Here is a sermon of mine that made it into print! It was included (in its entirety) as an example of what Dr. Joe Webb talked about in his book, "Comedy and Preaching" (Chalice Press, 1997). I explored the Good News of Jesus' "Parable of the Toll Collector and the Pharisee" (Luke 18:9-14) by comparing the Kingdom of God to a church Rummage Sale. Since this parable was our gospel lectionary text for last Sunday, I thought this would be a good time to share this early sermon here (as it appears in the book).
Plus, I'm including today because it seems to say something...maybe lots of things?!....as the Cubs-Indians World Series begins. (Gulp.)
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FUN WITH RUMMAGE
And now for today’s sermon, “Fun With Rummage.” Actually, I wanted to title it “Rummage Sale,” since that more simply describes what I’m going to talk about today. But, I began to worry that if we put “Rummage Sale” out on the sign in front, where we always advertise the week’s sermon title, throngs of people would show up today expecting a rummage sale and be thoroughly angry and confused that all we had to offer was this dumb old sermon. I know we wish more visitors would show up for Sunday morning worship, but if we did it this way, we’d undoubtedly have nothing short of a riot on our hands.
In any case, I did want to pay tribute to the great Christian festival that took place this past week at St. James United Methodist Church: the annual Fall Rummage Sale. All year, you have been preparing for this sale, gathering tons of stuff from people all over the community, and you’ve been storing it in the back of the gym, on the stage, in closets, and all our unused classrooms, and in every nook and cranny of the church — and then, this week, you ere diligently here night and day, pulling out all the stored stuff and setting it up in the gym, the lounge, the patio, the parking lot — it was wall-to-wall, cling-to-floor — stuff, stuff and glorious stuff!
As you can probably tell, I love rummage sales. I don’t know about you, but I find them incredibly therapeutic. On those days when I’m feeling really down and sad and hating my life, it’s time to go to a rummage sale or thrift store. At first, the adventure seems far from promising. I walk into the white elephant space and it smells musty and used, and I look around and everything is dingy and dirty and nothing looks at all worthwhile; but then, I being rummaging. Digging through all the uninteresting and average stuff…and then…suddenly…I find it. My eyes widen and I stop breathing of a second. I can’t believe I found it, this incredible one-of-a-kind thing and it’s in really good shape and it’s scandalously cheap and I found it so now it’s mine and — I just can’ believe it!
I start breathing again and look back on the table that once seemed filled with nothing anywhere near interesting, but now, as if fairy dust had been sprinkled all over the place, fascinating and valuable things are suddenly popping up everywhere. So I gather them in my arms — they seem to be calling out to me, “Jane, Jane, you must buy me, too! Imagine what I’ll look like on your coffee table, in your library, at your next costume party….No one will be able to stop marveling at me — or you!!!”
When I take my myriad treasures to the cashier and find that they cost me a total of about $5, I leave the rummage sale or thrift store so happy to have made such wonderful discoveries. Now I’m filled with lots of energy and hope, and I believe that at any moment I might be able to bring about world peace.
If you think about it, rummage can be divided into three distinct tiers, and to demonstrate, let me share with you some choice items harvested from this week’s sale. The first and foremost tier is the one that contains good furniture, such as nice sofas, desks, lounge chairs, and so forth, good clothes, furs, collectibles. I myself don’t buy much of this level of stuff, so I’ll share with you the nice bookshelf that our senior pastor purchased yesterday. These top-of-the-line items claim the highest price tags and are usually the first to be purchased. Pastor John nabbed this beauty the moment it hit the floor. The hope of finding good stuff like this is what brings droves of people to your sale. I call this tier of rummage “the highly functional.”
The second tier of rummage is the stuff that does not necessarily have much extrinsic value — it is not worth much money - odd toys and games from childhood and faddish things that once were very popular but now you can’t believe anyone ever made it or wanted it. This is the rummage I LOVE to find. Like this wall clock that looks just like a piece of off-looking wood until you look closer and realize … it’s in the shape of the state of Iowa! Or this record album of Wink Martingale reciting poetry — perfect for that romantic date at home. Or this cookbook that contains nothing but recipes for toast! Or this giant homemade calendar for 1971 that is decorated with giant 3-D vegetables made out of felt and glitter. Who would think to make such a thing? Who would think to BUY such a thing? I call this tier of rummage “Not Really Valuable But Highly Interesting.” VERY interesting!
