Pastor Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
August 4th, 2019
Earlier this year I heard a story about a family of siblings—11 of them—who had a huge familial fight over dividing their deceased parents possessions. Old family resentments and jealousies resurfaced. One brother, Joe, who is a lawyer was given the completely thankless task of being the arbiter of this big family dispute about how to divide up their parents’ stuff. The level of distrust and greed was so high that Joe had to devise an elaborate system for the distribution of the inheritance. He created a book. This book contained photos of each of the 196 items of their parents that were left to divide, assigned a number to each item, and had a 5 page rules section outlining the entire process of dividing up the stuff. There were some items that were more coveted—the pen their father had been given as a gift by President Johnson, the turkey platter that had come from the Kennedy family somewhere down the line, their father’s robe which he wore as a judge at court, their mother’s engagement ring.
Some of the siblings were even suspicious of Joe, that he might favor some siblings and rig things in their favor. So his original idea of having his 5-year-old neighbor pick numbered ping pong balls and video record it was tossed after an outcry that he could just do it over and over until he got a tape with the results he wanted. He ended having to go to an accounting firm and have them generate a list on their letterhead of numbers 1-11 in random order to satisfy the suspicions of his siblings. Finally, the day came. The family all selected their items with little fuss.
All that over the question of the where 196 items would end up.
Jesus is given occasion to speak about stuff, possessions, and to warn against placing too much stock in it when a man asks Jesus to serve as judge over the division of a family inheritance. Rather than take on the mantle of family arbiter, as Joe the lawyer did for his family, rather than make up an inventory of all the inheritance and pages of rules for division, Jesus makes clear that there is no small claims court in the Kin-dom of God. There is no probate judge or appraiser.
Instead we get this parable of a man with so much stuff he decides to tear down the barns he has in order to build bigger barns to store the extra stuff. Giving away some of his abundance does not seem to even enter his thinking. I have so much stuff, I have been so blessed with this harvest, that I shall give some away so that what I do have fits in my barns. Nope. Bigger barns, more stuff. Only to die that very evening. And then what becomes of all that stuff he spent so much time and energy in his life worrying about?
Jesus is not poo-pooing good stewardship of one’s financial and material gifts here. But this is an already rich man who get more so that he doesn’t know what to do with the “more” on top of “rich.” Saving is not bad in itself. The CPUC Finance team is working towards setting up an endowment for the congregation, prompted by a generous donation to get it going. This is a wise thing to pursue, and the finance team is being very thoughtful about it. If saving money and hoarding stuff becomes the end, rather than a means to help us carry out Christ’s calling to us as a church, to help us be generous in loving our neighbors, to struggling for justice, then we, as a church, become the rich man in the parable.
So too with us as individuals: Do our possessions or our money facilitate fullness of life for us and the good for others or are those things the focus in themselves? Do we accept the money and goods that come into our lives with gratitude and share them with generosity, or do those things end up owning us?
Though Marie Kondo published her book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” in 2011 in Japan, she didn’t achieve world-wide stardom until more recently. Once her book was translated into English in 2014, it shot to the top of the US Bestseller lists. And eventually, earlier this year, her own TV show aired on Netflix, where she goes into the homes of different American families and helps them tidy up.
Her method of tidying is nuanced and has a lot to do with how we organize our things, but if you only know one thing about Marie Kondo, it is probably the idea of assessing whether each of our possessions “spark joy” for us. The theory is that we should decide what to keep and what to donate or let go of by holding each item in our hands and seeing what feeling we get from the item. Does it spark a sense of joy in us? Or does it just feel as normal as anything else? Though some people poke fun at this phrasing—“my toilet brush doesn’t spark joy, but I still want to be able to clean my toilet”—Marie Kondo clearly hit on a deep and widespread desire for simpler lives, more organized, and with less stuff. And though she comes from a Shinto background, the spiritual truth of simpler living, less stuff, and thoughtfulness about what we have resonates with Christianity at a high frequency.
She essentially helps people who are in the place the rich man from the parable is at: feeling the need to just build a bigger barn to store all their stuff. Then in comes this small, ever-smiling, japanese woman to help them pare down their possessions and be mindful about what they keep. It may seem counterintuitive, but by helping the people on the show think through their material possessions, she leads them into a place where they are not constricted by what they own. It reveals this truth that the material world—what we own, how we manage our money—these are interconnected with our faith and our spiritual health. Often times our material possessions become proxies for our feelings or our spiritual longings. We long for security so we store up more stuff that we need or can use or we save money in ways that defy geneoristy. We long for excitement so we seek out newer items though the old ones work perfectly well. We desire belonging and connection infuse items with personalities and meanings beyond what is reasonable. I’ll cop to my own tendency to over-sentimenalize items for sure.
We know that we are not what we own, we are not our job or the car we drive, the furniture in our home, nor even are we our most prized possessions. An old New Yorker comic puts it succinctly and humorously. The image shows an older man on his deathbed holding the hand of a younger man and saying “I wish I had bought more crap.” We laugh at the absurdity of this, yet we can find it hard to actually live counter to this consumer, materialist mindset of acquiring and keeping.
Jesus concludes his parable by saying “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” “Rich towards God.” An interesting turn of phrase. It suggests that we are not to aim for richness for ourselves, but richness towards God, towards others in the building up of God’s kin-dom. True richness as Jesus is defining it is directed outwardly toward sharing what we have, not experienced in isolation when we keep what we have to ourselves.
Jesus is offering a word of grace in this parable: it is an invitation to remember that all our stuff, our wealth, it is not worth a thing if it is worshiped or hoarded. Nor is it what defines who we are. The kin-dom of God defies commodification or being ferreted away. It exists where gifts and goods of all sort are shared. And indeed we see that reflected in the Communion table. We gather to share bread and juice, we are blessed by this sharing and those that made the bread, bought the bread, put the assemblage together, we are welcomed for who we are. And after the Communion meal, none of us takes an extra piece of bread in our pockets for later. Nor do we (or is there really an easy way) to hoard some extra grape juice for ourselves. We experience the kin-dom of God in giving and in receiving—in sharing, and keeping our earthly possessions and money in perspective, that we might be right towards God. Amen.