“Trash and Treasures”

August 17, 2014


II Corinthians 4:7-12

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-53


I got this sermon at the rummage sale.

It was an end of the day special. Nobody else wanted it, so I decided to take it.

Actually, it would be more precise for me to say that the rummage sale was the source for this sermon.

You see, I have a lot of problems with rummage sales.

My guess is that these problems all spring from some deep insecurity or something. When I look at some of the items that people bring in to sell, I wonder, “What’s wrong with me?” Usually some of the CDs and books that people donate because they no longer want them are the same ones that I still prize in my own library or music collection. Am I missing something? Why am I holding on to these things? At the same time, I really can’t understand why anyone wanted to get rid of that Eric Clapton CD. Can you explain that to me?

Then again, it is always reassuring to find exercise equipment for sale. I tell myself: “See, nobody else uses that stuff either”—and head over to the bake sale table.

There is also the larger uneasiness caused because I find in rummage sales an indictment of our American consumerism run amuck. At the end of the day so much stuff is hauled away. These were once items that someone had to have. How did the old Paul McCartney song put it? “‘Buy. Buy.’ says the sign in the shop window. ‘Why? Why?’ says the junk in the yard.” Or if you prefer the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

In this way rummage sales challenge my own consumer mentality. I am left with the troubling realization that what I desperately need this year might very likely become items that I desperately need to unload a few years from now. Watch the “clean-up” at the end of the day. It is a sobering call to a simpler lifestyle. And, yes, it is someone ironic that one of the first things we do when we simplify is give items to a rummage sale or hold one of our own.

As I walk around through all of this stuff those words of Jesus about storing up treasures here on earth echo through my mind and heart. No matter what I have, I can’t take it with me, I won’t be taking it with me. Moth and rust consume. My own mortality is pre-shadowed in the unwanted LP’s.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I walked into Rockwood Hall last week, a still, small voice kept asking: “Well, what are you living for?”

I remember the comment by Dr. Diane Komp, a pediatric oncologist at Yale who treats children with cancer. She was once asked how she finds hope in families where a child has a terminal illness.

“I have asked them,” she says, “‘If you were going to rewrite the story of your life, would you wipe out any memory of this experience?’ And the truth is, for many families, they never really knew the important things of life before this threatened loss or actual loss came to them. Although they would not want the physical or emotional suffering of their child, they don’t want to go back to being the same person.”

She adds: “The message out there is: go after one of everything you can acquire, and that’s the way you’ll make your family happy. Money and possessions. And all of these families learned that that was a lie”[1]

You’ll make your family happy with money and possessions. “And all of these families learned that that was a lie.”

What are you living for?

As you listened to those parables of Jesus this morning, did you get the sense that if you’ve found something worth living for, if you’ve discovered something of great value, it is worth some sacrifice. We will move toward it regardless of the cost.

What are the treasures we are willing to spend for something even greater?

What do we really value? Our children and their safety, our neighbors as ourselves, the health of the planet, the peace of the nations of the world?

Or one of everything we can acquire?

The one who told these parables was the same Jesus who told us: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

At the same time, I always recognize with gladness the positive side of church rummage sales.

First of all, they bring many of us together in the week before the sale, working and talking, enjoying each other’s company. And that is always a good thing. We can and should be grateful for such times.

A rummage sale provides good quality furniture, housewares, and other items to people who need and want them—people like me, who, for all my problems with rummage sales, still found a few good deals.

And rummages sales might be one of the greenest things that congregations do. In a time when the emphasis is on producing more and more new items and using more and more resources, rummage sales remind us of the reality that one person’s trash is indeed another person’s treasure. These are great exercises in recycling, in reusing, in repurposing. They are one small step for sustainability. I bought a plastic item that was literally just what I had been looking for. I couldn’t buy it in a store or online. Yet, there it was in our church! I felt like the person who found a treasure in the field and bought it with great joy. And because a member donated it for sale rather than throwing it out, it was kept out of a landfill.

Beyond that challenges of rummage sales, which we need to take seriously, and beyond the many benefits, for which we need to give thanks, we discover in them a message of hope.

We’re drawn to these sales out of hope—hope in a good deal, hope that we’ll stumble across a real bargain: an old Martin guitar, a valuable painting hidden behind a poster in a cheap frame. Soon we’ll be on Antiques Road Show telling of how we bought this at a church rummage sale and we’re astonished to find it is worth $10,000!And how, of course, we’ll sell it and give the money to the church!

Such a hope seems to echo Paul’s thinking: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels,” he writes.

