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Overstuffed: The Second Sunday of Lent

April 14, 2011

OVERSTUFFED
The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on The Second Sunday of Lent , March 20, 2011

Luke 12: 13-21

Have you ever eaten so much you felt sick? You know the feeling – stuffed? It can sometimes happen after a bad meal, but most often it’s after a really good one – too much of a good thing. In our family it usually comes when we eat Indian food – large helpings of chicken tika-masala, basmati rice and naan. Or at thanksgiving, when just a little bit of everything results in a heaping plate. It used to happen when I kept a dish of candy on my desk for visitors and children, but would find myself snacking on it all day long.

The farmer in our bible story felt this way, not because he was eating too much, but because he had more stuff than he knew what to do with. He was doing all the good things that a good farmer does, and when the harvest time came, the food would not fit into his barn. But even though he lived in a society that Jesus said always had poor people in it, this farmer didn’t think about sharing the food. Instead he tore down his barn and built a larger one to stuff all his food into.

But all the stuff in the world was no use for this man in the long run because, as they say, “you can’t take it with you.” But even worse, by keeping all the stuff for himself and for his retirement the farmer lost sight of his own soul which he buried under the stuff.

Which reminds me of the late New York comedian (George Carlin) who said a couple of years ago that ‘a house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.’ And the more stuff we have, the bigger cover up we do.

Are we as a culture, and as a people, overstuffed? Do we have too much stuff? I know it’s not a trivial question. It’s a question I ask in different places – youth groups, Starbucks, the grocery store. And it’s a question everyone, everyone I speak to has an opinion about.

I used to keep a box in my basement called interesting useless things. It’s filled with useless stuff like a single drum stick, a container of assorted shower curtain rings, a wind-up walking crab, half of a slinky, and a broken soap dispenser in the shape of a pig. Why? I don’t know. It’s junk.

But there’s useful stuff too. The books that have been read and will never be read again. The clothes that no longer fit but stay in the dresser drawers, or in boxes in the basement, or worse, the clothes that have never been worn, or haven’t been worn in over a year. The trivia of past vacations, the cds of music we don’t even like anymore. Then there are the drawers of stuff that time forgot.

Are we as a culture and as a people, overstuffed? Do we have too much stuff?

We could ask someone like John Freyer. John is a pretty ordinary guy from Iowa City that I would know nothing about, except that he decided a couple of years ago that he had too much stuff, and he made the radical decision to sell everything he owned, on ebay. Everything. His bicycle, his bed, his books, the canned ham from his refrigerator, his old college jersey. Everything. Speaking of drawers that time forgot. John even sold five rolls of undeveloped film that were in his ‘junk drawer’ (how many of us have junk drawers at home?). The film probably dated from his college days and he had no idea what was on it. You know the kind. They were never developed and sat in a drawer until he moved. Then they were dumped in a box and moved to his new apartment where the box was dumped into a new drawer where the film rolls sat until he sold them.

John says he started his experiment as a way of seeing what all the stuff, all the objects we surround ourselves with, actually mean to us, and what happens when we set them free. After he sold all his stuff, he traveled around the country visiting it and seeing what other people had done with his stuff. He claims to have learned more about himself by giving away his stuff then he ever knew when he was surrounded by it. And if you want to visit John’s stuff and see what he learned, you can look at it on John’s website at http://www.allmylifeforsale.com. I must warn you, though. If you visit John’s website you will have the opportunity to buy a t-shirt with a picture of that ham on it, or a 275 page, glossy, illustrated book showing you all of John’s stuff and where it now lives. Which is just MORE STUFF!

John is only one of many people who are trying to learn how to live more simply. Some of the new simplicity movement is just another commercialized consumer trend. But many people are genuinely inspired by the long history of simple living in the church. When Jesus said “Our life is not defined by having many things” he inspired St. Anthony, who as a teenager left all his stuff and walked out into the desert to live without stuff. And because he was not consumed with his stuff, he had the spiritual power to give advice even to Roman emperors. And many more are impressed by St. Francis who took Jesus literally when he said “You lack one thing. Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Francis called the giving away of possession an “ongoing conversion” because it always led him to a deeper relationship with God and with the poor.

