The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
“No Longer Suffocated by Stuff”
July 31, 2016 (Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)
(Ecclesiastes 1: 2, 12-14; 2: 18-23; Colossians 3: 1-11; Luke 12: 13-21)
I once presided at a wedding where the bridesmaids were models from one of the world’s premiere modeling agencies and the ushers included a congressman, a former professional basketball player, and the CEO of an international company. The reception was held at an exclusive country club with a string quartet, roving musicians, and a rhythm and blues group you all know.
The groom’s childhood friend, a Presbyterian minister, preached at this exquisite affair. I remember his words: “This wedding is a fairy tale straight out of Camelot: gorgeous women, influential power-brokers, and topnotch musicians.” Precisely at that point, sensing a profound disparity between Presbyterian and Lutheran clergy, I gagged. And then the good reverend redeemed himself; he looked straight into the couple’s eyes and said, “But money can’t buy you love.”
Bedazzled as we were to be invited to this extravagant shindig, we knew the priest was right: “Money can’t buy you love.” The bride’s mother knew it, too. She whispered to Dagmar and me, “This is all quite wonderful but her daddy and I are worried sick about our precious daughter’s future.”
She must have been familiar with today’s parable often called “The Rich Fool.” Jesus’ little story, at first hearing, can sound like the demented rant of a despicable curmudgeon: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Who did Jesus think he was to rain on the parade?
Further examination, however, reveals how profoundly Jesus understood the mother’s fears as she watched her daughter serenaded in lavish splendor. That’s why he told the parable of the rich land owner who had accumulated so much stuff that his soul being sucked dry.
I also know what Jesus was talking about. Dagmar and I, as you are well aware, have just moved from a 1700 square foot home, not including the basement, and are almost settled into our beautiful 1000 square foot parsonage right here on Central Park. We are thrilled beyond belief and feel like we are living at Disneyland. We are so grateful for your stunning generosity for making the magnificent renovation possible. But, 1000 square feet is, well, 1000 square feet. Many of you have asked, “How are things going,” and we have been saying that everything is marvelous except the downsizing. Not one of you has flinched; you don’t even seem to feel sorry for us! Without exception, you have said, “We have all gone through downsizing. You will be fine.”
I sense you so want to warn us, as did Jesus, of the guy who kept tearing down smaller barns to build bigger barns so he could add more and more stuff to his newest and, to date, biggest barn. When you received word that we actually have rented a bigger barn ourselves in the form of a storage bin up near the Cloisters, you really wanted to quote Jesus: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.”
Whether stuff fascinates you, repels you, or makes you a tad daffy, I recommend you read E. L. Doctorow’s mesmerizing book, “Homer and Langley.” It is a fictionalized account of two brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, who actually lived at 2078 Fifth Avenue here in Manhattan. On March 21, 1947, concerned neighbors were so overwhelmed by the dreadful stench wafting from the brothers’ townhouse that they called the police. The NYPD found Homer Collyer who had been dead for ten hours. His brother Langley was harder to find; they finally located his body, crushed and suffocated, amidst 130 tons of junk. The junk, by the way, included baby carriages, rusted bicycles, rancid food, bowling balls, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, three dressmaking dummies, rusty bed springs, more than 25,000 books, human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, fourteen pianos, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, and accordions, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, and my favorite, the chassis of a Model T Ford.
Like Homer and Langley, many of us rarely feel like we have amassed enough stuff or at least enough to fill that hungry hollow deep in our soul. Even when our barns are overflowing and we are finally prepared to kick back with a chilled Bombay Sapphire with a splash of Italian vermouth and smugly proclaim, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink be merry,” we still sense an emptiness as pathetic as the bumper sticker that reads, “Whoever has the most toys when he dies wins.” We are suffocating beneath tons of useless junk and all along we had hoped we would finally be happy.
The ancient wisdom from Ecclesiastes calls us to exercise extreme caution: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity…It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds what are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”
Perhaps living in Manhattan is an antidote to the hoarding of stuff. Once again, remember Jesus’ words: “So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Perhaps our small living accommodations act just like gilded prayer books and hand-carved crucifixes, surprising reminders to us of Jesus’ words, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.”
The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy knew these words as he penned “War and Peace”: “There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth.”
The wisest ones down through the centuries have listened carefully to the words of Ecclesiastes and Jesus and have measured greatness, not by big barns and lots of stuff, but rather by being rich toward God.
Today, we do well to pay attention to the words of Colossians: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
May we discover our greatest riches in the bread we are about to receive and the wine we are about to drink. These are, after all, elegant gifts from heaven.