“Garage Sales and Do-overs” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely
Unitarian Church of Edmonton, May 5, 2013
Today we will be having our Annual General Meeting of the Congregation, the day when we are most reminded that it is the members who own this church in every sense of the word. But it’s also one of the first nice weekends of the Spring. To honour the needs of the community to be inside this Sunday even as we long to be outside, this will be a short sermon about the theological messages implicit in a church garage sale.
I was chatting with Donna Hamar while she was putting a lot of effort into preparing the garage sale…I was not. I was browsing …using no effort at all. I came across an item that was iconic for me. It was a red IBM Selectric typewriter with a box of ribbons and font balls. It was the second time we have had one of those in the garage sale. The first time was a few years back. I wrote a newsletter column about it. Why?
When I was 13 my sister was in grad school, on her way to earning a PhD in Biochemistry. She borrowed one of those beauties from school so she could work on her thesis at home. The IBM Selectric in 1968 was the absolute pinnacle of typewriter-dom. It printed with a plastic film instead of carbon ribbon. If you made a mistake you could press the X key that would backspace and lift the offending error completely from the page. Miraculous! No more White Out that blobbed or pointy typing erasers that ripped holes in the page! The error simply vanished. And it had these little font balls that you could easily change if you wanted to write in italics or symbol or whatever. Those of you who have only known computers may be wondering what the heck I’m talking about, but people my age and up know what a revolutionary piece of technology this was.
But it wasn’t cheap. Oh no. I also recall my sis Maureen saying, “Be careful squirt! That cost $1,000!” That’s about $6,600 today, enough to buy a whole houseful of computers.
If we are lucky, we might sell this Selectric for $20.
And that makes me think about religious things like transcience…how what was once so valuable and important can so quickly become valueless. Boston Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker offered a landmark sermon nearly 200 years ago entitled the “Transience and Permanence in Christianity”. Every minister studies it. For Parker, the miracles, the cruel Old Testament laws – the things that were entirely human in the Bible – those would pass away. They were transient and belonged to a long ago time. What was permanent in Christianity were the underlying values, the ideas of love and justice that could be moulded to fit any time and any culture.
Garage sales are reminders of the transient and permanent in life.
The room next door is filled with things that people once valued, perhaps even treasured. There was a women’s brush and mirror vanity set very much like the one my mother treasured and used every day. There are these two pots that were thrown by the late Beth Hone, once the matriarch of the Unitarian Fellowship of Regina. That they came from her hands added value to their simple elegance for Unitarians who knew her. And since I did, I do believe I may need to bid on one. There are former wedding gifts and Christmas presents – symbols of affection between family, friends and lovers…eve4n if they weren’t items we ever actually wanted. There are items lovingly carried home from foreign lands and given with great pride and joy. A large and ornate and vaguely Chinoiserie knick knack shelf probably has an interesting story.
Okay, some of the things on those tables were never treasured and probably arrived here after being re-gifted several times. Some Starfrit and Ronco appliance thingys were probably bought on the spur of the moment and proved only to be disappointments when they did not deliver the miracles promised by TV hucksters. By the way, is it legally possible to have a garage sale without items from Starfrit and Ronco? But other items were clearly thoughtful gifts, expressions of love and appreciation. Maybe that blender was bought to make healthy drinks for someone trying to change a lifestyle. Maybe a bracelet was a first nervous attempt to woo someone in a relationship that never quite worked out. I know at least one stuffed bear was the passionately craved prize happily won at Capital Ex a few years ago.
The room next door is filled with stories. The room next door is a museum with the artifacts of lives lived, of tastes that have changed, of houses that had to be downsized because of aging, of relationships ending, even death. There may be nothing in the room next door that we would value enough even to pay a dollar for, but we have to respect the stories and the journeys of even the least of these trinkets.
Ownership of goods, that’s transient. Fashion, style and current taste, that’s transient.
The love that fuels friendships and lifelong relationships, that’s permanent. It extends through and beyond our mortal lives, passed on to us from generations before, passed on by us to generations to come. The hope that inspires us to keep trying to change our lives for the better, that’s permanent. The concern and affection that makes us want to mark birthdays and weddings and holidays with gifts, that’s permanent, even if the things we give are not.
A second theological theme I find in garage sales is redemption…or if you are perhaps of a more Eastern mindset, reincarnation, or if you are an atheist who happens to be an environmentalist, recycling. It’s all the same concept. The old aphorism of rummage sales and second hand stores is, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” This is where we get to recycle the things that are no longer useful to us, but which we don’t quite think are ready for the garbage. And as a bonus, it becomes a chance to raise a bit of cash for the church, surely the least expensive gift we can ever give to UCE! In this sense to participate in garage sales is to be part of the great cosmic do-over.
Our journey through life is the story of growth and change. There is physical growth as we age through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, the middle years and then into older age. Our needs change. Our desires change. The things we think we need change.
A garage sale allows us to pass on the things we have outgrown. My daughter Elora’s first bike came from this garage sale a few years ago, and here it is again, outgrown by her, but just the perfect thing on which some future cyclist can start her first wobbly journey. And this year I found a bike helmet for her older sister Lily who has decided that it is finally time for her to learn to ride. The toys are the most obvious signs of outgrowing the things we donate, but in truth that’s the story of every item. Things which once seemed useful, valuable, sentimental and even necessary have passed their peak and have languished on some limbo-like shelf in basement or garage unused, unnoticed. If they had feelings we might say they were waiting for a second chance.
That’s the whole premise behind the Toy Story trilogy of films as Sherriff Woody and friends try to figure out their new existence as Andy grows and eventually goes away to college. And indeed, redemption for them comes when Andy himself plays with Woody one last time even as he passes him on to a little girl in the neighbourhood.
None of us wants to become useless, to be put up on the shelf. Some believe that promises of the afterlife have been revealed to us by divine figures in the scriptures and doctrines of the world’s great religions. The humanist part of me doubts divine involvement or an afterlife existence. Call me a skeptic, but I tend to see those revelations simply as the product of our own fears, hopes and dreams. We don’t want to think that this is all that there is, so sometime in the past we came up with an idea that there might be something more. Over time, those ideas became beliefs and teachings. And there is only one way to find out if they are for real or not. I for one, am in no hurry to take the last step so I can find out.
The idea of an afterlife gives those with tough lives some hope, and that’s good. The downside is that one can become so reliant on that hope that it erodes our willingness to live this life to the fullest. I`ve always felt that if there is a second go round, the best way to get there is to make this life as heavenly as possible.
Still, many of us long for a second chance, or a third, or a fourth. Even if we don’t dream of heaven, most of us at least hope for a do-over. Bringing things to a garage sale might even be seen as a prayer or an act of faith that the do-over is always possible.
So there you go. You thought a garage sale was just a pile of old stuff up for sale cheap. It’s a lot more. It is symbolic of what is of everlasting meaning and what is just a passing fancy. It is also a metaphor for our deep seated human need for meaning and usefulness. Now, you are free to go and shop religiously.