Stuff man. I like stuff.
I think other people like stuff. All kinds of stuff. Monitored a Facebook post that took on a life of it's own as people started weighing in on area eateries, particularly the newer local ones that opened downtown. Lots of passionate arguments for the wine here or the steak there or the mediterranean dip over there.
I don't own a gun but I have friends that talk a lot about guns. And ammo. I thought all bullets are just bullets. I am apparently wrong. Bullets, I have been told, are different. I have heard bullet arguments.
Charlie Dray is partial to flat billed caps. He owns a lot of flat billed caps. I personally think you should never trust a person in a flat billed cap. But he tells me that this is because I'm old. Apparently we only had straw or a big leaf to cover our heads back in the olden days to hear Charlie tell it. Anyhow, he likes flat billed caps.
When my Uncle Dennis comes to town we go to Cabella's or the Bass Pro store up by Toledo. There are at the Bass Pro store a million fishing poles for sale. They apparently all do something different. I could listen to my Uncle Dennis talk all day about fishing poles, because to choose the right pole, you have to know something about fish. He knows a lot about fish, so he knows a lot about poles.
When I've been to your house I've seen your stuff. Buckeye stuff. Commemorative plate stuff. Some of you collect something specific. My mom collects apple stuff. Other people collect pig stuff or puppy stuff. I spent a whole afternoon once walking around Beverly Hills with three doctors who did nothing but look at watches and pens. Watches and pens. Ridiculously expensive watches and pens. Pretty ironic. Doctors. Can't keep a schedule or write legibly to save their lives, and there we were looking at watches and pens.
Maybe you like clothes. Dresses. Socks. Shoes. Or tools. Maybe you dream of a trip to Lowes. Power sanders and socket wrench sets. Cutlerly. Skis and snowboards. Golf clubs. Jewelry. Coins. Quilts. Electronic gizmos.
Stuff. Lots of stuff. People love stuff.
That's probably why the scripture this morning is so jarring. It's a scripture about stuff.
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:13-21)
Jesus, it seems, has something against stuff. It's Jesus who tells the rich man who says he's kept all the commandments to give away all of his stuff, and come follow him. It's Jesus who says you can't serve God and money, you gotta choose one or the other. Jesus, in fact, talks more about money and stuff than he does anything else, except the Kingdom of Heaven.
Why is that? Well, apparently stuff can get in the way of our being "rich in God".
And why might that be?
I have this theory. Based on what I see Jesus talking about, I have this theory that it's a lot easier to to be successful in accumulating stuff than it is to be rich in God. To be rich, in fact, in any kind of relationships.
I mean when we were young, Aimee and I, just kids. 21 and 19, married and clueless. We barely got by. We were in college, both us, working part time jobs and relying on the generosity of our parents to make our rent, utilities, tuition, groceries.
One time, at the end of the month when we were totally broke, Aimee searched around the kitchen for something to eat, and only found a can of spinach. To this day we have no idea why we had a can of spinach in our house. Neither of us likes spinach. It had to be some mistake, but there was nothing else in the house to eat, and nothing in our bank accounts, so my wife, hungry, is staring at this lonely can in our pantry when her mother calls her.
"Aimee, it's Mom. How are you doing?"
My wife starts bawling. "I'm hungry and all we have is a can of spinach."
Her mother, God rest her soul, hung up the phone, grabbed Aimee's dad, and went grocery shopping. It was like manna from heaven when that 280Z pulled up, loaded down with food.
Now we look around us. We can provide for our family. What's more all those years we lived on one income, to now have two good ones, the end of the month isn't bleak like it used to be. When we first got married I owned a used push mower. Now I'm in the market to for zero turn.
We want to measure our progress in terms of stuff, or our career, or our portfolio. We're better at that than we are relationships. Workaholics thrive on work because it's something they can do. They can master. It gives them a sense of self-satisfaction, a high, that they can't find anywhere else. It's easier to measure a life by a zero turn mower and how far we've come in terms of promotions or positions at work.
I said this in a sermon a couple of months ago, and I still mean it. There's a power that we feel when buy something. Even if nothing else in our life is going quite right, we can still buy something, anything really, to make us feel better.
I think Jesus, recognized the truth in an agrarian, pre-industrial economy that people find it's easier to develop a love affair with stuff, and that's not healthy. That's not life. Things might make us feel alive, attached, rooted. But it's a lie.
You can almost hear Jesus wonder aloud, "Why worry about an inheritance? Why would you use me to get you money, to get you stuff? What's the stuff really worth? Wouldn't you rather be rich in brothers? If you'd use me to compromise, to leverage your brother for stuff, then, what hope do you have to know God? Why don't you leverage me, leverage all you have, to reconcile with your brother, so you can be reconciled with God?
