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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Stuff: A Sermon

Stuff
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
October 11th, 2009



So the rich guy comes up to Jesus and asks him what it takes to make it to heaven. That is kind of an otherworldly way of saying, “What is the meaning of life?” Or “What is the key to happiness?”

Jesus looks at him and says,
“This stuff is written in books. What does your book say? Doesn’t your book say don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t defraud, don’t lie, be nice to your parents. You know, the usual.”

The rich guy says,
“Yeah, I have done all that. I am a good guy. I am an ethical person. I work hard hard. I am nice to everyone. In fact, life has been good. I have realized the dream of a good life. But something is missing. I still haven’t found what I am looking for.”

Jesus believes him. And he says,
“Well there is one more thing. Sell what you have, give it to the poor, and follow me. Join me and my merry band and we’ll travel the countryside with nothing but a song in our hearts. We will sleep in the open, greet the morning sun, howl at the moon, take no care for what we will eat or wear or where we will sleep. Nature herself will be our Mama. It will be the great adventure of life. C’mon! What do you say?”

The rich guy shakes his head and said, “Hmmm. I don’t think so.” He goes on his way, bummed out, because he
has.
too.
much.
stuff.

Remember George Carlin and his wonderful bit on “Stuff?
“That's all I want, that's all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know? I can see it on your table, everybody's got a little place for their stuff. This is my stuff, that's your stuff, that'll be his stuff over there. That's all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. 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. They don’t want your fourth grade math homework. 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!
After the rich guy leaves, Jesus notices that he has before him a “teaching moment.” And he says to his disciples,
“It is tough for people with stuff to be happy.”

And they are perplexed. That didn’t make any sense.

Jesus keeps going. He says,
“It is easier for a camel to squeeze through an eye of a sewing needle than it is for a person who has too much stuff to be at peace with herself."
The disciples say to themselves, “No way” (because that is the opposite of what they learned in capitalism school). They say to Jesus,
“Who then can possibly be whole, happy, content, and at peace?”
Jesus says,
“Anything is possible in this universe. There are many paths to peace, but collecting too much stuff isn’t one of them.”
Peter says,
“We have left all of our stuff and followed you! Why are we still so ornery, miserable, and confused?”
Jesus says,
“It isn’t enough just to let go of stuff. That is only the beginning. It doesn’t help to be miserable while doing it or thinking that doing it is some great sacrifice. When we let go of clinging to our stuff we actually receive much more, 100 times more! When we give up clinging to our stuff we realize that all is ours. We all have enough. Earth has enough for everyone. Enough to share and to spare. When we let go of our hoarding we will see that. That is the good life I am talking about. A new age is dawning. It is a complete reversal of what we think is normal.”
The disciples weren’t quite sure about all of that, but they decide to keep following him anyway.

Jesus had more to say about money and stuff than any other topic, except perhaps the kingdom or queendom of God. But even this kingdom/queendom/realm of God about which he spoke was primarily about how human beings are to relate to one another and share the blessings of Earth. In short, how we manage stuff.

Michael Moore in his film, Capitalism: A Love Story inserts a scene in which he takes clips from the film Jesus of Nazareth. He dubs capitalist phrases onto Jesus’ lips:
“Blessed are those who increase their market share.”
It is funny because we know that Jesus was nothing like that. The stories about Jesus show a disdain for profit-making and for the accumulation of wealth.
  • “Sell what you have. Give it to the poor and follow me.”
  • “Blessed are you poor” and “Woe to you who are rich!”
  • Even his mother said, “God has sent the rich away empty and has filled the poor with good things.”
Yet much of what passes for Christianity today ignores Jesus’ powerful, profound, and insistent critique of economic injustice. I suppose that illustrates the power that stuff and the fear of not having enough stuff has over us.

This was in the Chicago Sun-Times in December 2006:
The richest 2 percent of adults still owns more than half of the world's household wealth, perpetuating a yawning global gap between rich and poor....

