Shuck and Jive

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Stuff: A Sermon

John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
October 11th, 2009

So the rich guy comes up to Jesus and asks him what it takes to make it to heaven. That is kind of an otherworldly way of saying, “What is the meaning of life?” Or “What is the key to happiness?”

Jesus looks at him and says,
“This stuff is written in books. What does your book say? Doesn’t your book say don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t defraud, don’t lie, be nice to your parents. You know, the usual.”

The rich guy says,
“Yeah, I have done all that. I am a good guy. I am an ethical person. I work hard hard. I am nice to everyone. In fact, life has been good. I have realized the dream of a good life. But something is missing. I still haven’t found what I am looking for.”

Jesus believes him. And he says,
“Well there is one more thing. Sell what you have, give it to the poor, and follow me. Join me and my merry band and we’ll travel the countryside with nothing but a song in our hearts. We will sleep in the open, greet the morning sun, howl at the moon, take no care for what we will eat or wear or where we will sleep. Nature herself will be our Mama. It will be the great adventure of life. C’mon! What do you say?”

The rich guy shakes his head and said, “Hmmm. I don’t think so.” He goes on his way, bummed out, because he

Remember George Carlin and his wonderful bit on “Stuff?
“That's all I want, that's all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know? I can see it on your table, everybody's got a little place for their stuff. This is my stuff, that's your stuff, that'll be his stuff over there. That's all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That's all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time.

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you're taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody's got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn't want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you're saving. They don’t want your fourth grade math homework. All they want is the shiny stuff. That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff!
After the rich guy leaves, Jesus notices that he has before him a “teaching moment.” And he says to his disciples,
“It is tough for people with stuff to be happy.”

And they are perplexed. That didn’t make any sense.

Jesus keeps going. He says,
“It is easier for a camel to squeeze through an eye of a sewing needle than it is for a person who has too much stuff to be at peace with herself."
The disciples say to themselves, “No way” (because that is the opposite of what they learned in capitalism school). They say to Jesus,
“Who then can possibly be whole, happy, content, and at peace?”
Jesus says,
“Anything is possible in this universe. There are many paths to peace, but collecting too much stuff isn’t one of them.”
Peter says,
“We have left all of our stuff and followed you! Why are we still so ornery, miserable, and confused?”
Jesus says,
“It isn’t enough just to let go of stuff. That is only the beginning. It doesn’t help to be miserable while doing it or thinking that doing it is some great sacrifice. When we let go of clinging to our stuff we actually receive much more, 100 times more! When we give up clinging to our stuff we realize that all is ours. We all have enough. Earth has enough for everyone. Enough to share and to spare. When we let go of our hoarding we will see that. That is the good life I am talking about. A new age is dawning. It is a complete reversal of what we think is normal.”
The disciples weren’t quite sure about all of that, but they decide to keep following him anyway.

Jesus had more to say about money and stuff than any other topic, except perhaps the kingdom or queendom of God. But even this kingdom/queendom/realm of God about which he spoke was primarily about how human beings are to relate to one another and share the blessings of Earth. In short, how we manage stuff.

Michael Moore in his film, Capitalism: A Love Story inserts a scene in which he takes clips from the film Jesus of Nazareth. He dubs capitalist phrases onto Jesus’ lips:
“Blessed are those who increase their market share.”
It is funny because we know that Jesus was nothing like that. The stories about Jesus show a disdain for profit-making and for the accumulation of wealth.
  • “Sell what you have. Give it to the poor and follow me.”
  • “Blessed are you poor” and “Woe to you who are rich!”
  • Even his mother said, “God has sent the rich away empty and has filled the poor with good things.”
Yet much of what passes for Christianity today ignores Jesus’ powerful, profound, and insistent critique of economic injustice. I suppose that illustrates the power that stuff and the fear of not having enough stuff has over us.

This was in the Chicago Sun-Times in December 2006:
The richest 2 percent of adults still owns more than half of the world's household wealth, perpetuating a yawning global gap between rich and poor....

The report from the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economics Research shows that in 2000 the richest 1 percent of adults -- most of whom live in Europe or the United States -- owned 40 percent of global assets.

The richest 10 percent of adults accounted for 85 percent of assets, the report said.

By contrast, the bottom 50 percent of the world's adult population owned barely 1 percent of the world's wealth.
It is also true that if every person on Earth possessed as much stuff as the average American, we would need five planets worth of stuff to keep up with the demand. In essence Earth does not have enough stuff to keep everyone at the level at which most of us are accustomed.