The third and lowest tier of rummage is nothing but junk. It’s the stuff that won’t sell in a million years. Like this dirty, handed crocheted pillow. Who knows who’s slept — even drooled — on this thing? It was 25 cents. And here’s a ratty old handbag. Also 25 cents. And what about this — a rusty star-shaped gelatin mold — I think it’s already seen its last “surprise luncheon.” Five cents. And, last, and probably least, this pan handle. It was free. You set these things out thinking SOMEBODY, for SOME reason, might want it. Who knows — maybe some clever soul might want this pan handle so they can take it home and paint on it, “Souvenir of Oklahoma"!
The reality is, of course, that no one buys the junk, so at the end of the sale, you end up boxing it up and throwing it out.
In his time, Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to such things as a mustard seed, a pear and a party. But if Jesus were living today, I wonder if he would not also say, “The kingdom of God is like a giant rummage sale!” ?? After all, do we not often feel like human rummage, worn out and used up by the world and stamped with a second-hand price tag that is much lower than our original worth — and it is not because of these painful, discarded feelings that we most fervent eek relationship with God? Perhaps had a bunch of shoppers actually wondered into the sanctuary this morning expecting a rummage sale, that’s exactly what they’d find.
And, like any rummage sale, I would suggest that the rummage in the Kingdom of God may be divided into three tiers. There’s the highly functional set — filled with church leaders and successful people. We admire and emulate the members of this tier, and they are good for church growth because they naturally attract others and inspire them to join up. Every church hopes it has a sizable number of highly functional folks in its congregation.
Next there is the “Not Really Valuable But Highly Interesting” tier — the people who are capable and interesting, yes, but don’t have the time, or they haven’t found the right niche for themselves, or they are too young to take on any responsibility, or they are too old and tired to lead as they did in the past. Persons in this tier are often highly lovable and we get great enjoyment from the time and energy spent connecting with and helping them. A lot of the ministry of the church is done for folks of this category.
And then there is the — well, one might as well say it — the junk. This is the tier, the group that is highly needy and doesn’t give back much in return. These people require a lot of our time, and the effort we make on their behalf is usually not much fun. They seem hopeless and not a little bit out of touch, and if we are really honest with ourselves, life would be a whole lot easier if we could just put them in a box and get rid of them somehow.
Ah, yes, the Kingdom of God is like a giant rummage sale. And the good news that Jesus taught us is that GOD LOVES RUMMAGE! However, Jesus went on to say, God is not your ordinary thrift sale shopper. Most everyone else enter the sale and immediately begins salivating over the great furniture and high profile items being offered, while others like me are seeking out such spiritually transformative vehicles as “The Partridge Family Board Game.” But God is like the shopper who makes a beeline to the rusty star mold and the ratty handbag, and she gathers them in her arms and becomes so excited and grateful to have found them that her eyes light up over all the other stuff, and she wants to buy it all — even the nice sofa beds and TV sets. Can you imagine being the rummage sale cashier and this person comes up to you and gleefully exclaims, “I can’t believe I found this dirty plastic cup. Do you know how long I’ve been looking for one?” Well, we’d think whoever that was was pretty loco.
But that’s the God Jesus knew. That’s the God Jesus embodied. The God who loves all, but especially the dingy, useless junk. That’s why Jesus, according to the gospels, spent most of his time befriending and hanging out with prostitutes, lepers, widows, aliens, the poor, and last, and perhaps least, the toll collectors.
Toll collectors were among the most despised people of Jesus’ community. They did nothing but make everyone’s life miserable and, oh, if only they could just be put in a box and discarded somewhere. Toll collectors were not tax collectors. Both extracted inordinate sums of money from the Israelite people to pay for the “privilege” of having the Roman Empire control their land, but tax collectors were imperial bigwigs who oversaw the collection of large taxes such as the land tax and the census tax, whereas toll collectors were hapless locals who were responsible for blessing the people on a much more petty love — charging them overtime they used a Roman road or bridge. Except for Zaccheus, whose job approximated that of a wealthy tax collector, scripture means to tell us that is was the toll collectors, a group much more lowly in social standing, that Jesus emphatically embraced.
