Saturday, August 18

Sermon: "The Right Stuff"

Proper 14 (19) August 12, 2007
Sermon Preached at Jesus Christ, Reconciler and
Immanuel Lutheran Church
(Baptism of Louise Eleanor Dzik, Immanuel Lutheran Church)
Texts: Isaiah 1:1,10-20, Psalm 33:12-22, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Gospel: Luke 12:22-40
The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell, preacher


As human beings, we’re anxious about our survival. Will we have enough food, clothing, shelter? But another kind of anxiety can also gnaw at us, even when we have enough provisions. We wonder: “Am I enough? Am I important? Am I cooler, richer, better looking than those around me? Do I have enough stuff? Is it the right stuff?” Dressing well, having a nice house or cool-looking car can make us feel important, even more important than other people. So we spend a lot of time and energy acquiring things. We over-consume. But this often fails to make us feel more secure or happier, and even creates more anxiety.

In today’s gospel, Jesus he says we don’t have to be so anxious. Consider the lilies of the field. They neither spin nor toil, but are beautifully decked out. God clothes them. The ravens of the air don’t store food, yet they get enough to eat. God feeds them. And it’s like that with us. We can trust God to provide. We can let go of our anxiety and our desire for things we don’t really need.

Today’s gospel is not directed at folks who are truly down and out. We don’t say to someone who’s starving: “Life is more than just food.” No. Today’s gospel is directed at those of us who have more than the basics, more than enough stuff.

Today’s gospel is about getting our priorities straight. Jesus says: Seek first the kingdom of God. And then all these things will be added unto you. Think more about your spiritual life than your material life. And if you do, you will have what you need.

In today’s gospel, Jesus asks us to be fully present, and have faith in God. Yet it’s an ongoing process. It can be a lifelong journey to put away our human tendencies to be anxious and grasping, and instead live in trust. It can take time to realize our security and identity come not from our possessions, but from God.

I confess that I find today’s gospel challenging. It touches me where I live. It hits close to home. Although there are so many beautiful images – the lilies in the field, the ravens in the air – it’s one of Jesus’s more difficult sayings. It was challenging in 1st century Palestine, and it’s even more challenging in affluent America today. But it’s good news, as the gospel always is, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

The Christian existentialist Kierkegaard likewise struggled with this passage from scripture. He wondered how a person could best pursue the kingdom of God. What about seeking a suitable job in order to exert a virtuous influence over others? No, Kierkegaard concluded, we must first seek God’s kingdom. Then what about giving away all our money to feed the poor? No, we must first seek God’s kingdom. Well, then, should we rush out and preach this truth to the world that people are to seek first God’s kingdom? Once again the answer is a resounding: no, we are first to seek the kingdom of God. Kierkegaard concluded: “Then in a certain sense it is nothing I shall do. Yes, certainly, in a certain sense it is nothing, become nothing before God, learn to keep silent, in this silence is the beginning, which is, first to seek God’s kingdom.” (as quoted in Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline, Harper and Row, 1988.)

Jesus calls us to a certain simplicity. Not just outward but inward. They have to go together. Simplifying our lives is not as easy as just purging our possessions. We need an inner conversion as well. Christian simplicity means putting God first, and knowing our security comes from God. Not letting our belongings get in the way of our relationship with God or neighbor.

What can we do to cultivate true simplicity?

In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster cites three attitudes that can help us develop a discipline of simplicity. First, we need to remember that our belongings are gifts from God. OK, maybe in a sense we’ve earned them, but God gives us our abilities and skills, and without them we earn nothing. We’re dependent on God for so much, even the air we breathe, the sun and rain, and without all that, we could earn nothing. Second, it’s God’s responsibility to protect our stuff. Of course we still need to lock our houses and cars, but to some extent, we can’t control what happens to our belongings. Even if we’re careful we may lose them to disaster or theft. So we should care for our things but know that ultimately protection comes from God. Third, our possessions should be available to others. Be generous. Give or lend what you no longer need, even give away some things you still want.

When we understand these three things -- 1) our possessions are gifts from God, 2) they are protected by God, and 3) they’re to be shared with others -- we will not be overly anxious about our belongings, and will experience more simplicity in our lives.

When I think about people who seem to grasp the message in today’s gospel, a few folks come to mind.

One is Davis Fisher, an Episcopal priest with an MBA, who lives here in Chicago. Davis spent many years as a consultant, helping people make ethical decisions about their finances. Then his brother died at age 56 of a rare cancer. Davis felt called to do some soul-searching and see where God might be leading him. He went to some of the poorest countries in the world as a volunteer, and worked with Mother Theresa in Calcutta, comforting the dying. Working with the poorest of the poor, he found they were no different from himself, except in circumstances. He met desperately poor people who were incredibly rich in spirit and faith. He often received much more than he could give. He recalls in particular a very ill man he helped care for.

This man held Davis’s arm with one hand, and with his other hand pointed to himself saying, “30. No money. No family. TB. AIDS. God is good.” This man who had nothing, in the world’s eyes, gave Davis a perspective on life that was priceless.

At one point, Mother Theresa encouraged Davis to “Go home to where your work is so needed. Go home to the most impoverished nation in the world – the United States.” She meant that here in the US, many of us are rich in things but poor in spirit.

Now, back in the States, Davis helps individuals and groups develop what he calls a healthy money life. Davis says: “Often as we start to accumulate things, a wall begins to form that can become a barrier between us and the love of God. While nothing can stop God from loving us, we can sometimes push God away by becoming too reliant on things – by becoming too self-sufficient and less dependent on him. I’m not saying we should be anti-wealth, but we must make sure our wealth doesn’t own us…. A healthy money life begins with understanding how much we need, how much we have, and what we want to do with it. It means sharing our wealth with others in need, and putting money into proper perspective so it doesn’t build a wall between us and God. It means gaining the freedom to live well, regardless of the amount of money we have.” (as quoted in Robyn Johnson's article in the spring 2001 edition of The Works magazine).

I find Davis’s message, like today’s gospel, challenging but also hopeful. It’s not an easy subject, but one that we as Christians need to think, talk and pray about. I feel inspired to try to simplify my life. I’m wondering, do I really need new clothes, or just want them? Do I need to buy this book, or can I get it from the library? What things can I give away, or sell at a garage sale? On a deeper level, I’m wondering, How do my possessions separate me from, or connect me with, God and other people? How do they free or control me? And I’m becoming more aware on a gut level that we are all equal, no matter how much or how little stuff we have. Possessions should never divide or define people.

I wish for all of us a life of Christian simplicity. A life in which we are not anxious about possessions, because we know where our true treasure and security lie. A life in which we seek God’s kingdom first, and find that our needs are met. A life where we give and receive freely, helping and encouraging the poor. Where we find an appropriate balance between blind submission to mammon and a rigid, un-Christian asceticism. May we all be clothed and fed with the love of God and neighbor. May we draw inspiration from the lilies of the field and birds of the air, and remember the true source from which our lives draw nourishment. Amen.