As someone once told me, in a moment when he felt very alone, all that stuff is just dirt. It's just dirt. And that's the danger. We can make so many compromises, even for good reasons, like providing the basics for our family, that we can begin to deceive ourselves in thinking that what others really need from us is stuff. The stuff we earn. The stuff we bring. And we work hard for our stuff, so it's easy to justify using a little of it here, and a little of it there, to make us happy. To satisfy us. To remind us why we work so hard in the first place. To mark our success. To measure it against someone else.
Is that the way it works?
Well, what if one day, one day, you woke up completely alone. No family. No friends. Nobody on the planet knew who you were. You have no obligations or responsibilities to anyone else, but if you get hurt, who is going to pick up from the hospital. Or who are going to spend Christmas with. Or who is going to celebrate your birthday or any day for that matter, with you?
I mean if stuff is so important, so vital for us to survive, then right now we should be happier, more satisfied, and better adjusted than in any time in human history. There has never been more stuff available more cheaply than right now.
And yet relationships with others, relationships with God….. if stuff is so doggone important, wouldn't it correlate that the greater the abundance of stuff the healthier our relationships would be? The greater the overflowing of God's presence and power?
The church is growing fastest in sub-saharan Africa, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia, the poorest places in the entire world. That's where they can't build churches fast enough. Can't raise up pastors quick enough. People got nothing but one another and God.
And here, in the abundant land of stuff, in the land of IPhones, Elves on Shelves, and Keurig coffee makers we're trying to figure out how to get people out of their warm, comfortable homes on Sunday morning, and into church. To slow prune their lives so they can share time together. To learn to take care of one another. To pray for one another. Out loud.
Hear, we're selling church? Like a commodity, in a world where everything is for sale, and everyone is completing for your time and attention.
"Hey… over here! Look at meeeeeeeeee! Remember us?" And people think we're heading to hell in a hand basket faster than we ever have before.
Fools, rich in things, and poor in God.
I did a funeral for a woman this week. She was 67 years old. At 44 she had a massive stroke, and lay helpless on a the floor of her home for days until a paper girl, seeing the papers pile up, decided to call the police. It's a miracle she survived, but as you might imagine, her life changed, immensely. She's was institutionalized for 23 years. In the end, only her immediate family and a few friends stayed connected with her. They said that for a time, in the nursing home, she loved to sing hymns. They were the songs, I suppose, emblazoned in her brain, something the stroke couldn't take away from her, so she'd sing. Sing hymns of praise, paralyzed in a wheelchair, and later, bedridden. It's all she had left that she could do.
Her greatest hope, her sister told me, was the Lord. Her greatest joy was her family and close friends. I mean, she knew they were in, because so many others had not been, physically, in her life.
What has to be taken from us before we learn this same lesson?
Dirt. What you think you have - your stuff, your talent, your position - is dirt. You'd be shocked how quickly it can disappear. And then, on the other side of that illusion, what do you have left?
How many people recognize the song that Jeff sang earlier? It's a song from the greatest era of pop culture ever…. the 80's. The song was made popular in a movie called "Say Anything", an 80's movie (which are the best, ever) where a young John Cusack played a character, a graduated senior named Lloyd Daubler, who pines for the class valedictorian, Diane Court. And while Diane had a whole life of education and success her father had planned out for her lined up before her, Lloyd wanted nothing else but to be a kick boxer, a kick boxer in love and married to Diane Court.
The famous scene is Lloyd, holding up a boom box with a cassette tape in it, playing this song. I'd demonstrate this for you, but we no longer own a boom box. And I haven't touched a cassette in decades. Now Lloyd would have to hold his IPhone above his head and text Diane Court the lyrics. But he lifts up the boom box, and plays the love song, because Diane has dumped him because her father doesn't think Lloyd can provide the life he wants for his daughter. A good life, with lots of success, and lots of stuff.
And yeah, the scene was corny. It was the stuff of adolescent romantic fantasy. But in the end of the movie, after her father is caught embezzling money, stealing money, in the name of getting a "better life for his family", all the family assets are seized, and he is in jail, guess who ends up with Lloyd.
Rich in God. Stuff, success, isn't the pathway to richness in God. When we make the pivot, from me to we, from I to you, stuff is nice, it's a blessing, but it's just a tool. A tool that tests our integrity when we have much, and when we have nothing. A tool to be used to draw us closer, or a something we can concretely reject so we can drawn closer together. It is the place where Jesus is, in the point of greatest need where we can risk ourselves, risk loving someone else, and meet their point of greatest need.
