July 31, 2016, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – or the Big Stuff Either – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Sometimes death hits very close to home and gives us a loud wake-up call. This past Sunday my good friend, and a Deacon in our Diocese, Mike Logan, passed away unexpectedly. He was 62 years old, which I have come to realize is not very old at all. And then in this same week, a 13-year-old boy from DeKalb was killed in an ATV accident. These deaths impact a lot of people, friends and family, and our prayers are with all those whose lives are forever changed by these losses. But it isn’t wrong, it isn’t making things “all about us” to also stop and take this opportunity to remind ourselves what the writer of Psalm 90 said, that our lives are as fleeting and fragile as grass, that is green and growing in the morning, but fades and withers by the time the sun goes down.
We do well to remember, when we wake in the morning, that we have today, we have only today, to do those things we know we ought to do, to show kindness to the people we meet, to forgive the offenses we have been holding onto, to make peace, to use our time and our gifts and our possessions for good. Jesus’ words are shockingly harsh in the parable we read today, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” We have today, maybe no more than that, to live our lives. We do well to remember that, even though we don’t like being reminded of our mortality and especially we don’t like being reminded of the mortality of the people we love. But the truth is, if we live as if we had control over our lives we are fools. That is part of the lesson of the parable we read today.
But it’s not the main lesson. Jesus often told a parable in response to a question that somebody in the audience threw out to him. To understand the point of the story, you have to know what the question is that the story is meant to answer. And that is the case this time. A man in the crowd called out to Jesus on a matter of justice and fairness. Or so it seems. “Teacher, tell my brother to share the family inheritance with me,” he said. Luke doesn’t tell us any details about this man’s situation. The practice in Israel in that time was that the sons of the family shared out the inheritance equally, except for the eldest, who received a double share. So, if there were two sons, the youngest got a third of the inheritance and the eldest got two thirds. If there were three sons, the two youngest sons each got a quarter of the inheritance, and the eldest got two quarters, or half. There’s no way of knowing, in this passage, if this man’s brother was trying to cheat him out of what was rightly his, or if he was trying to see if Jesus, who had a reputation for being a bit of a radical in a lot of ways, would take his side against his elder brother and tell him he should split the inheritance equally.
But the thing is, Jesus didn’t really care about any of that. “Friend, who made me a judge or an arbitrator over you?” he answered the man. And then he added, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed. Life isn’t about possessions.” And then he went on to tell the story, about the man who built bigger barns to hold all his stuff.
The story about building bigger barns, then, is partly about knowing that our lives can end at any moment. But more specifically, it’s a story about the human tendency to be greedy. Greed is such an awful word; we don’t like to think we could ever be greedy people; only nasty villains and evil politicians are greedy, not plain old nice people like us. We’re just a little materialistic, maybe. But we wouldn’t say we’re greedy. But when Jesus warns the man in the crowd to guard against greed, he isn’t talking about some kind of extreme wickedness. He’s just talking about our very natural human attraction to stuff. We are creatures who get attached to stuff — and this was never more true than it is in present-day America.
We don’t even have to work hard to acquire an awful lot of stuff. When Carroll and I moved to New York in 1986 we had six children and an enormous dog, a few mattresses and an old desk and a dollhouse and a gazillion books. Not a whole lot for a family of 8, at least by American standards. We packed it all in a big yellow school bus with plenty of room to spare, and we drove a thousand miles to find a place where we could live simply on a little land. But within an astonishingly short time our house was full of stuff, clothes and furniture and toys and tools, stuff we needed and sometimes stuff we didn’t need at all.
We live in a culture that almost requires us to be at least a little greedy. We are conditioned to admire people who have accumulated a lot of really nice stuff. We spend the majority of our youth preparing for a career that will provide us with stuff because we have a responsibility to provide stuff for our family so they won’t ever have to worry about not having stuff. We want our children to have more stuff than we had, and better stuff. And we are required by law to insure our stuff so that if it burns or crashes or gets stolen we can get all of our stuff replaced.
People’s homes are so full of stuff these days that a whole industry has grown up for the purpose of storing the stuff that won’t fit in our houses, so we don’t have to get rid of it. You see these storage businesses all over the place. Americans are building bigger barns. But we have forgotten, or maybe we never knew, that real life isn’t about stuff.
“Take care!” Jesus warns us. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” The man that called out from the crowd to Jesus was probably not trying to take advantage of his brother. He probably didn’t want anything more than what was rightly his. But Jesus didn’t even ask him about that. His warning cut across issues of fairness and rights and equality. Because all those things have to do with possessions, things, stuff – and real life isn’t about stuff.
