January 20, 2008

Living Simply
Luke 12:22-31

I heard Sniffles crying outside a few weeks ago. I had attached him to a rope that was long enough to let him wander around a good bit of our yard, but he wasn’t going anywhere. Somehow Sniffles had managed to wrap the rope around a small shrub and light post, and in so doing reduce his explorable territory from several feet to just a few inches. What a pitiful sight it was. A roomy yard. A long rope. And a helpless, entangled dachshund.

Have you ever been entangled? It isn’t much fun, is it? I’m just a bit claustrophobic, perhaps. It’s nothing pathological, for sure, but I like space. I’m not much for sleeping bags; I tend to get all twisted up in them. And the thought of crawling through a narrow cave somewhere or waking up in a closed casket is enough to just about to do me in. Like Houdini escaping from yet another straight-jacket, I want wiggle room. I don’t want to be entangled.

In Luke 12:22-31, Jesus speaks about entangled lives. Other biblical writers do as well. The writer to the Hebrews, for example, encourages his readers to lay aside “the sin that clings so closely” (12:1). Sin, as we all know, can entangle us. In his second epistle, Peter warns against accepting what he calls “bombastic nonsense” (2:17-20). Faulty ideas and corrupt ways of thinking can entangle us. But Jesus speaks of neither here. Instead, he talks about “stuff”—money, worldly ambitions, possessions, food and clothing. Like Sniffles entangled in his rope and unable to move around the yard, so we, according to Jesus, can get entangled in stuff and the rat race to gain it. So he encourages us here to disentangle—to simplify—our lives. This is what our 9th core value is all about: “Living Simply: We value uncluttered lives, which free us to love boldly, give generously, and serve joyfully.”

What, then, does a cluttered, entangled life look like? The entangled life is, first of all, a wearisome life (vv. 22-29). I get exhausted and anxious just looking at these verses. Four times here Jesus speaks about worrying: “Do not worry….” “Can any of you by worrying…?’ “Why do you worry…?” “Do not keep worrying….” And in v. 29, he also talks about striving: “…do not keep striving….”—pushing, running, struggling. And what is all of the worrying and striving about? “Stuff.” Possessions. Food. Clothing. Money. That is what all of the fuss is about.

Now it is true, I’m sure, that Jesus is on the one hand addressing some people here who have very little and who are genuinely concerned about their welfare and the welfare of their families. “Don’t lose hope in the middle of your hardship,” Jesus says to them, “for God will take care of you.” That’s another subject altogether. But the context of this passage clearly implies a wider audience as well. Jesus is speaking to the entire crowd, including those who have plenty and are nevertheless “striving” for even more. Worry and weariness aren’t reserved for those who have little. In fact, those with enough or even a surplus are often the weariest of all. They are the ones most entangled.

Entangled people worry about obtaining more “stuff.” Some want larger homes, higher paying jobs, fancier clothing, and finer furniture. Others want more action, thrills and excitement. Still others want greater fame and popularity. So, as part of their quest for such stuff, they run around, fill their schedules, and overextend themselves in virtually every direction. They are, in a sense, like my childhood friend’s hamster who often ran in his wheel. One day, he ran and ran until he dropped dead, literally, right in the wheel.

Entangled people worry about paying for their stuff. Some entangled people have the resources to pay for their stuff—and a great deal more—but they still worry about it. The thought of a dollar leaving their hands is unsettling, I suppose. Others often spend well beyond their means. They take on massive mortgages that require two fulltime incomes, or they max out on multiple credit cards. When I was in graduate school, Deb worked fulltime as the office manager for a Urologist and I worked part-time for the Star Ledger newspaper in Newark. We applied for a Shell credit card—a gas card!—and were turned down. Today, you can probably find Visa cards in boxes of Cracker Jack. And when reality sets in, entangled people are left with burdensome payments and sky-rocketing interest rates.

Entangled people worry about using their stuff. Perhaps they paid a lot for it, so they don’t want it just sitting around. Or maybe their stuff is complicated and difficult to use. My family and I visited an older couple when we were away over the holidays. They had a new T.V. connected to a cable that provided what must have been 200 or 300 channels. Attached to the TV were separate DVD and VHS players, and beside the TV were at least four remotes. When the man attempted to switch the TV from cable to DVD, the entire system when blank. And he had no clue what to do. And the harder he tried, the more frustrated he and his wife became. I was ready to call a marriage therapist.

Entangled people worry about maintaining their stuff. Things that they own require upkeep and attention. There are large lawns to mow, flower beds to weed, wheels to grease, printer cartridges to replace, filters to change, chemicals to add, and…. Stuff zaps our time and energy—physical and emotional.

Entangled people worry about protecting their stuff. They constantly check their investments and pray that the economy doesn’t go south. They buy insurance for absolutely everything these days so that they are not left empty-handed if something happens to it. They not only lock their doors when they leave, but invest in increasingly elaborate security systems to protect their stuff from thieves.

