Reflections on a Yard Sale

Yes, I confess.† I used to dread our biannual church yard sales, which are always on a Saturday, but take two days to set-up.† A lot of my distaste for them was the pressure of time while raising kids, the neglect of my own home and yard that would still have to be made up, and the tedium.† Iíve noticed a gradual and growing shift in my attitude over the years, and while my reflections are fresh in my mind from our most recent one today, I thought Iíd share some of them.

We live in a consumption driven, acquisitively orientated society.† No doubt about it.† I lament it oftenójust ask my kidsówhile knowing full well I am implicated in it.† Itís tempting to look at all the donations we have at our yard sale and think ďWhat a shame.† All this stuff people acquire and discard.† We live in such a disposable society, buying stuff we donít need and then tossing it out.Ē

I used to do that, and maybe Iím just projecting onto others; maybe no one else looks at it that way.† Without a doubt thereís some truth to it.† I see it differently now, though.† I look around and I see a high chair parents used to feed their baby in.† I see couches people used to snuggle on as they rested at the end of the day.† I see kitchen tables that people used to fellowship around, pray around, laugh around and sustain themselves with daily bread.† I see toys and games a child once opened with delight under a Christmas tree or unwrapped for a birthday.† I see clothes that protected people and kept them warm or cool or dry as they worked, played, worshipped or even hurt, hungered and grieved.† I see exercise equipment that at least represented hope if not reality, cups that helped quench thirst, pictures that used to hang on walls and brighten a room and vases that held beautiful flowers that brightened a day.† I see books that educated, fascinated and entertained.

Itís all there, and more, much more.† Above it all I see love. †We all know that the most precious gifts we have to offer are not tangible.† But, being the frail creatures of the tangible world of sense that we are, when we freely and joyfully give tangible gifts to one another, we are able, by doing so, to also give them intangible gifts.

Not all, but some of the donations were once gifts given or received in love.† Some of them were probably things that used to belong to departed loved ones that their family is finally able to give away as they struggle to move through their grief.† Some of them were originally purchased as a way to care and provide for someoneís family.† Some were bought in hopes (perhaps misplaced, but who knows?) of being better people.† Some were bought to do good work, to better care for creation, to spend time in genuine activities of re-creation.† Some, yes even some, were probably bought wisely, on a budget, when something else nicer, better, lovelier, but more expensive, would have been preferred, but the person wanted to save more for generous, cheerful giving or necessary provision. ††And now they have given them away, in hopes that others may find some value in them, rather than toss it in a landfill.

Of course some of the stuff was unneeded, was charged with money one did not have, was bought in an attempt to satisfy a selfish desire, or was put to bad use, but not all, probably not most.† Many of the donations we had to offer were bought by people seeking to fulfill real needs or to give as the best gift they could to someone they dearly love, and maybe even to save money to give more to God or to others, and the donations helped them to do just that.

On yard sale weekends, our fellowship hall is packed with shared humanity: our memories, hopes, generosity, longings and love as well as our greed, acquisitiveness, envy, discontent and self-inflicted pain.† Itís packed with the image-bearers of God and the fallen, broken, prideful rebels those image-bearers have become.

And itís packed with another kind of humanity, too: the humanity of church family fellowshipping and serving.† I say serving because I believe most of the people who come are sincerely glad and genuinely needful of the things they buy, and knowing itís not ideal, it truly helps our church continue to serve and worship God.† It would be nice to not have to use the proceeds for the budget, to give it all away to Lutheran Services for the Aging or ELCA World Hunger or Disaster Relief, or to Synod benevolence, and thatís a good goal worth striving for and remaining mindful about, but God knows our frame; He knows our need; and He understands our fears and weaknesses.

Iím not willing to concretely say that we have not been faithful in giving.† I only know that I havenít always, so itís likely in the abstract that others have sometimes also not been as faithful as they should.† But this too I know:† God is always faithful, and He provides in our unfaithfulness without ever approving of it, always prompting us to more faithfulness and more generosity.† We need, nay, we must move towards that with the help of Godís grace and the power of His Spirit, but we must also give thanks to God for His provision now.

I also say fellowshipping because thereís a chance to get to talk to church family you may not get to talk to that often, the sharing of stories and memories, and even a good laugh or two.† Most get the chance to sit down and share a meal with someone.† Thereís also the natural fellowship of shared labor, which doesnít always include words, and the appreciation one gains for the willingness of others who do all the setting up and preparing.† To top it all off, itís intergenerational fellowship!

One also meets members of the community.† Some of the same people come year after year, and many of them will stop and talk if you give them an opening.† In the slow part of the afternoon this past Saturday, I spoke to a man who seemed hesitant to say more than hello, but I pressed a little and the next thing I knew we had a 20 minute conversation.

Itís a different world for me than it was 5-6 years ago when I begrudgingly started working at them.† Go to one sometime and see for yourself.† Bring a fresh pair of eyes.† They really help!

