August 4, 2019
Pr. Craig Mueller
The Stuff Of Life
We have a stuff crisis. From the reality TV show Hoarders. To the storage industry that stores all our extra stuff. To Amazon Prime that delivers any stuff we need right to our door. To Marie Kondo, the organizational guru who helps people transform the stuff in their cluttered homes into places of serenity.
There’s a lot of good stuff in our texts today. The rich man in our gospel is consumed with stuff and securing a comfortable, confident future. What’s so wrong with saving for retirement, you say? Most Americans are vastly unprepared for the future and are living paycheck to paycheck.
Since stuff can be a serious topic, let’s lighten things up. The late comedian George Carlin was known for his profanity but also for his powerful social satire. Take a listen:
You got your stuff with you? I’ll bet you do. Guys have stuff in their pockets; women have stuff in their purses. . . . You gotta take care of your stuff. That’s what life is all about, tryin’ to find a 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.
That’s all your house is, it’s a pile of stuff with a cover on it. . . . Now, sometimes you go on vacation, you gotta bring some of your stuff with you. You can’t take all your stuff, just the stuff you really like, the stuff that fits you good that month. You gotta take a smaller version of your stuff. Say you’re gonna go to Honolulu for two weeks, you gotta take two big bags of stuff. . . You put your stuff away, and you know that you’re a long way from home, and you don’t quite feel 100 percent at home, but you know that you must be okay because you do have some of your stuff with you.
Here's what I’ve been thinking about: it’s not just our stuff that takes up space in our homes, but it takes up space inside. And then there’s all the information we take in, all that we read online, and the 24/7 cycle. So much stuff in our heads.
And the stuff in the news the last day fills us with such grief, helplessness, heartache, and even anger. Two mass killings – fueled by hatred.
And then there’s the way talk about our net worth. It’s all numbers—money, investments, real estate. Does this stuff give us our true worth and make life worthwhile? It’s like the cartoon where a little boy is watching TV and says, “I want one of those and THAT!” The next frame: “I want that and that and that.” The mother then says: “no more TV today.” The little boy stares at the blank screen and finally says, “But how am I going to know what I want?”
When Jesus comes down hard on the rich farmer, it’s not because he’s wealthy, or that he plans for the future, but because he’s self-absorbed. You can’t miss it in the monologue—the word I is repeated over and over. “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’”
Lord knows, we lived in a self-absorbed age. Some of us say prayers now and then. Yet, most of the time we consume and consume with little gratitude to the giver of all good things, with little acknowledgement of the workers who help grow our food, with little concern for the ravaged earth and creatures becoming extinct and the poorest of our siblings. It’s all about me. My portfolio. My savings. My quality of life. My future.
Here’s the ironic thing. Christianity is a materialistic religion. We value the stuff of creation, the stuff of bodies, the stuff of earth. And many of our possessions hold deep memories and connections. Our Sunday gathering is a unique place to reflect not on the extraneous stuff in our lives, but the stuff of life and what makes life worth living. Here we learn generosity and gratitude. Here we renew a commitment beyond ourselves: to the common good, to the health of the earth, to the flourishing of all people—not just those in our country, or tribe, or race. What we learn here goes against the grain of the entitlement myth we are fed day after day.
What if our lives were demanded us of us this night? Ah, sweet mortality. Our bodies, the earth, the ecosystem, all fragile indeed. Yet most of us cling to nonessentials and worry about our reputation, how we look, or how much money we make. As we’ve heard: you can’t take it with you.
In our day and time, it can seemly nearly impossible to go against the grain and not define ourselves by what we have, what we make, what we do. Jesus warns about being rich in possessions but not rich toward God. Sounds spiritual, but what does “rich toward God” even mean? Maybe simply asking the question is a good start.
If we turn to Colossians, we are advised to put to death greed, which is idolatry. But what if we turn to Hosea? Vicar Noah apologized to me last Sunday that he wasn’t dealing with the Hosea reading and its troubling opening line: “Go marry a prostitute,” usually translated: “go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom.” Whaaat? Weird stuff.
Actually, Hosea is about the Israelites going after—marrying—other gods. Idols. Seems far removed from us, you say. Really? What about our addictions? The gods of money, possessions substances, iPhones. The god of more, the god of excess, the god of consumption without regard for the land and the environment. Whatever is most important to us is our god. And for most us, what is most important is ourselves. Everything is about me. So what do you think of me, we joke.
The good news for today, surprisingly is in Hosea as well. One scholar called today’s passage the strongest message of grace in the entire Hebrew scriptures. Oh, my people, God says to the Israelites, God says to us. Despite your unfaithfulness, I take you in my arms, lead you with kindness and bands of love. I bend down and feed you. How can I hand you over? I will not execute my anger. My compassion grows warm and tender.
Each Lord’s Day we gather around the stuff of creation: bread, wine, water, oil. Gifts of God for the people of God. And we hear good news: you are of great worth. God’s forgiveness and mercy are for you and all people. Good stuff! And that is what makes you rich.