August 4, 2019
Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
There are times when I wonder how I managed to accumulate all the stuff I have. There are things I look at and wonder why I ever thought I needed them. Now that my sons are grown and our house is starting to feel too big, I feel a bit daunted at the thought of having to sort through all that stuff and decide what we really need and what to get rid of. It’s a common experience, this need to rethink our relationship to what we possess.
But I wonder how much we think about our relationship to possessions in theological terms. How is our relationship to God reflected in what we own and what we acquire? Both our epistle and our gospel today suggest this is not a minor question. In the gospel, Jesus warns the gathered crowd to be on guard against all kinds of greed because our lives do not consist in the abundance of possessions. He tells the story of a rich man who, in fact, thinks his life is made secure and his very soul is satisfied because of his abundance of possessions. But, Jesus says, there is no lasting security in storing up treasures for oneself and failing to be rich toward God.
In the epistle, Paul tells the Christians in Colossi that behaviour matters, including their behaviour toward possessions. Now that they live a new life in Christ, their whole orientation to the world must change. They must set their minds on things that are above, not things that are on earth. This may sound like Paul is saying they should ignore the world and live exclusively on a spiritual plane, but if we look back a bit in the text, we will see that this is not the case.
Paul had heard that the young church in Colossi was being influenced by people who were telling them that their new life in Christ was not enough. They were pressed to add rituals and regulations, to experience visions or worship angels. In short, false teachers were saying that Christ alone would not save them, that the Colossians needed to jump through extra spiritual hoops in order to achieve salvation.
Not so, said Paul. The Colossians, and we, have died (through baptism) and our lives are hidden with Christ in God. When Paul says, then, that we are to seek the things that are above, not things on earth, he is saying our priorities must change. We must live in the world as people who live in Christ.
Think of the promises we make in the baptismal covenant – to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves. To strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of all people. To safeguard the integrity of creation. This is what living in Christ looks like.
Accordingly, Paul tells the Colossians they are to ‘put to death’, or get rid of, behaviours that are inconsistent with this new life. Rather than focus on themselves, on rituals and spiritual experiences designed to make them worthy, they are to focus on how they act in the day-to-day world with real people. All the behaviours he lists – impurity, passion, evil desires, anger malice, slander – have to do with how we live in relationship with others.
You might wonder how this relates to my original question about our relationship to possessions, but one of the worldly behaviours Paul says must be eliminated is greed. The same greed Jesus warns the crowd to guard against.
Greed is "a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed". It’s easy to imagine greed at its worst –the person who shoves their way to the front of the line to make sure they get the most of whatever is on offer. Or the person who piles their plate high and stuffs their face with food. Or maybe the corporate CEO who earns millions of dollars per year while their employees need food banks to help make ends meet. That’s greed at its most blatant and, as people with modest budgets and relatively good manners, we can feel pretty comfortable that it doesn’t apply to us. However, Jesus was speaking to ordinary people, not the 1st century equivalent of the mega-rich, so it might just be worth it to look at our relationship to our possessions.
One of my primary responsibilities as a deacon is to interpret the needs, hopes, and concerns of the world to the Church. In other words, a major part of my calling is to help us all as a community, myself included, to think about how we fulfill our baptismal promises in the world. This is not an abstract thing. It is about how we act in the day-to-day world with real people, about how we make decisions and yes, about our relationship to our possessions.
So, let’s come back to my question: how is our relationship to God reflected in what we own and what we acquire? What does owning and acquiring look like for Christians, living their lives in Christ? In order to think about this in concrete terms I want to use an example we can all relate to. Clothes. We all buy them. We all wear them. We all give them away or thrown them out when we don’t want them anymore. It may seem a pretty benign example, but what if we take a look at some of what underlies that relationship with clothing? For example:
- According to one survey, the average person (man or woman) in North America has over 100 items of clothing in their closets. I went to my closet and counted and I can now tell you that my well over 100 items of clothing don’t take up as much room as you might think. Go home and count, you might be surprised.
- In 1960, the average person bought fewer that 25 items per year. Today, the average is 70, or more than one per week.
- The average person wears something like 20% of all those clothes in their closet. And it’s not uncommon for them to have clothing that has never been worn and has the tags still on.
- And yet, almost half of the people in one survey said they look in their filled closets and think “I have nothing to wear”.
Does this sound like, when it comes to clothes, the average person may have a desire for more of something than is needed? I think that’s what my closet and my shopping habits are telling me.
But how does this affect my baptismal calling to love my neighbour, or seek justice, or care for creations? We could have a Saturday morning study on this topic and only scratch the surface, but let me give just a few examples .
Starting with the relationship with creation:
- Apparently, it takes around 2,700 litres of water to make a single t-shirt, 6,900 to make a pair of jeans.
- Toxic chemicals are regularly used in the dying processes for clothes.
- Plastic micro-fibers, which leach out of synthetic clothing when they are washed, are a significant source of pollution in oceans and on beaches.
- And around 85% of our discarded clothing ends up in landfills, to the tune of about 12 million tons per year, or 70 lbs. per person, in North America. Increasingly, in order to keep people buying, clothing is manufactured to be disposable, lasting only a few washings before it falls apart and ends up in a landfill.
Moving on to seeking justice
- While damage to the environment affects everyone, it is the most vulnerable, those already living at significant disadvantage and with fewer resources to help them cope in difficult times, who are affected most quickly and suffer the greatest harm.
- Also, in order to increase profits and ensure lots of variety so people will keep buying, companies have their clothes made in countries where wages are low and safety regulations few. For example, according to one book on the fashion industry, in 2012 a garment worker in the U.S. made 38 times the wage of their counterpart in Bangladesh.
You get the point. Our decisions about possessions can have real effects on us, on other people, and on the environment. And like the rich man in the parable, the more we have, the more we think we need. In fact, our consumer culture counts on that, offering enticements and encouragements to believe we need more, and more, and more. Until one day we find that we have far more of something than we need.
This is not to say that owning possessions is bad, or that wanting nice things is bad. In the words of theologian Luke Timothy Johnson; “Given the way God has created us, and given the goodness of creation, it is inconceivable that the use of creation, and possessing, would be regarded as evil in and of themselves.” What is at issue then, is not whether we own things, but how that ownership impacts on others, on God’s creation, and on our primary, life giving relationship with our Creator.
The rich man in the parable ran up against this issue in a rather dramatic way. He had his barns full of grain and other possessions. He was sure he was set for life and he told his 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?'
The rich man made an idol of his possessions, believing that they would satisfy his soul. Idolatry, Luke Timothy Johnson says, is “the choice of treating as ultimate and absolute something which is neither ultimate nor absolute”. It is making a god of something that can be possessed and controlled. Greed and idolatry go hand in hand. The materially rich man thought his most important and lasting relationship was the one he had with his possession. He stored up treasures for himself but was not rich toward God. And so he missed the only relationship that could give him life.
How, then can we strive to be rich toward God? Paul told the Colossians they had stripped off the old self with its practices - impurity, passion, evil desires, malice, slander, and greed - and clothed themselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal, he said, Christ is all and in all!
In a few minutes, we will be sharing the Eucharist together. We will come to the table with thanksgiving, forgiven and brought back into right relationship with one another. We will leave the table renewed, ready to be sent out into the world to love and serve the Lord. As we serve Christ in the world, we learn to be rich toward God. In our relationship to our possessions, as in all our relationships in the world, we strive to see the concrete tangible ways in which our choices help or harm ourselves, others, and God’s Creation. This is the practice of a lifetime. But, thanks be to God, we do not do it alone. We have died to the world and our lives our hidden with Christ in God. And Christ is all in all. Amen.