We realize that at some point something has to give. It is obvious that we need to change. We know that. We don’t know how. We become anxious, suspicious, competitive, or depressed.

I have been reading some speculative fiction. These are novels about our future. They are forecasts of what life will be like if we keep going as we are going. Margaret Atwood has just published, The Year of the Flood. This is the second of her trilogy. The first was entitled, Oryx and Crake. It is genetic engineering run amok among other things.

In one scene, after the waterless flood in which a plague finally diminishes humanity, one of the characters, Toby, who happens to survive reflects:
Surely I was an optimistic person back then, she thinks. Back there. I woke up whistling. I knew there were things wrong in the world, they were referred to, I’d seen them in the onscreen news. But the wrong things were wrong somewhere else.

By the time she’d reached college, the wrongness had moved closer. She remembers the oppressive sensation, like waiting all the time for a heavy stone footfall, then the knock at the door. Everybody knew. Nobody admitted to knowing. If other people began to discuss it, you tuned them out, because what they were saying was both so obvious and so unthinkable.

We’re using up the Earth. It’s almost gone. You can’t live with such fears and keep on whistling. The waiting builds up in you like a tide. You start wanting it to be done with. You find yourself saying to the sky, Just do it. Do your worst. Get it over with. She could feel the coming tremor of it running through her spine, asleep or awake. It never went away… p. 239
The gospels were composed at a time when the known world had collapsed. The temple was destroyed and Jerusalem burned. Jesus appeared just before that. All of what Jesus is recorded to have said and done is in this context of change. His advice to prepare for this change is quite simple:

Let go. As opposed to attempting to secure your future by hoarding and worrying, do the opposite. Give and trust.

Practice giving. If someone wants your coat, give him your shirt too. If someone wants you to carry a pack for a mile, carry it for two. Give it away. Give yourself away.

This is the spiritual path of cleaning house, of letting go and letting be that is so necessary right now. The world is changing. Of course it is. The universe has been changing for 13.7 billion years. That is what it does. What Jesus was telling the guy with the stuff who was anxious about doing it right, you know, living life correctly, was to lighten up. Lighten up. Loosen up. Give it up.

Like you I watch the news and listen to the pundits. The intensity is overwhelming. There is a frantic desire to continue the status quo, as in the words of the first President George Bush: The American way of life is non-negotiable. Well, silly, of course it is. In a changing world you negotiate or you don’t survive.

How much suffering is brought upon ourselves and others when we prop up a status quo that is not sustainable?

What do we do? We breathe. We recognize that life is short and wild. It is amazing that we are alive at all. It is amazing that we are alive at this time. There will come a time when we are not on this Earth. Regardless of what we might believe about what happens to our consciousness after we breathe our last, nevertheless, at some point each of us will breathe her or his last here.

That is liberating. That means we are on borrowed time. It is all free. All we have to do is to live it. Since nothing is permanent there is no need to desire permanence. That desire does nothing but cause anxiety and suffering. We can let it go. We can let it be.

Jesus’ advice to the rich guy could be his advice to each of us if we will hear it. Give it away. Let whatever has come to us flow through us to others. Let it go. Let it be. Be a blessing.

We could say whoever dies with the most stuff wins. We could say that. We could live like that.

Or we can say whoever dies after giving the most away wins.

I think when we look through history, we will find that the people
  • we have most admired,
  • that we think have brought the most blessing to a hurting world,
  • who have been the most at peace with themselves and with others
are those who lived by the second philosophy.

Whoever gives the most away wins.



  1. Yup. Another good one. When our folks died, my brother, sister, and I had a huge garage sale. It was sad, watching some of the stuff from our childhood being hauled away for pennies. Especially the old pump organ that had been the first musical instrument I ever knew about. Went for ten bucks. But then we had to divide up the stuff that was left over, and trash what we didn't want. My brother kept his share of the stuff in his truck for 3 months before he could bring himself to unload it and put it in his own house. I had the least amount of stuff because I live in West Virginia, and don't have a truck, but enough arrived by United Van Lines to transform my living space.

    BTW, a while back upstream somebody wrote, "what about Matthew 25:35-40 don't [the right wing] get?" Well I found the answer in today's Journal Junction in the Martinsburg West Virginia Journal. Somebody wrote, regarding the person citing Matt 25 as reason to support the president's takeover of the health care industry: "Christ's teaching had nothing to do with a government forced taxation for its programs. It had to do with individual acts of kindness based on love and Christ-like qualities. If the government keeps taking, what is left to give?"

