Good morning, it is good to be here. I wonder – do you have a cupboard under the stairs where possessions get put when you don’t know what to do with them? We don’t have a cupboard under the stairs in our current house but in our last one we did and it was the place that we hastily shoved things into when we had visitors. You know the feeling “Auntie Sally is coming”. Better tidy up. And things got pushed under the stairs and some of them might never see the light of day again.
In our present home we have large amounts of storage in the eaves and when we moved into the house we put all sorts of things in there – as Alan said – just for the time being – the time being in one instance was nearly forty years. When our daughter and her partner were here a few weeks ago they decided to empty one of the eaves.
The things that emerged were amazing. Children’s toys from the sixties, hiking boots, clothes long past their sell by date which certainly would not make a fashion statement, crockery, ornaments – you name it we found it. There were three piles ‘keep’, ‘charity shop’ and ‘tip’. The smallest pile was the ‘keep’ one. It was surprising to see what we had managed to live without for all that time, and just how much that we thought important enough to keep then, was no longer was important to us.
What would you save?
I saw a survey of what people would save if their house was on fire assuming that family and pets were safe. There were those who would save pieces of jewellery, family heirlooms of paintings and ornaments and of course items of purely sentimental value. The most popular item was photographs but this was in the days when photos were kept in packets or albums and could not be saved to the cloud – wherever that might be! No doubt today people would save their phones or computers. I would still save my photobooks because they were made for me by my daughters.
My own daughter said she would save her rolling pin, which is wooden, scorched and would not pass health and safety regulations. She would keep it not because it was valuable but because it had belonged to her grandmother who had used it to teach her to make pastry.
My sister was once on a course for very important nurses. She was, at the time, the senior nursing officer for Cambridge and attended the course with matrons from all over the country – a fierce regiment of women. During the night the fire alarms went off and gathered on the lawn of the house were these redoubtable ladies in dressing gowns and hair nets. I asked my sister what she had taken out with her. Her reply – “my glasses and my cigarettes”. Things important to her at that moment in time.
We all have things which are important to us, some with a monetary value, others with none.
The parable of the rich farmer
The man who asked Jesus to settle a dispute over a will was concerned about his inheritance. It was important to him to receive what he considered a fair share of the family’s material goods. Jesus did not enter into the discussion about the inheritance but told a parable. The parable of the rich fool.
The farmer in the story was obviously a successful one, a prosperous one, obviously well able to manage his land. Certainly, he was no fool when it came to running his business. He produced so much grain that he thought he would build bigger and bigger barns to store it. And by doing so would make his future safe or so he thought.
But this man thought only about himself, this parable is full of the words I, me mine. When the man talks he talks only to himself: What should I do?, for I have no place to store my crops, this is what I will do, I will pull down my barns I will build bigger ones, I will store grain and I will say “Soul, eat drink and be merry and relax”.
A schoolboy was once asked what parts of speech are the words I, Me, My, Mine. His reply: “aggressive pronouns.”
I assume he meant possessive pronouns but in this story they are aggressive and certainly self-centred. The man was thinking only of himself, of his needs, of his future. He had more than enough grain yet it never entered his head to share his abundance. Never thought to help those less fortunate who may well have been in dire need. And certainly, he never acknowledged that his bounty was God given. In his view he had grown the crop, he had managed it, his was the reward.
He never considered he owed any gratitude to God for his success.
He saw his purpose in life solely to accrue more and more for himself and was thinking that by doing so he would protect himself and make his future easy.
But he learns the hard way, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says quite simply, that you cannot take it with you. That what you store up during your life inevitably passes to someone else when you die.
Do possessions rule your life?
Many people today think that they can enrich their lives, ensure their future by having large numbers of possessions and vast amounts of money. That this will make them be looked up to, be valued, and be safe. Possessions will protect them from all adversity, keep them secure. Yes, we know that having enough money to live on makes a huge difference. But no amount of money can protect us from the trials of this life, disease, bereavement, shattered relationships. And certainly it cannot secure our life with God. Jesus warns that in fact greed can destroy our relationship with God. Simply wanting more for the sake of having more, is greed. The man in the parable was greedy, his possessions ruled his life.
Today’s society certainly encourages us to acquire more. Advertising is cleverly and often specifically channelled to encourage us to spend more on worldly goods. It tells us that we need to eat certain types of food, go on expensive holidays, use certain cosmetics if we want to be among the high flyers. I never knew that I needed to eat crushed avocado and quinoa, drink certain smoothies and apply a face cream costing an arm and a leg if I wanted to look younger!
And I find that advertising directed at young people which implies that without the right designer trainers or the right make of mobile phone they are of lesser value than their peers. That’s particularly offensive.
Are you possessed by possessions?
It is not that God doesn’t want us to have possessions but he doesn’t want our belongings to possess us. He doesn’t say we must not save for retirement or future needs. Jesus’ teaching doesn’t mean that wealthy people have no place in God’s kingdom. It is not that God does not want us to eat, drink and be merry – there are examples in the gospels when Jesus spent time eating and drinking with friends. But it is all about priorities.
It is about what part God truly plays in our lives. It is about how we spend the money, the gifts and the talents God has given us that matters. I have heard it said that you can tell someone’s priorities by looking at their credit card statement. I don’t know if that is true but Marks & Spencer and Summerseat Garden Centre would feature strongly on mine. Of course there is some church and charity giving in there too.
Used in service to God and neighbour
What matters is whether we simply accrue things for the sake of having them, or whether we own them, value them and use them in the service of God and our neighbour. And that we thank God for all his generosity to us. What matters is whether our use of God’s gifts furthers his Kingdom or simply lines our own pockets.
An experienced minister once said “I have heard many regrets expressed by people at the end but there is one regret I have never heard. I have never heard anyone say I wish I hadn’t given so much away. I wish I had kept more for myself.” Death has a way of clarifying matters.
Our lives, our possessions are not our own. They belong to God. We are merely stewards of them for the time God has given us on this earth.
Giving it away
In preparing this sermon I came across a poem by CT Studd:
Only one life, twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last
Jesus spoke to people two thousand years ago, but his words ring true today. Unlike the farmer we should not put God’s gifts to us into storage but use them in his service. This means our money, our time and our talents.
And it also applies to his greatest gift, that of his Son Jesus. We should not hug that gift to ourselves but share it willing with others.
In the week to come may we share the love, hope and joy that we receive from God with those we meet.
[‘Are you possessed by possessions’ / ‘the parable of the rich farmer’ was preached by Margery Spencer at St John with St Mark Bury on 4th August 2019. It’s based on Luke 12:13-21. For more by Margery please follow this link.]