Such Stuff of Which we are Made


Trinity 11 ~ Such stuff of which we are made - Luke 12.32-40

Is your house or flat, full of stuff? Ours is. Or perhaps you have recently ‘downsized’ – moved out of the big family home to a more manageable place – a task which, of course, means, disposing of a lot of stuff. ‘Stuff’ is an interesting word, isn’t it, with various meanings, ranging from that which something is stuffed with – such as a teddy bear or cushion, to the more modern coverall term, meaning just about everything and anything. ‘Have you got your stuff?’ ‘Let’s put your stuff in the car’. We used to say ‘things’, but now we say ‘stuff’. And yet, whatever we call it, we certainly have a lot of it – stuff that is. We accumulate, and we throw away, not quite in equal measure I suspect. We have a lot of stuff, we throw away a lot of stuff, and it may well be that we have a lot of stuff that we ought to get rid of too. And it comes back to us too: apparently in Lyme Regis there is a waste mountain created fifty years ago or so that has crept closer to the sea due to coastal erosion, and now the erstwhile rubbish dump is shedding its treasures onto the beach. And on the beach you will find modern archaeologists sifting through the junk, reclaiming, examining, even cataloguing this stuff. Old cookers, sinks, the kind of things they – or even you – threw away in the 1950’s. And in the 1950’s people didn’t have anything like as much stuff as they do now.

Meanwhile, you may have seen the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, during which it was pointed out that there are likely still tribes living in the Amazon region who have never encountered the rest of the world. This staggering fact makes us reflect on what the rest of the world that they have not yet met, might really be like. There is something attractive in the idea that what is going on in London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Damascus might as well be on another planet. And perhaps also a challenge that such peoples have still, in the 21st century, not encountered the good news of Jesus Christ while over 2 billion others elsewhere have. Meanwhile only 900 million people watched the opening ceremony of the London Olympics four years ago. All credit to our own Luke Reeve who participated in that and who was seen by a mere 900 million people. Meanwhile others don’t have TVs, don’t have much at all in fact. Refugees, Brazilian tribes, and the other half of the world where 3 billion people live on less than £2 a day. They don’t have much stuff, I daresay.

And yet it is to them as well as to us that Jesus says:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your stuff, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

These are challenging words to those of us whose houses are crammed full with things we don’t need or really want. Yet they were also challenging words – in a different way – to those to whom Jesus was speaking. Sure enough there were some very rich folk around in Jesus’ time, who wore purple robes and sat on plump cushions and ate the finest food and drank the best wine, and had servants to minister to their every whim. Although I reckon we wouldn’t really like any of it ourselves – better to be modestly provided for in our age than be rich in first century Palestine. But Jesus isn’t talking to them – but rather, specifically to a crowd of thousands who had gathered – a crowd so large we are told, that they trampled on one another. Jesus has just had an altercation with the Pharisees, and the gauntlet has been thrown down it seems. He warns the crowds about hypocrisy, tells them not to fear death but to concentrate on the spiritual side of life and death, and then illustrates this with a parable – of the rich fool, who stores up treasure but does not pay attention to his imminent but unexpected demise. Jesus then tells the crowd not to worry, to consider the lilies and the ravens who neither reap, sow, toil or spin, yet who are cared for by God. Instead, he says, seek first the Kingdom, and all these things shall be added to you. And then comes the passage we heard: Do not be afraid, sell your stuff and concentrate on storing treasure in heaven. Be like watchful slaves who do not know what time their master is coming home, but, whenever that is, he will expect them to be ready and waiting.

None other than Shakespeare was onto this when he wrote his 134th sonnet, which, some of you will know, actually appears as a hymn in an early twentieth century hymn book. In it the Bard asks:

Why dost thou pine within, and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?

Like St Luke quoting Jesus, Shakespeare wonders why we lavish so much attention on our outward appearance when it would be better to

Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:

It is the same idea, focused on the stuff with which we adorn ourselves. And yet, as Prospero says in The TempestWe are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.

In every age, in every place, the invitation from Jesus to focus on the spiritual and worry more about that sleep with which our little life is rounded, rather than the stuff we accumulate around ourselves, rings loud and clear. And that invitation is as challenging as it ever was – if not more so.

Nevertheless, to see this passage as an invitation to declutter is, oh, so twenty-first century. No harm in that, for sure, for Christ speaks to us in every age, but we mustn’t miss the point. Rather, when you see a pile of stuff cluttering up some corner of your home, you can of course feel inspired to clear it out and tidy up – or you might feel a bit depressed about the sheer volume of stuff you have. You might even be inspired to sell your stuff and give the proceeds to charity. If you do, of course, remember that the modern phenomenon of the Charity Shop does that for you!

But this is only half the story and is not entirely Jesus’ point. The injunction to sell stuff indicates that possessions should not be the driving force in our lives. Rather than worrying about how we appear, or what the interiors of our homes look like, or even how much money is in our purse or bank account, we should look to the hereafter and the salvation of our souls – to that greater joy which lies beyond this mortal life. This does not mean that we should not take any care in our appearance at all, or that we should attempt to live on nothing, never clean the house and extol the virtues of being poor – far from it. Cleanliness is next to Godliness – as John Wesley famously said in a sermon of 1778. And poverty is a great evil of our day, and of every day before and after today.

So when Jesus says ‘sell your stuff, give everything away and focus on the spiritual’ he is inviting us, not to do the impossible and live on nothing, but rather to hold onto our possessions less tightly and to take a firmer grip on the spiritual. We are, as the writer to the letter to the Hebrews tells us, to remember that “what is seen was made from things that are not visible”. We are to focus our lives on our faith not our wealth – to dwell on the stuff of our interior mansion, rather than the contents of our homes. Again, as Shakespeare puts it in that spiritual sonnet:

Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?

The mansion here is the body of course, but it could be literal too! It is all about emphasis and priority. As we sang just now: ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you’. Declutter your house of physical stuff and your souls of spiritual dross.

Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And, Death once dead, there's no more dying then.

So to Christ, our treasure and salvation, who conquered death and gives us eternal life, be all honour and glory, now and forever. Amen.

The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 7/8/16