The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

WHAT IS TRULY IMPORTANT

Delivered 9/26/99
Text: Matthew 6:19-33
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

What is truly important? That is a question we all have to deal with at some point or points in our lives. Over these past several weeks, more than a few folks in this part of the country have confronted it. In the face of the oncoming fury of one hurricane after another, evacuations from coastal communities, decisions come. On TV the other night, there was an interview with a husband and wife who moved to their new retirement home on one of the Carolina barrier islands just six weeks ago - in that six weeks, they have been ordered to evacuate twice. Their new home has been badly damaged. Now what? The question comes for them, "What is truly important?"

What sparked this line of thinking for me was an odd juxtaposition in the paper this past Monday. On the front page were several articles recounting the devastation and attendant difficulties in the wake of Hurricane Floyd - death, destruction, disease. We knew. But on the inside of the paper, in the business section, was a story that told of a businessman, a Connecticut contractor, whose specialty is homes for the super rich.(1) It talked about a plywood box marked "Fragile" that contained a 5,000 pound antique bathtub carved from a single block of marble which will sit in the master bathroom of this $7-million house - 20,000 square feet, five-car garage, matching 16 x 12 walk-in closets for husband and wife. The builder went on to say that this is nothing unusual - thousand-dollar door hinges, $10,000 gold-plated faucets, custom-made cabinets, even in the laundry room, are common in homes like these. Conspicuous consumption writ LARGE. As I read I thought, "Who will give a rip when that house gets wiped out in a hurricane?"

The scripture that jumps to mind is the story that Jesus told(2) of the fellow who goes nameless in scripture but I will nickname Bigger Barns. Bigger was a farmer who had done well for himself, VERY well. A fine, upstanding fellow as far as we know, no slumlord or drug dealer, he does not cheat his employees or mistreat them. Bigger is a hard worker, an upstanding citizen. Through a combination of skill and luck and plain hard work, his investment and labor have paid off. He has got this massive crop in and now he needs storage space. Good for him. He says to himself, "I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods." So far, so good. But then Bigger continues, "And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'"

Nice thought. But we know how the story ends. God says, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" Good question. The same thing I wondered about that marble bathtub.

It reminded me of the two fellows who were talking about the demise of a rich neighbor. One asked the other, "How much did he leave?" And the friend responded, "All of it."

The second scripture that jumped to mind was that passage we read from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' words about "stuff." "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal"...or we might add where it floats away in a flood or is left behind in an evacuation..."but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

The Rev. Gayle Donnelly is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Darien, Georgia (on the mainland near St. Simons Island). Gayle was one of the many evacuated as Hurricane Floyd approached. She has shared some fascinating reflections on the experience. Listen:

We evacuated safely - [the] only casualty was one of my precious embroidered pictures that got skrunched in the trunk and now needs to have the glass replaced but otherwise is safe...It was an amazing experience being faced with decisions about what is precious. There had been some talk about the possibility of storm surges and flooding and possible tornadoes. If I had my house wiped out, what would I miss most? I scurried through my house into the wee small hours of the morning - making decisions and then discounting them and starting over again. I finally realized that all belongs to God anyway so why fret. I took all the embroidery made by members of my family - especially those deceased - my Mom and my Aunt - all then my will, my living will, checks and recent tax information. I took pictures of everything else for insurance claims and just left. It was very freeing.

I had a box of pictures - albums of my childhood, two albums that belong to my children, my wedding album and assorted pictures. This was hauled into my friend's car to keep safe...What really matters after all is being safe and warm and dry. I took my dear Magic who was not at all happy about being in the cat carrier again...I took some of my CDS. I knew that I wanted music so my portable CD player was important. I also took my own embroidery. A few good books, my Bible and the sermon preparation material for this Sunday and I was set. Well almost. I also took bottled water, Coke, peanut butter and crackers and lots of fruit. Next came the candles and batteries, flashlights, and an oil lamp. A change of sheets, pillows and two flannel, quilted blankets that my Aunt had made. I felt like the Mother on Little House on the Prairie.

Rather like camping out. I invited my elderly neighbor to join me in this adventure and we did just fine. It was amazing to see the traffic! It is estimated that over 2 million people were evacuated from this region and all hit the roads. It took us 4 hours for a trip that would have been just over 2. Some folks sat in bumper to bumper traffic for miles and miles. As we headed back it was astonishing to see all the disabled cars at the side of the roads. Not old junks either - luxury cars like Volvos and Saabs, BMWs and more. I guess many just overheated.

Out at the motel where we camped out we were lucky to have reservations. People were coming in who had driven as far north as Atlanta and had headed back because there were no rooms. At 4:00 we were told the closest available rooms were in Birmingham, Alabama or Nashville, Tenn. Seemed almost unbelievable. Folks slept in cars and in our parking lot. We offered our room for showers to some. They were so grateful. They eyed our "stash" of goodies and soon we were fixing snacks for some hapless, stranded travelers. It became a blessing for me to be able to help in some way...

We arrived back home about 4:00 yesterday. Darien looked like a ghost town. There was a sign on the Post Office - Closed Until Further Notice. Really creepy! But all was fine at home. Misty - my outside cat - greeted us with many whimpers of displeasure at our departure. She is so sweet and so vocal but not a cat that I can bring indoors as she tends to "spray" when she is being territorial, so not motel material. I took some time to put all my pictures back on the walls and tried to unpack a bit...