To all appearances, Paul—and by extension all of us—was nothing more than an earthen vessel, a cheap clay pot. And yet, precious objects and treasures were regularly kept in such pots. Here in our flesh is something of great value.[2]

That treasure, Paul claims, is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” What we see in Jesus is the very light of God. Along with Paul, you, too, carry this treasure beyond price.

Yes, you and I, we’re just clay pots—but what a shining treasure is found inside!

And we are called to let that light shine through our actions in the world.

Which, of course, is where the problems arise.

We are clay pots—human beings, made of the earth. How does the hymn put it? “Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.” We are fragile, easily broken, easily damaged. And some would say easily expendable.

The catalogue of woes that Paul lists continues to be our own, don’t they: crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, and destroyed.

We might use other terms to describe the anxieties that come to us, both simply from the general human situation and because we try to live as Christians.

We do good and our goodness is ascribed as an attempt to curry popularity.

We are profoundly perplexed when we try to apply our values to the problems of the modern world: Does feeding the hungry lead to empowerment of further helplessness? Does the possession of nuclear weapons endanger or preserve society?

We are frustrated in our attempts to carry out reforms in our community or the larger world.

But we have the hope that while we are clay pots, God’s power is made perfect in our weakness and fragility. That power is there with us to balance every outside circumstance and every interior thought that would hold us back. The promise is not that our troubles will pass away with time or that they only appear to be troubles, or that a way out of them will eventually be found. The troubles we face are real and some may never disappear—yet the power of God is there to bring us through them.

Rummage sales remind us of our hope. And in that hope we hear once more those parables about the coming realm of God.

In the first two that we heard, a small mustard seed is planted and grows into a tree with enough room that the birds come to roost in it. A woman mixes yeast with flour and the bread begins to rise.

I’ve never planted a mustard seed, but I’ve baked enough bread to be familiar with the mysterious process by which a little bit of yeast makes a lump of flour and water double in size. It has something to do with the chemical reaction between the yeast and the sugars in the flour. Gases are produced. Slowly the dough expands.

The point is the baker has little to do with this. Dough does not rise because we stand and watch. Dough does not rise because we pump air into it. Dough rises because of the silent, secret working of the leaven.

We are earthen vessels and in one sense, we can’t do anything to bring about the realm of God any more than we could bring about creation. But ultimately, that realm will come. Only God can and will bring that transformation.[3]

And so we are wise to pray as though everything depends upon God.

And yet, we are also wise to work as though everything depends upon us. After all, as one person put it, “God does not customarily rain clothes, food, medical care, and jobs from heaven.”[4] We really are responsible to see that our society is just, that the poor are not forgotten, that our air, water, and land are cared for.

So the two other parables that we heard this morning speak to us about our actions:

Finding a treasure in a field, a man sells all that he has in order to buy that field. Finding a pearl of great value, a merchant sells everything in order to buy it.

The joy of finding leads us to action. We receive the realm of God with open-hearted trust and thankfulness. And when we act, we are taking God’s grace seriously.

Our best efforts may be flawed, but they should still be our best efforts: clear thinking, acts of deep compassion, skilled work, the creation of beauty and art that moves us, love that shines, the best ethical response that we are capable of making by the grace God freely offers.

At our best, this is what the Congregational tradition and the United Church of Christ have always been about: a free response to the love of God experienced in Jesus Christ that immerses us into a hurting world. We seek to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to teach, strengthen, and equip people for living as signs that God’s realm has come into this world and will come into this world. Look at the great causes in our nation’s history: the Revolution, the abolition of slavery, the civil rights, women’s rights and reproductive choice, and peace movements, the work for marriage equality—Congregationalists and members of the United Church of Christ have been and still are found in all of them. Ours is an active faith. We do not shy away from involvement in the world that God created and into which God’s realm will come.

We make mistakes all the time. Still we continue trying to love the world as God has loved us.

Can we trust God? Yes. The work begun in Jesus will be brought to completion.

Can we trust ourselves? Yes. God is working in and through us.

Work as though everything depended on you. Pray as though everything depended on God.

In spite of the problems that I have with rummage sales, I am thankful for the one we held yesterday. We had a good time. We raised some money to be used to minister to the neediest in our community. It was a good and worthy effort.

Most importantly, it reminded us once more of the hope in which we live, the treasure that we have, and the commitments by which we show what really matters in life.

[1] New York Times, Sept. 17, 1995 quoted in “Voluntary Simplicity” issue of UCC Connections.

[2] See discussion in Interpretation commentary on II Corinthians.

[3] see Barclay, The Lord’s Prayer, pg.64.

[4] Bondi, Roberta, A Place to Pray, pg. 55.