I’ve already ‘fessed up in a previous sermon about my passion for manual typewriters, so it will not be news to most of us that I have a small collection of old typewriters. But what I may not have said is that my collection might be much bigger, were it not for a timely intervention from my wife. Let me start from the beginning… My collection started when my mother gave me her Hermes 3000, which my grandfather gave her for a graduation present from high school in 1960. The Swiss-made Hermes 3000 was a beautiful machine. I was intoxicated by it’s heft and substance – this was no Mac Air! – by the touch of its keyboard – I loved the feel of machinery happening under my fingertips – by its wonderful clacking sound and the “Ding!” at the end of the row. Oh, and the smell… the rubber, the oil, the ink, and the faint but still discernible smell of my grandparents’ house. I love that machine! And one machine soon mushroomed into six or seven others.
As I said, I would have a bigger collection were it not for the timely intervention of my wife. At the time, we were living in a small apartment in Santa Barbara, and we didn’t have space to store typewriters . And we knew that moving would be in our future, given that I still needed to finish seminary, and we didn’t want to be moving hundreds of pounds of metal. One day, looking over my shoulder as I perused eBay for the next machine, Ashley said to me, “Look, I know you love these typewriters, but collecting typewriters is not a practical hobby. We don’t have the space, we’re moving soon, and you are spending way too much time and energy on this. It’s like you don’t own the typewriters; they own you.”
This morning, I’m going to preach a sermon about what the tradition calls ”simplicity of life,” which I define as using our “stuff” – including our time and money – to serve the purpose we say we want it to serve], rather than our “stuff” using us (which it so easily can!).
And I want to introduce simplicity of life not only by talking about typewriters, but also by looking through the lens of this morning’s reading from Joshua. In this morning’s reading from Joshua, Joshua is an old man on his death bed, and he’s giving his farewell speech. He has just reminded the Israelites what God has done for them: how God delivered them from slavery; how God brought them out of Egypt; how God sustained them in the wilderness and helped them conquer the Promised Land. And in this morning’s lesson Joshua tells the Israelites of the choice that is before them: “Choose this day whom you will serve,” whether the Lord, or other gods. “We will serve the Lord,” the people say. “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you,” Joshua says, “and incline your heart to the Lord…”
The choice that Joshua puts to the Israelites is a choice whether or not to live in “simplicity of life;” that is, whether or not to order their lives – including all of their “stuff” – around the purposes they say they want to organize their lives around – “We will serve the Lord,” they have said – or to let their hearts be drawn to other “gods” and let those gods rule in their lives. The people are clear in their choice: “Far be it from us that we should… serve other gods,” they say. “We will serve the Lord.”
But… one of the greatest hindrances to “simplicity of life” is wealth and possessions. The Israelites knew of the complications that wealth and possessions could bring into their relationship with God, which is why Joshua forbade them from taking spoil in the conquest of the Holy Land. With a very few exceptions, when the Israelites conquered a city, Joshua ordered them to destroy everything, to take no plunder. Joshua wanted to be sure that the people’s hearts would not be drawn other “gods” through wealth and possessions. Were Joshua alive today, he might have recognized – as did my wife – that my typewriters were starting to own me, that I was becoming attached to them, that I was beginning to lose freedom, that my heart risked being drawn to other “gods” and losing focus on loving God and those around me. It’s not that wealth and possession are “bad,” because they’re not. It’s not that a person with a lot of money and possessions can’t live in simplicity of life, because they can. But – like I became attached to my typewriters – we tend to get attached to our stuff, and then we lose freedom as our possessions and wealth start to own us.
Jesus himself warns us about our stuff:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” he says, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” – from Matthew 6:19-20
“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” – Luke 12:15b
“Sell your possessions and give alms” Luke 12:33
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).
Our “stuff” – our wealth and possessions – presents us with a choice every bit a choice of life or death as was the Israelites’ choice to serve the Lord or other gods.
There is a way to keep our wealth and possessions from owning us and to live in simplicity of life, keeping our focus on what we say is important: loving God and loving others…
Ashley’s timely comments to me about my typewriter collection came at the same point in our lives as she said to me that – if we wanted to stop worrying about not having enough money – we should give more of it away. Many of you have already heard the story: I said, “What? Give more of it away?! That would only mean that we had less of it, and then we would be even more anxious. That makes no sense at all!!” But Ashley prevailed, and so for one Lent, we gave away 50% of our income. (50%!!) And… it was a remarkable experience. We gave to our church, and we gave to various charities. During those six weeks, we discovered – not that we didn’t have very much – but rather that God had been amazingly generous to us. We had food to eat, the bills got paid, we had clothes to wear, cars to drive. We had a place to live, we were healthy, we had meaningful work, we had friends, we had each other, and… we still had plenty to give to our parish and to our favorite charities. In a way that I can ascribe only to grace, giving away half our wealth made us feel ten times more wealthy. It felt great! And it helped my put my hobby in perspective, directing my energy outward and in loving, rather than inward and in acquiring.
Today we make it a priority to give 10% of our income. Our tithe to the church is the first thing we budget. “If we are unable to tithe to the church,” we say, “it’s a sign that we’re living beyond our means.” Because we have discovered how much simpler and easier our lives are when we give. We’ve discovered how much more gratitude we have, how much more joy there is in our lives when we give. And giving to God is a priority for us. We do give some to other organizations, but we’ve discovered that it feels different to give to God. Giving to God roots our lives in a way that other giving doesn’t. Giving to God brings peace and clarifies priorities in a powerful way. Other “gods” tempt us, to be sure – sometimes I think of the vacations we might take, or the second home (or all the typewriters!) – but I never, ever want to go back to the anxiety we felt over the perceived scarcity of money. I never want to go back to feeling “owned” by money or possessions. I always want to feel the sense of God’s generosity, how much God cares for us, and how we are using our stuff to serve the purposes we say we want them to serve. And so – like Joshua – when it comes to our money, we’ve made the decision, “As for our household, we will serve the Lord.”
Next Sunday is Consecration Sunday, the day on which we are invited to make a financial pledge to Trinity Parish for 2015. I invite you to take some time this week to talk to God about your wealth and possessions. Do you worry about money? Do you sometimes feel owned by your possessions? Is there a part of you that yearns for freedom? God can help. We may not often think of it this way, but wealth is a spiritual matter. Our relationship to wealth – whether we use it for our intents and purposes, or whether it uses us – will either help or hinder our spiritual growth. The choice is ours.
I’ve been at Trinity for eight years, and I can say with confidence that we are all “good” people doing “good” things. And I presume that we are doing “good” things with our wealth. But I wonder about doing great things. I wonder to what extent God might be calling us, as God called Joshua, to serve the Lord, to not let our hearts be drawn by the stuff, the lesser “gods,” around us; but rather to order all our lives – including our wealth and possessions – around one “great thing.” That “great thing” is Jesus Christ.