    Right. Sounds like the rich young ruler. But in West Virginia, that writer is likely to be living in poverty, with a 6th grade education. "Stuff," unfortunately, is all s/he probably has.

    Maybe it's not "why don't they get it," but "how can they?" Maybe it's not just letting go of stuff, but letting go of oppression and fear?

    That's why we need courage in the struggle for justice and peace. Thanks for offering some.

  2. I think the most important thing is to let go of "the power that stuff and the fear of not having enough stuff has over us." It is kind of hard for people to do this in today's society of commercialism. I personally don't see anything wrong with having stuff as long as it doesn't control you. Sometimes it takes a house burning down or a loved one dying to realize that the most important things in life never had a pricetag.

    How do you suppose we put an end to the status quo, Rev. Shuck? I mean I have my ideas. To me it would seem that we should not support either of the mainstream Repubs or Dems in office, because they are the ones who are keeping with the status quo.

    Btw, here is a youtube video where Michael Moore admits that true free market capitalism is not the problem. Don't you think a more appropriate name for Moore's movie would have been Corporatism: A Love Story?

    Here is a great Carlin video on the truth about government.

  3. Thanks Sea Raven. We get that "forced taxation" argument a lot from Xtians around here too.

    Like this.

  4. Rachel,

    Your question:

    **How do you suppose we put an end to the status quo, Rev. Shuck?**

    sounds like the one the disciples asked Jesus:

    **They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’**

    I don't know what Jesus meant.

    His tone indicates that we are beyond the hope of solving the status quo. God/Earth is going to do it for us.

    The status quo will change. One way or another. It will probably involve a lot of suffering and death. Maybe 40, 50, 60 years from now whoever survives will find a new way to live.

    My bar is low for those elected to office. All I can hope from them is that they won't panic and nuke the place.

  5. Do you really believe that we are beyond hope? Bull crap!

    You sound like the fundamentalists you so often criticize!

    There is a whole movement to change the status quo in America. In my humble opinion, Rev. Shuck, I believe that many of your ideals support the status quo, whether you realize it or not.

    Here is what your Bible quote means to me:

    It means that mortals cannot change the world by putting their faith in man, that is by creating bigger and bigger government to fix things for us. Man is inherently corrupt and uses the power of government for his or her own means. They are only making things worse. We need to turn the hand over to God (which is in each one of us). That means liberty and freedom. Government should be limited to protecting our freedoms, and that's it. Let's have a little faith in God (which is us, earth, universe, all) for once!

  6. Rachel,

    We are not beyond hope. The status quo is beyond hope. Consuming beyond Earth's means is beyond hope.

    Human beings will survive (as long as we don't nuke the whole planet in the upcoming resource wars).

    You might be interested in The Story of Stuff

    You criticize me a great deal. That's good. Frankly, I don't find too many other clergy talking about this and I don't find much wisdom from you (Ron Paul ain't it).

    Fundamentalists (I am assuming you are talking about endtime/rapture types) are certainly interesting figures. I am not with those guys as they think they will escape responsibility via their superstitions.

    I am actually talking about real life environmental/ecological/economic crises.

    Dianne Dumanaski's latest book is very good.

    I will offer some names of folks who are offering reality-based predictions if you haven't found them yet:

    James Kunstler
    Richard Heinberg
    Chris Martenson

    The issues we face are far beyond left-right politics.

  7. I agree the issues we face are far beyond left-right politics, and that is the movement I am a part of. I support the Liberty movement. They offer plenty of solutions to the problems you talk about, namely end big government and return to sound money. What solutions do you offer?

    I saw the video the Story of Stuff about a year ago on the Daily Paul website. The reason we have the Story of Stuff and the economic system it presents is because of government meddling in the economy.

    We'll have to agree to butt heads for now, I don't have time to present all my arguments.

  8. Rachel!

    I don't have an answer.

    We do.

    That is all of us as we wake up and become conscious. I wasn't fair when I said Ron Paul ain't it. He has wisdom. I agree with many things he says.

    It doesn't matter that much whether or not I agree or disagree with him.

    If I have a role, it is simply to be one voice among many, using whatever influence I have to say, "Let's wake up and be conscious!"

    We have to use the creativity that comes to all of us from our leaders to everyone.

    I have no influence on the president or on corporations. I can't even get my representative (a lowly freshman congressman) to listen to me. I am nothing to him.