The report from the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economics Research shows that in 2000 the richest 1 percent of adults -- most of whom live in Europe or the United States -- owned 40 percent of global assets.

The richest 10 percent of adults accounted for 85 percent of assets, the report said.

By contrast, the bottom 50 percent of the world's adult population owned barely 1 percent of the world's wealth.
It is also true that if every person on Earth possessed as much stuff as the average American, we would need five planets worth of stuff to keep up with the demand. In essence Earth does not have enough stuff to keep everyone at the level at which most of us are accustomed.

We realize that at some point something has to give. It is obvious that we need to change. We know that. We don’t know how. We become anxious, suspicious, competitive, or depressed.

I have been reading some speculative fiction. These are novels about our future. They are forecasts of what life will be like if we keep going as we are going. Margaret Atwood has just published, The Year of the Flood. This is the second of her trilogy. The first was entitled, Oryx and Crake. It is genetic engineering run amok among other things.

In one scene, after the waterless flood in which a plague finally diminishes humanity, one of the characters, Toby, who happens to survive reflects:
Surely I was an optimistic person back then, she thinks. Back there. I woke up whistling. I knew there were things wrong in the world, they were referred to, I’d seen them in the onscreen news. But the wrong things were wrong somewhere else.

By the time she’d reached college, the wrongness had moved closer. She remembers the oppressive sensation, like waiting all the time for a heavy stone footfall, then the knock at the door. Everybody knew. Nobody admitted to knowing. If other people began to discuss it, you tuned them out, because what they were saying was both so obvious and so unthinkable.

We’re using up the Earth. It’s almost gone. You can’t live with such fears and keep on whistling. The waiting builds up in you like a tide. You start wanting it to be done with. You find yourself saying to the sky, Just do it. Do your worst. Get it over with. She could feel the coming tremor of it running through her spine, asleep or awake. It never went away… p. 239
The gospels were composed at a time when the known world had collapsed. The temple was destroyed and Jerusalem burned. Jesus appeared just before that. All of what Jesus is recorded to have said and done is in this context of change. His advice to prepare for this change is quite simple:

Let go. As opposed to attempting to secure your future by hoarding and worrying, do the opposite. Give and trust.

Practice giving. If someone wants your coat, give him your shirt too. If someone wants you to carry a pack for a mile, carry it for two. Give it away. Give yourself away.

This is the spiritual path of cleaning house, of letting go and letting be that is so necessary right now. The world is changing. Of course it is. The universe has been changing for 13.7 billion years. That is what it does. What Jesus was telling the guy with the stuff who was anxious about doing it right, you know, living life correctly, was to lighten up. Lighten up. Loosen up. Give it up.

Like you I watch the news and listen to the pundits. The intensity is overwhelming. There is a frantic desire to continue the status quo, as in the words of the first President George Bush: The American way of life is non-negotiable. Well, silly, of course it is. In a changing world you negotiate or you don’t survive.

How much suffering is brought upon ourselves and others when we prop up a status quo that is not sustainable?

What do we do? We breathe. We recognize that life is short and wild. It is amazing that we are alive at all. It is amazing that we are alive at this time. There will come a time when we are not on this Earth. Regardless of what we might believe about what happens to our consciousness after we breathe our last, nevertheless, at some point each of us will breathe her or his last here.

That is liberating. That means we are on borrowed time. It is all free. All we have to do is to live it. Since nothing is permanent there is no need to desire permanence. That desire does nothing but cause anxiety and suffering. We can let it go. We can let it be.

Jesus’ advice to the rich guy could be his advice to each of us if we will hear it. Give it away. Let whatever has come to us flow through us to others. Let it go. Let it be. Be a blessing.

We could say whoever dies with the most stuff wins. We could say that. We could live like that.

Or we can say whoever dies after giving the most away wins.

I think when we look through history, we will find that the people
  • we have most admired,
  • that we think have brought the most blessing to a hurting world,
  • who have been the most at peace with themselves and with others
are those who lived by the second philosophy.

Whoever gives the most away wins.

Amen.

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