I used to have a friend, a country friend from rural Georgia, who used to talk about sitting around and thinking about stuff. In preparation for this sermon, I've been doing a lot of thinking about stuff.
Listen to what George Carlin says about 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, and when you leave your house, you've got to lock it up. You wouldn't want to somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. That's what your house is-a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. Sometimes you've got to move-got to get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore."
This sermon is about stuff. It's about the relationship between disciples of Jesus Christ and stuff. It's particularly about the relationship between disciples of Jesus Christ who have lots of stuff and the stuff they have lots of.
Truth in advertising compels me to share with you at the outset that this sermon will not feel like good news to everyone. That's the nature of the Gospel. Gospel means good news, but truth be known the Gospel doesn't always feel like good news. We don't always experience the Gospel as good news. After all, the Bible is a two-edged sword and sometimes it cuts. I need you to know at the very beginning that if you have lots of stuff and if you think about your stuff a lot and if you get all worked up about your stuff and if you spend lots of time and energy trying to figure out how to get more stuff and what new stuff to get, this word today will probably not feel like good news to you.
Now for those of you who are still tuned in and haven't found a station that's more soothing to you, congratulations! You're at least willing to hear the Gospel as it comes to us from the Man whose recorded teachings contain more about stuff than about any other topic. Jesus knows that we need a lesson in how to be in relationship to our stuff.
And we're not the first. Earlier in the 12th chapter, Luke tells us the story of the rich fool. This guy, Jesus said, had so much stuff that he decided to build bigger barns for all his stuff, and then he kicked back, and he congratulated himself on how much stuff he had, and he said to himself, "Relax, eat, drink, and be merry." What he didn't know is that he would die that night, and he would die in love with his stuff. "And the things you have (stored up)," God said to him, "whose will they be?" And Jesus says that that rich fool was rich in things but not rich toward God. Luke says Jesus told that story to teach us to be on guard against all kinds of greed, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Don't be greedy about stuff; and not only don't be greedy about stuff, don't be anxious about stuff.
Right after the story of the rich fool, Luke shares Jesus' teaching on anxiety about stuff. Look at the birds. They don't worry about stuff and God provides for them. Look at the lilies. They don't worry about stuff and God provides for them. Look at the grass in that field over there. It doesn't worry about stuff and God provides for it. How much more will God provide for you? It is God's good pleasure to provide in abundance. Don't be anxious about stuff.
And then later in his Gospel, Luke tells us about a man he refers to as a rich ruler who wants to know how to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to do what the law says. "Done that," the ruler says. "OK, then, there is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." When the ruler heard that, he became sad. Did you hear me say that when the rich ruler heard the Gospel from the very lips of Jesus, he became sad? I told you the Gospel doesn't always feel like good news to everyone.
Don't be greedy and don't be anxious about stuff. Easy to say, hard to do. The verses we've heard together find their home in Luke in this larger body of material that contains various warnings and exhortations about stuff. Basically, much of the 12th chapter of Luke - for that matter, much of Luke-concerns being greedy and anxious about stuff. The point of these various warnings and exhortations is that we may be rich toward God to have treasure in heaven. And after having told us not to be greedy and not to be anxious about stuff, then Jesus teaches us what to do. Stuff, he says, is not to be stored up and enjoyed. Stuff is to be given away, used for others. Sell your stuff and give it away. That's what he says. 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.
For people who have lots of stuff, this is a hard word-a bitter pill. Is it even possible that this word could be good news for us? Almsgiving, along with prayer and fasting, comprise the foundation of Jewish devotion. We see that in the parallel passage in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount in chapter 6 in which Jesus gives instruction on almsgiving, praying, and fasting. When you do those things, do them in secret, not for the sake of getting the attention of others. And this important tradition of almsgiving and praying and fasting continued in the early Christian communities, and the giving they did was directed to those who did not have what they needed. Giving had a certain priority, and that priority was concern for the poor. Almsgiving was a way of doing justice. Almsgiving was a way of living according to the new economy God was trying to usher in. And one person has said that verse 33, "Sell your possessions and give alms," is the hallmark of this new economy. In this way of life that is the reign and the rule of God, almsgiving is not just throwing our extra stuff in the direction of the poor. That's not enough. The kind of life of which Jesus speaks is choosing to live more simply, choosing to intentionally have less stuff, choosing to cease from amassing more stuff, choosing to discover our sense of well-being in a just sharing of material possessions.