    My grand theories regarding capitalism, energy, global warming, or big government or whatever really do not matter so much.

    What matters is that we all start talking and dreaming and working for a different way of living.

    We have to admit there is a problem, that it is our most important problem, and then start talking about it at all levels and in all kinds of ways.

  9. Agreed.

    Thank you for posting.

    I just have one more question. What was the chapter of the Bible verse you quoted?

    BTW, I'm glad you did not chastise me for interpreting the Bible how I want.

  10. It was the text the sermon was based on Mark 10:17-31

    One thing about the Bible (at least in my opinion) is that it can be interpreted in many ways. : )

  11. Rev. Shuck,

    I'm looking over the bible verse and it is much easier to understand with the KJV:

    "27And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible. "

    Jesus is saying that if you put your trust in man or in the world it is going to be hard to be saved, but if you look to God for guidance, then it is possible that you can be saved.

    The quote you gave me says,

    " 27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’ "

    It is kind of hard to decipher what is being said with this passage.

    I like the KJV better.

    What do you think?

  12. OK, guess I didn't see much difference. But it did for you. That is why different translations are helpful. A single word change can open up a new perspective! It is helpful to read a variety of translations.

  13. Ok, then do you still believe that the verse means what you said above,

    "His tone indicates that we are beyond the hope of solving the status quo. God/Earth is going to do it for us."?

    Because I don't think that is what it is saying at all.

    The disciples are basically asking Jesus *how* they can be saved when they say, "Who then can be saved?" in verse 26. Jesus replies in 27 by saying that if you put your trust in man or in the world it is going to be hard to be saved, but if you look to God for guidance, then it is possible that you will be saved.

    To me God is in each individual. So basically Jesus is telling people that they should look inward.

    I'd love to hear your critique.

  14. Rachel,

    You heard the opposite of what it says. In context, "for man it is impossible..." means that left to his own devices, man cannot save himself"

    Looking to God within himself is dangerously close to relying in his own devices. Unless you are appealing to certain branches of mysticism.

    The trouble with reading the King James version is that its English is so archaic that you don't really have a valid frame of reference to understand it anymore.

    Unless you have a degree in Shakespeare English.

    If you believe in government as a centralized source of autocratic authority, then yes, the less government the better.

    But in the service model of government, where the purpose of government is public service, and government representatives are public servants, then more government means more service, and in the limit, the government should be as large as the whole population.

    "Government of the people, by the people and for the people"

    Personally I am tired of the Plutocracy, and I am tired of autocratic authoritarianism. I am tired of the business school model of what makes for good business. Too much efficiency is a bad thing. And taking the wealth out of companies and putting in the hands of the Plutocrats is turning America into a third world country.

    We are well on our way.

  15. Ok, Jodie. Yeah, I should have just pulled out my handy dandy Bible from when I was a kid. I was taking the verse out of context. So in context with previous verses, verse 27 is basically saying that with men that trust in riches, it's impossible to enter the kingdom of God; but it is not impossible for men who trust in God and leave all their riches for God's sake. I think this is basically what Rev. Shuck was trying to get across in his sermon.

    "And taking the wealth out of companies and putting in the hands of the Plutocrats is turning America into a third world country."

    Jodie, what if I told you that this was exactly how our money system was devised (in 1913)-to take the wealth out of the poor and middle class and hand it over to the rich. There is a hidden tax on the poor and middle class, called inflation. When new money is created, the wealthy get richer at our expense.

  16. Actually, inflation is the one tax that affects everyone the same. Everyone except the government as an enterprise, because they always spend the money they print at the previous value.

    Ergo the tax.

  17. It's true that inflation taxes everyone who holds dollars. But the wealthy have enough investments to not be affected by inflation because they know what is going on and own assets that are inflation proof like stocks, real estate, etc. The poor and middle class are not as investment savvy by and large and rely on fixed incomes, which are the last to rise in an inflationary environment. Also, many corporate interests are politically connected and get the money first, before prices all over go up.

    These politically connected people who have access to this credit and money get it with very low interest and then they loan it to the lower and middle class citizens with higher interest rates, the lower the class, the higher the interest rate. The lower and middle class citizens don't have access to special lending facilities or any other fraudulent program the FED manages so they get put in a debt trap by borrowing value from institutions that stole the value from them in the first place.

    This is the main reason why we have such a gap between the poor and the rich. The movement against the federal reserve is one that the liberals should wholeheartedly join because it directly addresses the reasons of why so many people are so poor and why so few people control the majority of the US wealth.