Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
This is my razor. I bought it when I was 18 years old, just a week or two before I went off to Penn State for undergraduate studies. It’s followed along with me ever since, wherever I’ve gone, whatever I was doing. I’ve shaved with this razor pretty much every day for almost 40 years. I’ve never replaced it with some newer, better one because as far as I was concerned, it did its job just fine and it wasn’t broken. To some people in our society, for me to not have bought a number of fancier, upgraded razors in all those years makes me not just a little odd, and not just cheap, but a troublemaker. Not a team player. A rabble-rouser; a dissident. I am the Alexander Solzhenitsyn of shaving. Because since the end of World War II, our economy, our society, has been built on the concept of continuous consumption. We’re taught from almost every direction that we should always want more than we already have. And once we have it, we need to buy a nicer, newer version of it just a year or two later. We’re told – and more often than not, we internalize – that our own worth is dependent on our “stuff.” If we have the newest of technology, the nicest furniture, the most current clothing, then we matter; and if we don’t, we don’t.
This isn’t just my opinion; it’s reality, and it isn’t just coincidence that this is the way things are. It’s intentional. After World War II, when we had a huge workforce coming home from the war looking for work, and a massive industrial structure needing some new purpose, a well-known economic analyst named Victor Lebow advised the government and industry leaders that our enormously productive economy required that we make consumption a way of life – making buying and selling of goods our formative social rituals, the rituals that give shape and meaning to our lives. Society needed to be altered so that we sought our actual spiritual satisfaction in consumption. The government and industry were all too eager to implement this strategy to keep a robust economy going, and now, for many people, their sense of self-worth is entirely wrapped up in the stuff they possess.
And yet, despite having more and better and nicer stuff than any other society in the history of the world, we aren’t content. We aren’t spiritually satisfied at all. In fact, at the same time we’re the generation that has the most material stuff, we also have the most psychological stuff. Generally speaking, we are the most spiritually unfulfilled, dissatisfied, depressed, anxiety-ridden generation in history. How can this be?
Well, I introduced you to my razor earlier; now I’ll mention a more famous one – Occam’s Razor; the philosophical principle that when you’re trying to determine the solution to a question or problem, the most likely answer is the simplest one; the one that relies on the fewest assumptions or what-ifs. In this case, the simplest answer to the question of why we’re so unhappy even with all this stuff, is that the whole idea that stuff can make us happy and fulfilled is wrong from the very outset. We *can’t* find happiness through obtaining stuff. We can’t derive a sense of self-worth through consumption. We’ll never find spiritual satisfaction through material goods.
Even though all of us sometimes fall victim to this big lie that our society tells, in our hearts, and especially as followers of Jesus, we know that stuff isn’t a real solution. We’re reminded throughout the scriptures, and throughout Jesus’ teaching as we heard in today’s reading, that God has a better idea for us – that our peace, our fulfillment, our happiness, comes entirely through God’s mercy and unending love for us, poured out on us every day.
Of course, we all need some stuff, in order to get by and enjoy our lives, but because of this covenant relationship that God has made us a part of, we don’t have to be enslaved by it. We don’t have to be emotionally and spiritually impoverished by the pursuit of more and more things. Because of our covenant relationship with God, we can relax. We don’t have to get caught up in the constant burdensome cycle of working harder to buy more stuff, and then throwing 99% of it all out within six months’ time and having to work harder to replace that stuff that was perfectly fine that you just got rid of.
And the problem here isn’t just physical stuff, either. Here, as the church, for example, we can fall victim to what I’ll call the “consumption of concerns.” There is just so much need in the world – so many projects to do this good thing, or to work to stop this other bad thing, or to help this person, or to support this group, and we can fall victim to the idea that we have to just keep doing more and more and more stuff in order to get God’s approval or to really show that we’re good Christians. And sometimes, it can all just become exhausting.
Now, don’t misunderstand me, all of those things are important expressions of faith that we all need to be involved in. But sometimes, we also need to slow down, and relax. To realize that Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are carrying heavy burdens, and in me you will find rest.” He didn’t say “Come to me, all you who are carrying heavy burdens, and I’ll pile some more on your shoulders.”
Some of the subjects during our Lenten series have called us to action in a number of good and important ways. Today’s focus is in a different direction. It isn’t a call to more, but rather, to less. To buy less, and yes, from time to time, to also do less, in order to refocus on God’s immense, unending love. To remember how loved we are by God, and how God wants us to be at peace. To have contentment and fulfillment. To remember that in Christ, we find our peace. In Christ, we have our contentment. In Christ, we recognize just how immense our value is in God’s eyes.
So if that’s true – and I believe it is – then take time during Lent to focus on where, and how, you feel a closer, deeper connection with God, in order to build on that sense of contentment. Were and when do you feel most connected with God? Is it a particular place? Is it with particular people that you love? Is it being *away* from other people, enjoying solitude? Is it in times of prayer and meditation? Is it a particular time of day, or doing a particular activity? When you do think about wherever and however you feel most connected with God, you’ll likely recognize that that connection really isn’t dependent upon your “stuff” at all.
And once you recognize how you connect more deeply with God, follow through with it. Don’t allow yourself to fall victim to society’s big lie; become a bit of a countercultural dissident yourself – find your self-worth and your spiritual satisfaction with God, and not a gift card. Take that personal “quiet time” in your day. Carve out more time to be with whoever the special people are in your life. Make that trip to that wonderful, special place where you always intensely felt God’s presence. And when you go, remember to pack your razor.
Thanks be to God.
*For more detail about some of the things I refer to in this sermon, see “The Story of Stuff,” a wonderful short video, at https://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/