Less is More

Posted: February 22, 2013 by Todd in Sermons
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I preached this sermon on Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2013 at Grace UMC.  Here’s the audio and the scripture (Luke 3:1-14)

Last week, we began a three week sermon series entitled, “Grow” aimed at learning from Jesus’ steps of growth after his birth to the beginning of his ministry.  We read Luke’s account of a twelve year old Jesus squirming away from his parents and spending three days in the Jerusalem temple.   We saw Jesus do something amazing and astonishing to watching in the Father’s house.  This is the first step in the process of growth – a decision to do something astonishing in the Father’s house.  I should tell you that Jesus doesn’t actually make an appearance in our Scripture this morning – but his cousin, John the Baptist, helps us prepare for his coming.  Today we’ll look at the things that — get in the way of doing God’s work – I call it clutter.



Today is Epiphany Sunday.  Literally, epiphany simply means a “showing,” a “revealing,” a “realization,” a “vision,” seeing something clearly for the first time.  It is the day that we celebrate the realization that a human – Jesus is in fact the son of God.  Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.  Our theme verse for this series is Luke 2:52 and I can think of no better verse for Epiphany than this one.  It says, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”  Just as Jesus grew – we too are invited to grow.  We pick up this morning exactly where we left off in Luke’s gospel, now in chapter 3, starting with the first verse.  Here, John the Baptist provides us with an epiphany – realizing that Jesus of Nazareth is divine and now exists in the flesh in Israel, John shows us a picture that reveals what God’s up to here on earth.

Read Luke 3:1-14


When I was growing up, every year my mom would go with our church on a “Women’s Retreat.”  I’m sure she looked forward to it.  But not as much as my sister and I did.  You see, my mother was the disciplinarian in our family and my dad — not so much.  My mother used my poor sister and I as slave labor to keep the house looking as it should – she invented these chore charts for us that have since, I’m quite sure, have been banned by the Geneva Conventions.  When the rest of the family wanted to go out to eat, she was the one who took perverse pleasure in forcing us to eat balanced, home cooked meals.  She imposed senseless and arbitrary rules like not eating or drinking on the carpeting, coming home from playing outside when the street lights went on, and turning the television off during dinner.  For all of this and more, she earned her beloved nickname “The Dictator.”  To this day, she still signs all her correspondences with me “TD,” short for “The Dictator.”  She used this fascism in service of her life’s calling – being a homemaker.


Our daily lives were spent in service to this dictatorial homemaker.  To the extent that my mother was a dictator, my dad was her opposite.  And so on this one weekend of the year – all the rules went out the window.  My sister and I could eat on the carpet.  I could watch TV at the dinner table.  But it didn’t matter since most we ate out for most meals.  We didn’t worry about picking up after ourselves.  There were no limits on junk food.  There were no bed times.  It was wonderful.  Early Sunday afternoon, when my mom was about to come home – dad would say something not too different from, “Prepare the way of the Dictator, make her paths straight – pick up your laundry, put away your toys.  Even now, the axe is lying at the root of the trees.”  There was an epiphany – mom was coming in the flesh.  We had to prepare.  In exchange for our weekend free from tyranny, my sister, my dad and I would band together and clean like banshees before my mom got home.  It is amazing what a weekend of ignoring the rules can do to a house.


I think John the Baptist found himself in a situation much like my Dad.  He knew that The Dictator was on the way home from the “Women’s Retreat.”  Jesus was here in the flesh in Israel and the world God had given them did not look as it should.  Things were not in their place.  Some people had way too much – others not nearly enough.  People in power were taking advantage of those with none.  John was trying to get the house back in order because he could see the Epiphany – God – in human form is here.  Not God far removed at a “Women’s Retreat” or up in the heavens.  God here and now walking and living among us.  God in the car on the way home.  And God knows what the house should look like.  If there were any illusion before that God couldn’t see the detailed ugliness of the world, that illusion was now gone.  Neither, God nor my mom were actually fooled from a distance that things were nice and clean back on the homestead.  No, they both know that when they are away, the mice will play.  Their distance didn’t mean that they didn’t know what was going on.  This is an illusion those in the house tell themselves.  Like my dad, John wasn’t under this illusion – his epiphany let him see that the house wasn’t up to God’s standards – not even close, really.  All they could do was to prepare for Jesus’s arrival.  At least get themselves ready to see a household hidden from view.  It is amazing what millenia of ignoring the rules can do to a world.