The Offering as Worship

A Temple Talk on stewardship I gave today at church.

My talk this morning is on giving as an act of worship.† These talks are structured around Mark Allen Powellís wonderful book: Giving To God, the first chapter of which is ďAn Act of Worship.Ē† I canít recommend this book highly enough, but I donít want to recite to you what he said; I want to tell you about my reaction to the first chapter and my interaction with God through it.

I do want to give you an organizing quote, though.† Powell writes: ďThe Sunday offering is a worship event that provides us with the opportunity for expressing our love to God in the purest way imaginable, by giving up something that we value.Ē† Iíll come back to that.

Some years ago, [my wife] was reading ďOur StateĒ magazine when she saw a photo of the NC mountains in fall that she just loved.† It was a shot across rolling hills full of vibrant wild flowers.† I researched the photographer, found his web site, scoured through his prints and couldnít find it.† I called him.† He had only recently taken the photograph, and had never made prints for sale.† He made, framed, matted and sold me a 20 x 24 print and shipped it.† I gave it to [my wife] for Christmas, and she has the first and maybe only one.† She delighted in the receiving and I in the giving.† Both our lives were enriched.

When I read that quote, ďThe Sunday offering is a worship event that provides us with the opportunity for expressing our love to God in the purest way imaginable, by giving up something that we value,Ē I thought about that picture and how excited I get about giving gifts to those I love, but I hate to give money.† I stopped to talk to God about that.

I told Him, ďThatís just it God.† We put everything in terms of money today, and itís so boring.† I wish I had something precious to give you like the Magi or that picture I gave Kerri, but I have nothing you need.Ē Now, donít go call the paddy wagon and send for a straight-jacket.† I donít see burning bushes or hear voices, but at that moment I sensed God telling me: ďBut, BoÖI donít need your money either.Ē

We donít give to God because He needs what we have.† All we have is already His, and He wants to give us more.† Sacrificial giving as an act of worship is one of the ways in which God allows us to exchange rusty, moth-infested rubbish for treasure in heaven. Now, please donít misunderstand me.† When Jesus told us to store up treasure in heaven He was by no means suggesting that we could earn our way in.† Just as with our family and friends we do not give gifts to earn anotherís love; likewise, we are not earning anything by giving to God.

The offering is not a free market exchange process in which we exchange labor for pay and pay for goods and services. Itís an organic, ecological process of growth.† We are like potted plants that the master gardener is preparing for a special and beautiful place in a new creation He is planting, and giving as an act of worship is part of the process by which God nourishes and feeds us so that we may grow into a plant ready to be taken from the pot and deeply rooted in good soil.

In the tangible realm we are still part of the old decaying creation.† The blessings God has given us in this world are indeed good and useful for life, and love and re-creation, and we should offer thanks for them, but unless we want to become root bound in this pot of flesh we must cease clinging to those things which are impermanent and exchange them for permanent things.

We give gifts to our children that are appropriate to their maturity.† It is in the act of giving to God in worship that He matures us and enables us to put away childish things so that we can receive even greater things.† Itís as if He is continually taking us from smaller pots and putting us in larger ones.† The seed He planted in baptism He nurtures and cultivates and nourishes in worship, all of worship from thanksgiving and confession, praying and listening, eating and drinking, giving and serving.

When we cheerfully and freely give back to God what He has first given to us we are telling Him ďI get it!Ē† Itís a humbling, joyful and hungering process.† Itís humbling because we first have to understand that we donít deserve any of it, not even the most simple, essential gifts necessary to sustain physical life.† Itís joyful because once we understand that we deserve none of it we donít have to struggle to earn any of it, because we know we canít, and we donít have to fight to keep any of it becauseÖwe know we canít.† Itís hungering because once weíve had a taste of Godís grace we want more, and we want it fully, in greater measure; we humbly and joyfully thirst for it like a deer panting for water.

In giving we grow to want the things we cannot earn but which we can keep, eternally.† We give to God not because we have anything He needs but because He has everything that we will ever need, in this world and the world to come. In giving we become imitators of Christ.† It is precisely through imitation that children learn and grow.† When we do not freely and cheerfully give we are not keeping anything from God; we are keeping Godís grace from fully maturing in ourselves.

And yet, we all know that the most precious gifts we have to offer are not tangible.† Imagine a relationship in which we never gave those we love our attention, approval, or affection.† But, being the frail creatures of the tangible world of sense that we are, when we freely and joyfully give tangible gifts to one anotheróbe it a photograph, a hug or love noteówe are able, by doing so, to also give them intangible gifts.

While the offering is not a sacrament it does share this in common with them: The offering is one of the worship events in which the tangible intersects with the intangible. In giving our tangible gifts to God as an act of worship we open ourselves to receive the intangible gifts of His grace and love, and in doing so we grow, we are transformed more and more into His likeness until we are ready to be taken from our pots and planted in a garden that will glorify Him.† Thanks be to Him to whom all glory is due, now and forever.† Amen.