Spiritual Downsizing

“Spiritual Downsizing,” Susan Ryder

Whenever it’s my turn for a Pastor’s Choice Sunday, I often check to see what passage the lectionary offers for that week. For those of you unfamiliar with the lectionary, it’s is a listing of Scripture passages assigned for each Sunday of the year. Sometimes a passage from the lectionary will inspire me and I’ll use it as the basis for my Reflection – and sometimes not so much. This week’s gospel passage was a challenging one, and I considered skipping it, but it kept whispering to me for several days, so I decided to go ahead and take it on. The passage is from Luke and is colored pink by the Jesus Seminar in The Five Gospels, which means scholars believe Jesus probably said something much like this. Pink and red (which means Jesus undoubtedly said it or something like it) are often assigned to Jesus’ sayings which are the hardest ones to hear … this morning is no exception.

Luke 12:13-21
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But Jesus said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘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.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

George Carlin had a bit in the 80’s that reminds me of this passage from Luke. He said, “You got your stuff with you? I’ll bet you do. Guys have stuff in their pockets; women have stuff in their purses. Stuff is important. You gotta take care of your stuff. You gotta have a place for 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. 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 and see all the little piles of stuff. Everybody’s got his own little pile of stuff. So now you got a houseful of stuff. And, even though you might like your house, you gotta move. Gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff! And that means you gotta move all your stuff. Or maybe, put some of your stuff in storage. Storage! Imagine that. There’s a whole industry based on keeping an eye on other people’s stuff.” If Carlin were still alive, he would probably add a riff on Marie Kondo, who started the system of simplifying and organizing your home by getting rid of physical items that do not bring joy into your life. He’d probably say something like, “And now there’s a whole industry based on getting RID of other people’s stuff!”

Most of us really DO have a lot of stuff, don’t we? Look in your purse right now if you have one, or your wallet – look at all the stuff you have in there! You probably have some stuff in your pockets too. And at home certainly. Bob and I have a lot of stuff – not just what we use and enjoy in the rooms of our home, but also stored in the garage and basement. We even have a little shed out on the back patio. We have shelves and shelves and shelves of stuff – and some of it hasn’t been touched in years. It’s all put away neatly, and isn’t falling off the shelves, because fortunately Bob is a very neat person – but we have, for instance, two tents on our shelves. And some sleeping pads and bags. Which is fine – everyone knows we love to go camping. Except – we haven’t tent camped since 2004, ever since we bought a trailer. So why do we still have them? Because we might use them someday? I have arthritis and Bob has a bad back – so that seems highly unlikely. Still, I suspect that a year from now, all of that camping gear will still be on our basement shelves.

Like Carlin’s monologue, Jesus’ parable portrays a situation of tragic absurdity. Jesus, responding to a request for financial advice about how to handle a family inheritance, tells a parable in response, as he often did. He prefaces the parable with a warning against greed, which ancient philosophers believed to be a form of depravity and a lack of self-control. Then Jesus says, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” In the verses that follow (vs. 22-29), he admonishes his followers not to “worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you. Therefore do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying.”

I mentioned this was among the “hard” sayings of Jesus – what I meant by that is that it’s one we don’t really want to hear and certainly don’t want to put into practice. We like our stuff – we worked hard for our stuff – we don’t want to lose our stuff. Our stuff is important. So we protect it, we store it, we lock it away because we worry about losing our stuff. We lock our cars when we leave it in a parking lot so no one steals it, or steals what’s in it. We lock our houses when we leave – some of us turn on security systems, or have cameras on our doorbells. We have life insurance, health insurance, car insurance, and homeowner’s insurance. We use federally insured banks. We want to feel safe, and we want to protect our stuff – all of which is reasonable, understandable. But we can certainly take it too far. The man in the parable had so much stuff – in this case, an abundance of crops and apparently lots of money – that he was willing to tear down his current barns and build new, bigger barns, just to hold all of it. Meanwhile they were certainly lots of hungry people around who could have benefited from his excess produce. The moral of the story is simple – fools are those who store up treasures for themselves and are not rich toward God. In this case I imagine Jesus meant that being rich toward God was about sharing wealth instead of hoarding it. And that can be a hard thing to hear. The rich farmer is a fool not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he appears to live only for himself, and because he believes that he can secure his life with his abundant possessions – instead of being rich toward God.

The reality is that if we become too attached to our stuff, if we have too much stuff, if we worry too much about losing our stuff – it can lead to hoarding, becoming overly protective, suspicious of anyone who comes to our door. On a larger scale, collectively it can lead to becoming protective and suspicious of anyone who is different than we are, anyone who is “other,” anyone crosses our borders with a different color skin or religion. Taken to the next level, that kind of worry is exactly what leads to becoming tribal, racist, nationalistic, and xenophobic, which is definitely NOT being rich toward God. And that’s how this passage from Luke speaks to me – even more so this morning after the carnage of this weekend. Being rich toward God is about getting over our own inclinations for the kind of self-centeredness that leads us to hoard even if we have more than we need. Being rich toward God is about setting aside whatever it is that compels us to seek to protect our own, those we know and are familiar with, or who look like us and speak like us. Being rich toward God is about rejecting the narrow-mindedness that creates white supremacists who shoot up churches and shopping centers. Being rich toward God IS about orienting ourselves toward participating in the greater good so everyone has a chance to be okay, everyone has enough – even those we don’t know, even those who are different from us. Because at the end of the day, the message is that we really can’t take it with us. It all became moot as God informed the man in the parable that his life was almost over, and he wouldn’t be keeping any of his stuff. No euphemisms, no gentleness: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

We may try to pretend that this parable is not about us – we aren’t THAT rich, we say, we aren’t as wealthy as the man in the parable. This is a message for the Bezos and Gates and Trumps of the world. But we can’t be let off that easily, because compared to the rest of the world, we are very wealthy. Cynthia Briggs Kittridge says, “We can see instantly how fervent but misguided is the rich man’s logic. We laugh. As with Carlin’s monologue, we are laughing at ourselves — pockets, purses, houses, no end to it all. But when the rich man gets his bad news, it dawns upon us that we may be the fools, carrying, covering, locking up our stuff, staving off death. Perhaps this practice of acquiring and consuming, building and storing, only increases the idiocy and intensifies the fear. Jesus and George Carlin use the same rhetorical strategy to jolt us out of our insanity. Maybe life isn’t about ‘tryin’ to find a place for your stuff.’ Maybe it’s not about your abundance of possessions. There could be an alternative — just walking around all the time, winging as the ravens, blooming as the lilies, rich toward God.”

What keeps you from being rich toward God? What do you have too much of? Is it possessions? Do you worry too much? Are you hoarding to make sure you have enough? What keeps you from being rich toward God? How do you need to spiritually downsize?