Sunday, September 12, 2010

Divine Extravagance

I found it rather ironic mid-week when I was struggling over and deeply worrying about my sermon for this week. People often ask about what the process is for writing sermons, and I can tell you that it’s different for every preacher. But for me some weeks the words seem to come easily and some weeks, like Jacob who wrestled with an angel deep in the night, so do I wrestle with the Word of God. This was one of those wrestling weeks.

The passage that’s listed there is not what I will read, or actually it’s just a portion of what I will read. It’s one that was very familiar to me, maybe to you, too, and one of heard preached countless times. Sometimes that actually makes writing a new sermon harder. It feels like everything that could be said has, and gets me worrying if I am finding a message that maybe hasn’t been said. Maybe I’m getting it all wrong. Hence the worrying about a sermon on a passage that seems on the surface to be all about not worrying.

But, I struggled with God’s word this week because that surface reading just wasn’t working for me, especially because of where this familiar passage comes in the gospel according to Luke. One little word in the beginning of this reading just kept tripping me up. That word? “Therefore.”

It’s not even a theological word, but it just kept getting in the way of writing a sermon about worry or not worrying. “Therefore” connects this perfect “Flora and Fauna Sunday” passage about the ravens of the air and the lilies of the field to what comes before. What Jesus is saying about worrying, often a comforting passage for those who feel overworked and overstressed, means something completely different when read back to find out what this passage is answering. So, despite what the order of worship says (something I often complete earlier in the week than my sermon when I end up wrestling like this), I’m going to read more than just the “Flora and Fauna” passage. Today’s gospel reading is Luke 12:13-31. Listen now for God’s word.

Luke 12:13-31

The request from the man in the crowd doesn’t seem too out of order. He just wants things to be fair. He just wants a share of the family’s inheritance, something that may not have been customary at the time, but it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to ask. Yet, Jesus has some pointed words for this man and others, who might be trying to accumulate wealth. He tells the man in the crowd to be careful what he wishes for. Jesus tells him to “Take care!” saying that even this might be a form of greed.

His parable that follows is pretty clear. The rich farmer had barns that were good enough, that were big enough, to hold his already successful harvest, but he wanted more. He wanted bigger barns to hold more crops and more possessions. He was sure he could make his soul happy by gathering grain and goods and holding fast to them. But Jesus is quick to point out that this just doesn’t work. The things he has gathered may make him rich on earth, but they take him nowhere in his relationship with God. His actions are driven by greed and not by a faithful desire to find happiness in God. He tries to accumulate wealth, to gather riches, but the treasures he stores up take him far from what God truly wants.

Wealth and extravagance, in terms of money and material goods that are accumulated and held onto, do not come out on the winning side of that parable. Yet in the next breath, in the directions indicated by the “therefore” Jesus praises the extravagant beauty of the lilies and grasses of the field. The lilies he calls us to consider are apparently clothed more beautifully than the great King Solomon ever was. They don’t have to work. They don’t have to struggle. They are just blessed with this beauty and are praised for the extravagance they stand for. Their rich beauty is praised by Jesus right after he finishes speaking against the man’s riches!

Why is wealth or the appearance of wealth sinful in one case, but a sign of ideal living for God’s creatures in the next? What’s the difference between the man who delights in his riches and the lily that displays its?

The “therefore” gives us our answer. “Therefore, I tell you,” Jesus says, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” “Do not worry.” Worry here is more than just hand-wringing. It’s sort of like believing in the New Testament. Belief is never just something you agree with in your head or in your heart even. Belief in the New Testament pretty much always implies actions that go with it. Worrying here is not just thinking and wondering what is going to happen; worrying is gathering wealth and stockpiling it. Worrying is pulling down barns that were big enough and building bigger ones that are too big. Worrying is holding back what we have been given for our own use, or even trying to gather more than what we need just to be sure that we’ll have it.

That’s what the rich man in the parable is doing; it’s what the man from the crowd who questions Jesus is trying to get him to bless. The difference in the riches Jesus warns us against and the riches he praises is not so much where they come from. With the rich man in the parable, the wealth in question is wealth which with he has been blessed by God. The crops he gathers, sure have come to him after seasons of hard work and learning the ways of the fields, but the gifts of the land are gifts from God, God who designed the plants to produce seeds that grow, God who sends rains to water the earth and causes the sun to shine on the leaves that grow. And likewise the riches displayed by the flowers of the earth also come from God’s delicate designing hand.

The difference between these two rich examples is not where they come from, but what is done with them. The crops the man harvests are gifts given to him by God, and yet he seeks to gather them for no other purpose than to hoard them away for himself. He stores them up, intends to hold onto them for many years, and he even thinks that in doing so he has found a way to make his soul happy. He holds back the treasures he has been freely given by God for himself and his own enjoyment. His extravagance and riches are self-centered and serve only to bring joy and merriment to one. He is concerned only with himself, his own happiness, his own future, his own needs, and with such single-mindedness his concern turns to active worry and his worry turns quickly to the sin of greed.

Likewise the riches the lily displays have been freely given by God. The flowers of the field are draped by God more beautifully than Solomon was dressed in fine robes and jewels. God has taken care to be sure each flower is rich in color and fragrance, that each blade of grass can dance in the wind, that each lily will dazzle the eye that gazes upon it. God has drenched the creation with extravagant riches and beauty and praises the ones who share that beauty freely given.

Jesus makes a good example not out of the industrious human being who finds a way to stockpile everything that grows in the field, not the farmer who hides away the blessings he has received. Instead Jesus tells us to be like a humble and even temporary flower growing wild. It doesn’t work (it CAN’T work) to accumulate more of what it has received by grace, so it grows strong and proud as the one thing God has created it to be. It can do nothing more than share the beauty it has received only from God.

The wealth of the lily, the richness and extravagance that is praised in this flower of the field doesn’t come from storehouse stockpiled out of worry and greed. That’s what the “therefore” points out to us. Storing up treasures for ourselves can’t make us rich toward God; it can’t bring happiness to our souls or create joy in our lives. The treasures we have been given by God, the grace and forgiveness we have received in Christ, the talents we enjoy, even the money and materials things we possess aren’t meant to be stored away for only our benefit. They are meant to be shared with others. The lily is extravagantly beautiful in the eyes of God, it is adorned in divine splendor, because all it can do is share its riches with the world.

Holding back what we have been given is where we so often go wrong. Holding back the riches with which we have been blessed is where we stray from God’s kingdom. When we hold too tightly to God’s grace, refusing to forgive others as we have been forgiven we are greedy with God’s love. When we hold too tightly to our abilities, refusing to offer our skills and talents in service to God and others, we are greedy with God’s creativity. When we hold too tightly to our money and our possessions, investing only for our own futures and our own interests, we are greedy with God’s wealth.

The gifts of God are for each of us and for the world, and God gives these gifts extravagantly! While our impulse is to gather as many of these gifts as we can and store them away, this isn’t what God intends; these aren’t Jesus’ plans for the grace he secured for us. Forgive my blatant personification, but a lily is rich not because it takes all the beauty God has given and hides it underground, sharing nothing with the rest of us but a colorless, bland stalk. The lily is rich and splendid because it is being the best lily it can be in God’s kingdom.

The world in which God delights is not found when we look only inside ourselves, serving only our own interests and desires. The world in which God delights is discovered when each of us loosens the grip we have on the gifts we have been given and shares our God-blessed unique lives with the world. In doing that we will see God’s riches displayed in each other. We will find the kingdom of God which we seek.

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