The Problem with Possessions

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

SUNDAY, August 7, 2016

1974 was not a good year to be the President of the United States. 1974, however, was an excellent year to be a journalist at the Washington Post or the New York Times, and to be on the right side of the Watergate scandal.

In the 1976 movie, All the President’s Men, which chronicled that low point in US politics, a key phrase which appeared was ‘follow the money’. It’s become a catchphrase for investigative journalism – if you want to get to the root of a wrong-doing, look at the the money involved in it, and trace it all the way back to its origins.

Because what we choose to do with our money is like our fingerprints, or our handwriting. It’s an indelible, reliable marker about our inner selves. To reinforce that how we interact with our money seems to say more about us that how we interact with most others things. As Detective Lester Freamon in The Wire says at one point, ‘You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don't know where […..] it's gonna take you". I’ve censored the expletives, but you get the general idea.

In last week’s sermon, I preached about the message of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and I made this observation:

‘Wealth is futile, because the more it is amassed the less it is clear why it is being amassed. And if one does have wealth, it brings its own subset of troubles: worry about how to invest it, and worry that that might be a bad investment; worry about being extra-vigilant with security. Far better, he says, to do the absolute minimum to get by on a day-to-day basis.’

Today’s readings are part two in a two week-series that is focusing on money, possessions, and how, if we are not exceedingly careful, they can take control of us, insidiously realign our priorities for the worse, and take us away from God and his kingdom.

Let’s recap the context of Jesus’ comments. He had been out and about, preaching in the Galilee region – his home region. For the last few weeks, we have been following Jesus chronologically, though because we have our readings in isolation from the others each week, it can sometimes be hard to see the bigger picture: what theologians and literature professors might call by a more technical term, a ‘meta-narrative’.

Jesus had been in Bethany, at the home of his friends, Martha and Mary, where Martha had a minor meltdown because she was having to do all the domestic chores while, in her view, her sister Mary just hung out with Jesus to shoot the breeze.

Then, Jesus had moved on to maybe one of the other local towns, maybe Capernaum, where he had preached to a crowd of several thousand. A man there shouted out to Jesus to get his brother to share his inheritance with him. Turning down this invitation to arbitrate in a family dispute, Jesus says to the crowd, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” And he tells the crowd a parable: we heard it last week: the parable of the rich fool. Let’s recap the parable. A man had so many possessions that they wouldn’t fit into his barns. So he just built some bigger barns seemingly oblivious to the fact that he did have an alternative: sell some of his stuff, and keep the original barns, and be happy with that.

The Parable of the Rich Fool by Rembrandt

Afterwards, as he so often did, Jesus debriefed alone with his disciples. Making reference to the exchange with the man and his inheritance, and the parable of the rich fool, he gives more specific advice to the disciples, as we heard in today’s gospel reading:

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.

Let’s remember that Jesus had said something very similar a few chapters earlier in Luke’s gospel, when he commissioned seventy-two other disciples to go out into the countryside of Galilee, without purses, or sandals, and reliant entirely on the hospitality of the inhabitants of the villages they visited.

Given what Jesus said to those seventy-two, and what he is saying now to the disciples gathered around him, we can gather, surely, that Jesus’ message to us is this: sell everything, don’t wear shoes, don’t carry a purse, and hope that strangers are hospitable to you.

It would be easy to conclude that. And plenty of people have. Religious communities have been arguing about practically from day one of Christianity. It was a major theme in the bitter disputes between the Benedictines and the Franciscans back in the 13th century. And some of the followers of Francis are still pretty literal about this stuff even now.

In Durham, North Carolina, where we were before we moved here, there was a church at which I often provided priestly supply, where a large-ish segment of the congregation were a bunch of young adults connected with the local seminary, who took these words of Jesus at face value, and formed themselves into a kind of commune, and walked around barefoot, and pooled their income so they they, ostensibly, had no personal funds, and who lived an extremely frugal existence alongside the homeless folks of downtown Durham. And from this vantage point, they were clear that they were living a purity of life that everyone should emulate.

Setting aside the rather extravagant piety of this community (about which Jesus also had things to say), I believe that more problematic is a fundamental misreading of these passages from Luke. And here’s why.

Those seventy-two disciples Jesus sent out: in order for them to have the luxury of being able to go around with nothing and be given board and lodge by different people each night meant that the majority of people would have to have sandals and bags, and bread and tunics and money. Those people who hosted the seventy-two each night must have had quite well-stuffed purses.

The point is, rather, about cultivating the personal qualities that will lead us naturally to not want to acquire wealth for its own sake, but for what good we can do with it. Follow the money.

The central message of this sermon is that ‘things’, ‘stuff’ can encumber you and stop you being single-minded about your discipleship. Money is the big one, so are possessions. Collectively, it is materialism that can insidiously eat away at our focus on what really matters. Materialism is not just the preserve of the wealthy, by the way, anyone, of any background, and any circumstances, can fall prey to it. We all can, and we all do. Even Martha in the story of Martha and Mary in Bethany was guilty of over-prioritizing her worries about the upkeep of material possessions, and fussing over appearances.

Let’s think about what’s really behind the acquisition of wealth. A very small part of it is about keeping body and soul together. It actually doesn’t cost very much to do that, if you think about it. Plenty of people around the world today can testify to that. Then, what else is the acquisition of wealth, money about? Security? Not having to worry? Popularity? Making us feel better about ourselves? Thinking it will make us happier? Making us more respected? Making us more powerful?

Arne Garborg by Eilif Peterssen

Arne Garborg by Eilif Peterssen

Amassing money, amassing things – what an illusion, what a great deception that can be. And we are all taken in by it. The late nineteenth century Norwegian writer, Arne Garborg, puts this notion into words perhaps more vividly that any other that I know of. He writes:

'For money you can have everything it is said. No, that is not true. You can buy food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; soft beds, but not sleep; knowledge but not intelligence; glitter, but not comfort; fun, but not pleasure; acquaintances, but not friendship; servants, but not faithfulness; grey hair, but not honor; quiet days, but not peace. The shell of all things you can get for money. But not the kernel. That cannot be had for money".
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