Our denomination's founder said it best: Work all you can, to earn all you can, to save all you can, so you can give all you can. Stuff should first and foremost, be a tool to draw us into deeper relationships with others, and a place where our trust in the living God is most at stake.
Will we really take care of one another? Will we really care for one another? Will our lives, shared mutually, dedicated to making God's will manifest in this world, become the center that hones the center of who we are?
Are you just a fool, sitting in the middle of a pile of stuff, or is your stuff drawing you deeper into the heart of God?
One last story.
When I was a kid, there was a guy in our church, Dan Powelson, who whenever an impromptu sermon was needed, always volunteered, or was volunteered, to tell one story. The same story. It was a story we'd all heard - men and women, old and young - again and again, about Mr. Give and Mr. Get.
Mr. Get owned a huge house. He needed it. He had a lot of stuff. He'd clip his coupons and hit sales and be the guy who bought ten razors for a penny or a six Thanksgiving turkeys at pennies on the dollar the day after Thanksgiving. As a consequence, his house over flowed. Freezers filled with turkeys. Closets filled with razors. A storage rooms filled with soda pop. The place was busting with stuff, because Mr. Get was always worried he wouldn't have enough?
What if there's a turkey shortage? What if all the razor factories exploded? What if all the soda pop was stolen by terrorists? Mr. Get was always packing in more and more into that house, until only small pathways existed between piles and piles and piles of things.
Mr. Give lived next door to Mr. Get. he never seemed to have as much stuff, I mean not even close to as much stuff as Mr. Get, but there were always a lot more people. People hanging around on his front porch. Kids playing in his front lawn. There always seemed to be a carry in or cook out at Mr. Give's house. And people knew if they were short of something, Mr. Give would share it with them if they he could. A cup of sugar. A cup of milk. If Mr. Give bought cheap turkeys he'd see if anyone needed one. I mean he only really needed one, and even if he gave a couple away he still came out ahead. Besides, whenever Mr. Give needed anything, it seemed like the other neighbors were quick to share with him too. He didn't worry if the razor factory blew up. He'd just have a beard growing contest with his friends. And he enjoyed nothing better than sharing a glass of soda pop with a friend. He didn't fully understand why, but Mr. Give, while he didn't have much, never seemed to want for anything.
One day a kid from the marching band came around selling nut bread to raise money for a band trip, and both Mr. Give and Mr. Get both decided to buy a few loaves. Mr. Get noticed that as soon as he bought the loaves, Mr. Give shared them with his friends. There was a big congregation on Mr. Give's front lawn, and as he watched it, Mr. Get laughed.
"His nut bread will soon be gone, but I'll have plenty." And so in a corner of his pantry, he wrapped it and put in tupperware, balanced the nut bread on top a pile of other tupperware containers... and soon forgot it.
Until many, many months later, when he got a hankering for some nut bread.
He went into his pantry, fighting through many more tupperware containers than had been added over that time, and after hours of looking, finally found the nut bread, tucked in the corner. He open up the tupperware, and inside, there it lay, moldy, crusty, rotten, and ruined.
Just then, across the lawn, he heard noise. It was another crowd of people gathered again on Mr. Give's lawn, and Mr. Get found himself getting angrier and angrier. All of his nut bread was rotten. In fact his pantry was filled with spoiled and stale food that had been sitting there forever, and there was Mr. Give, laughing. Mr. Get got angrier and angrier and angrier.
Until finally, he could take it no more.
He came bursting across the lawn. "Why must you always be so loud? Why must there always be so much laughing and screaming and talking and singing over here? Here. Look at this. Look at my nut bread. It's stale and it's ruined. And I wanted some, and now there isn't any. And CAN'T YOU ALL JUST BE QUIET!"
Everyone got dead silent. Nobody could say a word. It seemed like an eternity, as they all stood there staring at him, and he began to feel foolish, embarrassed.
"Hey", Mr. Give said, "I'm really sorry about that, but we're eating dinner together and it just so happens I made a great nut bread to share with everyone. Would you like to come eat with us?"
And as they filled his plate, filled it to overflowing until he needed a second plate, filled with nothing but nut bread. As he ate his fill of nut bread, as he found himself thirsty, he excused himself, went home, and came back, with two liters, cans, and bottles of every kind of soda pop imaginable. And while much of it had to be thrown away, the rest was wonderful. And from that day on, if anyone needed anything, they could stop by Mr. Get's house. The house that was once filled with stuff, but was now filled with friends.
Wouldn't you rather be rich in brothers? Wouldn't' you rather be rich in sisters? Wouldn't you rather be rich in God?