“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:15
The late comedian George Carlin was a master of social satire. Using humor, exaggeration, mockery with a touch of profanity he gave insight and moral instruction all while making you laugh. One of his monologues called, “A place for your stuff” reminds me of our Gospel today. He begins putting a glass water on a table saying, “This is just a place for my stuff” and goes on, “You got your stuff with you? I’ll bet you do. Guys have stuff in the pockets, women have stuff in their purse. Stuff is important. You gotta take care of your stuff. That’s all you need in life, a little 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, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff.[i]
If you are anything like me, you have a lot of stuff – a kitchen full of stuff, closets packed with stuff, basement, garage, shed. My sister Laurie and his husband Rick just finished settling the estate of her father-in-law. It involved emptying a 5,000 square foot house and a barn full of stuff. It took months. Afterwards she emailed all our sisters and said, “Do not do this to your children. They won’t want your stuff. They have their own stuff.”
When we meet Jesus today, he’s teaching a large crowd when a man interrupts him and says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus responds, “Be on your guard against all kinds greed, for life is not defined by what you have, even it is a lot.” Here the word for greed means the insatiable desire for more, more, more. If only the man can get his hands on his inheritance, then all will be well. But Jesus knows it won’t work and so he tells a story.
The land of a certain rich man produced an abundant harvest. It was far more than his barn could hold and so he had a problem. Now there were many ways to solve this problem. He could invite his neighbors over for a big party, drop off baskets of grain, melons, corn and vegetables at PACS to share with the poor, sell the surplus at the farmers’ market and with his earnings doubles his pledge to the synagogue. Instead of a problem, shared abundance. But instead of sharing, he asks himself, “What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough” and answers himself, “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.”
George Carlin tells it this way, “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? To 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 keepin’ an eye on other people’s stuff.”[ii]
It’s easy for us to feel superior at this point of the story. Give the man a copy of Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, so he candeclutter, find freedom, or at least more space in his existing barn. But then we overhear him talking to himself, “And I said to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry.” He believed he had years and years to live the good life. But the very next morning his neighbors found him slumped in his lawn chair with his barn key in his pants pocket.[iii]
So, what’s going on here? Is the man a fool because he’s greedy? Or just maybe his quest for treasure is too limited? To put it another way, his sense of purpose is too small. He fell for the cultural myth that accumulating is a big enough purpose for life on earth. Perhaps he spent too much time on-line. If he could just sleep on an Avocado Green Mattress, wear “Bombas” socks, do some yoga, then maybe he’d be able to relax and enjoy himself. Only the relaxing part never seem to come because it’s so hard for the rich fool and for us to know when you’ve achieved the “ample” part.
How much is enough? At heart we’re all John Rockefeller. He was the richest man in the world when a reporter asked him, “How much money is enough?” and he replied, “Just a little bit more.” That’s all we want – just a little bit more, then we can relax. But it’s never, ever enough. So how are we freed from our insatiable desire for more?
Today Jesus gives us a chance to wake up from our stuff-induced stupor, to unplug ourselves from our commercial culture and acknowledge that the malaise we have been tamping down inside of us is not about needing more stuff at all. It’s about needing a larger purpose. It’s about being “rich toward God.” Jesus never says what “being rich toward God” is. I think we can safely say that it means to value the things God values – which are not things at all. What God values are people, all of them, no exceptions. What God values are relationships. What God values is every living thing God has made, and this incredible earth created for all us to share together. To be rich toward God is to value what God values.
How we do that, how we live it out, is our own unique purpose. One of the many things I love about our young people at St. John’s is how willing are to explore their purpose – whether it’s leading worship, serving at Feast Incarnate in Philadelphia, going on mission trips to South Dakota and West Virginia and being on the VBS staff. And not just youth, but adults too. On Thursday evening, after the Greeters meeting with Pastor Elise Brown, she told me how blessed St. John’s is to have such dedicated and faithful people.
The world is in terrific need of mending, and no stitch is too small. Washing dishes, changing a diaper, roofing a house, writing a report, advocating for children, sitting in a wheel chair and being a friend, all of it can be done for the love of God. The important thing is to sense how your life and God’s life are flowing in the same direction. And if you are clear they are not – then do something about it! Get yourself a purpose, one that helps God mend the world, and mends you while you’re at it. Until then, if we’re greedy, let’s be greedy for love and compassion, for justice and wisdom, strength and significance.[iv] That way when it comes time to show God where your treasure is, there won’t be any doubt because it will be where your heart is. Amen.
[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Treasure Hunt: Luke 12:13-21.” Review & Expositor 99.1 (2002): 97-104. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 31 July 2013.