Many years ago, when I was just starting out and raising young children, I heard a retired bishop give a talk about some of the tasks necessary to retire. Like many clergy back in the day, he spent his entire career living in church-owned housing. For he and his wife, the first task of retiring was finding a place to live. The second task involved downsizing. They had much more stuff than they could fit into their new home. Nowhere was this more evident than with the things the bishop kept in his office – again, a church-provided space. Specifically, he had way more books than he could ever hope to store in his home and truthfully most of them he no longer needed. Apparently the local library had little use for forty-year-old theology books. Neither did his seminary. Eventually he was able to box them up and ship them to a newly forming school in Africa.
That talk has stayed with me over the years because it reminds me everything I have one day will have to be given away, disposed, or sold. Somewhere after I bought my current house and outfitted all the rooms I crossed a threshold in life. I am no longer accumulating stuff, but I have not yet begun the process of letting go. I am just sitting on it. Kings and queens are said to possess the throne by sitting on it. Sometimes I wonder if I am sitting on my possessions or if they are sitting on me.
Do you know there are nearly 12,000 Starbucks coffee shops in America, there are over 14,000 McDonalds, and almost 32,000 post offices? Care to guess how many self-storage facilities we have in our country? Almost 53,000 and growing by 2,000-3,000 a year. There is over 2.3 billion square feet of storage space – three times the size of Manhattan and equal to seven square feet for every person within our borders. Now, some of this space is used to keep items while in transition, but 50% of what is stored simply won’t fit into a person’s home, even though the average size of a typical house has grown dramatically since the 1950’s. We Americans have a lot of stuff, so much in fact, we have nowhere to put it.
Perhaps we have no better biblical figure with which to identify than the person who approaches Jesus in today’s gospel reading. We never learn his name, but he is often referred to as “the rich young ruler”, even though the text does not tell us he is rich or young or a ruler. He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. This, it seems to me, is another great obsession in our country, at least for some. Who here has not been “evangelized” by a well-meaning person who asks “If you were to die tonight do you know where your soul would go?” I wonder if the man who approaches Jesus wants to have this ‘heavenly’ question answered so he can be at peace as he gets back to the earthly business of collecting stuff.
Interestingly, Jesus points him to the Ten Commandments dealing specifically with how one is to treat a neighbor, but not to the ones describing our relationship with God. The man says he has kept these laws all his life. “There is one thing you lack,” Jesus says to him, “Go and sell all you have, give the money to the poor, store up for yourself treasures in heaven, and come follow me.” I wonder if I will ever get to the point where I have done so many good deeds I will need a self-storage space in heaven to keep all the spiritual treasures I have accumulated.
On hearing this, the text tells us the man is shocked and goes away “grieving” for he has “many possessions.” The Greek word translated here as grieving literally means ‘gloomy’, ‘overcast’ or ‘clouded over’. The man’s possessions cloud his vision and he cannot see past them to anything that lies beyond. They obscure his sight to such a degree he cannot see the Kingdom of God Jesus offers to him. He loves his possessions so much that they prevent him from knowing the love of God.
If Jesus invited you to follow him, would you be able? What would hold you back? Some of us – especially those with small children – understandably are not able to drop everything on a whim and follow. But many of us – far too many – are impaired by financial commitments and obligations. Who will pay your mortgage, your car payments, and your student loans? Perhaps you have already maxed out a couple of credit cards and can’t afford to take on any more debt. Maybe you are saving for a boat or a vacation home. The things we have and the things we want can inhibit us from being the person God is calling us to be.
As I said, I feel very blessed to be at a point in life where I no longer feel the need to accumulate stuff. It probably has more to do with my age and where I am in life than any kind of spiritual awakening, so it is not something for which I take credit. But it is something for which I am deeply grateful. I am better positioned to channel my resources to things that matter and make a difference. Some time ago, without really trying, I became a tither, giving away at least 10% of what I earn, which is the biblical measure of generosity. This was hardly possible when I had young children, but now is something I can do without giving it a second thought.
In a couple of weeks St. Paul’s will ask you to make a financial pledge to support the work of our parish in 2019. Your Vestry and I appreciate every dollar you give us and we do our best to make it count for something good. I encourage you to examine where you are in terms of your giving. The average person gives away 2% of what they make. Often this is done without any kind of plan or commitment. Many of us give when we feel motivated to give. I want to challenge you to stretch yourself. If you are giving away 2% of your income, can you push it to 2.5%? If you give away $25 a week, can you make it $40? Little by little and over time, these sacrifices begin to add up and one day you will find yourself tithing, in that place where God invites you to be in right relationship to your wealth and possessions.
I don’t know who said it first, but more than one person has said, “I have never met a former tither.” This simple spiritual discipline becomes a way to live which is consistent with our faith and open to accepting God’s invitation. Getting there is a part of our life’s journey and with each step you will sense yourself not inheriting eternal life, but living with it here and now.