And entangled people worry about storing their stuff. Rooms grow crowded, attics overflow, and owners of self-storage facilities such as those springing up everywhere laugh all the way to the bank.

My grandfather worked into his 80’s to pay his meager bills and put food on the table. That is the way things were back then. But you know, I never saw my grandfather anxious or frantic. He was tired, to be sure, from working so hard—scrubbing floors in a local bank near the end of his life. But not drained—not totally spent like so many people are these days. Working hard for what we need is tiring, as it should be. Worrying about and striving for what we don’t need is wearisome. The entangled life is a wearisome life.

The entangled life is, secondly, a worldly life (v. 30). That, I suppose, is the irony of all of this. If it wasn’t so sad, it might be funny. So many people, Christians and otherwise, actually believe that the entangled life is the way to deeper meaning and contentment. Most of our natural instincts and insecurities push us to grab and accumulate, and the surrounding culture only reinforces these urges by bombarding us with what are, at least according to Jesus, lies. We are constantly led to believe that we can buy, not only new clothing, new cars, and new careers, but new lives. If we buy a new car, we get a bonus. The blond sitting on the hood. An enhanced public persona. If we wear a certain brand of clothing, our self-confidence rises and people like us more. If we buy make-up from Mabeline, we will somehow be transformed into the person we’ve forever wanted to be. We’re not just dropping down a few bucks for some eye-liner. We’re buying a new self-image—a new “me.” Just think for a moment about some of the claims made to us through various advertisements:
A smiling young woman holding a bottle of Clairol’s Herbal Essences shampoo, the caption reading: “This is the look of a totally satisfied woman.”
Three diamond rings, described in this way: “What extraordinary love looks like.”
A red cell phone, and the accompanying line: “Color clips that match your outfit. Because the fashion police are always on duty.”
A Porsche with wings on it, flying above the earth, with this caption: “Infinity and Beyond.”
A pair of Nikes, along with this question: “Who says you can’t run away from your problems?”
A car, positioned on top of the ocean, with these words: “Drive where Our Saviour Walked.”
A BankAmericard, accompanied by this promise: “It’s All You Need: Almost.”
And these are just a sampling of the kinds of promises that we are asked to believe. So we work extra hours for this, accept a promotion because it will enable us to obtain that, and run ourselves ragged to obtain things what really won’t satisfy the deepest longings of our souls. “This is the way the world lives,” Jesus remarks. “These are lies and deceptions,” he suggests. Don’t believe them. The entangled life is a worldly life.

And finally, Jesus assures us that the entangled life is ultimately a wasted life (v. 31). In reality, rather than bringing us the contentment, meaning and acceptance that we all deeply long for, stuff gets in the way. Stuff is like that awful buildup of hair and grime that sometimes blocks the drain in the sink, tub or shower. You know what I am talking about, don’t you? You remove the drain cover, put your fingers in the pipe and pull out a handful of accumulated gunk. When you remove the blockage, the water flows quickly.

That, Jesus reasons here, often describes the relationship between stuff and our spiritual lives. Rather than nurturing our souls and empowering us for Christian service, stuff preoccupies us, wearies us, and blocks the free-flowing movement of God’s Spirit in our lives. Perhaps God seems distant and his will for us vague and unclear. Or maybe God is calling some here to various forms of ministry—pastors, missionaries, bi-vocational workers in urban or third-world settings—but we’re too attached to stuff to ever imagine actually going. Or perhaps stuff, like hair in the drain, simply inhibits our living like Christ in the everyday situations that come our way. We’re so consumed by stuff that we can’t or won’t give generously to the church and people in need. We’re so overscheduled that a knock on the door is annoying, let alone the thought of having a new neighbor over for a meal. Clean out the drain, Jesus suggests here. Strive for his kingdom, and don’t worry about everything else. When we disentangle our lives from stuff, then, we open new channels through which God and his Spirit flow in and through us. This is largely what our 9th core value is all about.

Sniffles was crying in the yard a few weeks ago. With his rope entangled around a shrub and light post, he couldn’t move. So I went out and untangled the rope. When Sniffles realized that he was free, he wagged his tail and ran all around the yard. That’s what Jesus is talking about here in Luke 12:22-31. He wants to untangle us from worldly stuff so that we are free to move, breathe and really live in the power of his Spirit. And in what ways might he ask us to begin? Here are just a few, simple suggestions:
1. Name the world’s promises for what they are—lies.
2. Free up some breathing-room in your schedule—perhaps a half-hour or so a day—to think, smell a flower, read with the kids, or call a lonely neighbor.
3. Develop a spending plan, and live within your means. If you need help with this or your financial situation is already out of control, call the church and let us know. We have people here who can walk through this with you.
4. Go through your stuff at least once a year—you and your family—and give clothing, toys and other items that you no longer use to Salvation Army or New Hope Ministries.
5. Pray for the leaders of our congregation this week as we meet and talk about possible ways to simplify the life and ministries of our church.