Well, we got back from vacation yesterday. We rented a small place down in Nags Head. It was a great week, good weather, a few adventures and time to relax, read and reconnect.
Of course, the week was bracketed by two events I’m sure you are all familiar with, packing the car. Last Saturday we packed the car with the stuff we thought we would need for a week away. And yesterday, we unpacked all we had brought…plus the books, souvenirs and the fish I caught. (More on that after worship!)
Each time we pack for something like that, I can’t help but reflect on George Carlin’s routine on “stuff.” Do you remember it? With searing humor, Carlin spoofed our obsessive accumulation of material things and our anxiety about them.
Carlin starts: “You got your stuff with you? I’ll bet you do. Guys have stuff in their pockets; women have stuff in their purses…Stuff is important. You gotta take care of your stuff. You gotta have a place for your stuff. That’s what life is all about, tryin’ to find a place for your stuff! That’s all your house is, a place for 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 and see all the little piles of stuff. Everybody’s got his own little pile of stuff.”
Today’s story, often called the parable of “the Rich Fool,” in modern parlance, might also be known as “A Pile of Stuff.” For like Carlin’s monologue, the parable portrays a situation of tragic absurdity.
The text sizzles and spits like a backyard grill. Responding to a request for financial advice from a person in the crowd, Jesus responds with a warning against greed. Ancient philosophers believed greed to be a form of depravity and lack of self-control. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” Jesus says. In our “stuff” oriented culture, such words do sting like a grill’s flying embers. It gets hotter.
As Jesus tells the story, we hear the man’s inner reasoning. A storage issue about space becomes also a preservation issue about time: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” He comes up with a logical though costly solution. “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.”
Carlin told it like this: “So now you got a houseful of stuff. And, even though you might like your house, you gotta move. Gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff! And that means you gotta move all your stuff. Or maybe, put some of your stuff in storage. There’s a whole industry based on keepin’ and eye on other people’s stuff.”
The rich farmer’s selfish strategy evokes scorn and superiority. “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” We begin to get a bit nervous for our rich friend. We can start to sense where this may turn.
The anxiety about time that arises here, is the fear of running out of time. So the fellow’s higher capacity barns will provide the security that will allow his soul the time to “relax”. We see this today in a storage industry, an anxiety industry and a decluttering industry, all directed toward making it possible for us to relax, eat, drink, be merry.
That is, until the space-time problem becomes moot when another character takes the stage in the story. God informs him that his life is over and he won’t be keeping his stuff. And there’s no soft-peddling: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
It’s a nervous laugh we offer. Like the discomforting laughter when we hear Carlin, it hits close to home: pockets, purses, houses, storage units, there seems no end to it. So when the rich fools gets his bad news, it dawns on us that we may be the fools, carrying, covering, locking up our stuff, staving off death.
Perhaps this practice of acquiring and consuming, building and storing, only increases the idiocy and intensifies the fear.
Jesus and Carlin are using the same rhetorical strategy to jolt us out of our insanity. Life, a term used three times in the text, isn’t about trying’ to find a place for your pile of stuff. It’s not about the abundance of possessions we accumulate.
It is about, as Carlin might have put it, just walking around all the time, rich toward God, rather than the abundant pile of stuff we have accumulated.
Richard Rohr describes that alternative abundance: “You might ask, ‘How can I be more holy?’ We don’t have to make ourselves holy. We already are, and we just don’t know it yet. Our inherent holiness is called the Divine Indwelling, or the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the awakening of the True Self in God. So it is about subtraction, rather than addition, more letting go of the false self than any attempt at (building) our own True Self. You can’t (build) what you already have.
“We become the One we gaze upon. We are, eventually, just like the God we worship. This reciprocal gaze is the True Self, perfectly given to us, and always willing to be perfectly received. It is so dear and so precious that it needs no external payoffs…The True Self is abundantly content as it is.”
As always, it is not gazing at the pile of stuff, but rather a focus on God alone that opens the way to relax, eat, be merry and rich toward God.