July 31, 2016
“Give it Away”
Comedian George Carlin does a routine called “Stuff”. He says the meaning of life is finding a place for your stuff. Your house is just a place for your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. Sometimes you have to move because you have too much stuff. There may come a point when we have to put stuff into storage units. He points out that there is a whole industry keeping an eye on your stuff.
We have a strange attachment to stuff. How many families have been scarred by a conflict over an inheritance? Perhaps you have lived through the pain of it. As my mother prepares to move to a smaller home, she has been sorting and getting rid of a lifetime of stuff. I have an attachment to books. Rather than bigger barns, I acquire more bookshelves. I got rid of twelve boxes of books a few years ago as I moved to a new office. If I was brave enough, I could part with twelve more. I have books stashed everywhere. I took a crate of books to read on vacation. They were like a security blanket. I read some of them and most of them just had a nice vacation in California and returned home to the floor of my bedroom.
In text study, we wondered how much is too much. We talked about greed. I don’t think one size fits all, but perhaps we can learn to listen to our internal monitor. Do you ever feel like you have more than enough? What do you do about it? I had a friend who would get rid of one item of clothing for every item she purchased. Another friend does the 40 Bag challenge for Lent. Every day, she focuses on one area and gets rid of a bag of stuff. Lillian Daniel gives up spending for Lent. These are in contrast to the brothers in conflict in the passage today and the story Jesus tells of the man who builds bigger barns for all his stuff.
I have been stuck on the phrase at the end of our reading from Luke and wondering, “what does it mean to be rich toward God?” It’s a nice phrase, but what does it look like? The man in the story seems so focused on himself. Luke is always calling us to look beyond ourselves to those who struggling. There is a thread of “you can’t take it with you” in the story of the farmer when he is told that his life is being demanded of him this night. Is our life defined by our possessions?
Someone said this week that it sounded like a call to live each day as if it were our last. If we knew this were our last day, how would we spend it? Would we be accumulating more stuff or is there some other way we would spend our time?
Greed divides people and the Biblical cure for greed is to give rather than accumulate more.
The Marquis de Lafayette was a French general and politician who helped George Washington with the American Revolution, then returned to France to resume his life as master of several estates. In 1783, the harvest was poor, but the workers of Lafayette’s farms still managed to fill his barns with wheat. “The bad harvest has raised the price of wheat,” said one of his workers. “This is the time to sell.”
Lafayette thought about the hungry peasants in the surrounding villages. “No,” he replied, “this is the time to give.” (The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes. Ed., Clifton Fadiman, p. 339)
That is completely counter-intuitive. It is also a powerful reminder that wealth does not buy happiness or security. How many of us wouldn’t wish for a bit more money? Yet, we hear over and over the message that money is not the answer. Happiness is not found in accumulating more, but in learning to give it away. God has been rich toward us in so many ways. In the story of creation, God realizes that the wonder of creation was too good not to be shared. The creation of humans was a generous move on God’s part – to share the goodness with us. Being rich toward God has something to do with sharing goodness with the world. How wonderful to be known as rich – not by how much we possess, but by how much we gave away.
When I traveled to Bolivia years ago, I saw some extreme poverty and some extreme wealth. The wealth wasn’t in people from big fancy houses, it was in those who lived in makeshift shelters who wanted to cook for us and share what they had. It was stunning to see how much they wanted to show us love and hospitality when they had so little.
Florence Ferrier wrote a story about a social worker in poverty-stricken Appalachia. It's called "We Ain't Poor!”
“The Sheldons were a large family in severe financial distress after a series of misfortunes. The help they received was not adequate, yet they managed their meager income with ingenuity -- and without complaint.
One fall day I visited the Sheldons in the ramshackle rented house they lived in at the edge of the woods. Despite a painful physical handicap, Mr. Sheldon had shot and butchered a bear, which strayed into their yard once too often. The meat had been processed into all the big canning jars they could find or swap for. There would be meat in their diet even during the worst of the winter when their fuel costs were high.
Mr. Sheldon offered me a jar of bear meat. I hesitated to accept it, but the giver met my unspoken resistance firmly. "Now you just have to take this. We want you to have it. We don't have much, that's a fact; but we ain't poor!"
I couldn't resist asking, "What's the difference?" His answer proved unforgettable.
"When you can give something away, even when you don't have much, then you ain't poor. When you don't feel easy giving something away even if you got more'n you need, then you're poor, whether you know it or not."
Our wealth, or in this case, being rich toward God, isn’t measured in what we have, but in what we give away.
I’ve been carrying a quote with me for several months. I don’t know where it came from, but the image is powerful for me: “If you are more fortunate than others, it’s better to build a longer table than a taller fence.”
May we be people that build longer tables and give more away than we accumulate. May we be rich toward God!