No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be
loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
--Matthew 6:24 CEB
I guess it was the combination of nice weather and being unable to have garage sales earlier in the pandemic, but my neighborhood was full of them this morning. This wasn’t a neighborhood-wide sale but rather a simultaneous spasm by people who all had the same idea. I got to the church later than normal this morning, because I stopped at a couple or ten of them. I’m a sucker for garage sales and I always have been. The possibility of getting something I want or need for a deal was bred into me by a father who missed his true calling as a horse trader.
At middle age, however, I’ve found I enjoy garage sales less than I used to. Just like this morning, most of the time I look over what people have and find nothing I want or need. I already have too much stuff. Between my wife and I, we have three sets of parents who have down-sized in their retirement. (Her parents divorced and are both remarried.) In our basement and in our closets, we have stuff they passed on to us, much of it we will never use. We accepted a lot of these parental castoffs, because our parents couldn’t bear to part with them and keeping them in the family eased their struggles with letting go. Someday a time of purging looms in our future like a monster in a horror movie waiting to jump out at us.
Another reason garage sales don’t thrill me like they used to is I’ve lived long enough now to understand more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness. Once you move out on your own and eventually fill your own living space with what you like/need, there reaches a point where having more is too much. A scale tips from buying what you need (or at least what a typical middle-class American believes they need) to mindless consumption. There’s a good reason why self-storage units are one of the most in demand businesses today. Possessions can become a trap where we serve them rather than them serving us.
Comedians and writers I enjoyed growing up pointed out the absurdity of allowing our things to control us rather than vice-a-versa. Stephen Wright said in his hilarious deadpan delivery, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” Erma Bombeck quipped, “The odds of going to the store for a loaf of bread and coming out with only a loaf of bread are three billion to one.”
Struggles with material consumption failing to meet spiritual needs aren’t new. Every religion and every philosophy has addressed our human propensity for ascribing ultimate meaning to finite things. Yet, the modern western economy is based upon consumer spending, and so literally many people’s jobs and retirement investments depend upon more people buying more stuff they do not need. The scale of the pressure to find our meaning and purpose in things is greater than ever before. This leads to serious spiritual pitfalls. Arthur Simon, former president of Bread for the World, wrote in his classic book How Much is Enough?, “When things are valued too much, they lose their value because they nourish a never-satisfied craving for more. Conversely, when things are received as gifts from God and used obediently in service to God, they are enriched with gratitude. As sages have said, contentment lies not in obtaining things you want, but in giving thanks for what you have.” I don’t know about you but I haven’t seen many commercials by multi-national corporations urging me to be grateful for what I already have.
Our need to consume and possess more and more also comes with deep ethical considerations that if you’re like me, you’d rather not consider. Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino writes in his book The Good Life, “’What's wrong with wanting a good life?’ people may ask, taking it for granted as their manifest destiny. We have already hinted at the answer: the precipice of dehumanization. In our world, structurally speaking, "the good life" is only possible at the cost of a "bad life" and death for the poor.” I’m too busy ordering my next Frappuccino to consider whether the person who picked the coffee beans my expensive drink is made out of was fairly paid.
Of course, Jesus warned us about all of this, but we never seem to heed his teachings. We can’t serve two masters. We can’t serve God and wealth. In a society like ours where we are bombarded by messages saying we don’t have enough of this or that, it’s difficult to consider what wealth we do have. Wealth belongs to the 1% not to me. Yet, compared to most people on earth and most humans who have ever lived the average middle-class American is indeed wealthy. If we begin the difficult task of differentiating between our wants and needs, our wealth will be revealed. Then, perhaps, we can begin to grasp the truth that the most important things in life do not fit into our online shopping carts.
My wife has a bumper sticker on her car which says, “The best things in life aren’t things.” I haven’t put a similar bumper sticker on my own car, at least not yet. I’m still stopping at garage sales and still struggling with the deluded hope that the God-shaped hole inside me can be filled by something I buy.
Grace and Peace,
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