I don’t know about you, but I have too much stuff. Eleven years ago we moved from a sixteen-room house (a big old parsonage) to an eight-room house. Before we moved we had a huge yard sale. Still, it was a good two years before we could put both our cars into the two-car garage. This may sound like what my daughter calls a “first world-problem,” and it is!
We Americans have too much stuff, and it is not good for our souls. I grew up in a middle-class American family of five. We had a one-level ranch house with three bedrooms, two of them very small, with small closets. My brother and I shared a bunk bed. We had a one-car garage. Our house was built on a concrete slab, so there was no basement. We had an attic, just a crawl space, and my Dad had to climb up there every year to get the Christmas tree stand. Not much room to store stuff.
How things have changed! Look at the four square feet around you. That is the per-capita share of the American self-storage industry, according to the Self-Storage Association, a trade group. They say that “the country now possesses some 1.875 billion square feet of personal storage. All this space is contained in nearly 40,000 facilities owned and operated by more than 2,000 entrepreneurs, including a handful of publicly traded giants like Public Storage, Storage USA, and Shurgard.” (From Slate, “Self-Storage Nation” by Tom Vanderbilt)
These facilities pop up in the American landscape like mushrooms after a rainstorm. There’s one nearby on RT 7 in Lanesborough. There’s one on RT 20 in Lee. There’s a huge new one on RT 295 in E. Chatham.
This is where Americans store the stuff that no longer fits in our homes, even though the average American home is much bigger than it was a generation ago. “You can’t take it with you,” as the proverb begins—but you can certainly find a place to stash it away.” (Ibid. Vanderbilt) The self-storage industry is one symptom that we have too much stuff.
I passed a yard sale today around the corner from my house. On any Saturday you can drive around town and find twenty of them, whether they’re called garage sales, tag sales, or yard sales, they are events where people sell their extra stuff to other people. My stuff becomes your stuff! Your stuff becomes my stuff!
In extreme cases some of us in this nation of stuff storers become stuff hoarders. The popular AMC documentary Hoarders depicts real-life people who suffer from “compulsive hoarding disorder.” Yes, it is a real thing that the American Psychological Association added to their list of disorders in 2013 and it affects between 2% and 5% of the population. I’ve known several people who suffer, and I do mean suffer, from this problem and it is a real problem.
I am convinced that this small group of the population with this disorder are different from us only in degree and not in kind, which is why the TV show Hoarders is so popular. We are looking at an exaggerated version of ourselves in a mirror.
My thesis today is that we are a nation of storers and hoarders and that this is a spiritual problem that is not good for us or for the nation.
I am convinced that our unprecedented acquisition of so many possessions is a form of idolatry. In today’s Epistle from Colossians, the writer (let’s call him Paul) calls greed “idolatry” and he is right! There was a great prayer in one of the early UCC liturgies that had this line in the prayer of confession: “We have worshipped ourselves and the things we have made.” That’s idolatry!
Idolatry is when you put anything that is not God in the place of God. So if success in America is typically measured by wealth, than our possessions become a marker of success. We accumulate stuff not because we need it, but because it fills some need in us.
This is not an accident. Our economic system is designed for continual growth in markets, which many are only now noticing is unsustainable for our planet. As fish don’t notice the water in the bowl we don’t notice the commercialized world we swim in, where, as Montesquieu said, “superfluous things become useful, and useful ones necessary.” In the United States alone advertisers spend 200 billion dollars annually to tell us what we need to buy.
So we buy stuff, lots of stuff. Not so that we can keep up with the Jones’s, but so that we can have more than the Jones’s.
Do any of you watch the profound TV show The Simpsons? One of the recurring characters is the despicable Charles Burns, who is the evil owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and is also Homer Simpson’s boss. One day Homer says to him: “Mr. Burns, you’re the richest guy I know.” And Mr. Burns replies, “Yes, but I’d give it all for just a little more.”
That comic caricature of greed tells a deep truth that in our American collective life the goal is not to have enough, but to always strive for more. Our lotteries are based on it.