If we had been there, we might not have thought the man was particularly greedy for wanting to get what he was supposed to get. Jesus’ answer would probably have taken us by surprise. I’m sure it took the man by surprise. I think it was meant to take us by surprise, because Jesus wanted us to wake up and hear him. Because the trouble with our attachment to stuff is not that stuff is evil in and of itself. It is that the richer we are in stuff the poorer we become in the things that make for an abundant life.
There is a children’s story from Pakistan that you have probably heard many times, about a monkey who was troubling the people of a village by going into their houses and stealing food. But a clever man figured out how to catch him. He took two pots with narrow necks and he put peanuts in both jars. The monkey soon found the pots and reached in with both hands to grab the peanuts. With his hands full of nuts he couldn’t get his hands out of the pots. But the monkey couldn’t bring himself to let go of the nuts. And he couldn’t run away with his hands stuck in the pots. And so, he was caught and locked up in a zoo where he couldn’t cause any more trouble.
The trouble with holding on to stuff is that it traps us – it keeps us from being free to live abundantly, because life isn’t about stuff. Remember the rich young man that came to Jesus once, to ask him the way to eternal life? He was a good man. He had known all the do’s and don’t’s, from the time he was a little kid. Jesus looked into his heart and he loved him. But he said, “Just one more thing – get rid of all your stuff, and come, follow me.” And the young man went away, sad.
He was trapped. His stuff kept him from attaining the life he was seeking. Jesus watched the young man walk away and he said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
People have concocted elaborate theories to complicate what Jesus was saying, but despite what you might have heard, there was no gate called “The Eye of the Needle” that camels had to pass through on their knees or anything like that. Jesus wasn’t using some deeply symbolic image that kind of makes sense. He purposely used this ridiculously extreme image of trying to stuff a huge, hairy, humpy critter through a teeny tiny hole, just to illustrate his point – that wealth, attachment to our stuff, is more that just a huge burden; that, in fact, it makes it impossible for us to live a full life. Because when Jesus talks about entering the kingdom of heaven, he’s not talking about the hereafter or the “Sweet By and By”. He’s talking about the life that the children of God can have right now – like we pray every day, “Thy kingdom come” – life today, powered by the Spirit, with freedom to love and serve, freedom to offer compassion and forgiveness, freedom to rejoice and be thankful in all situations, unhindered by the stuff of the world.
That’s why Jesus told the man in the crowd, “Friend, I got no time for passing judgment on matters of stuff – that’s just dirt and rocks and bricks and boards and coins and cloth. All that stuff has nothing to do with real life.” And he said, “You got no time either. Wake up! and let go – live while you still have time to live.”
We don’t like to think so, but all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, are naturally inclined to be greedy, to hold our worldly goods tight with our sweaty little paws like the silly monkey in the story, even though we find ourselves caught in a trap. We hold on because we are afraid we won’t have enough. We hold on because it makes us feel safe. We hold on because we believe the world when it tells us it’s our stuff – our salary and our nice car and our comfortable home and our fashionable clothes and our retirement account – that gives us our real worth.
As physical creatures we need the things of the world. We need food, and we need a home, and we need clothing. Jesus doesn’t say otherwise. In fact he said once, “Your Father knows you need all that stuff. But look!” he said, “Look at the birds up there in the air. They haven’t done a days’ work in all their lives, but your Father feeds them. And look at the wildflowers blooming along the highway. Not one of them knows the first thing about spinning or weaving, but nobody on this earth is better dressed than they are. Set your minds and your hearts on the real things of the kingdom, and God will supply all the stuff you really need.”
It’s life that Jesus came to give us: not wealth or status, not a superabundance of stuff, but real, abundant life. And life in the kingdom is freedom, not servitude to our possessions. If we can loosen our grip, if we can let go, we will find that we are free to live as we have never lived before. I have seen it, again and again, with people who are in the last days of their lives. They know how little value there is in the stuff around them. They know the freedom of letting go, of offering grace and love where there has been hostility and resentment, the freedom of giving without any expectation of repayment. That’s abundant life.
But how if we learned to let go before we are in the final days of our lives – because really, Jesus pointed out, any day could very well be our last. “Life doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions,” Jesus told the man in the crowd. Life is so much more than that. Don’t let’s waste our time here on earth building bigger barns. There’s a kingdom to build. And a whole world that needs the love of the Father. We got no time for worrying about stuff.
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