The scripture for today can be found here (click the link if you want to read the scripture before the sermon ;)
Years ago as I thumbed through a catalogue, I laughed at a t-shirt with a cartoon graphic of a woman standing in the center of giant piles of belonging. Her arms were spread asunder and she was proclaiming boldly, “I’d like more things, please”.
This is not a specific request or petition--rather it is a general desire to be surrounded, to be filled up, to be fulfilled by an ever growing, never ending, infinite longing for stuff.
And I get it, I get the desire to be able to purchase or acquire more and more and more. Whether we call it retail therapy, a shopping spree, or merely “running errands” (you know, those times when you run into Target for something and somehow emerge with 90 dollars worth of stuff you didn’t know you “needed”)--it is easy to justify and engage in this sort of compulsive acquisition of things.
In fact, not only are we given constant opportunities to get more stuff, we have been told that this acquisition of stuff is what drives our economy and keeps our country running. A friend of mine still owns the very expensive boots she purchased following September 11th--she calls them her “patriotic boots” and partially in jest, she justified the purchase as a means of supporting the economy in a scary and uncertain time. More, more, more we say...and gradually, our wants become our needs in an endless cycle of black friday’s and cyber mondays.
Stuff. There is actually a book on the subject of stuff, or rather on the compulsion to acquire and keep stuff, it’s entitled, “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things,”. The authors of the book, both psychologists, spent time with compulsive hoarders and sought to understand the psychology behind hoarding. They describe, “the emotional or magical quality that possessions have. The connect people to the world. For that particular hoarder, her possessions connected her to the world around her and without them she felt she would somehow lose that. They were also a part of her identity; if she got rid of them she would lose a piece of herself”
Now, we are obviously working with extreme examples of possession--very few of us are actually what we would call hoarders. But, I think part of our contemporary fascination with hoarders (there are entire television shows devoted to people who suffer from hoarding) is colored by a sense of how perilously close we ourselves come to that edge where clutter becomes pathologic. And, as we ponder our own understanding of our belongings--how often do we define ourselves by the stuff we have? How often do we find ourselves feeling adrift or anxious because we have lost a particular item, a piece of memorabilia, a photo, a keep sake?
Or to take this concept to another arena, how often do faith communities hold onto “stuff” because the stuff defines who they are as a faith community? Would St. Clements’ be St. Clements’ without a lich gate? Would St. Clements’ be St. Clements’ without the pews? Would St. Clements’ be St. Clements’ without the altar? What about the parish hall, the sacristy, the offices, the good silver and the stained glass?
Now I am not attacking this building or the beauty that surrounds us--but seeking to remind us that we are called to gather as the body of Christ. Reminding us that our baptism is into a community of faith not into a particular building--we are called to proclaim the Gospel, not the architecture of the building.
And, here I pause, and find myself blushing a bit. To be completely honest, all too often I have described St. Clements’ by proclaiming the beauty of the building, the uniqueness of the architecture and the elegance of the liturgy. Perhaps, the Spirit is nudging me in today’s Gospel to take a harder look at how St. Clements’ proclaims the Gospel--so that in response to folk’s inquiries about where I am “working now” I can describe the beauty of the care you show each other, the passion you have for mission and the intentionality of discerning where Christ is calling this community next.
So today, I hear a Gospel that asks us to define ourselves by God and not by the stuff we possess. When Jesus uses the parable of the wealthy man who saves up his surplus he is using a story that would have been familiar to his audience. It’s a stereotype of sorts--the rich man would have been understood as morally bankrupt, because in the world in which Jesus lived “stuff” was a finite thing. Like a pie, if one person has a larger piece that means someone else’s piece would be smaller. Acquiring “more” in Jesus’ community meant that someone else was exploited or impoverished. And, with this information I am once again reminded that belief in God demands action in the world.
Because, what if we were to take a look at our own acquisitions in that way? What if our own economy was ruled by the understanding that when we get whatever we want, someone else does not get what they need. For example, as much as I love a bargain, when we buy cheap goods somebody else was not paid a living wage to produce those goods.
It may be hard to understand how our acquisitions affect others, but part of what we are being reminded of in this Gospel is that when we acquire without regard to the needs of others, we are isolating ourselves from participation in the greater community. The critique of the rich man in this parable is grounded in his failure to give from his abundance and in his inability to engage with his community in such a way that he is able to see and then respond to the needs of the poor.
One of the churches I had the privilege of serving early in my calling had a vestry with a large number of members with backgrounds in finance. During one particular vestry meeting the vestry was celebrating the financial prudence that had led to a 20,000 dollar budget surplus that year. The rector interjected strongly at that point in the meeting stating “that’s 20,000 dollars of ministry we have not done”.
Greed seeks to possess for self alone, and when we are governed by greed we find ourselves standing alone with our stuff. In an interview, the authors of “Stuff” relate that, “[people who hoard] become more isolated as they get older and that’s in part because family members try to help them, then problems break out and the family fractures and eventually rejects the hoarder because they can’t tolerate being in their home. And then, because the hoarder can’t have anyone over, they don’t have the ability to reciprocate friendships.”
When we find the need for stuff trumps our need for each other--we find the sin that breaks relationships and fragments communities. Colossians warns ”Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” This list consists of things that break down relationships and divide us from each other--objectification, using people for our own desires without regard for their dignity, pursuing stuff and in that greedy pursuit exploiting others.
Perhaps today can be an opportunity to fling our arms asunder and petition for more mercy, more justice, more connections, and more love--because it is this richness that God truly calls us to.