February 28 Sermon

“Is There Grace In Our Stuff?”
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
February 28, 2016 – Third Sunday of Lent

How many of you gave up something for Lent? How Many of you gave up some kind of food or beverage? How many of you gave up a bad habit? How many of you gave away something you own?
During Lent we remove from our lives the things that are obstacles to our living as Christ’s disciples. We come together to support one another in the work of being Christ’s disciples, acknowledging that one another’s journeys shape our own.

Isaiah 55:1-9 (translation by Bower)
Hear the word of the Lord:
If you are thirsty, come to the waters;
even if you have no money, come, buy and eat!
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?
Why work hard for something that does not satisfy?
Listen to me carefully: eat what is good, and enjoy rich food.
God says
“Incline your ear, and come to me; listen and be revived. “
God promises to make an everlasting covenant:
So while the Lord may be found – seek!
While God is near – call out!
For the Lord says,
My plans are not your plans and your ways are not my ways.
But just as the heavens are higher than the earth, my plans and ways are higher than yours.

Luke 13:1-9 (Common English Bible)
In this gospel lesson, Jesus refers to seeming recent news to his audience: the sacrificial execution of some people from Galilee and a building that has collapsed killing those inside. Then Jesus teaches with a parable about a common fig tree. As we consider how God makes grace available to us, we are left with the question “What shall we do now?”
At that very time there were some present who told {Jesus}about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’
{The gardener} replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

I cannot believe we are already at February 28th. Two months – 16 % – of 2016 has already past. Just 66 days ago we celebrated Christmas. Do you know what have you done with all your Christmas gifts? Remember that thing that just a few weeks ago you could not live without – all the excitement and anticipation about getting it? How long did you use it? How long did you play with it? Where is it now?
Around Christmas time, I heard an article on National Public Radio from a man who had survived cancer. He was talking about how his prayers changed during his illness and again after his illness. He spoke of his prayers as a child when he would “ask God to ask Jesus to remind Santa Claus that I want a spider monkey …” He went on to say since cancer his prayers had focused more on thankfulness for all that he had, especially the people in his life – but that he would still like a spider monkey.
How much stuff do we have in our houses that we thought we wanted or needed only to get them, use them once or twice to try them out, and then they sit on our shelves? That foodsaver that was used once the day after Christmas and then never used again. DVDs and Blue Rays that we’ve watched once and now sit near the TV.
One of my biggest weaknesses is books. I have a large personal library, probably something near 1000 books. (That’s the number after a deliberate downsizing in the past year.) I’ve read more than two-thirds of them. What about the third that hasn’t been read? And honestly, of the other two-thirds, how many am I going to read again?
It makes some sense for me to keep certain reference books – books on the bible that I consult for preaching and worship, some philosophy books that were crucial in writing my dissertation, cookbooks with often-used recipes and books with prayers. And there are some books that I reread every year or so, like the Watchmen or Frankenstein or Lord of the Rings. But do I need to keep all the other books just in case I might want them someday?
And nick-knacks. I will admit I have way too many little statues in my house – gnomes and clowns and dragons. Sure they remind me of the people who gave them to me, but they also require a lot of shelf space.
How often in the past ten years have you had to change your telephone because the old one no longer worked or the new one had a new feature you wanted to use?
And if you didn’t know this about me already, I love legos – you know, those little bricks that snap together. One creative aspect of Legos is the number of ways you can put the bricks together – and then you are supposed to take them apart and assemble them in a different way. But I like to put them together and keep them together. So our house is adorned by models of castles and houses that make a medieval village and some dragons and other fantastic beasts – plus we have a lego train that goes around our Christmas tree.
How many of us have built or purchased shelves for all the stuff we have – especially the stuff we use only once in a while? How many large plastic tubs have you bought in your lifetime to store seasonal equipment or decorations? How many boxes of Christmas lights, tree ornaments, and other Christmas decorations do you have in your attic, garage, or basement?
I have nothing against foodsavers or DVDs or books or knick knacks or telephones or shelving or plastic tubs. I don’t have anything against the stores that sell these things – because obviously I have bought a lot of stuff at those stores.
I am trying to hear Isaiah’s words in a new way:
Why do you buy stuff that does not feed you
and why do you work hard for things that do not satisfy?
I think another part of Isaiah’s message is to ask: What do you need to keep in order to be satisfied? And more poignantly, a third question: Are you paying attention, because everything you have is a gift from God.
Jesus used some recent events to make a similar point: Prosperity abounds as a result of God’s grace, but with the gifts of grace comes responsibility – God expects us to be good stewards. That’s pretty close to the axiom that shapes’ Spider-man’s character: “With Great Power comes great responsibility.” The difference here is grace: with the gifts of grace comes responsibility – God expects us to be good stewards.
Misfortune in anyone’s life is not a reflection of God having withdrawn care for them, no more than wealth and prosperity are indicators of God’s greater love. Jesus says again and again: Whatever the events, God uses those events to summon us to greater faithfulness, greater connection between members of the human family.
I am not a fan of the singer Madonna, but I do think one of her lyrics got it right: “We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl” (or boy or whatever). That song goes on to declare that she wanted relationships that only brought with them financial prosperity.
As followers of Christ, we are called to measure our prosperity in a different way. Yes, the material stuff in our lives is important – but only so far as it serves as reminders of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and that we are called to bear witness to Christ’s presence in our own lives. We are called to live so that grace is evident. With all of the stuff we have, within all the events in our lives – be they happy or sad, be they tragic or prosperous – we are being called to demonstrate God’s grace through us.
And so we pray, God, Take my gifts.

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