There is something profoundly un-Christian at the heart of the way our economic life is organized. Jesus taught concern for others, concern for the poor, and sharing what we have with those who don’t have.
What a contrast with the implicit selfishness at the heart of economic life, which is why I call it idolatrous. “We have worshipped ourselves and the things we have made.”
We hear economic talk about “the invisible hand” and “the fairness of markets,” and the balancing of “mutual self-interest.” Does that sound like Jesus?
One of Adam Smith’s most famous quotes is this: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
Self-interest is not the way of Jesus. We permit obscene income inequality in this country because we aspire to be one of the 1%. We envy them. I once heard Bill Coffin say that the reason Socialist ideas have never really taken hold in America is that we do not imagine ourselves as a nation of “Haves” and “Have Nots,” but rather as “a nation of Haves,” and “Have a Littles” who want more.”
We admire the rich. Should it be a surprise that in a nation that worships wealth and celebrity that many would choose a rich celebrity to be our leader?
So Jesus’s parable in today’s lesson is counter-cultural. The rich man had so much stuff he wanted to build bigger barns to store it, so he could live off what he had acquired.
But Jesus’s says the man is a fool, because your stuff won’t save you. Your stuff won’t keep you from dying.
And your stuff won’t even make you happy. I preached a sermon years ago on “love of money is the root of all evil,” and one of my congregants shook my hand at the door and said, “If you don’t think money can buy happiness you’re shopping at the wrong store!” We both got a laugh about it, but it is not true. Funny, but not true.
Your stuff won’t make you happy!
There was an article in last Sunday’s NY Times in the Real Estate Section about specialized moving companies you can hire for $100 an hour to help you get rid of your stuff, because people can’t bear to part with it.
Which just shows that we start out owning our possessions, and they end up owning us. Sure, it is fun to go out and buy something nice or fun. You buy that new car, and it makes you feel happy for a time.
But study after study shows that people who spend their money on experiences derive more happiness than those who spend it on things. Travel, French lessons, a camping trip will make you happier longer than a new Mercedes.
I went on two eye mission trips to Ecuador with Dr. John Galt and I worked hard all day every day for two weeks helping poor people get glasses, and I don’t recall ever being much happier.
So what do we do? Let us listen to Jesus: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Back in the 1980’s there was a movie called Wall Street about insider trading. The lead character, played by Michael Douglas, was a wealthy tycoon named Gordon Gekko who gave a speech to a room full of people in which he said, “Greed is good!”
But greed isn’t good, either for societies or people. I’ve seen families broken up over the contents of a will. I’ve known people whose lives so revolve around the pursuit of wealth and possessions that they have no friends. There are some people who are so poor that all they have is money!
So here are some suggestions for breaking free from the idolatry of our stuff.
- If it is really junk, throw it away. Better yet, if it can be recycled, recycle it.
- If it isn’t junk, but you are not going to use it, give it away. Give it to the Salvation Army, Restore, or Goodwill. Martha recently took an armload of our daughter’s high school prom dresses, worn once, to a group that gives them to girls that can’t afford to buy one.
- Don’t buy it in the first place. Ask yourself a few smart questions. Do I need this? Will I use this? Will it end up in a landfill?
Because not only is all this stuff bad for our souls, it is bad for the planet. A good bit of it ends up in the enormous landfills that dot our countryside. People sometimes ask me to connect being green with Christian faith. This is a connection, that what is good for your soul is also good for the planet. So let us be conscious about reducing not only our carbon footprint for the sake of the earth, but also reducing how much we buy, store and hoard for the good of our souls.
Finally, when we change our focus from ourselves and our stuff we can put it back where it rightfully belongs, on love of God and our neighbor.
As followers of Christ we are called to focus on higher things. In today’s Epistle Paul says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Not on more stuff and bigger barns in which to store it.
Rather it is time that we Americans start to focus not on what is new and shiny, but on what is good and true.
We Christians can do better, since we have been raised with Christ, we must seek the things that are above, the higher things, the better things, things that last. Amen.
(I preached this sermon at South Congregational UCC in Pittsfield, MA. on July 31, 2016,for an audio of this sermon go here)