Sermon Reconstruction: Abundance and Generosity

For this past Sunday, I chose to deviate from my normal sermon preparation (sit in my chair writing and polishing until the full text is presentable) in favor of an extemporaneous style which I do once or twice a year. This less common style is the one I grew up listening to, as my father* (who was on the radio before becoming a priest) is very good at holding an entire sermon in his head and stringing his thoughts together with nary an “um” to be heard. While my father and I share a lot in common, preaching style is not one of them. I’m a writer through and through.

So it came time to preach on Sunday. I had a few notes written down. I preached. I recorded it through the church’s sound system. I was about to post the recording, and then noticed my digital recorder’s battery had run down. Long story less long — what follows is a short reconstruction of the thoughts in the sermon. It’s not exactly what I said, but here goes. (Check out Luke 12:13-21 before reading on.)

Jesus often talks about priorities, specifically about reorienting our priorities so they line up better with the order God yearns for us to adopt. For us today, the two priorities that need lining up are possessions and relationships. So, show of hands: who think Jesus would put our possessions above our relationships.

(No one raised his or her hand here. I went to sit down, saying that I guess I didn’t need to finish the sermon. A bit of laughter. Then I continued.)

Right. For Jesus, relationships always trump possessions. In today’s Gospel reading he says: “For your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” But have you ever stopped to wonder why relationships are more important than possessions?

That's my guitar at a concert back in 2008.
That’s my guitar at a concert back in 2008.

The answer starts with how relationships and possessions differ. We possess our material goods. We own them. We paid for them or they were given to us. My most prized possession is my 2006 Taylor 410e Fall Limited Edition acoustic guitar, which was a present for my ordination to the priesthood from my home parish. It is a beautiful instrument and it makes a beautiful sound. It also makes me want to write songs as often as possible, which was not the case with my previous guitar.

So if for some reason I had to give up my guitar, would I be able to do it? If the answer is “no,” then I cease possessing my guitar and the instrument begins possessing me. The moment I can’t let it go is the moment I cede my sovereignty to the object. I become its vassal. It becomes my idol.

Our possessions have an uncanny ability to lead us down this life-denying path. Just think: when you were three years old, were you able to let the other kid play with your firetruck? I didn’t think so.

But possessions differ from relationships because other people cannot be possessed. The history of the United States is tarnished by the evil of trying to possess other people, and the legacy of slavery still reaches its cancerous tendrils into modern society. While one set of people thought of another as property, I can’t imagine that those subjected to the dehumanizing nature of slavery ever thought of themselves as possessions. People can’t be possessed, and when we try, evil is the result.

Since we cannot possess others in the same way we can possess objects, our relationships teach us how best to prioritize our material possessions. A relationship flourishes precisely when we aren’t trying to possess it; therefore, sustaining life-giving relationships helps us practice the kind of emotional letting go that we aren’t good at where our material goods are concerned.

Each of us is blessed with an abundance of possessions, but abundance becomes a blessing when we pair it with generosity. Generosity turns our possessions into the resources which fuel new relationships. As we give away the things that we might otherwise bow down to, we come into contact with the recipient of those things and discover the opportunity to form a new relationship.

Thus generosity catalyzes a virtuous cycle: generosity spurs new relationships. Generosity in relationship helps it flourish. This flourishing teaches us to be generous with our possessions and turn them into new relationships.

When we prioritize possessions over relationships, we become lonely misers like the foolish man in the parable. His foolishness is not that he’s wealthy. It’s that he desires to share his wealth with no one else. God blesses us with abundance, but God also blesses us with the ability to turn abundance into blessing when we pair it with generosity. So what does a life full of God consist of? Not the abundance of possessions, but the generosity of relationship.

* You can hear my father, The Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas preach at balconyperspective.com.

The Overstuffed Life

(Sermon for Sunday, October 14, 2012 || Proper 23B || Mark 10:17-31)

During my time in college and seminary, I spent seven years living in dorms. Over that time, I lived in five different dorm rooms, and you know what? They all came with a bed and a dresser and an end table and a desk. The beds weren’t always long enough for my six-foot frame and one of the dressers had several sticky drawers, but those were minor complaints. For the most part, I loved living on campus. And the best part about living in a dorm was that I could fit everything I owned – everything – in my car. At the end of the school year, I could pile all of my stuff into my 1992 Mazda Protégé and just drive away.

Then, after seminary, I moved into a rented townhouse in West Virginia. There was no bed, no dresser, no end table, and no desk. So my dad and I drove a borrowed Chevy Suburban to an IKEA near Baltimore and came back with the SUV full of cheap furniture (some assembly required). Gone were the days when I could just throw all my stuff in the back of the car and drive away. I now owned enough stuff that when I moved here to Massachusetts, I had to rent a 14-foot U-Haul.

Then, Leah and I got married, and all of a sudden our apartment had my stuff and her stuff and our stuff. As I sat in the living room pondering this sermon, I looked around and made a mental note of what size U-Haul we would need the next time we move. Let’s just say it’s much bigger than 14 feet.

