Sermon for Pentecost 11C

Luke 12: 13-21

I confess to you all that, when I read the Gospel story for this week and studied the commentaries on it, I was possessed by a strong urge to de-clutter my house and my office. I started with the desk in my office, and, even though there are still piles of stuff on my desk, a few more papers have gone into the recycling bin or have been filed away. Books are harder for me to get rid of, but each day I look at the books on my shelves and have discussions with myself about which books I really need and which I would probably be able to sell or to give away. At home, a few more items of clothing went into a sack to be donated to one of the many thrift shops in town. Some papers that I had lying around there also went into recycling. And I either sold or donated a few more items that I have around the house. The big thing that I have yet to do is to tackle the closet in my home office, which is stuffed with childhood memorabilia and many other odds and ends, and I am not looking forward to that at all.

Here in Western society, we have a problem with stuff. Television shows like Hoarders have shone a spotlight on people who just can’t get rid of stuff, and some people have a legitimate mental disorder that makes it impossible for them to get rid of anything, even when their homes are literally taken over with stuff that should have been thrown away years ago. People are beginning to recognize this problem more and more, especially as we are having to help aging parents downsize in preparation for moving into assisted living or nursing homes, and there are many methods out there to help you de-clutter your home. The most recent fad comes out of Japan and is called the KonMari method. This method is deceptively simple: when you hold an item in your hand, you are to ask one question, “Does this thing spark joy?” If the answer is yes, then you keep it. If the answer is no, then you toss it. But the reason it is deceptively simple is this: Suppose you are looking at some little figurine that you inherited from your mother, who died just a year ago. The item that you are holding does not spark joy, in fact, it’s rather ugly, but it does spark memories of how much your mother loved it and how much you loved your mother. You feel guilty for even thinking of getting rid of it, and so you keep it, even though you don’t really like it. It isn’t that simple for us to de-clutter, is it?

We see the problem of stuff with the wealthy farmer in the parable that Jesus tells us today. His land has produced abundantly, and he doesn’t have enough room to store the bountiful harvest that his land has produced. On the surface, it seems that his idea to build bigger barns and to store all of his stuff is a good idea: to save up for years when the harvest might not be so plentiful. We do that ourselves when we save part of the income from our working days for retirement, right? So, what’s the problem here? Why does God get upset with the farmer? Well, let’s notice how the farmer questions what he should do with the excess that the land has produced. “What should I do?” “I will do this.” And so on and so on. Not once does the farmer think about asking God what he should do. Not once does the farmer even give thanks to God for the bounty that the land has produced. And not once does the farmer think about his neighbors who might not have as much as he does. It’s all about him and his own health and well-being. And that’s the problem and the reason God gets upset with the man: it’s about the sin of greed.

You see, stuff isn’t bad in and of itself. God made us to be flesh and blood creatures, and as flesh and blood creatures, made up of physical stuff, our inclination is going to be towards acquiring stuff to make us more comfortable. And, we are going to attach sentimental value to that stuff. It’s when the desire for more stuff takes over our lives that we open ourselves up to the sin of greed. So, how do we determine when something that we want is really necessary for our lives, or if we might better spend our money helping someone out who is in need of the food or clothing that we take for granted? Well, this is where the idea of stewardship comes in. Ah, there’s that dreaded word that we don’t expect to hear until the fall, when we have a particular emphasis on stewardship in the process of planning for next year’s budget. Consider this week’s Gospel a preview of autumn!

So, back to the question: what is good stewardship? Some people would say tithing is the best way to be good stewards; that’s where you give 10% of your money back to God, either through the local congregation or churchwide charities, like ELCA World Hunger. Tithing is a good way to go; after all, it is what God commands in the Scriptures. But, the danger in that is that it can become legalistic. If it gets to the point where we start bragging about how we give 10% of what God has given us back to God, then we need to take a serious look at where we might be falling short in other areas of our spiritual lives, and maybe start thinking about giving 11% or 12%. So, instead of simply saying, “Tithe,” and have that be the answer, I’d like to take a closer look at what the farmer in today’s parable got wrong.

The first thing that the farmer should have done, and that we should do when we consider how to give back to God, is to pray. Let’s take inventory of the things we have and the income we receive, and spend time in prayer, asking God how he would like us to use the gifts that he has blessed us with. As we are praying, let’s consider how much of what we have is absolutely necessary for us to live on. And then, let’s ask God how we can use what is left to help those in the community around us. Give to the church. Give to Loaves and Fishes, and to ELCA World Hunger and Lutheran World Relief. Find other needs in the community, and give to those needs as well.

