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The following sermon was a part of our 2011 worship series on stewardship, titled Simple Stewardship. It was shared alongside a time-use discernment worksheet, which you can download from our stewardship resources page. I hope you might find the time to take a few moments to pause, read through this scripture, and reflect on the ways that you've sought to engage abundance in your own life.
Simple Stewardship: Abundant (download PDF)
Cora lived a very full life. In many ways she was a typical middle-class American. She rose early each morning to exercise and catch up with what her friends had been posting online. She got the children off to school, worked her 9 to 5 job, and prepared home-cooked dinners every night. She ferried her kids to soccer, band practice, youth group, and other enriching events.
She made sure to spend time with other working moms for friendship and mutual support. On occasion she also volunteered at the local women's shelter and at the soup kitchen, served on church boards and committees, traveled to visit old friends and far-away family, and even found time to watch some of her favorite TV shows and keep up with her favorite sports teams.
Whenever Cora was faced with the opportunity to add something worthwhile or meaningful to her already-full schedule, she never hesitated. She said to herself “life's too short not to do what I love, not to experience everything I can, not to take advantage of the gift of an abundant life.”
At the end of a long day she would say to herself, “Self, you are amazing. Look at all the great things you've accomplished, all the fun you've had, all the causes you've supported and all the good that's happened because you were involved.”
But within Cora's heart was also a quieter voice, a whisper so soft she could often ignore it. It pleaded with her: “Is all this really necessary to have a meaningful life? Why must you be so busy? What is this doing to your soul? When was the last time you slowed down long enough to ask yourself 'why?'”
In John 10:10, Jesus utters these famous words: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Over and over in the psalms the writers speak of God's abundant love and mercy, and blessings for us. The second letter to the Corinthians assures that “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”
Abundant. Filled to the brim. Overflowing. Beyond our wildest dreams. Copious. More than enough.
Abundance and stewardship are inherently related.
From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected. The gifts of abundance lead to the sharing of that abundance with and for the benefit of others.
One of the earliest confessions of Christians was that the good news of Christ sets us free, gives us another way, promises us a new life abundant.
Life abundant. A gift we've been given. Entrusted with. Expected to use wisely and well. A steward of abundance.
So we look for examples of abundance in our lives, knowing they should be there, trying to make every effort to make the most of them.
We become like the rich man from our scripture today, hoarding possessions for our current and future selves.
What is it about us relatively wealthy westerners, particularly in the US, that predisposes us toward amassing massive quantities of stuff? An abundance of possessions?
As we were discussing this on Monday night, someone raised the subject of the distinctly American phenomenon of storage units, commercial enterprises that exist solely to provide space for our stuff. It is now common practice to collect and own so many personal belongings that we cannot physically store them all in our homes. So we rent homes for our stuff, often climate controlled, even.
The statistics from the Self Storage Association are sobering1:
Total rentable space in the US? 2.2 billion square feet. Over 78 square miles. That's approximately 7 square feet for every person in the United States.
Nearly 1 out of every 10 Americans rents storage space.
The self-storage industry has a collective $20 billion dollars in annual revenue.
So we can go visit our stuff whenever we want but not think about it the rest of the time? In case we ever happen to need it again someday? Because we have such a sentimental attachment to our possessions, even as they sit idle, that we cannot bear to part with them? Have they become our idle idols? Possessions that possess us?
And what does it say that there's also now a whole sub-culture of storage space reposession and auctioning, complete with a reality TV show? A necessity when people don't or can't pay the bills for the stuff-storage-centers. We'd rather go broke storing our stuff than bear the thought of selling it or giving it away. But we're so fascinated with other people's stuff that we watch with bated breath as the folks on TV bid almost blindly then sort through their spoils.
Is this truly what Jesus means by life abundant?
Or take our second parable. I realize this more modern version might strike a little closer to home for many of us.
Some of us have tried to loosen the grip our possessions have on us. We've downsized our stuff-pile, free-cycled, yard-saled, ebayed and good-willed our way towards a simpler set of belongings.
But our schedules are as full as ever.
I'm sure if we could purchase a temporal version of a self-storage unit, paying a monthly fee to have 6 more hours each day in which to schedule everything we've decided we want or need to do, that we just can't let go of.
