Pentecost 8, Year C
I recently read that one of the safest bets in real estate over the last several decades was not family homes, apartments or luxury condos. It was self-storage lockers. You know the places I am talking about—big storage locker where you can put all those things that don’t fit into wherever you are presently living. It has grown to be a 38 billion dollar industry. Almost 10% of Americans rent a storage locker. Storage lockers even come with some bells and whistles. Now there are companies that will pack and deliver your things to your storage locker. They will even provide an online photo inventory of what you have in your storage locker. Part of the reason why this industry is growing is that people are moving into cities, where space is more limited. You have to downsize and there are some things you can’t part with, so you store them. But part of this growth comes from our constant acquisition of stuff and our inability to part with that stuff.
The parable we heard today is about more than just stuff. It’s about greed. That is how Jesus introduces the parable: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” The story is about a rich man whose land produced ample goods one year.
He had so much extra food, he ran out of space to put it. He decided that he should pull down his current barns and build bigger barns. Storing food is a wise thing to do. We all have extra food in our pantry. Most of us have never seen our pantry completely bare. Even if it’s not food you want to eat, there’s always something there. Also, we have to remember that farming is not always consistent. There could be a horrible crop next year and then he would need all that stored food. He couldn’t just go to the store to buy food if there was a bad year. Saving food is not what makes the man greedy.
What makes him greedy is how he makes the decision. It’s all about him. Most of the parable is the man talking to himself. He asks, “What should I do?” He then makes his decision solely on his own wants and needs. He even says, “And I will say to my self, ‘Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry.” It’s all about him. He never considers the workers who toiled for this abundance. He never asks his neighbors if they might have a need. For all we know, he could be surrounded by starving masses. But that is not his concern. His entire concern is his own needs and his own comfort.
This rather uncomfortable parable comes right before one of my favorite texts. In this text, Jesus told his disciples, “Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.” It’s a comforting passage, but not quite as comforting when we remember it comes right after this challenging parable. What Jesus was saying is that if you really don’t want to worry, you have to give things up. Most people, at least people I know, don’t say that their life goal is to collect lots and lots of stuff. Most people won’t even admit that their goal is to have more than they need. What people say (and I am one of these people) is that they don’t want to have to worry about money. We just want to be comfortable. We want to have enough. The problem is, “enough” is a moving target. Just when you think you have enough, you find that you are missing something, or someone else has something that you desperately need. Just the other day, I was telling my friend that I really needed a pair of black sensible shoes, because I wear a lot of black. I felt like I was being very reasonable as I was talking about black shoes, not the red ones I really wanted. I just counted and I own 7 pairs of black dress shoes. Now in my defense, only three of them are very comfortable and only two of them work for Sunday mornings. But still, to say that “I need black shoes” is positively ridiculous. I am fairly sure that if I bought another pair, I would discover that I was missing something else.
When Jesus was telling his disciples not to worry about what they ate or wore, he was telling them that stuff and money won’t ever ease our anxiety, which is why that text comes right after our parable. The rich man determined that once he had all that stored food he could, “relax, eat, drink and be merry.” He thought he could free himself from his anxiety if he had enough food to last him for years. Yet what he had forgotten, perhaps what he never realized in the first place, was that not only was the food he had a gift from God, but his life was a gift from God. He thought he could protect himself with his bigger and better barns. But in the end, he could have surrounded his home with walls and a moat, but his life was still in God’s hands.
As long as we fool ourselves into thinking that an abundance of possessions will free us from anxiety and fear, we will never have enough. We will always need more. Even if that rich man had lived, he would never have had enough. He would have still been a fool.
I don’t have a storage locker. I have shelves. About 5 years ago, my husband took up wood working, partially because I kept asking him to build more shelves (bathroom shelves, shoe shelves, closet shelves, garage shelves, benches with hidden shelves.) I am currently waiting on some book shelves. I thought I needed these shelves to be organized. Yet what I really need to be organized, is to have fewer stuff. I looked up the numbers and it appears that the demand for storage lockers has leveled off. It might me because people are obsessed with the books and Netflix special called, “Tidying up” where a nice woman encourages people to get rid of things that don’t bring them joy. That might be a good solution, but I am not sure it addresses the disease itself, which is greed. We care far too much about what we have in relation to others. We seek safety and security in what the world can provide for us. That’s not a healthy way to be. Now I am not going to tell you to give up your stuff, but if you find yourself spending a lot of time protecting your stuff, organizing it, or trying to get more stuff—if you spend time judging yourself for what you don’t have or judging others for what they have—if you forget that everything you own is a gift from God, then I encourage you to consider what that is doing to your life. Because I have never heard of anyone saying on their deathbed, “I wish I had spent more time worrying about my stuff.”
One of the saints of our church, Augustine once said, “God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin is the confusion of those two things.” Far too often we love our things and use people to get more things. We protect our things so fiercely, we forget the people who go without. After this service, we will pack 10,000 meals. This is part of Rise Against Hunger which is an organization working to end world hunger by 2030. While that seems daunting, it’s not impossible. In 1990, 24% of the world was hungry. Now it is down to 10%. That is still too much, but it is evidence that when people come together and look outside themselves, they can change the world. It’s ok to have stuff. Just remember that stuff will not save you. It will not bring you the joy that you crave. That only comes when we can be grateful for what God has given us and share with those who have little.