Thank you all for remembering me in your prayers and all of us faced with the threat of this latest hurricane. All in all it was quite an experience and important in a way for me...now I really know what matters most. It is my family and my friends and my God. It is helping people in need. It is sharing of resources with others in need. It is a good bed and shelter and food. I will be fine in any situation if I think vertically - remembering to ask What Would Jesus Do? Everything I have is after all simply "things". And can be replaced. But no human life can be wasted. No talent given by God can be hidden. Compassion and prayer are healing and are ours to give in every situation and for all people. You know - that will Preach!!!(3)

Indeed, it will, Gayle. Indeed, it will. Sometimes it takes an event like Floyd to help us put things in perspective, to help us sort the wheat from the chaff in the jumble of our lives, to help us see what is truly important.

This week we buried Slick Shepherd, at age 95 St. Paul's oldest member. Not too many of you knew Slick - he did not join this church until he was 90 and, because of ill health, was never able to attend.

Slick was a character. I never asked him how he got his nickname - probably something to do with hair way back when. He was more than a bit of a curmudgeon. Everything else on him had failed - eyesight, hearing, mobility, but not his temper...he could let loose with the best of them. One day I walked in to visit and he started loudly berating me for something, I knew not what. In moment the housekeeper interrupted, "Mr Shepherd, Mr. Shepherd, do you know who that is?" He glared angrily in her direction. "Mr. Shepherd, that's your pastor." Oops. He thought I was someone else. Sheepishly, he apologized.

Slick's vocation was newspapers - he was City Editor of the Greensboro News for a number of years until his retirement. But his A-vocation was helping desperate people, alcoholics who had come to the end of their rope. You see, he knew what that was like; he had been one himself.

Slick leaves behind a remarkable legacy. He personally organized several of the 12-step meetings in Greensboro that are continuing to this day. In the late '60's, Slick and a couple of friends realized the need for an inpatient facility in this community to care for those with drug and alcohol addictions. The result of that vision was Fellowship Hall, a treatment center with a $4-million annual budget paid for entirely by contributions and patient fees. The Board of Directors is comprised of successful business people, some of whom are former patients, who now, in their sobriety, want to reach out to others with addiction problems. Fellowship Hall currently has 48 beds for residential care plus an extensive outpatient service as well. Since its opening day in 1971, Fellowship Hall has treated more than 20,000 of our neighbors, people who, whether they know his name or not, literally owe their lives to Slick Shepherd. Indeed, quite a legacy. And all because he learned...the hard way...some of what is truly important.

Slick had a favorite quote, a copy of which he gave me several years ago to hang on the wall in my office. At the end of the War between the States, during the cleanup of a battle field, it was found in the Bible of a freed slave who had died in the battle. It was a prayer that Slick adopted as his own:

"Lord, I ain't what I oughta be,
And I ain't what I wanna be,
And I ain't what I gonna be.
But Lord, I thank ya, I ain't what I was."

This question of what is truly important is not new to you. In fact, I am equally sure that the answer is not new to you either. But in a society such as ours that places such a premium on the accumulation of "stuff," the marble bathtubs and $7-million houses, we need the occasional reminder to help us keep perspective. If there is any idolatry that is rampant in American society, it is this idolatry of "stuff."

If it is any consolation, the problem is not new. The folks who heard Jesus on that Judean hillside had the same problem. Jesus said do not worry about "stuff" - God knows what you need and will provide for you just as the birds of the air are fed and the lilies of the field are dressed. And if God will take care of the birds and flowers so well, think how well YOU will be taken care of.

"What it boils down to is this:" Jesus went on, "if you are going to be concerned about anything, it should be to see that the things that are important to God are equally important to you. Then you can be absolutely confident that everything else that you need will be taken care of." Or as the King James Version of the Bible in which we were all nurtured has it, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you."

I knew a man whose whole life was firmly grounded upon that promise. He was a minister. He never had much money, but he was absolutely faithful in his tithe, and in fact, generally gave a good deal more as God prospered him because he understood the tithe was a floor, not a ceiling. There were not many luxuries in his home, but there was never any lack of necessities. None of his six children missed out on going to college because there was not enough money. He never worried. His attitude was, "God has always provided enough so far; I know He always will."

After his death, the congregation he had served so long wanted to do something in his memory. They commissioned a bronze plaque to be cast and placed on the wall of the sanctuary where he had preached for so many years. At the bottom of that plaque was the verse that had meant so much to him throughout his life and ministry: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." I had the privilege of preaching at the dedication service for that plaque. God had been faithful to that man. I know. He was my father.

What is truly important to you? Not "stuff" I hope. We have been reminded too graphically lately that "stuff" can be gone in a flash...or a flash flood. Jesus says "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness," or in a more modern rendering, "Make God's priorities YOUR priorities," then everything else will fall into place. THAT is what is truly important.

Amen!


1. Maggie Jackson, Associated Press, "The Good Old Days Are Now," Greensboro News & Record, 9/20/99, B6

2. Luke 12:16-20

3. Posted by Carlos Wilton on PresbyNet, "Preaching Stewardship," #1688, 9/16/99

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