Or there are young people today like Alex, who is a member of the Sleepy Hollow Presbyterian Church in California. Alex is a teenager in the church youth group run by his minister. During Lent, Alex was given an assignment from his pastor which seems to me really difficult and exciting. And simple: Give away 40 possessions, 40 of the things in his room, one for each of the 40 days of Lent. And there were two rules: he couldn’t give away any junk – everything had to be of some value to someone. And nothing he gave away could be replaced in the coming year.

The first thing Alex gave away was an electronic keyboard. He says that his parents never learned to play when they were children and that they wanted to be sure that their son Alex learned to play an instrument. But Alex never really wanted to play piano himself, and he never learned to play more than chopsticks. He never practiced. And so when he had to decide what to give away first – he chose his Optimus Concert-Mate.

Can you imagine what his friends thought when he stepped off the school bus at school with a keyboard tucked under his arm? He walked right up to his friend Kyle and said “Hey, I’m getting rid of this keyboard. It works perfectly. I even have the manual. You want it?”

Alex says that Kyle just stood there with a confused look on his face.

It turned out, all of Alex’s friends found it so hard to believe that Alex was just going to give away something valuable, free, no strings attached, no deal, no debt, no questions, that no body would take it. Alex just kept saying “I’m doing an experiment with my pastor. Jesus and the early Christians lived with very few possessions. Many people in our world today have very little too. I’m trying to imitate them and see what it’s like.” But the more he said that, the crazier they thought he was.

The truth is that the United States is among the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet it is filled with people, rich and poor, who are anxious about their future and who feel that they don’t have enough. And so giving stuff away seems crazy. Now, I don’t want to suggest that if you are going to follow Jesus you need to sell everything. But our stuff does shape how we think and live. Stuff changes us. What we believe and how we act with stuff can make one way of life different from another. A couple of years ago my mom gave me a book as a Christmas present called Material World. It’s a book of photography picturing the ‘stuff’ in average homes all around the world. It’s fascinating to imagine the life of the family whose primary transportation is a donkey compared to the family with the complete set of bicycles and the family with the Mercedes. Or it’s interesting to ask questions like, why do the possessions of the family in Uzbekistan consist mostly of carpets, while the family from Iceland has musical instruments and the family in Mali has almost nothing except dishes for storing, preparing and eating food.

Jesus reminds us that ‘our life does not consist of an abundance of possessions’, and many of us believe that, but we’re still over-stuffed. And that’s unhealthy.

Do you have a lot of stuff but feel like you don’t have enough?

Consider this story. There is a group of young professionals in a Presbyterian Church somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. They realized that they were all failing to realize the fullness of life which God was calling them to because they were each living with low-grade but very real economic anxiety. What they did was each make contributions to a common pot, a common fund that any of them could reach into when they needed, if they had taken a risk to improve the quality or contribution of their, or their families, life. After two years, no one had yet reached into the pot, but many had reported that they were able to take risks that they never would have been able to without the support of the community.

Or another story.

There is a new book out called the Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back. It is about a family who found themselves sitting in their car at an intersection in Atlanta when the 14 year old daughter looked past the Mercedes sitting next to her and saw a homeless man. In her anger, she asked her family to do something to reduce the disparity between the rich and the poor. After much conversation, the family downsized their home and their lifestyle, sold half of what they owned, and gave the money to a self-development project in Ghana. Kevin Salwen, the father, and his daughter Hannah say that “giving up half of our possessions made our family whole.”

Stuff is a gift of God. We can’t live in a world without stuff. But there is also a difference between good stuff and bad stuff. Good stuff includes those things needed to increase health, love, joy, peace, hope, creative expression, faithfulness, and relationships with people and other living things. If your stuff isn’t doing those things, or if it in diminishing them, think about giving it away.

Because God made the world so that when each of us only consumes or uses or has what we need; when our purchases and their production are fair; there will be abundance, plenty, enough for all. And our desire for ‘more stuff’ will be converted into a hunger for God. This is why the ancient (very old) prayer of Christian ascetics, the prayer of people who lived without stuff, is: “God make us truly alive.” In other words, give us a life centered on you and not on things, filled with God, not overstuffed. There is no better prayer during the season of Lent. “God make us truly alive.” Amen.

Note: The stories in this sermon can be found online, or in Bass and Dykstra, ed., Way to Live: Christian Practices for Teens and in Dorothy Bass, ed., Practicing the Faith: A Way of Life for Searching People, both published by Jossey-Bass. The Power of Half is published by Mariner books.

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