Reading this morning’s Gospel, I get a bit wistful for the time when I could pile all my stuff in a subcompact car. Now that I have a Subaru Forester, I bet I could fit all of my college-aged stuff and all of Leah’s college-aged stuff in the roomy SUV, though the cello might need to go on the roof rack. And then we could just drive away. We’d be unburdened by everything we have accumulated since: the piano, the couch, the TV, the dining room table, the chairs, the queen-sized bed, the full-sized bed, the bicycles, the bookcases, the books, the DVDs, the dishes…the Kitchen-Aid. (Well, maybe I could find a space in the Forester for the Kitchen-Aid, since Leah makes a mean apple pie.)

I read this morning’s Gospel, and thoughts of such a free lifestyle, unburdened by all that extraneous stuff sounds so appealing. But, of course, whenever I envision such a life, I’m romanticizing it. As I finish mentally storing the essentials in the back of the Forester, I remember that plenty of people live with just the essentials – or not even them – and they don’t have the option to live comfortably in a one-bedroom loft in an apartment community in Weymouth.

I’ve met many such folks at the Long Island Homeless Shelter. With many of you, I’ve served them chicken parmesan and ice cream. I’ve sat there listening for the handful of Spanish words I know while Deb Viscomi carries on with a group of laughing gentleman. I know a young couple – probably about mine and Leah’s age – who do live out of their car. Whenever I see them, their faces always show a potent mix of hope and desperation that breaks my heart. And confronted with their reality, I feel chastened that I could ever romanticize the notion of throwing all our stuff in the car and just driving away.

So you can see my confusion (a confusion that I’d be willing to bet you share) when we read Jesus’ words to the rich man in today’s lesson. The man wants to know how he can inherit eternal life. He says that he has kept all the commandments since his youth. Then Mark’s Gospel tells us: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

The standard confusion with this story that trips many of us up is the logical progression that would lead this man to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then end up being in poverty himself, thus adding to the overarching problem. That’s where I’ve been stuck for a long time, hence the first half of this sermon being about me wondering if I could every truly do this radical thing that Jesus proposes to this man. The trouble is I don’t want to water down Jesus’ words, and, at the same time, I don’t want to wind up down such a confusing logical progression.

So perhaps, I might ask for your charity to bend this story just a little bit, with the proviso that when I’m done I hopefully will have stayed true to an undiluted presentation of Jesus’ message.

The man’s ostensible reason for coming to Jesus is to learn what he must do to inherit eternal life. But Mark tells us that he kneels before Jesus, which is curious behavior. Throughout the rest of Mark’s Gospel, everyone who kneels before Jesus is seeking healing. So, could it be that this man, unbeknownst to himself, is looking to be healed of something?* Since he has kept all the commandments since his youth, his healing doesn’t have to do with obedience to the law. So Jesus gives him another diagnosis. “Your possessions are holding you back,” he seems to say. “You are up to your eyeballs in stuff; therefore, you cannot see the need surrounding you.” This man who kneels before Jesus, not seeking to be healed, but sure in need of healing, has the malady of an overstuffed life, a life cluttered to the extent that he cannot see what is truly important.

After getting rid of your possessions, Jesus continues to prescribe: give the money to the poor, then come and follow me. Here Jesus tells him and us the two things that the man isn’t doing because of his overstuffed life. He isn’t helping the poor (which was a cultural imperative in Israel from time immemorial) and he isn’t following Jesus.

When Jesus heals the blind men in passages before and after this one, he restores their sight with a touch and a word. But to heal an overstuffed life, Jesus can only give the man the prescription to let go of the things that distract him from what really matters. The man can respond positively or negatively. Jesus loves him either way, which is a point that Mark states quite clearly. The man in the story goes away, “shocked and grieving, for he had many possessions.” We can only hope that over time, Jesus’ prescription nestled into his soul and he found his way back to the one who loves him.

When I think of all the stuff cluttering up my life, all the stuff that has no hope of ever fitting in my car so I can just drive away, I wonder hard just what my material possessions are doing to my spiritual life. How often do I abandon Jesus, shocked and grieving, because I am too tethered to my stuff to remember why following him is the most important part of my life? How often do I need to kneel before Jesus to be healed of an overstuffed life?

As we approach the weeks in which our stewardship team asks us to pledge our time, talent, and treasure for the coming year, I invite you to sit in your living room and imagine just how big a U-Haul you would need to fit all of your stuff. Pray about the ways in which your material wealth serves as a barrier to your spiritual health. Kneel before Christ and asked to be healed if you feel your life is overstuffed. And take joyful notice that the abundance in your life has less to do with your material goods and ever so much more to do with the relationships you cherish, the service you render, and the God who loves you no matter what.

* Thanks to David Lose, whose discussion of this passage brought the healing nature of the story to my study.