so much stuff, so little to value

Homily for August 7, 2016

Every once in a while a space opens up in my daily calendar. If someone cancels a meeting or I get done with something early I get bonus time, a little gift from heaven when I can take care of some housework. You know – not enough time to start a project or a meaningful conversation, but the perfect time to clean out a file.

In my office I have a row of 3-ring binders and files for things like the strategic planning process, the membership update, vestry minutes, the site plan. I have old committee notes, and folders from diocesan committees. All kinds of stuff. This row of binders in particular has been taunting me for some time, saying, come…clean me out…edit me. So with a few minutes of windfall time I reached for a couple of these binders and put them on my desk.

It turns out I had more time than I realized, and that was fortunate. One section of a binder led to another, one binder led to another, and before long I had a recycling bin filled with paper and a trash can filled with empty binders. It was like pulling a tiny loose thread on a sweater that leads to a lumpy pile of old wool at my feet.

I realized that I had been holding on to way more stuff than I needed. As I opened the folders and the binders I realized that I don’t need this, this committee doesn’t exist, this is on a website somewhere, this is out of date, and this may be helpful but I haven’t opened it once in 10 years of ministry. And to prove that God has an outstanding sense of humor, I found at the bottom of the pile an article about how to stay ahead of clutter.

I saved all these things not because I am a pack rat or because I am a micro manager or because I have a weird love of filing. I don’t. I usually saved things because I didn’t know how to value each discrete thing, each file, each document, each bit of information. Over 10 years a lot of little things came my way and I often saved or filed them under the heading of “I might need to reference this someday.” And sometimes I have, but more often than not I kept things because I wasn’t skilled enough in knowing what was truly valuable and what was not.

Perhaps that is one of the questions for our age. How do we value things? I don’t mean how do we value things though that is a good question to ask. I mean, how do we value things, with an emphasis on the verb. How do we figure out what is important, and what is not? How do we come to regard some things as sacred and holy, and learn to let the other things go?

This is especially challenging today, when things accumulate so easily. I’ll give you a hint where I’m going: Jesus tells us that Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Today it’s entirely possible to have so much earthly treasure, whether in trinkets or in wealth, that our souls can get lost.

I’m beginning to think that we go into accumulation mode when we lose the sense of what is truly valuable and what is not. When we can’t answer that question – how do we value the things in our lives – then we mistakenly think that it’s all valuable. Before long our closet and file cabinets fill and none of it means much it all anymore, as our lives become diminished under the weight of our accouterments.

In fact, you don’t even have to come to church to hear a sermon about stuff in order to talk about stuff. It’s being talked about all over the place! Minimalism is the hip thing right now. Tiny houses, books about the magic of tidying up, phalanxes of blogs and articles teaching us how to declutter and simplify..

Now. The de-cluttering movement (if we can call it that) is certainly trendy, and I think that the ability to simplify and de-clutter is something of a privilege of class.. But not in every case. There’s a great blog by a guy who calls himself Mr. Money Mustache, who argues that we can interrupt the whole cycle of debt-driven consumption that leads to too much stuff and not enough freedom. Don’t get into debt, he argues, don’t buy the house and the car that we all feel entitled to, don’t get on that consumption track that shapes our lives. This is worth preaching about because if we could follow that advice more faithfully, if we can teach it to youth and young adults, we might just have more time for our families, and we could give even more generously to our church and to our community.

All of these books and blogs about de-cluttering are more than just trendsetting, though. There’s something at the root of it. In many places, in the church but also beyond it, we are grappling with the reality that we have become a terribly materialistic culture. Some are waking up to the realization that we can’t afford it. We can’t afford the emotional weight of being under all this stuff.

And “weight” is the right word. One of the reasons we’re trying to get rid of so much stuff is that we – wait for it – have way too much stuff. In the years before the Great Recession, thanks to things like cheap credit, easy mortgages and inexpensive goods, many households accumulated 60% more things than what they had before, measured literally in pounds of material. Imagine that. We all have our ways of comparing ourselves with the joneses. What if we simply came out with it and said, I have 2 tons of stuff. How many pounds do you have?

We are a very materialistic people. But do you know who is really materialistic? Monks. Seriously. Joan Chittester is a Benedictine nun who wrote once that monastic men and women don’t hate stuff. They actually regard their things very highly. When you only have a few things, those things become very valuable. When a monastery buys a table or a desk, they don’t go to IKEA. A monk will likely value craftsmanship and durability. They want to buy something that is going to last several lifetimes. They see the inherent value in purchasing something that gives its creator the satisfaction of good work and the dignity of a fair wage. Stuff isn’t bad. The problem is that we’ve lost our ability to value it.

Actually, what we really forget to value are our hearts. Jesus tells us that our treasure speaks the truth of our hearts. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I’m no archeologist but I assume that a Galilean household did not have as many pounds of stuff as a 21st century American home. But obviously there was something to have, indeed something to sell or else Jesus wouldn’t have mentioned it. This was a time when much of a family’s wealth would have been held in material possessions. Household goods, agricultural tools and materials, fabric, all these things were vessels for wealth. It’s not quite the same today, but Jesus’ message is very much the same.

Jesus tells his disciples to liquidate it and give it away. Yikes. Suddenly a tithe of 10% seems tame. But the point is that when we give generously, let’s say at the level of 5 or 10 percent, what we’re also doing is putting the other 90 or 95% in its’ place, so that it can all put into service to God, so that it can all be truly valuable.

Remember that the treasure Jesus describes, the one that shows us where our hearts reside, is found in purses that do not wear out. These are the riches of the inner life, the truly valuable gifts of the Holy Spirit. We do not buy these purses, though, with a certain percentage of our income. We make those purses with our whole selves and with all of our resources. Jesus is asking us to give ourselves – 100% of who we are and what we have – to our relationship with God.

The question about stuff is not really about how much we own. The question we need to ask is, how do we value what we do have? We really can’t answer that question if we don’t pay enough attention to our inner life, first and foremost.

The treasure that doesn’t wear out, the treasure that is not vulnerable to moth and rust and market corrections, that treasure is found in our holy and sacred connections to God. That treasure is God, and we experience it through all those wonderful spiritual gifts that multiply with use: love, generosity, humility, compassion, grace, forgiveness, prayer.

How do you value the things of this world, how do you separate the holy from the profane, how do you learn to see holiness and beauty in the dailyness of life rather than in the flashing things of the moment? Pay attention to your heart. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, NC

August 7, 2015

C Proper 14

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About bernardowens

I am an Episcopal priest who serves St. Andrew's Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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