In some divine comedy of coincidences, we received the following notice slipped under the door at our home at the beginning of this past week:
North Park Manor Apts Tenants: This letter is to inform you that after July 31st, any personal belongings such as bikes, ladders, tables, cabinets, exercise equipment, etc. that are outside the storage lockers will be thrown out. Please store all of your belongings inside the storage locker. If you don’t have a storage locker, please remove your belongings from all basement areas. We will not be responsible for any damages or lost belongings. If any questions, please call Robert at (xxx) xxx-xxxx. Thank you for your cooperation!
After leaving the notice on the dining room table for Kerry to see I began ruminating on the notice, thinking to myself, “What are we going to do? We’ve got a tiny one bedroom apartment and our storage locker is already completely full. What are we supposed to do with our two bikes, the spare dinette from before Kerry moved in, and his big leather man-chair in the basement?” As I began imagining how we might rearrange the living room to make space for some of our stored belongings to make their way back upstairs I observed some part of my mind rehearsing a fresh new round of one of its favorite conversations, “Why We Need to Move.” Now, alongside classic arguments like, “we’ve run out of space in the kitchen,” and “there’s no room for my books,” I could hear my soul practicing its newest complaint, “we have no place to store our bikes!”
To be clear, we haven’t ridden our bikes all summer. And, by “all summer,” I mean the last three years. In fact, for one of our date nights a few months back we decided to rent Divvy bikes and cycle to a BBQ joint in Andersonville. When the Divvy station one block over from our home was out of order, we ended up walking to two different Divvy stations before we found two bikes to ride — all of which seemed easier than getting our bikes out of storage and inflating their flat tires. I got the used dinette set off Craigslist about twelve years ago when I bought my first condo in Atlanta and when Kerry moved in I tried to sell it, but nobody on the world wide web saw the kitsch retro charm of my Jetsons red Formica diner set. Kerry’s brown leather chair is (no offense dear) a version of the same brown leather chair that practically every guy buys when he gets his own place — proven by the fact that when he moved in we couldn’t decide whose brown leather chair to keep, his or mine, so we put one on each side of the living room facing each other like silent duelists until the pleather began to strip off of mine because I left it baking under the window’s sunlight without remembering to periodically condition its fine synthetic fabric.
The point being: I’m nothing at all like the rich man in Jesus’ parable and neither are you, I’m sure. Even so, as we cleaned out the closet in our apartment to make room for the bikes, we had to look at each of the items we were storing there and decide if we really needed to hold on to it. We somehow managed to do this without any of the practical wisdom of Marie Kondo’s best-selling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” I wonder if she addresses what you are supposed to do with her book after you’ve read it. I have piles of books on the floor of the living room that Kerry says I should pack away in boxes for the library I will one day install in the office of the home we will one day own which will not only have three bedrooms (enough for us and children and guests!) but also an office, so that our dining room table can finally stop multitasking all day long and just really focus on holding up our food and an occasional centerpiece of fresh cut flowers.
It’s at about this point that I actually am wishing I had a copy of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” or more to the point, hat I had some external reference point for knowing how much is too much. When I look around and see how other people in my immediate circle of friends live, our little 1BD/1BA apartment seems almost monastic. I literally had a bigger apartment my junior year of college. This is not upward mobility. Then I extend my frame of reference a little further and perceive that there are families much larger than mine living in similar spaces. I remember the shanty towns of corrugated steel and dirt floors in Soweto, South Africa a decade after the fall of apartheid. I see the tent villages under the overpass at Lake Shore Drive and Lawrence, the old men camping in the viaduct. Isn’t there a rule to let me know how much is too much?
The relationship between people and their possessions is a central theme in Luke’s gospel, and our wrestling with this relationship is at the heart of our Christian faith. Even before he was born, Jesus’ mother Mary sang her hope that in the coming reign of God the rich would be sent away empty (Lk 1:52-53). Jesus picked up that theme in his Sermon on the Plain, in the section we remember as the Beatitudes in which he pronounced a word of woe on those who are rich and have already received their comfort (Lk 6:24). In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus holds out little hope that the wealthy will ever heed the words of the prophets, much less the cries of the poor (Lk 16:31). When the rich ruler asks what must be done to inherit eternal life Jesus tells him to sell all he owns, give the money to the poor, and then come follow him (Lk 18:22). If a rule is what we’re after, the problem may not be that scripture doesn’t give us one, but that we don’t like the one it gives us.
Then again perhaps, given the number of times Jesus does offer a very direct suggestion about how we should dispose of our wealth, it is significant that instead of offering a rule, in this case, he offers a question. The story of the rich man and his barn comes in response to someone in the crowd, who is neither labeled rich nor poor, asking Jesus to weigh in on a legal matter — the division of a family inheritance. In his reply, Jesus begins with a question (“who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”) and then ends his parable with a question (“The things you have prepared, whose will they be?”). The fact that Jesus offers questions instead of condemnations, to me, is a sign of hope. Jesus recognizes that it is difficult work, trying to live an ethical life in an ethically anemic world. Rather than simply setting a guideline on what percentage of the family inheritance should go to each party, Jesus asks questions that force his followers to examine their own lives.
When God chastises the rich fool in the parable, asking “whose will they be?” we are all brought face to face with our own mortality. Someday, we will all die. Something will happen to all those things we have collected over the course of a lifetime. Who will receive them? Will it be your family members? Will it be your friends? Will it be the institutions and organizations that supported you while you were alive? Will it be the causes you cared about? What do your wishes for the riches that were entrusted to you in life say about who you considered a part of your family? Did you treat them as such while you were alive? Will the way you share your wealth in death reflect the way you shared your love in life?
If only it was as simple as a guideline, a set percentage, a clear rule. Instead, we are called to the lifelong work of continuously asking ourselves, “who is my neighbor?” “Who is my family?” “Where did my inheritance come from — all these things, this money, this privilege come from?” “How much of what I have is truly mine, and how much was passed along to me because of my relationships with others who look like me, talk like me, eat like me, worship like me?” “How much of what I have will eventually go to people who look like me, talk like me, eat like me, worship like me?” “How does my relationship with the things that fill my home, that fill my time, reflect my relationship with God, whose face is shown to me in the faces of my neighbors, near and far?”
These are hard questions, questions we need help answering. Toward that end, members of our social justice committee have begun conversations with Center for Changing Lives — a local non-profit here in Logan Square that “partners with those held back by lack of resource and economic opportunity in order to uncover possibilities, overcome barriers, and realize their potential.” By early fall we hope to have a series of workshops on the calendar from their “Just Financials” curriculum that is already being used in other congregations here in Chicago as a focus for equipping members to become more intentional in their use of the gifts God has given to each of us. This is an especially important moment in the life of our congregation for us to be talking together about how we connect our faith to our actions when it comes to wealth and prosperity, as we now sit on $1.4 million dollars from the sale of our former property and ask new questions about how we will be church together for the sake of the world here in Logan Square. What sort of witness might we make with the riches God has entrusted to us that would speak powerfully to our fundamental belief in our deep interconnectedness? How do our actions reveal our faith in the God who breaks down the divisions we put up in order to call us all home to each other?
The action required of disciples here and now, as always, is more than a reorientation toward our possessions. What Jesus calls for from those who will follow him is the hard work of constantly checking our myths and stories about who our people are, who our neighbors are, who our family is. It is the work of perceiving with new eyes a world in which we all already belong to each other. With those eyes, in that world, the new creation, how do we make sense of the ways we have chosen to share or to withhold what God has first given us, our inheritance?