for a good cause.

This year, as usual, I was scrambling at the last minute. Remembering the garage sale the Saturday before, I started talking with my 3.5 year old about any toys he might want to donate to the garage sale. As a pastor I am thinking: I really need to teach this to my child and I think perhaps this year he is old enough to understand. But when I ask him if there are any toys he might want to give away – he starts naming the toys he got this year for Christmas.

“What about my Leapster or my bike?” he suggests.

“Well honey,” I say, “You just got those toys and you still like to use them…What about a toy you don’t really use anymore?”

“What about my leggos?” He says.

“Well, you got those just this year too.” I say, “What about some of our baby toys?”

When he started naming the toys his brother got for Christmas, I began to realize that this might be a longer conversation than I had time for. In the end, I confess with a heavy heart, we just couldn’t get it together. I chalked it up to suspecting that my child was too young to understand. I was anticipating the day after the toy was sold when reality set in and he didn’t have it anymore.

But lately I’ve been wondering if perhaps I am the one who didn’t understand? Maybe the issue was not his inability to see the consequences of giving his favorite toy away. Maybe the issue was my tight grip on the things we have accumulated for our family, and my unwillingness to act upon and encourage my child’s innate sense of generosity? Maybe my anxiety kept him from being generous.

Our text this evening is one of the many occasions in Luke’s gospel where Jesus talks about money. I came across a statistic this week that one in every seven verses in the gospel of Luke is about money. Jesus talked about money more any other subject except the kingdom of God. There is absolutely no way around it: Money, “stuff” – how we respond to it and what we do with it, is an essential part of how we understand the message of Jesus.

Luke’s Jesus in particular speaks out again and again against the accumulation of goods, as the parable that begins our passage points out. “Take care!” He says, “One’s life does not consist of the abundance of one’s possessions.”
And then he says this: “Do not be anxious, therefore, about your life and what you will eat, or your body and what you will wear.” “Do not be anxious,” Jesus says. “For your father knows that you need these things, and it is his good pleasure to give you the kingdom…”

I recently traveled with my church on a work trip to Nicaragua building houses. While I have participated in a fair amount of mission and service worth throughout my life, this was my first experience in what is known as the “Third World.” Wanting to be well prepared, I traveled to Nicaragua with four pairs of shoes: A pair of work boots to keep my feet safe on the work site, a pair of flip flops for relaxing at the end of the day, a pair of hiking sandals, and a pair of sneakers. Now for me, four pairs of shoes on a vacation is pretty standard, if not sparse. What can I say? I like shoes.

While we were there I noticed the number of community members who worked on the house alongside of our group – children, women, men. We passed concrete blocks from one to the other to move them closer to the site. We shoveled dirt and gravel into wheelbarrows and trucked it away. We shoveled and pick-axed and mixed cement by hand. Ninety-five percent of the Nicaraguans did this work alongside of us in plastic sandals, which were likely their only pair of shoes.

When speaking with one of our Nicaraguan trip leaders, she told me of a family she knew who had two children who had to have one child go to school in the morning and one in the afternoon. The child who went to school in the morning would rush home quickly so that she could give her shoes to the other child to wear to school in the afternoon, since their family could only afford one pair between them.

What could you do without? What could you surrender without a thought? Is it something you no longer want or it something of value?

What do you need? What do you want? Do you know the difference?

In the context of our text today Jesus is likely not speaking to the poor. He is not telling people who have nothing that they should not to worry about food or clothing. He is not telling this family with one set of shoes for two children to not worry. Instead, he is telling people like us. He is talking to the man who wants more of his inheritance than his brother will share. He is talking to the woman who has everything she needs to live, and still feels she needs more. He is talking to the child who doesn’t understand the difference between need and want. He tells us not to worry. What Jesus seems to understand is that the more stuff we have the more anxious we are about it: how to keep it, how to get more, how not to lose it, how to get it for our children and our children’s children, and our families and our friends.

This past week, many of us were swept away by the force of hurricane winds and rain: gusts up to 70 miles an hour in some places. The Times reported that in the New York Metro area, over 500,000 homes were without power. As it may have been here in Greenwich, in Larchmont and Mamaroneck there were pockets of the area who were out, and pockets who stayed on. Our home in Mamaroneck lost power on Saturday night, and with two children under the age of 4, by Sunday afternoon we were looking for somewhere else to stay. With no heat, and no refrigeration, and nothing to do with the kids during the day in a cold house, it got frustrating quickly. I’m sure I’m not the only one here who felt that way.

We were blessed to have an invitation to stay with friends for a couple of nights, blessed to have a warm place to sleep and access to food and toys for the kids. But for me at least there were two things happening in my head. On the one hand I was annoyed and frustrated at being set adrift, away from my stuff, my clothes, the comfort of my home; Especially during a time when I needed to finish two sermons over the course of the last four days. I just did not have time for this inconvenience.

But there was this other voice in my head that began to gather strength as I drove around surveying the damage in Larchmont. “What a gift,” I thought. I noticed how a few trees that hit houses, but I also noticed how many missed them by just a couple of feet. One street down a few blocks from our church had a tree fall across the middle of a Honda Accord parked in the drive way and across the street. But how remarkable that no one was in it, and that the tree didn’t hit the six houses that could have been in it’s path.

What a gift that we could suddenly have quality time with new friends. What a gift that the only thing lost was a handful of groceries. What a gift that we are all safe.

There were lives lost this week in this storm, and those losses are an unbelievable tragedy for those families and for those communities. I grieve for their pain and sorrow. But I also have to shake my head in wonder at how much damage there was and how much worse it could have been. And so when I stood there looking at that squashed Honda, I couldn’t help but think – “Wow, Thank God it’s just a car. Thank God it’s just stuff.”

It was hard to survey the damage we sustained throughout the Northeast this past week and not think about Nicaragua, and Chile, and Haiti. It was poignant yesterday when we finally returned home to our power and our stuff, our shoes and our toys – and realize how many don’t even have a fraction of this stuff – let alone reliable access to electricity and water. Perhaps just a few days of surrender can connect us in powerful ways to those in our world who have no choice but to live a life of surrendering stuff.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

What can you surrender? What can you let go of? Where is your treasure?

There is this amazing thing that happens when we surrender our stuff. There is space. Without all that clutter covering our windows we can see more clearly. Much like the last two days of sunshine reveal the landscape and spring. We can see. We see what we need, and what we can survive without. We can experience what it’s like to live without TV or electronics or even light and in that we can see our neighbor. We can see how much we have and how much we have to give. And perhaps in holding on a little less tightly to our stuff, in surrendering a little more, we will see the abundant Kingdom, that God has given us, already.

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