What We Leave Behind

(A sermon for Proper 12C    July 25, 2010    Luke 11:1-13)

Wandering around the Pink Pachyderm tent last weekend, I stopped at the jewelry table, where Bill R made it clear there was no stopping without buying something.  So I looked at earrings and necklaces and cameo pins, and thought about the pieces of other lives spread out in front of me, and of all the women who left me little pieces of theirs. I have my godmother’s high school ring, my grandmother’s wedding band, Aunt Mabel’s Cameo brooch, and so many things that belonged to my mother, from 1960s enamel dogwood blossoms to the heirloom diamond sunburst pin worn by four generations of brides, so far. 

Mirror mirror There’s a picture of me in a family album caught with my three-year-old hands in my mother’s jewelry box. I pulled a chair over to her dresser and opened it carefully, and then clipped on earrings and put long chains around my neck. She had a little hat embroidered with shiny threads, and in the picture I am wearing it, looking pleased with myself.

And in the next picture I am giving a look that can only say, “Uh-oh.”

I remember going through the drawers after my mother died, in her dresser and her later roll-top jewelry box, sorting through the compartments, looking for I don’t know what. My father asked me to sort through her things, though he had no intention of letting anything go. In her own top drawer, I found a list of the items she believed would be important to keep, indicating which she wanted me to have and which should go to my brother. 

Paper-clipped to the list in her handwriting, we found an old Ann Landers column discouraging children from fighting over the things their parents might leave behind. 

About ten years ago, I had a will made, and the lawyer suggested that I create a list of the valuable objects in my possession, making clear who ought to have them. I remember typing the list and trying to divide things evenly between my three children. 

It felt strange, almost eerie, to do this as a 39-year-old woman whose children weren’t old enough to drive yet. How do you decide which child might someday appreciate a hundred year old music box, given to your great-grandmother as a wedding present? The answer to that is probably the musician, but it wasn’t so clear ten years ago. Do you assign the painting your father loved to the one child who remembers it hanging in his home? Surely you give the diamond pin to the daughter of the family?

Some things we can specify, material objects or stocks and bonds or real estate. We can plan for their distribution, because they are tangible or have some measurable value. They can be divided by two or three or four, because they have some mathematical basis. We can arrange to leave them behind as we see fit.

Jesus had none of these things to leave behind. He had no jewels or cars or sailboats or vacation homes or church buildings. 

He didn’t even write things down for us to read in his exact words.

Instead he left us a legacy of a different kind, stories passed down as carefully as heirlooms, reframed and repaired and reconstructed by the gospel writers, studied and appraised and examined under a magnifying glass by scholars, heard and read and repeated by ordinary people, just like us.

Today we heard one of the most famous of those jewels. He was praying in a certain place, and they asked him how to pray. We don’t know what they expected from him. They spoke of John, that firebrand Baptizer, whose words frightened people into the river. We don’t know if John’s followers had a particular way of praying. Jesus leaves us a simple prayer, so profound that it has been repeated for nearly 2000 years, in countless translations and languages. There are just a few ideas in it:

•    Name God as holy – “Father, hallowed be your name.”

•    Affirm that God’s ideal world would be different – “Your kingdom come.”

•    Ask for what you need to survive, one day at a time – “Give us each day our daily bread.”

•    Ask forgiveness; you’ll need it, and you’ll need to give it to each other, too – “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”

•    Ask God to look out for you – “And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Whether we learned to say it with debts or trespasses, we’ve been passing that prayer down, a reassuring talisman, a reminder that all who say it belong to the same God. 

But we live in a world that is changing. We print the words of the once almost universally-known prayer in our bulletins, because we recognize that we can’t rely on that knowledge anymore. In making that small adjustment, we commit to making sure the words are known and read, not assumed and then forgotten. We hope others will find the same comfort, assurance and relationship in saying them that we may occasionally take for granted when we repeat them once more.

In the second part of the reading, Jesus also leaves us a famous image, bound to encourage spiritual persistence, a promise that our asking will lead us somewhere. I will note that he does not promise where. Sometimes we knock on the door, thinking we know what will be on the other side, or we open the drawer sure of what it will hold, or we set out confident of the scenery we will see only to be surprised. But persistence, Jesus promises, will be rewarded with connection. God will be there for us.

As my time with you comes to an end, I hope to leave behind the pair of words that bubbled out of me at a Church Council meeting last fall: magical thinking. First Parish is not the only church or organization where people have long traditions or new ideas, and it is not the only church or organization where making those things happen is sometimes not as easy as remembering or imagining them. To bring things to life requires labor. It requires effort. It requires commitment. 

I don’t take this or offer it in a sugar-coated form. I’ve sometimes said that the job of an interim minister is similar to that of Mary Poppins, the famous fictional nanny with the talking parrot on her umbrella and the carpet bag full of wonders and a gift for telling the truth and for knowing when it is time to go. She is the one who offers the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, and I have taken her as a model, whenever I have something hard to say as an interim minister. 

After all, it’s my job to be part pastor and part consultant, to help a congregation see things that may be harder to acknowledge from the inside. In everything, I try to tell the truth honestly but kindly.

But in the case of the gospel, I can’t always sugarcoat things and be true to Jesus. Sometimes the door will be opened to us, and we will not see what we expected. Sometimes the answer will not be the one that appeared ideal on our spreadsheet of possibilities.  Sometimes the thing we find will not be anything like the thing we started out to seek. 

Now, there are some things that seem to run like a well-oiled machine. We know that Thursday before the Clam Festival is the day to move the books and all the other things across the street, and we train up a new generation of helpers, or we hope we do. I was proud to hear a report of how hard some of this year’s Confirmands worked that day! The rising 9th and 10th graders who came out are young but mighty!!! 

We trust that Mary Estelle will be here to make sure all things are in order and the lobster rolls and crab rolls will be served. We believe in the power of a parade to make people hungry for hot dogs, and we know they can’t eat them if we don’t grill them! We marvel at the machine that is our incredible pie-making empire!

Well, *your* pie-making empire. 

Other things will come along, though, ideas you want to try, and if I can leave anything with you it’s the hope that you will always stop and say to each other, “That’s a great idea. Who will carry it through? Who will make sure it comes to fruition?” Ask; search; persist. Don’t let things drop. Your legacy as a church will take the form of that spiritual and practical persistence, a priceless heirloom for those who come after you. 

I cannot promise that you will find what you thought you were seeking. But I can promise you will find God. 

May you go on asking, searching,knocking and praying. Amen.

8 thoughts on “What We Leave Behind”

  1. This is so, so good. Great. I love the jewelry tie-in and Jesus’ jewel. I love your words to them. God bless them and you as you move on.

  2. Boy, can you write a sermon girlfriend! What a wonderful message to leave them with so that they remember to continue to seek.

  3. Beautiful.
    (And I especially love the idea of the Ann Landers column clipped to the list!)

  4. this is excellent. A great stand-alone piece, a great wrapping up piece. Well done!

  5. What a truly wonderful message to share with both listeners and readers. And such a great way to tie in the vintage jewelry the gospel! You have a gift for making connections!

  6. How very blessed this church is to have had you. What a beautiful farewell message. What a beautiful testimony of the gospel truth. Blessings, wherever your wings take you next!

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