July 31, 2016 Gospel: Luke 12:13-21 1st Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23
2nd Reading: Colossians 3:1-11
How much is enough? How much is too much? How do I know when I have I crossed the line into greed? I wish Jesus would be clear with us, so we can follow a rule and know which side of the line we are on. But Jesus tells us and the crowd and the Disciples and the man with the complaint about his brother, only to be on guard against all kinds of greed. But it is so hard to do. We each have needs for food, shelter, and community. We don't want to be a burden to other people, and we like being self-sufficient, so we set aside for retirement and emergencies. I can't tell you how relieved I am that we were able to buy a house 11 years ago. With rents going up, like they are, we would be forced to move. We have a mortgage payment we can afford. We'll pay it off when I'm 66 years old, if everything goes according to plan. We are comfortable. We are wealthy. And we're looking at buying new windows this year. We'll probably take out another loan for that. And still I sometimes think to myself, if we only had 20 more square feet or two more closets, I'd have enough space. I picture where I would build on, if I could. Recently a friend inspired me to do some decluttering. There is always a new book or a new fad about it. It was very helpful for me, because when I look through my closet now, I don't have to look through all those clothes I never wear. Every single thing in my closet is something I like.
Instead of beating up on myself and you, I thought today we might be inspired by people who have lived this balance, who have not trusted in things, but found fulfillment in life and generosity.
The first is my family friend Christine. We knew her from church. She sang in the choir and was assisting minister. She adopted Kiley from India. We assume that like many in India country, her family didn't want her because she was a girl, maybe a second or third girl in a poor family that couldn't afford her dowry. When Kiley came, she was the tiniest little child, less than a year old, with big brown eyes. I remember peeking at her in her blanket when she first started coming to church. My mom started babysitting Kiley in her daycare. I watched her at her house when her mom had evening meetings. She really liked “Scooby Doo.” Christine adopted Sylvia from Bulgaria. Sylvia was an unwanted child who was Bulgarian and Gypsy. Her eye was damaged in the womb because of an abusive partner. She wore an eye patch for a few years until her damaged eye was strengthened. Christine kept Sylvia's picture on the side of the microwave for at least a year while we waited for the orphanage to release her. We gathered items for the orphanage, clothes, bottles, toys, all kinds of baby things. They were a kind of bribe. It turns out that Sylvia was the first child released from that orphanage to the United States. Christine was a woman of means. She had an education. She was a teacher. But her life did not consist of her possessions. She used what she had to give two girls a new life. I remember Christine mentioning once when I was babysitting the girls, how she had almost got Sylvia paid off. She said it was like buying a house. And she also told me a story recently of when Sylvia first arrived and couldn't connect with the family, how Christine held and held her and wouldn't let her go. It was her way of communicating with a 2 year old through presence and touch that she was part of the family and she was loved and secure. Kiley and Sylvia are all grown up now and both very loving people. Christine is one of those people I always look up to when I think of people I would like to emulate.
The congregation of Bethlehem Lutheran in Portland struggled financially for many years. Their attendance was low and their building was huge. They welcomed community groups to use their space and rented office space to Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good. They had a preschool. They had a clothing ministry. When their pastor took a new call, their interim time was a time of reflection. They didn't have the resources to keep it all going. They would have to make some choices. What was most important, the church building, the ability to pay a pastor, or the relationships? Through a lot of conversation and soul searching, they let their building go and figured out how to continue without their own pastor. They kept their community, though. For several years they have nested in other congregations in Portland, as a group, worshiping at other congregations for a couple of months at a time. They continue to maintain their own identity and have their own council meetings and their own mission statement, but a building and pastor aren't the most valuable part of their experience of God.
The last example I am thinking of was the Tea Party held here this spring to benefit Backpack Buddies. A little girl, from our own congregation, wanted to be fancy and eat sweets and invite family and friends to be generous. Many of us put on our fanciest. I even dug through my jewelry box to find a bracelet, necklace, and earrings to please Kamryn. We baked and frosted and decorated and dug deep in our pockets and cupboards and donated to help kids who don't have enough to eat and we had a lot of fun.
Finally, I want to lift up a man who planted a million trees. He has spent his money and time reforesting a huge area, making sure the trees are doing well. He knows his life is not going to go one forever. He has a clear sense of what matters and what lasts and what doesn't. He has chosen to invest in generations to come. He knows the worth of a tree to this earth and the worth of a forest of trees.
This world values things. It measures the worth of things with money. Our society tries to tell us that we need more things to be happy and fulfilled. But look around. We are wealthy. We have what we need and more. But we don't have spiritual fulfillment, or we wouldn't come looking to Jesus. It reminds of me Jesse's music last week, “You can have all the rest. Give me Jesus.” Nothing else lasts. Nothing else matters. Nothing else fulfills.
The work we do, doesn't get us anywhere. The money we make, doesn't make us happy, doesn't fulfill our dreams. The education we receive is soon out of date. All is vanity---vapor, an illusion, fleeting pointlessness. We all find ourselves overcome with despair sometimes at the pointlessness of it all.
So if life doesn't consist of possessions, what does make for a fulfilling life? Jesus doesn't take sides in the dispute over the inheritance between brothers in the Gospel reading. The reading seems to bring up the point of what is worth more, the value of the inheritance or the relationship with the brother?
What do these examples of generosity and balance have in common? It is the wider view including generations which have come before and which will come after, it is the sense of imagination, it is the sense of imagination, it is the relationship building, it is about compassion and love. And isn't that what Jesus taught us, the most generous one of all, coming among us, teaching us, loving us, and giving his life for us, so that we would truly have an example of generosity, so that we would know how much he's given us, so we can know what is possible when our possessions don't possess us, but we love one another.
I want to share with you a hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. Follow the link to read her hymn