But we’re not asked to give of our money only; we are also asked to give of the abilities with which God has blessed us. This congregation is especially blessed with such talents: our quilters, our cooks, our folks who give of their abilities to keep the church building well maintained, and everyone who lends a hand when we have special events. As the fall approaches, and as the congregation slowly starts coming back from their travels over the next month or so, we can be thinking of other ways that we can share our talents within the congregation and in the community of Powell. Sunday school will start in September, and we will need people to volunteer to be teachers. It would be wonderful if we could have enough volunteers to go back to teaching the faith and sharing Jesus’ love with the children every week. We are also looking into how we can share our talents with the community of Powell, and hopefully we will have some new projects to do together, as a congregation, in the fall. I’d like to ask that we all remain in prayer and ask God how we should be serving in the community and showing his love to all.

But maybe the most important lesson about stewardship that we can take from this parable of the rich farmer is that none of us got where we are alone. And that’s the larger problem with the farmer’s thinking: he’s thinking that the abundant harvest is all due to him. He’s not thinking about the workers who brought in the harvest for him. He’s not thinking about God, who provided the rains and the sun. And if God had allowed him to live, he probably would have realized, somewhere along the way, that he didn’t have any human companionship and that he was lonely. As individualistic as our culture is, as much as we say, especially here in Wyoming, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” the truth is, we depend on other people for things all of the time. It’s like that meme that was going around Facebook for a while that urged young people not to get too frustrated with their parents when they have problems with the Internet, because their parents are the ones who taught them how to use a toilet. God designed us to be in relationship with one another, and part of good stewardship is tending to and nurturing those relationships in our lives.

In the end, then, stewardship is not just about how we use the money and the other material blessings that God gives us. More than that, stewardship is about our entire lives. Our lives themselves are a gift from God, and how we live our lives makes a statement about what we believe. Are we going to live our lives to God’s glory, not only tending ourselves and our relationship with God, but our relationships with others? Or, are we going to delude ourselves into believing that we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and take care of ourselves first? Will we be ready when God demands our lives from us? This is the question that Jesus asks of us when he tells the parable of the rich farmer. This is the question that we must be asking ourselves continually as we follow Jesus.

This sounds like a lot of law. But, I think that when we live as good stewards, we will find joy as well. We will find the joy that comes from trusting in God to meet our needs, and the joy in letting God use us to meet the needs of others. We will find joy in not being ruled by our desires to have more and more stuff, and instead live unencumbered by our stuff. We will find that the stuff that we do have will still “spark joy”, as the KonMari method of de-cluttering tells us. And we will find joy in the fact that, when we make mistakes, when we let our desires rule us, the Holy Spirit will be there beside us, urging us back to the cross of Jesus to find love and forgiveness. Because, ultimately, that is where our deep, deep, love and joy come from. So let us live our lives in gratitude to God for all of the blessings which he has given us to share with one another. Amen.

 

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Sermon for Pentecost 10C

Luke 11:1-13 & Genesis 18:20-32

 

A year ago during Lent we studied the Lord’s Prayer with the confirmation students, and here we are again today with Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer coming up during our Sunday lectionary series. As we turn today to meditate on the Lord’s Prayer and how we should pray once more, I’d like to open up the sermon with an illustration that I used a year ago from the television show, The Big Bang Theory, about how we, and popular culture, often regard prayer.

Now, I like this clip for a couple of reasons. First, what it gets right: we can talk to God like that when we pray. We don’t need a prayer with prescribed, formal words. God hears us no matter what kinds of words we use to talk with him. Sometimes those words can be formal, yes, but other times they can be an informal conversation as if we were talking to our friends here on Earth. Sometimes prayer can be sung, as we will sing the Lord’s Prayer a little later in worship today. And sometimes, even, prayer—that is, conversation with God—can happen in the work that we do with our hands. God hears our prayers no matter how we pray. But, what I want to really stress about this clip that we just watched is what the people who are praying get wrong: God is not a genie, and, while our prayers very often will contain what we wish, God does not have to grant what we wish.

We see that in our lesson from Genesis today. Abraham has just finished entertaining and providing hospitality to three visitors who have come to his tent, at least one of whom, somehow, is the Lord God. When they have finished their visit, the Lord says that he has heard the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sin, and that he must find out if what he has heard is true. Somehow, Abraham knows, even though God doesn’t specifically say it, that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and he starts bargaining with God. And in the process of bargaining with God for fifty righteous people all the way down to ten, Abraham shamelessly flatters God and appeals to his honor. He is praying with what in Yiddish is called chutzpah, which can mean boldness, impudence, and shamelessness. I mean, this is the God who created the entire universe, the God who created Abraham and who could wipe him out in a minute, and Abraham is bold enough to speak to God and to bargain for the lives of the people of Sodom as if he were bargaining with a merchant in the marketplace! And God goes along with it, and eventually promises that he will not destroy the city if he finds only ten righteous people there.