I know I would jump at the chance. I'm just as guilty on this one as anyone else, as those of you who have tried to schedule an evening or weekend activity with me can attest to.
Of all the fashionable gluttonies and temptations of the middle-class American way of life, the un-reflective use of our time may be the most easily justified, particularly among people of faith.
I think we have the best of intentions, investing our time and energy in things we hope will bring us life and meaning.
We spend time working to earn money to support ourselves, our families, and even causes and organizations we care about. Sometimes we're even fortunate enough to have employment that brings us enjoyment and meaning in non-financial ways.
We spend time caring for family and friends, tending to personal needs, building and sustaining relationships.
We fill our days with things we think will help us to be the kind of people we want to be, with activities that bring us enjoyment and give our life meaning.
All within only 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.
Each of us is faced with abundant opportunities to use our time and energy, a plethora of possibilities, many of them worthwhile, meaningful, or enjoyable.
But might the words of Jesus to the person in the crowd still ring true to us in the 21st century? How might he respond when we cry out:
“Teacher, tell me whether I should spend time with old friends, volunteer at the soup kitchen, write a letter of protest to my senator, go to a church board meeting, or work overtime?”
Would he respond similarly, saying “friend, I'm not interested in making that decision for you, but know this: one's life does not consist in the abundance of time spent seeking pleasure, happiness, and meaning.”
I think it's time we face the facts and admit it – we have a problem with abundance.
Not as in we disagree with it, but quite the opposite in fact. Like someone who is addicted to over-eating, our relationship with abundance has become abusive.
We've entrenched ourselves in unhealthy, less-than-faithful patterns that, instead of caring for and cultivating the abundance we've been gifted with, actually serve to distance us from the life abundant Jesus promises us.
We've developed a warped understanding of abundance – from self-centered consumerism, to unwavering belief in capitalistic growth, to a prosperity gospel that leads us to expect financial wealth and success as a reward for faithfulness, to over-committed busyness that would have us all doing good things but still left weary and wanting.
Abundant life is not about accumulating wealth, physical belongings, or even an overflowing schedule of enjoyable, meaningful, or Christ-like things. Remember, even Jesus took time away from it all to rest, reflect, and pray.
Abundant life is about a gift. The gift that we do not have to strive to be loved, that we don't need physical things to prove our worth, that we need not earn our salvation by burning ourselves out.
The abundant life is another way. A way that isn't just about using up all the resources and opportunities that come our way because we're fearful that if we don't we might miss out on something.
The simple stewardship of abundance means we don't have to exhaust ourselves, our finances, or our planet in search of the good life. As stewards of abundance we trust that God's promise of abundance is real, that it won't run out.
It's a different kind of abundance from what the world expects.
Jesus doesn't promise stuff abundant, or schedules abundant, or social life abundant.
The promise is life abundant. Which is often found through letting go of material possessions, not storing or stockpiling them. It is found through not adding one more commitment or appointment to our calendars, or adding one more favorite TV show to our usual line-up, but instead living into a smaller set of activities more fully.
Maybe abundant life doesn't mean trying to wring the most out of every possibility, but instead might mean stepping away from the stuff and the stress, the hustle and bustle, and stepping closer to God and to each other.
A simpler abundance, grounded in the promise of life abundant. A stewardship of time that recognizes life often takes place in between our plans and schedules, that recognizes we can't do it all ourselves, that God's mission of justice and love isn't served by burning ourselves out trying to help it emerge.
We are invited into a simple abundance, lived in community, trusting that God will continue to provide us with enough to meet our needs and share with others.
Simple. Abundantly simple. Simply abundant.
How is the Spirit speaking to you in these moments?
Where do you see the mind of Christ being revealed through these stories and the stories of your own life?
When have you felt the temptation to live in ways that seek to make the most of abundance but leave you weary, worn, and wondering why?
How has the promise of God's abundance impacted your own decision-making in the past?
What might simple abundance look like in your own life?
1Self Storage Association Fact Sheet, as of 6/30/11 (http://www.selfstorage.org/SSA/Home/AM/ContentManagerNet/ContentDisplay.aspx?Section=Home&ContentID=4228)