“Love People, Use Things”

August 4th, 2019 Sermon - Rev. Kate Byrd

“Love People, Use Things”

My husband Drew really enjoys reading business and leadership books. But, I think what he enjoys most about his knowledge gathering endeavor is his ability to share his new found knowledge with me. Drew often finds questions, or quizzes in his books, which he then of course poses to me at the dinner table. Drew’s most recent book has been “Thinking in Bets,” by Annie Duke. In her book, Duke, poses a simple Would You Rather question to her readers. Would you rather earn $70,000 in 1900 or $70,000 now? Seems like a simple question. But, after some time playing these games with Drew, I have come to realize the answer is never really as simple as it seems. And, in turn have become slightly more hesitant to play. But, I bit. “$70,000 in 1900… now tell me why I’m wrong,” I said. 

It’s true that the average person in 1900 only made about $450 a year, so by comparison $70,000 would be a TON of money. But, the average person in 1900 also only lived till about 47, so already I only have say 15 years left. And, no amount of money in 1900 could buy you Novocain and antibiotics, or a refrigerator and air conditioning unit, or (most importantly) a powerful computer you can hold in one hand. The only thing $70,000 in 1900 could really buy you is the opportunity to exponentially soar above your peers in financial gain. It is also interesting to note, that $70,000 today is about the amount it takes, statistically speaking, to reach peak financial happiness (with the national average income being around $47,000). Researchers have found that once you reach an income of around $70,000 a year, happiness does not increase, in fact in many cases it is reported to decrease. Which really goes against everything our culture has lead us to believe. Because if we have more money then we can have more stuff, and then we should be more happy and content, right? 

In our Gospel today we find a random bystander coming to Jesus and demanding that he  become arbitrator over he and his brothers inheritance. While, I feel as though Jesus had the total right to just laugh in this man’s face, because it isn’t his job to be this man and his brothers keeper. Jesus still obliges by addressing the man’s demands and giving him two pieces of wisdom. First Jesus seeks to comfort the man by letting him know that “one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And, second Jesus then tries to explain, with the parable of “The Rich Fool.” In this parable we are confronted by a rich landowner, who at first glance, looks as though he is making a financially wise and prudent decision. Gathering his excess grain to prepare for the unknowns of the future, seems like a generally smart move to me. What we should be noting, though is not this man’s ability to save and prepare, but how he goes about doing it. As the rich landowner addresses his abundance of crops he begins by complaining, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops,” he gripes. Toiling and worrying over his good fortune. And, second, as he goes on addressing the issue, he uses only two words “I” and “my”. At no point does the man acknowledge his good fortune, giving thanks to God and those who helped him. And, at no point does he consider how his decisions and actions will impact those around him, or even the needs of his community. 

I recently watched a film entitled Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, that covered a wide range of individuals who have dedicated their lives to living with less. The documentary featured friends, families, entrepreneurs, architects, artists, journalists, scientists, and even a former Wall Street broker, all of whom are striving to live a more meaningful life with less. Two of the individuals the film covered are Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn. These two friends are the founders of  The Minimalists. Their project and work has helped over 20 million people live more meaningful lives with less through their website, books, podcast, and this documentary.

In the documentary Ryan begins by sharing his story: 

“I had everything I ever wanted [Ryan says]. Everyone around me said, “your successful.” But, really I was miserable. There was this gaping void in my life. So I tried to fill that void the same way many people do, with stuff. Lots of stuff. I was spending money faster than I was earning, buying my way to happiness. But, I wasn’t really living at all. [And] it got to a point where I didn’t know what was important anymore… [Ryan tells us] Then, I noticed something different about my best friend… Josh. He seemed happy for the first time, in a really long time. But, I didn’t understand why. Because we had both worked at the same corporation. We had both wasted our 20’s climbing the corporate ladder. So, I did what any best friend would do…  I asked him why the hell are you so happy. And, he [began] to tell me about this thing called minimalism.”

What I found most interesting about this film, was not really people’s ability to live with less, although seeing a family of five living happily and comfortably in 675 sq ft apartment was quite an impressive feat. But, it was the fact that what I heard people say over and over again was that overconsumption had lead them to ignore, and in some cases even exploit, the people around them, to feed what these individuals had defined as a destructive, appetite for more things. And, that once people began to assess what they really needed, and let go of what they didn’t, they gained a freedom, a contentment, and a better appreciation for the world and most importantly the people around them. In each one of these individuals journeys towards minimalisms was a story of a renewed sense or newly found connection to others and community. 

The rich man in our parable today, is labeled a fool, (I believe) not because he wants to save or prepare for the future, but because he has allowed his riches to blind him from those around him. Instead of using his good fortune to glorify God and support his community, he has allowed it to consume him with angst, greed, and selfishness. Now, this is not to say that I think we should  all give away our belongings and move into 500 sq ft apartments. Because I have already been there and done that, as newly wed 20 something, and I’m not really interested in doing it again, at least not for right now. But, it is to say that I believe we should really consider Jesus’ words that “one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”, as an invitation to find true joy and freedom in our lives as we intentionally assess our relationship to things, and reclaim the abundance that comes from intentional and meaningful relationships with others and God. 

In just a moment we will baptise Jack Taylor.  And, when we do so we will be asked to do two things. Promise to support and uphold Jack and in his family as he brought up in this community and the Christian faith, and renew our own baptismal covenant. The sacrament of baptism is a beautiful opportunity and reminder to reclaim what is most important in this world, our relationship with God and with one another. What things may be distracting us from grasping hold of the real abundance that God so desires for us to have in our lives. The abundance of joy and love that comes from meaningful relationships, and the freedom of letting go (even if just a little) of our material wealth and things. I want to conclude with a quote from Joshua Fields Millburn that comes from his documentary, Minimalism: Love people, use things. Because the opposite never works. May we love one another, as we are reminded of what it means to be the Body of Christ, and live out our Baptismal covenant in the world.

Rev. Kate Byrd