But, what our story does not tell us today is that Abraham does not get what he asked God for. God destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in spite of Abraham’s prayer: we’re left to infer that there were not even ten righteous people there. And although God’s angels get Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and Lot’s family out of the city alive, Abraham does not know it, for Genesis merely records that Abraham looked down on the plains where Sodom and Gomorrah had been and saw the smoldering wreckage left in the wake of the destruction of those cities. We don’t know if Abraham ever saw his nephew again.

This story is both comforting and scary, isn’t it? Comforting because we know that we can talk to God in prayer any way we want to. We can talk with chutzpah to the Lord and Creator of the universe in any way we want to, and he will hear us. But it’s also frightening because we know that, even though God loves us and wants to give us good things, as the Gospel of Luke tells us, we may not receive what we wish for, and sometimes the world goes on as if God has never heard us.

So, what exactly is it that Jesus is telling us about prayer? Well, the first thing to note about the Lord’s Prayer—and this is the same in Matthew as it is in Luke—is that it is a communal prayer. Now, this is not to say that we can’t pray this prayer when we’re alone. But, when we do pray the Lord’s Prayer alone, the plural pronouns in this prayer put us in mind of the whole community of faithful Christians around the world who are praying this just as we are. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, not only are we asking for God’s name to be hallowed and God’s kingdom to come, but we are also asking God to form us into a community who shows love to one another as God has shown love to us.

But then, after the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gives us more teachings about prayer. And the theme behind the story of the friend who comes at midnight, and the theme behind his teachings of asking, seeking, and knocking, seems to be the theme of persistence. Keep praying, Jesus says, and don’t give up, for God wants to give us what we need. For me, this can be problematic. Why doesn’t God answer the first time I ask God for something? Why do I have to keep asking? What happens when I keep asking God for something, and nothing seems to happen? What happens when I pray for what I think I need and I don’t receive it? Does that mean that God didn’t want to give me good things? Or, does that mean that my prayers weren’t good enough, or that I wasn’t persistent enough in my praying?

Well, the answer to the last two of these questions is “no”. We are human beings, and we are flawed and fallen, and God knows that our prayers are not going to be perfect. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” So, when we are praying and God seems to be silent, we can trust that the Holy Spirit is with us, walking beside us, urging us to keep on praying, and interceding for us when we don’t pray as we should be praying. It’s kind of like this: If I pray to win the lottery, the Holy Spirit might say, “God, you know what she meant. She’s just praying to have enough money to pay her bills and to give some to someone in need. Don’t hold it against her.” Our prayers are always good enough for God, because praying, in the end, is not about what God is giving to you. Praying is about that relationship with God, that relationship that gives us the chutzpah to say, “You know what God? Things are not going very well right now, and I’m hurting and angry and wondering where you are.” God even delights in that prayer, because it means that we are still speaking with him.

So, what happens when we pray the good prayer: the prayer that someone we love would be healed, the prayer for wars and conflict to cease across the world, the prayers for decent leaders in government, and those prayers are answered in the negative? Well, I think we need to remember that God is God and we are not. We are to be persistent in prayer, yes, but, as one of my colleagues said on Wednesday, we need to remember that we can’t bully God into doing what we want God to do. We might flatter, wheedle, or cajole God. We might get angry and yell, or we might break down in tears and plead with God. We can even bargain with God. But in the end, God’s decisions are God’s decisions. We might never know why our loved one wasn’t healed. Or, many years after the fact, we may look back and see God’s hand leading us, and Jesus walking beside us through that rough patch. But in the end, the reasons that God does or doesn’t do something are God’s own, and God does not choose to reveal those reasons to us.

But the miracle is this: that God, who created the universe, wants to be in a relationship with us, those he created. And, like any relationship, there may be some rough patches that we will have to get through. But God will always be there, beside us, even when it seems like God is silent. And when we ask, no matter what else God gives to us or doesn’t give to us, God will give us the Holy Spirit. Always. The Holy Spirit who walks beside us, who advocates for us, and who intercedes for us. The Holy Spirit who urges us to continue to pray, to tell God what is happening in our lives, to have that conversation with God, and to not be afraid to talk with God. What an absolutely amazing gift that is, and what a privilege, to be able to talk intimately with the one who made us!

The prophet Isaiah tells us that God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. As much as we try to figure God out and to understand the reasons for things that happen, we will always run into the mystery of who God really is. But one thing that God has revealed to us, and one thing that we can always count on, is that God loves us. God loves us and God wants to be in relationship with us and to have conversation with us. Even though God already knows what’s going on in our lives, God wants us to talk to him as we would talk with our father or our mother, through both the good times and the bad. God loves us so much that God sent his Son Jesus to us, to teach us that we can talk to God any time and in any way that we want, and to finally break down any barriers between us and God by dying for us on the cross. So, let’s keep talking, and let’s be persistent. Let’s have the chutzpah of Abraham and be bold when we pray. And let’s trust that God will always hear us, and that the Holy Spirit will be beside us. Always. Amen.