“Under Construction” by Nick Ares 2007 (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Philippians 4:10-13 (NIV)
10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
There was something about the Governor’s stay at home order that hit me harder than a lot of the other news we have been hearing these past two weeks. Part of me was kind of relieved … it was like he was giving us permission and accountability to slow down … the knot that has been hanging out in my stomach the past couple of weeks loosened up a bit. But there was this other part of me … probably it was my ego that was kind of offended when I saw churches weren’t mentioned anywhere on the list of “Critical Businesses or Operations.” Sure there is the part of the order about “pastoral services for individuals who are in crisis” – something I hope I am doing now.
But learning I was not essential stung.
I looked at the list and most of it made sense, but I wondered who decided that some of these things were essential. I can imagine discerning between non-essential and essential would be a daunting task.
It is also, almost too perfect of an introduction for the spiritual discipline I want to look at today.
Dallas Willard, one of my favorite writers, defines the spiritual discipline of simplicity as – “The arrangement of life around a few consistent purposes, explicitly excluding what is not necessary to human well-being” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, 169). When we look at our lives, when we take stock, and discern what is essential, and make decisions to order our lives around those essentials, we are engaged in the discipline of simplicity.
This is a unique moment to take stock of what is essential to our lives and what is not. So much around us pushing us to consider what really matters.
As we are pushed to think through and discern what is essential, we find ourselves in a defining moment, a crisis in the sense of an opportunity for making big, life shaping decisions,. As Dallas Willard might ask, right now what are those few consistent purposes we should arrange our lives around?
There is a part of Luke’s gospel, in chapter 12 (Luke 12:13-34) where I think Jesus gives us some insight into discovering those essential, consistent purposes.
Jesus was teaching a huge crowd that had gathered around him.
Luke notes that the crowd was “trampling on each other.” Jesus told the crowd that they should continue to live faithfully when they face persecution because of faithfulness to him. He said when they are dragged in front of synagogues, and rulers and authorities, they shouldn’t worry about how they will defend themselves or what they will say, because when they need it, when they are in the midst of crisis, the Holy Spirit will teach them what to say. It’s a really intense lesson.
As Jesus finished telling them the Holy Spirit would provide them with protection and the words they need when they need them most, this guy shouted out from the crowd, “Hey teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” It kind of reminds of being in school, when someone would interrupt the lecture, with something that was urgent to them, but to everyone else it seemed completely disconnected from whatever we were supposed to be learning about. This guy’s issue with his inheritance seems like a jarring interruption.
It wasn’t that the question was inappropriate to ask Jesus. Often rabbis were called on to make decisions about things like inheritances. But here, Jesus wouldn’t have anything to do with the man’s request. Jesus responded, “Man! (Maybe in a kind of exasperated tone?) Who made me your judge, or arbitrator, who made me the divider between you and your brother?”
This guy interrupted Jesus … He changed the direction and the tone of Jesus’ conversation, asking for help getting his fair share of an inheritance. Jesus responds by warning everyone about being greedy, and telling people not to worry about that stuff, that they should watch out for all kinds of greed, that life does not consist in an abundance of possessions. Talk about turning the tables on someone! The conversation moves from a guy asking, “Hey teacher, help me get more … help me to get what should be mine” To Jesus saying, “Man, what you seem to want most, isn’t what matters most.”
There was a note in a study Bible about the way Jesus responds to this man that stuck with me. It went like this, “For Jesus to treat a normally legitimate legal recourse here as a sign of greed seems to radically value relationships over property” (Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible).
If Jesus’ lesson here is helping us to put together our understanding of what is critical, what is essential to life, it looks like our relationships are really important.
Jesus continued. He told a parable about a wealthy farmer.
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
How many my’s and I’s show up in the way this guy thinks? My crops. What I’ll do. My barns. My surplus. He is even talking to himself. I heard someone say that this guy’s self centered way of thinking reveals his devotion to the “unholy trinity – me, myself, and I.”
Did you notice how Jesus sets up the story? The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. It looks like ground should get more credit for what the man has. The man doesn’t consider God or nature, or anyone else in his plans. He is the center of his world.
Being “rich toward God” is really an important thing to Jesus. And, as he continues teaching this crowd, Jesus gives a better picture of what being “rich toward God” means.
22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus calls his disciples, “You of little faith” here. At first this hit me as kind of judgy. But I don’t think it is. I think it is more hopeful than that. Later, in Luke’s Gospel, we hear Jesus encourage his disciples after they ask him to give them more faith, that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed, it could make a difference. Jesus says they have little faith, not no faith. Because of that faith, Jesus invites his disciples to reorient and rearrange their lives to put God and what God values most, first.
Living in a trusting relationship with God, loving God, loving people, are our essential functions.
Prioritizing these relationships is what being rich toward God looks like. The spiritual discipline of simplicity helps us to consistently arrange our lives around these purposes.
In the article on Simplicity on the back pages of your bulletin, Adele Calhoun writes, “Jesus teaches us that freedom is not found in having and doing but in keeping God and his will first in our heart … Jesus wants us to know that we don’t need all the things or experiences we think we do. What we really need is to keep first things first – Jesus and his kingdom” (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, p. 75).
The simplicity that Jesus teaches … the simplicity our faith moves us toward … is a focus … a desire and a willingness to arrange our lives around God and the values of God’s kingdom. We are rich toward God when we make decisions with the criteria of loving God and loving neighbors first and foremost.