It wasn’t so much a barn as a warehouse. I moved into my new home with all my assorted stuff, and a few weeks later a gigantic moving van arrived from Virginia, holding approximately half of my parents’ earthly possessions, as well as a goodly portion of everything they had retained from the homes of their mothers.
As I unpacked it began to feel a little like a museum. Every box held some precious item full of emotional value: a Royal Doulton lady, a sterling silver cake server, a hand-painted china plate. The large items intended for high-ceilinged Victorian and Georgian spaces overwhelmed my 1928 Dutch Colonial. At least the gigantic china cabinet made a space to store all the little things.
Remember, it was a moving van from Virginia, where the older something is, the more you love it, no matter what it might be.
It turns out it is not new, the human urge to acquire and maintain material possessions that make us feel connected to the past and well-fixed in the present and secure for the future. Jesus responded to a family dispute with the story of a landowner who celebrated his financial security only to learn that his putting away and saving up would do him no good. His bigger barns would pass to someone else, I suppose, because his time on earth was over.
It’s pretty clear what Jesus is telling us. The material things do not matter. What matters is our relationship with God. Forget about all the stuff. Forget about the places you keep the stuff. Get your priorities in order.
As a more modern prophet, George Carlin, famously said, “A house is just a place to keep your stuff so you can go out and get more stuff.”
The trouble is, I like those pretty things that belonged to my grandmother.
I don’t know who the young lady on the hand-painted china plate is, but I do know the artist was a maiden aunt who lived with my father’s large family. They all lived together, three generations, and various other occasional relatives and boarders.
A few treasures were passed down to my grandmother: a couch and rocking chair crafted by her boat-building grandfather, Shadrach Hudgins; the paintings by Aunt Anice; my grandmother’s wedding silver. Much of this passed to me because the furniture was too old-fashioned to interest my brother. The paintings we divided. Although it was our parents’ sincere desire that we not quarrel over material items, and I thought we didn’t, it turns out we did. We just didn’t do it to each other’s faces.
The family dispute brought to Jesus was about an inheritance. We don’t know the details, but we’ve all known someone who thought they got a raw deal over a piece of family property: a necklace or ring, a vacation home, an investment, a Sheraton sideboard. Who does it really belong to? Why do these things matter so much to us?
Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
Many years have gone by. I’m not sure how to fix an argument I didn’t mean to have over a grandfather clock (his) and a music box (mine). We’ve lived far apart, and that didn’t help much. When I visited his house last year, I reached out and touched things I hadn’t seen for years, the smooth and shiny wood of a wardrobe, the familiar surface of my mother’s writing desk, the photos of our dad with people famous enough to be recognized by anyone walking by. I felt a little healed and, quite honestly, a little hurt still by the process.
We don’t get deeper without expending some effort. We don’t get closer to God without becoming different people, a little bit hurt and a little bit healed.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul urges us to seek the good and put off the bad, to be transformed once and for all by Jesus Christ. This all sounds lofty and hard, doesn’t it? “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth … Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly…” Even the worst of us can do this, according to Paul, because we’re all equal in God’s eyes, made new through Jesus Christ. It’s important to remember Paul thought the time was short. He wasn’t giving advice for the long haul. He thought Jesus was coming back in his lifetime.
We’re still waiting. We’ve been waiting so long we don’t spend much time thinking about it. We have lived out lifetimes and generations and millennia, and the barns just keep getting bigger.
The Psalm reminds us that the wandering and being brought back together are not a once and for all literal accounting. The Psalm creates a repeating image, describes a rhythm of human development. We go through wilderness times and come back into community. We feel lost and confused, but we find our way back to God. This is not just one person’s story but humanity’s story, a constant search for the One who made us, a repeated attempt to be in a relationship we want despite the things that seem to keep getting in the way.
- The goods.
- The money.
- The aspirations to success.
- The certainty that a little bit more will be enough.
But what is enough? A recent survey reports that 70% of those with at least $1 million in investable assets don’t consider themselves to be wealthy…it’s only when they hit the $5 million mark that millionaires begin to feel “wealthy.“[i]
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? ‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:20-21)
When I moved here to Mechanicsburg, I had to make some hard choices about all the stuff in my household. It’s a pretty big barn, our townhouse, but two generations and their two households had already combined. How many dining room tables can one house hold? We all had to do some giving and some giving away.
Please don’t ask how much is still in the basement awaiting a final decision.
I’m telling you all this because whether the things in our lives are family heirlooms or living room sets or books or a yarn stash or plasma TVs or vintage Corvettes – or bad chalk portraits that don’t really look quite like you or your child, but what are you supposed to do with them? – whether they are tacky or tasteful, expensive or priceless, fixating on acquiring and maintaining them will get in the way of our relationship with God.
We all have a list of “buts.”
But we live longer now.
But everything costs so much!
But our houses won’t sell someday when we are old for the amount of money we thought they would, and what will happen to us?
But Jesus hasn’t come back yet.
I hate to tell you this, because I hate to admit it to myself. The “buts” don’t matter. They do not matter. What matters is living right now in authentic relationship with God and with each other. What matters is love, not things, even though it’s true that sometimes we feel that love through things we can hold in our hands. What matters is getting out of the wilderness of the earthly kingdom and coming back to the place God inhabits.
All the things in the world won’t do that for us.
God gathers us in, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. God gathers us in through Jesus Christ. God gathers us into a community of love more lasting than the biggest barns or the richest crops or the daintiest hand-painted china plate. In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.