Is this feeling like good news? If you're still tuned in, you're doing really well. Some, I suspect, have gone on to the hits of the 70's somewhere else on the radio dial. Sometimes the Gospel is darned hard to swallow.
Luke gathers together this body of teaching on material possessions in order to apply Jesus' teaching about stuff to subsequent generations of Jesus' disciples. Unlike the first disciples, you see, there were people in Luke's community who had possessions, who had not left everything to follow Jesus. They're still living at home and they have some stuff. Lots of stuff, in some cases. And Luke wants those people to know that Jesus' followers who have possessions are being asked to share the same risks and show the same trust as those first disciples who left home to follow him without any sources of food and clothing. People with possessions, like those first disciples of Jesus who left their possessions behind, also need to learn the lesson of the raven and the lilies and the grass.
George Carlin is right. If we didn't have so much stuff, we wouldn't need a house. We could just walk around all the time, which is precisely what those first disciples of Jesus did. Jesus is not hard to understand; he's just infuriatingly hard to follow, and there's an urgency to his plea. After all, these words of his are spoken as he is on his way to Jerusalem where he will die, where he will demonstrate the costliness of his path.
Following Jesus isn't cheap because Jesus' journey isn't cheap. It costs us something to be true disciples. And those of us who have lots of stuff invest entirely too much time and entirely too much energy in overseeing our stuff. It really is a spiritual tragedy that we are often invested in forms of wealth that are constantly at risk and often not invested enough in wealth that is secure.
"OK, preacher, I'm still with you. I thought about going elsewhere on the radio dial, but I'm still here. So what do I do?"
The answer to your excellent question really depends on one thing. To whom or to what do you really want your heart to belong? Where do you really want your heart to be?
"Well, gosh, that's easy. I want my heart to be with God. I want my heart to belong to God."
OK then. Sell your possessions and give alms to those in need.
That's what it means to be rich toward God, to have treasure in heaven. And your heart will be where your treasure is.
That is a different word, and it is vital that we hear that Word. One of the things I like most about Jesus is the way that he often confounds prevailing conventional wisdom. I've heard lots of folks in my churches through the years say to me, "Preacher, if we just get people's hearts right, then the money will come." No, that's not it at all. That is, in fact, diametrically opposite to Jesus' teaching. Jesus says that you get people's wallets right and then the hearts will follow. Where do you want your heart to be? To whom do you want your heart to belong? Put your money there.
And if we wish to be followers of Jesus Christ, who is God's new economy in the flesh, then we live more simply with less stuff and we put more and more of our stuff into the hands of those who don't have the stuff they need. It's not a hard concept to understand. It is a hard concept for overstuffed people to practice. But it is the Gospel. It is good news. It is a Word that will save us, regardless of how we may feel about that Word today.
One of my fathers in the faith, John Wesley, suggested that we entertain four criteria when considering any purchase on ourselves or any member of our families. In this purchase, he asks:
* Am I acting as a steward of the Lord's goods?
* Am I making this purchase in obedience to the Word of God?
* Can I offer up this expense as a sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ?
* Do I have reason to believe that this purchase will bring me a reward at the resurrection of the just?
What Father John and Jesus wish for us to know is that there may be no more important manifestation of our spirituality than our relationship to material possessions. It's tripped up many a person before. It trips up many a person now. The way we handle our money may be the clearest expression of the depth of our relationship with God. For the follower of Jesus, every financial decision is a spiritual decision.
I remember a hymn, the words of which were written by a 20th-century American preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick.
"God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power.
Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, lest we miss thy kingdom's goal."
Our hearts will be where our treasure is. Those who are greedy and anxious about stuff make the decision to invest their hearts on earth. Those who are free, or wanting to be free from a preoccupation with or an attachment to stuff and who rest and trust in God's abundant provision, invest their hearts in heaven. What we do with this passage of Scripture, what we do with this good news, just how much we sell and give, will clearly reveal which is the case for us, whether our hearts are invested on earth or in heaven.
Carlin's right, really. If we had less stuff, we could spend more time just walking around, which is a different way of saying that we would be freer to follow the Man, who for our own good and for the benefit of others and for heaven's sake, wants us to have less stuff.
Let us pray.
God, we thank you for your piercing word that brings affliction to our comfort and ease. Lord, help us to be more than merely discomfited by this word, which is to say, help us to be not only hearers of this word but doers as well, so that we may be rich toward you and invest our hearts in heaven. Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.