Can you all keep a secret?  Good, I want to tell you one.  Every year, for the Youth Rummage Sale, we amass quite a lot of stuff.  Some might even call it clutter.  Ostensibly, the goal of the Rummage Sale is to make money.   But really, my secret, personal goal of the Rummage Sale is getting rid of the stuff. Sure, I want the youth to make as much money as possible, but not as much as I want all the stuff to disappear.  In fact, the Rummage Sale began as a solution to having too much stuff in our annual Stuff Auction.  We’d receive donations for lots of great things, but many were the sort of things you’d pay a few dollars for at a garage sale.  And so, our auction grew too long.  We needed a better system to remove the stuff – a better way to turn our trash into someone else’s treasure.  And so, we paired the Rummage Sale with the auction to get rid of this stuff in a more appropriate way.  Now, each year, we have professional garage sale shoppers try to make deals with us on various items.  And we’re usually amenable to accepting reasonable offers.  But as our sale wears on, we start to accept virtually any offer that gets the stuff out of the building.  A dollar for a couch, sold.  A certain volunteer will whip a megaphone out of his van and announce, “Attention, shoppers, everything is now 75% off.”  As people check out – we become the ones making the offers, “Would you like a free salad shooter with your book of inspirational golf stories?”  After the Rummage Sale, anyone can fill a bag or box with as much as you want for the low price of $2.  Parents love when their kids come home with a bag full of — treasures.  You see the next week, all the stuff becomes a liability.  Soon thereafter, people start to ask me, “Todd, when is the stuff going to be gone from the gym.”  As our window to convert stuff to cash closes, we become acutely aware of the need to get rid of the stuff by any means necessary.  Stuff that remains in the gym the following week becomes my problem to deal with.  Now, you promised me that you’d keep this a secret – I don’t want everyone waiting until the last minute to get good deals at the Rummage Sale – that would undermine our efforts to remove the clutter from God’s house.


Tomorrow night, scalpers who don’t sell their tickets before the National Championship game begins will be doing the same thing we do each year at the Rummage Sale – wheeling and dealing, however they can.  I heard on the radio that certain Hibbett’s Sporting Goods Stores will be open until 1:00 am after the game tomorrow.  Now, should the good Lord let down the faithful here in Alabama and let Notre Dame win – I’m sure you could get a pretty good deal on a whole bunch of Alabama National Championship T-Shirts.  There are these thresholds that once you cross them – that which seemed to have value before, now just gets in the way.  You can see how as things become more urgent – we focus on the most important.  To focus on the most important, we get rid of the non-essential as quickly as we can.


That’s what the epiphany reveals – our treasure, too often, is God’s trash.  This is the realization that can propel us in our growth.  Get rid of the non-essential.  It distracts from the main thing.  God becoming human reminds us that we’re living in urgent times.  Not because of any doomsday scenario, but because the house doesn’t look like what God wants it to look like.  John knows what the household of God looks like.  Valleys will be filled.  Mountains made low.  Crooked made straight.  That all sounds very abstract, John, so what does it look like in real life, the crowds ask him. They say, “Umm…what should we actually do?”  John tells them, if you have two coats, share with someone who has none.  Tax collectors shouldn’t take more than what is prescribed.  Soldiers shouldn’t use their power to exhort money and be satisfied with their wages.  Business people should care about their customers more than their short term profits.  Lawyers should care about representing their clients as best they can and not about maximizing billable hours.  Defense contractors should care about building products that keep people safe and not milking the government for all they can.  Each of us could translate this to apply to our own professions.  Learn to be content with daily bread, John seems to say.  Forget about storing up all your clutter.  Find purpose, not advantage, in your work.


It reminds me of the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness.  They had nothing to eat and God provided them bread from heaven.  But that bread came with specific instructions – only gather enough for you and your family each day and for two days before the Sabbath.  This is what God’s house should look like.  Those who gathered more than their daily bread, found that what they gathered had spoiled.


John’s epiphany is that this is the way God’s household works.  All the excess just gets in the way.  Excess spoils.  It is a problem that all growing things – both people and organizations – must deal with.  Sometimes, even, this excess can threaten the very organizations or people that created it.  But in all cases, they distract from our primary purpose.  As we grow older, our stuff seems to expand to fill whatever space we have for it.  Some may even feel compelled tear down their barns and build larger ones to store their stuff.  Our government, like many governments around the world is struggling with budgets that have grown year after year.  Our denomination, like most denominations has budgets and structures that appear to virtually everyone to be unsustainable in their current form for much longer.  As people and organizations grow, they tend to become like a snowball gathering snow rolling down a hill.  I don’t intend to demean any particular thing in anyone’s personal life, or our government, or church structure.  I’m sure we all have our ideas of things we’d like to get rid of.  But I think we must learn that it is the nature of growing things, good as they may be, to tend to acquire clutter.  It is so much easier to just add something new without taking anything away.  Last week, we talked about the first step in a growth process – deciding to do something new and astonishing in the Father’s house.  But what happens when the house is full and you can’t move around in there?


