What was all that stuff?
Proper 21, Year C, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
Contentment and godly living is Paul’s message to Timothy today. We are told that we came into this world with nothing and we will leave this world with nothing. If we have food and clothing we should be content. I think anyone who has moved from one home to another knows how much stuff we accumulate. Shortly after our daughter Sarah was born we moved from one town to another. As Amy and I were discussing the move she said we had a lot to get rid of; and we talked about getting a small dumpster. I thought this was overkill but I went along with it. Several weeks later, I come home from work to find that there was a huge full size dumpster parked on the curb. I thought Amy must have lost her mind, but as we packed and prepared for the move the dumpster kept filling up. I can’t say it ever got heaping full, but it did fill up way beyond what would have fit in a smaller one.
What was all that stuff? In retrospect, I have no idea. It was just a little of this and a little of that. Items stored in the garage or things we were haling around from our college days. I’m not sure how you can get rid of 40 cubic yards of stuff and not miss it at all, but that is what happened. Seven years later, when we moved to Sewanee we brought less than half of our stuff. Our family of six transitioned form a very spacious house down to 1,000 sq. feet. We got used to the space and after some time, found it quite comfortable. And we realized again how little we need to be happy. I don’t think that Amy and I are especially remarkable; I believe any of us would adapt much in the same way. When circumstances change we humans adapt and learn to live in new way. The same way we can be accustom to a reduction, it is just as easy for us to get used to having more. When we receive a wage increase or climb the ladder of success, we, over time, tend to increase the size of our house, the neighborhood we live in, or the type of cars we drive. I think this can be a very slow and subtle change where we simply get used to having nicer and newer things in our lives. But is this so bad?
When we read what Paul is speaking about we notice that he really isn’t talking about general stuff in our lives, Paul is speaking specifically about money and wealth. He says that those who desire wealth fall into temptation. They are trapped by senseless desires. I find this passage especially fascinating when we compare this paragraph in which the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil to the last paragraph in today’s reading. “For those who are rich, command them not to be haughty or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches.” When we look at these texts as a whole we find wealth in of its self is not the problem. The problem comes from our attitude about money. The problem comes when we set our hopes and dreams on becoming richer. The issue can also be when we use our wealth to impress others, being haughty so to speak. Paul is contrasting this typical lifestyle to one in which we can be wealthy and live simply. Living in simplicity gives us the ability to have more flexibility with what we do with our assets. It allows us to live life generously.
Living generously is one important aspect of Christian living. Christ tells us this in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In this thinly veiled metaphor we clearly see the difference between the two people; both in life and in the next life. The rich man is comfortable, maybe too comfortable with his life. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge the existence of Lazarus. Lazarus is lying at the gate which is the entrance of the rich man’s home. There was no way that the rich man could avoid seeing this person. He couldn’t just drive into his garage and push a button to raise and lower the garage door of the outside world. Each time he went in or out of his house he had to step over this man, lying by the gate, covered in sores, hungry. My guess it that Lazarus was a fixture at that gate, much as there are homeless people or pan handlers on certain corners of Houston. Each day they are there looking for, or hoping for, a hand out. And much like Lazarus it is all too easy to step over them; driving on by, doing our best not to acknowledge their presence, their very existence in our society; in our lives.
I’ll be the first to admit that it is hard to stop what we are doing and hand out money to people. It would be even harder to give something to every person we meet who is in need. Even though I truly believe this is what Christ is calling us to do. It is very difficult. There are probably a myriad of reasons we avoid others like this. We may be repulsed by their dirty skin and clothing, much as the rich man was most assuredly repulsed by Lazarus’s sores. We may not want to take time out of our schedules. We may feel fear by their very presence near us. I know at least for me these are some of the feelings and excuses I make when I encounter random people in need. Yet we are called to live generously.
Helping others on a one-on-one basis is not the only way to live generously. I know that some of you are very generous with your time and your money, volunteering with the food bank, contributing to the library, and many other organizations. For some of us it is easier to give contributions to organizations who then go into the world and help others. In some ways this can be a benefit. The organization can help a larger group of people in a more equal way.
For example a man panhandling on a busy corner may receive much greater donations than a similar man on a relatively empty corner. An organization for the homeless potentially helps each person the same. Places of worship are often such organization. Over the last 5 years or so, there are studies that show the impact faith based organizations have on local communities. This is known as the “halo effect.” In these studies we find that Churches contribute more to the local communities than they take in. The money they receive helps the local economy by purchasing goods and services, and by employing people. But way beyond this, parishes organize volunteers, provide food pantries, shelters, stop gap help for people stranded or in need. They provide free or low cost space for other organizations such as AA, preschools, scouts, and many other organizations which have a vested interest in helping people. Space such as this is usually not possible in a corporate environment. Though we may not always see a hard cost or even a benefit to the churches for providing these services, economists say that there is a clear benefit in education, prevention of divorce and suicide, reduced medial cost and other sociology-economic support.
One study looked at 12 inner city congregations in Philadelphia, including a synagogue. The total annual economic benefit from the 12 congregations to the surrounding community was $50.5 million. The Gloria Dei Episcopal Church in Queen Village, for instance, was the median example of the twelve with a valuation of $1.65 million.[i] Looking on the national church web site I found that in 2010, when this study was done, this parish had a plate and pledge contribution of about $65,000 and an average Sunday attendance of 80 people.[ii] This means for every dollar that was contributed to that church, in the alms plate or by pledge, there was an additional 24 dollars of benefit to the local community. Now I’m not sure how Christ Church compares to that parish, but I do know that we make a difference in Eagle Lake, and with your continued and increasing support Christ Church will be a transformative force in this community. As we go forth in our stewardship campaign, over the next several weeks; I wonder if we can prayerfully look at how we contribute to different organizations. And I pray that each of us can commitment to living generously by supporting our surrounding community through this church.