Of “Stuff” and the Commonwealth

A sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

Of the now decades-old phenomenon we call, “Reality TV,” there is one show that has both haunted and fascinated me more than any other – a show simply called, “Hoarders.” Part of what draws me to the show is not just this often painful glimpse into the lives of ordinary people who struggle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders but an inevitable sense of connection I find in their stories. I realize that I, like them, have too much “stuff” in my life. Now, thankfully, my “stuff” does not begin to rise to the level of Reality TV’s interest, but I like so many Americans, have fallen prey to a consumer culture that tells us that more is better.

One of the great philosophers of the 20th Century, George Carlin, once mused,

That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you’re saving. Ain’t nobody interested in your fourth grade arithmetic papers. All they want is the shiny stuff. That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff!

Of course, as any mental health professional will tell you, compulsions such as hoarding, aren’t about the “stuff” at all. The stuff is merely the rash some inner pain or psychic wound has broken out in. It’s an addiction like any of the others we use to satisfy a hunger inside of us, in a search for peace within. Tragically, as we know all too well, these things we hang on to in such desperation to bring us peace often destroy us, our health, our freedom, and our relationships instead.

From today’s Gospel reading it would seem that those in Jesus’ audience had issues with their “stuff” as well. And this isn’t the only time in the Gospels that Jesus puts his finger on this tender area of the human soul. In Matthew, Mark, and, Luke, we hear of a rich young man who sought to follow Jesus but, when Jesus told him to sell all he had, the young man went away in sorrow, because as the Gospels say, “He had many things.” In the Gospel of Luke and even the Gospel of Thomas, we hear of another rich man whose plan was to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to hold all his possessions, but instead, he died suddenly, unprepared. No doubt Jesus knew as we know that the stuff isn’t the problem, it’s the condition of one’s heart that can often make our possessions a problem.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is encouraging his followers, namely his immediate circle of twelve disciples, to be prepared for the work he is calling them to do. And part of this preparation was a new relationship with their possessions. Jesus points their eyes and their hearts to the source of all good things:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

We are often so focused on the things we have and, more importantly, the things we wish to acquire for ourselves, seeking that inner peace, when in God’s commonwealth, we are already rich. Our needs have been supplied and marvelously so. We need look no further than Christ’s own body and blood offered to us every time we gather around this table. Truly it is enough, given for the life of the world. But Jesus doesn’t leave them or us there.
His encouragement to his disciples is not about self-satisfaction or a self-help talk to prevent the shame of hoarding among them. His words to his disciples, and to us, were tied to a call to mission. With a healthy view of possessions firmly in mind, Jesus says, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit!”

Like the five wise virgins of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus describes those who were ready and prepared when the master comes to the wedding banquet. No doubt for that first generation of the Church, Jesus’ words took on particular meaning when the Temple was destroyed and the entire Jewish nation was scattered. Jesus sent them into the world, offering them the wisdom some might call “non-attachment,” one of the basic teachings of Buddhism. Who knew? Apparently, Jesus was a Buddhist!

But once freed of the need for possessions, the followers of Jesus could get down to the REAL work of God’s kingdom, God’s commonwealth, a glimpse of which we hear calling to us from as far back as Isaiah, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” This might be an interesting self-check for churches to do from time to time: do we have enough “stuff”? Check! Now, how are we doing on the things that really matter, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending orphans, advocating for widows? My guess is, every parish would come up with the same answer: we’ve got more work to do.

There is so much more work to do, Church, before we can truly say God’s kingdom has come. Every day we hear about the need for justice and mercy, for advocacy for the poor, for the hard work Jesus called them and us to do. St. James, you know the need. You have dedicated much of your time and your own energy to welcoming those who needed a home, especially the Sudanese community among you. But you know what that commitment meant? It meant you had to share your “stuff” with them. This is the kingdom Jesus calls us to seek: a kingdom of abundance, not scarcity; one of joy not of fear.

Now, does this mean that if we are truly following Jesus, on a parish or individual level, we won’t have a need for “stuff”? Of course not! Our culture has made it such that it is very hard to function without at least a minimum of stuff. But when our relationship to our stuff gets out of balance, either as an individual or a parish, our other relationships begin to suffer, not just with our family, not even just with God, but our relationships with those widows, those orphans, and those oppressed peoples begin to suffer. I believe Jesus is calling us to check our priorities. When push comes to shove, when money gets tight, when circumstances come crashing in on us, what is it that we trust to save us? Our stuff? Both Jesus and George Carlin remind us, thieves can break in and steal that. There must be more that we look to for our survival. There must be something else that brings us hope.

This morning, the writer of Hebrews tells us the stories of some of the greatest heroes of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we often call the Old Testament. The chief of these heroes is, of course, Abraham. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” Did you hear it? Abraham had to move. Abraham had to pack his stuff. No doubt, Abraham had to leave a LOT of his stuff behind. He probably had a HUGE yard sale! And his descendants were marked by this need for non-attachment to things. His grandson, Jacob, the usurper, the heel-grabber, had to flee for his life several times (usually his fault). And Jacob’s son, Joseph, was stripped of his favorite, technicolor dreamcoat and was left for dead, bereft of his stuff. How did these great heroes survive? By faith.

As some of you may know, I am in transition myself at the moment. God is calling me to follow to a new and as yet unknown place. And I spent several weeks earlier this year packing up my stuff and putting it into storage. I had to make hard choices and part with things. I’m not sure that at that point Jesus’ wisdom would have been welcome during those hard moments. But with time and distance we often gain perspective. Perspective is one of the blessings of getting older. Things sure look different to a freshman heading off to college than someone downsizing after retirement.

It is by faith that Jesus calls us all to renew our mission. Leaving behind the stuff that entangles us, the things that weigh us down, whether they be possessions, or addictions, or even sometimes relationships, we are called to follow, to take part in the coming of God’s kingdom, God’s commonwealth on earth.

Is it hard to follow? You bet! But we will get there, only, by faith.



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