This might be a good time to announce that our youth group is now accepting items for our Stuff Auction and Rummage Sale.  You can bring your rummage items to the room upstairs above my office and the prayer chapel.


You see, growing things must pay attention what I want to call the “clutter-removal system”.  What plans are in place to get rid of your extra coats and food?  How are we going to make our mountains low in a way that fills the valleys that surround us?  God came down from heaven to tell us – all of this brokenness – it isn’t a supply problem.  I made the world and called it good, God says.  I put enough down there for everyone.  There’s a distribution problem.  It’s clogged up with clutter.  We need a clutter-removal system.


I hope we as a church, and you in your individual lives are always considering the new ways in which the spirit might be leading – the new, astonishing things we can do in our Father’s house – but to get the full effect, we must have the courage to engage in planned abandonment.  This often comes with even more criticism.  No matter what you’d like to get rid of, there is someone sustaining its existence.  Great sensitivity and care are essential.  But equally essential is that we do the work, have the hard conversations with ourselves or with others to make space for purposeful growth.  As carefully as we listen for what God wants us to do, we must carefully discern what God wants us not to do.


This requires an ability to suspend our judgments about what clutter we think needs cleaning.  Sometimes the clutter is the one making these judgments.  You see, we are attached to our clutter – that’s why it is still hanging around.  Clutter won’t label itself as such.  John reveals what God’s house should look like.  We’ve already shown ourselves to be poor housekeepers.  And so we should let John tell us what is clutter and what is daily bread.  He says we shouldn’t have too much, especially if it comes at the cost of someone else.  It is the places of excess to which we must look to abandon clutter.  This can be material things – but it is just as much about our time, our energy, our thoughts, our emotions, our creativity and so much more.


Many of you, like myself, probably made New Year’s resolutions this year.  I suspect a day like today –- six days or so after the new year might be the time when our well intentioned resolutions start to get — complicated.  It is rainy and dreary out…delicious breakfast casseroles have mysteriously shown up to tempt your diet.  Excess clutter reveals itself.  In fact, I wonder if that is the very definition of excess – anything that reveals itself to take away from resources being used how God wants them used.  Excess becomes a liability in the household of God.  We’ve passed the threshold, it’s time to convert our trash into someone else’s treasure.  Last week – I used an exercise analogy to describe the growth process, we began the process of growth with getting off the couch and on to the treadmill.  John’s epiphany that God is here in the flesh reveals to us that we already have the body that we want.  That toned, sculpted body is within us.  It is just covered up with a few extra pounds.


I don’t think John drew attention to our clutter to induce shame.  We all have clutter in our lives.  Institutions of all types have it.  God has known for a long time that our house is messy.  That’s the Epiphany – not simply that God can see with human eyes – but now we have a glimpse of how God sees.  Without this epiphany we just see the exterior of the house and judge it by its cover.  But with God’s epiphany vision, we can see inside the house – to the way it actually is.  Our salvation doesn’t come with the empty symbolism of saying that we’re on the Christian team.   As a child, I would often declare my room to be clean, but upon the dictator’s inspection, it would reveal itself to just be re-arranged clutter.  Often, the exteriors to our homes, reveal themselves to be clutter.  John mocks the excess stock Israelites put into their outward religious identity, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham (Luke 3:8).”  God doesn’t need more people overly attached to names and labels.  God needs people who see the world for what it is – a beautiful place covered with trash.  God needs people who do amazing, astonishing things in the Father’s house.  People who are satisfied with the nourishment of daily bread.  Only then will God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  In fact, John tells us that we’ll see the epiphany of God’s salvation through the cleaning up of this world.  Quoting Isaiah, John tells us how to clean up so that, according to Luke 3:6, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”


But, this isn’t mere salvation by works.  God’s grace is in the epiphany – the vision of what the house should look like is grace – and God is guiding us there.  But it doesn’t happen by magically declaring that the house is clean.  Becoming custodians of God’s house teaches us how God’s distribution system works.  It shows us that our trash can become someone else’s treasure – our mountain can fill a valley.  That is God’s grace growing us – that’s the epiphany – that as we get rid of clutter in our lives, we find ourselves, like Jesus, becoming more fully divine.  The Epiphany reveals that humanity and divinity are not mutually exclusive.  You have been created in the image of God.  There’s just some stuff covering it up.  This world contains within it exactly what God intended to create.  There’s just some clutter in the way.  Let’s put it where it goes.


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