Possessions: Burden or Blessing?

April 12th, 2015

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

I want to begin this sermon with a story about Christian community, generosity, and the incredible timing of the Holy Spirit. When I was a 24-year-old seminary student in Austin, Texas, with one year to go, I ran out of money. Not too surprising for someone at the end of a 3-year graduate program. To give you a little context, Joel and I were engaged at the time, but living about 500 miles apart as Joel was stationed at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. I was living in a small studio apartment on campus, working several part-time jobs, and just trying to get by. It’s a familiar story and I know many of you have your own version.

The rule for whatever reason was that I could not take out a student loan to get through that final year without a signature from the financial representative at the seminary. So, one afternoon, I made an appointment to tell the head of student resources my tale of woe to which he politely listened. I explained how I could no longer afford to pay rent on my modest apartment and ran through the litany of why I could or could not ask for help from various other sources. At the end of my saga, he diplomatically informed me that he would not sign the loan paperwork. It was against seminary policy to allow students to take on debt in that form. He said I would have to pray harder and figure something else out.

I walked out of his office dejected. Pray, I did. Pray and worry. Worry and pray. Several days later, I got a phone call from the same head of student resources. Long story short, an Episcopalian who had moved to California still owned a small apartment in North Austin, about 10 miles away from the seminary. He no longer wished to rent out the property, but wasn’t ready to sell either. He had called the seminary that morning explaining his desire to have one seminary student in need live in the apartment completely free of charge for one year. He wanted to know if anyone might be interested.

God is good and God wants to provide. I’d say stories like this–when the answer falls neatly into your lap–are few and far between. God’s abundant provision seldom appears in a timely manner, packaged to perfection, as if it were meant to be. You usually have to be a bit more patient, or observant, or open minded in your expectations. But every once in a while, God drops one into your lap, neatly tied with a bow.

Throughout the season of Easter, during these Fifty Days, we will hear from the Book of Acts, part two of Luke’s gospel, which chronicles the historic early days just after Jesus was resurrected.

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a person in need among them”

Now, I do realize it’s April 12, and Tax Day looms large. Any jokes about not claiming private ownership over anything and instead holding common ownership of everything is probably best done ANY OTHER Sunday of the year, except maybe Stewardship Sunday. But I don’t think the author of Luke and Acts, or the early Christian communities were necessarily nudging us into communism or socialism any other kind of “-ism,” but rather, it is an attempt at ordering our understanding of the resurrection by reframing our relationships with our possessions and our needs. “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” This is how the text continues and yet still goes on to further discuss the common stewardship and sharing of resources in this early faith community.

What this makes me wonder is this: how do we view our possessions? And are they a burden or a blessing? For just a moment, take mental inventory of the material possessions with which you are blessed. Do you feel a sense of abundance? Or scarcity? Keeping in mind that feelings of abundance or scarcity often bear no correlation to the quantity of stuff in your life. Does a larger home feel like a luxury or a burden: A burden because it’s simply more to maintain, more to clean, more to keep up with? Or, a luxury because it’s more space to move around in, to gather people together, to feed people around one large table, to display beautiful art and other things you love or to reflect the hard work of building a life of which you’re proud? It’s a matter of perspective and attitude.

I’ll use my children and their toys as another example. They have lots of toys, nice toys, things like cars, blocks, puzzles, you name it. And what do they play with? The giant box from Amazon that the diapers come in. They get so excited when the UPS delivery guy brings it to the porch. They run to get out markers and crayons. They turn it into a racecar, then a rocket ship, sometimes a castle. This box sits around taking up about half the floor space in our living room for weeks until it falls apart from use, from play.

We relate differently to different things. This diaper box is a great example of how we have different feelings towards objects with which we have a creative relationship. Maybe you feel that way about the things in your kitchen because you love to cook and the soup pot and cooking utensils remind you of people for whom you have made special meals. Or maybe it’s a workshop full of tools that belonged to your father, and they are special because you remember building things with your dad. Those possessions, those tools, remind you of a relationship, of memories, and they are far more than simply objects.

These sorts of possessions are lovely and they are important, they can even be sacred, but I imagine they make up a pretty small percentage of the items you own. What about the rest? What about the clothes you never wear, the toys the kids never play with, the boxes you never unpacked when you moved 8 years ago that are still sitting in the basement–the list goes on and on. You are the steward of the resources within your reach, it’s true, but they belong to God.

Now, this is a terrible saying, but it bears repeating here: “You can’t take it with you.” It’s true. Possessions don’t belong to us. They belong to God. We must hold them loosely. I have this image in my mind of a giant scale. It’s about lightness and heaviness. What bogs you down? Do your possessions bog you down? Or are there compartments in the wider realm of your life that need spring-cleaning? If so, what are they? What weighs you down?

Just as Spring is a good time for a deep clean, a de-cluttering of the stuff in your life, the Fifty Days of Easter are an excellent time for a de-cluttering of your Spirit. Reflect upon this honestly. In what ways do the possessions in your life weigh you down and get in the way of your relationship with the resurrected Jesus? Are you always thinking about the NEXT THING: a bigger house, a better bike, a newer car? In the turning towards “the next thing” that you want, you are drawn away from living a life modeled after Jesus. That is the distraction from the resurrected Jesus whom we are in the presence of right now, this Easter season.

What about simplicity? What about streamlining the “stuff” of our lives in order that we may focus on the things that truly matter. Is it possessions that truly matter? Or is it relationships, community, generosity? How can our possessions and our needs facilitate deeper relationships by generously sharing and receiving out of our communal abundance?

This happened for me in seminary when I was gifted the use of an apartment for a year. I see it happening in my neighborhood through the Buy Nothing West Seattle Facebook group in which people freely gift all manner of things to others instead of selling or donating. We have been able to pass on a number of children’s items to other families and have received amazing things like clothes, and even a bike, all while meeting our neighbors and strengthening our community. It’s the modern day version of what was happening in Acts lived out in the digital age. We could even start an Epiphany Freecycle group to share things among each other if anyone is interested. If you are, please let me know.

These are the things that are life giving. These are the things that model Christ. These are the things that grow our Spirits and nurture our Souls in much the same way that it did for those early Christians who shared what they had in common. Scripture says, they shared what they had and great grace was upon them all. If we are able to reframe the relationships we have with our possessions, I believe we will come to a better understanding of the resurrection. And we will be better followers of Jesus, and not simply believers in Jesus. This Easter season, may we seek to de-clutter our souls.