(Pictured above are Ukrainian refugees being cared for by Moravians in Herrnhut, Germany)
The Distractions of Stuff
by Bishop Chris Giesler
Preaching Text: Luke 12:32-40
In 1995 Peter Menzel published a picture book entitled Material World: A Global Family Portrait. The book gives us photographs of families from around the world pictured with all their possessions in front of their homes. It contains pictures from 30 different countries, taken by 16 of the world’s leading photographers.
Menzel found what was considered an average family in terms of income in each of the countries, arranged all of their possessions outside their home, and took their picture. The book offers a fascinating look at the different consumption and property ownership levels between families in developed and developing countries. Without a doubt, we here in North America have a lot of stuff.
One of the photographs captures a family in India. This family consists of a mother and father with four children, shown in front of their relatively modest home. The family cooks over a wood fire in a windowless, six-by-nine-foot kitchen. The father works roughly 56 hours a week when he can find work. Family members have gone for more than two weeks in rough times with little food. Everything they own is seen pictured behind them and includes two beds, three bags of rice, a broken bicycle, some cooking pots/utensils, and their most cherished belonging, a print of Hindu gods.
By contrast, the picture of the average family in the United States consists of a mother and father with their two children. The dad is a service technician for the local phone company, and the mom is a teacher at a private church-related school. They had to be hoisted on a cherry picker so their possessions could be seen behind them. These include two automobiles, living room furniture, dining room tables and chairs, beds and furniture for each of their 3 bedrooms, a TV, piano, and many of the things that almost any home in the US would have, including a pet dog. Remember, this was 1995. Had the picture been taken today there would be several more televisions and computers. The family had so much stuff the photographer could not find room in the picture for the family’s refrigerator-freezer, camcorder, woodworking tools, computer, glass butterfly collection, trampoline, fishing equipment, and the rifles used for deer hunting. In the picture, the family is seen holding their family Bible which they consider the most essential thing in their home.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus has something to say about possessions. Here Jesus tells them, “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.” What would these words mean for each of these families?
We need to put Jesus’ words into their context, which was in an occupied country in which families would have been more than thankful to have had what even the poorest of families have in our world today. So when Jesus tells his listeners to sell their possessions, on the one hand, he is not talking about much money. But on the other hand, he is talking about everything.
Possessions are great things to have. I love to cook and am thankful I have a stove, oven, and microwave oven, 2 crockpots, a Ninja pressure cooker/air fryer, a toaster, and a waffle iron. I love my refrigerator, garbage disposal, and several drawers full of utensils. My wife and I both have our own laptop computers, and we could not live without them. I am typing this message on mine, and you are undoubtedly reading it on yours. We all have a lot of stuff here in North America or Europe. Is Jesus commanding us to sell it all? Remember, this is what Jesus told the rich young ruler to do.
At the very least, I think we are being asked to consider whether or not we own these possessions, or do they own us? With each thing we buy, we also take on the responsibility of taking care of it. Some things take a lot of care! Just today, I spent several hours trying to update the virus and malware protection for our computers. Computers are great, time-saving devices, but they also take some of our time to maintain. Jesus’ statement about selling our possessions here does make a tithe (10%) seem like a bargain. So what is a Christian living in a wealthy country to do?
An honest look at our intentions is a great place to start. Again, do we own our possessions, or do they own us? Do we acquire things because we want them or because we need them? Do we keep accumulating stuff because we want the latest and the greatest, and we want to keep up with the neighbors? What do our possessions say about where our heart truly is? Would downsizing give us more time to focus our attention and resources on the needs of others?
The second half of our text from Luke talks about being ready for Jesus’ arrival or second coming. This does not seem to fit with the first few verses, but perhaps it does. Are we so concerned with money and possessions that we are not prepared for the coming of our Lord? Matthew 25 gives us the only criteria by which we will be judged, and that is how we reach out to others in need by feeding, giving water, providing clothing, and visiting the sick and imprisoned. Perhaps these things should be more of a priority in our lives. Maybe this is where our heart needs to be.
This passage asks some critical questions about our fundamental mission in life. Are we in this for ourselves or for others?