Toll collectors were hated even more than tax collectors, because they were poor “regular folk” and were thus considered traitors. They were shunned. They were labeled “unclean,” partly because they dealt directory with Gentiles, but most because their work was so inherently dishonest. The only way a toll collector could make himself righteous in the eyes of his community and before God was to quit his job and pay back everybody to whom he had ever charged a toll, plus make considerable restitution to the temple. Of course, this was impossible, so the toll collector was faced with living life as junk rummage, about as worthless in the eyes of society as a broken, leftover pan handle.
And yet, according to Jesus, the toll collector was the hero of a parable. Luke tells us that the disciples were beginning to feel self-righteous and were holding the behavior of others in contempt. So Jesus told them a story about what happened to two men praying in the temple, in the Kingdom of God Rummage Sale. One was highly functional rummage, a Pharisee, Everyone wanted to be like a Pharisee. The Pharisee was a teacher of the law. So while we may find the Pharisee’s prayer from the parable (“God, I thank you that I am so great, an not like that ‘nothing person’ over there”) terribly egocentric, that was the kind of prayer a Pharisee was expected to offer in order to educate those around him. Jesus’ disciples probably would not have thought there was anything wrong with that prayer. What would have startled them, though, and perhaps even made them a little mad, was that Jesus moved their attention away from the esteemed rummage over to the east wall of the temple, the place where the unclean had to stand to say prayers. He pointed to the “junk” person who was beating his breast, hanging his head, and wanting nothing more than for God to become right with him. “Yes,” Jesus said, “there is the man to whom God responds more than the other.”
The parable ends there, and we don’t know what happened next. But we can imagine that Jesus’ disciples may have been quick to counter: “That isn’t fair! That toll collector rips us off! You don’t tell us that he goes home and promises never to sin again. This doesn’t make sense. How could God respond to someone so low and dirty?” Perhaps in the silence that followed, or more likely, in the days that followed, the disciples were forced to realize that what Jesus was saying, in part, was that God loves junk rummage more than we know; that God stays on the lookout for junk rummage, that God really does find great value in junk rummage.
Although there is no direct counterpart to the toll collector in contemporary western society, there certainly are heaps of junk rummage which most of us ignore or disdain or seek to discard. Think, perhaps, of a homeless man, rather young, who has just seated himself in the back pew a half hour before worship is to start. We’ve seen him before, begging at the entrance ramp to the freeway with a sign that says, “Will work for food.” We’ve never believed it and we try to avert our eyes form him and his sign. We’ve seen him in the church parking lot after worship, asking for handouts from guilt-ridden parishioners. But here he is in church! He may even disrupt worship, while the rest of us are trying to listen to our pastor’s intelligent sermon. “Isn’t that just like those homeless people,” we mutter to ourselves. “And besides, he’s not really sorry for his sins; he’ll be back on the street making a nuisance of himself the minute he leaves here.”
How startling would it be for Jesus to walk into the sanctuary at that point and interrupt the service himself: “Pastor, stop your sermon for a moment. All of you, turn around and listen to this homeless man. He’s got it right. There are some very important things you can learn from him.”
Jesus’ words wold undoubtedly make us very uncomfortable, even a little angry. “Yeah, right; what does this fellow have to teach us?”
But if we look closely at this man, at his plight, at his fumbling efforts to make himself heard — if we really try to do that — we might somehow become aware of the depth of his desire to be touched by God. Or by someone. We might come to see this homeless man, and thousands like him, in a different light — as someone not so much to be changed as someone who can profoundly change us. We might come to see him as a blessed and scandalously valuable messenger, and member, of God’s Kingdom. Think about that. Don’t be too hasty here.
Perhaps that’s the point of the parable after all; or at least one of its points. The Kingdom of God is like a giant rummage sale…and that’s great. At this sale we find some highly functional rummage, and we are glad about that. In fact some of us ARE it. At the Kingdom of God Rummage Sale we also find some delightfully odd and eccentric rummage; and, yes, some of us are IT, too!
But the really Good News is that at this Kingdom of God Rummage Sale we also find lots and lots of seemingly useless rummage. And that may be the rummage that can actually lead us to salvation. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.