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“How much is enough?”

Date: July 1, 2024/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

June 30, 2024

How much is enough?

Matthew 6:19-21, 24-34

So apparently someone once asked Andrew Carnegie how much wealth he thought was enough.  His response was, “Just a little bit more.”

On the other hand, I once read about a woman down south, living in a tiny house with a dirt floor, trying to eke out a living on a meager piece of land.  She received some money from the Farm Aid benefit, and somebody asked her what she was going to do with it.

“I don’t know,” she replied.  “I guess I’ll give it to the poor.”

Now of course I don’t want to give the impression that this woman was generous and Andrew Carnegie wasn’t.  There are towns all across this country that have public libraries because Andrew Carnegie put up the money to make it happen.[1]  But like the people Jesus once saw giving their contributions to the temple,[2] Carnegie gave out of his abundance, while the woman in the dirt floor cabin gave out of her scarcity.

But what’s that all got to do with today’s spiritual discipline, which is simplicity?  Is simplicity just about money, about how much we have and what we do with it?

Of course it isn’t—but making the commitment to live simply does have an effect on what we do with our money and our possessions.

Simplicity is about more than stewardship of our treasure, though.  It’s about how our life is oriented and what our priorities are.

Back in the mid-1990s, “voluntary simplicity” was all the rage in the place where I lived.  We read books about simple living, had study groups on the subject; there was even a small nonprofit organization in the area where we lived whose work focused on helping people simplify their lives.

I led a Sunday school class on simple living at one point, and I discovered that most folks in that time and place weren’t especially interested in simplicity.  They might have talked a good line—especially as we were heading toward the holiday season, an especially busy and expensive time of year for a lot of folks—but when it came right down to it, they were proud of how busy they were and had no interest at all in finding ways to ease that busyness, much less in downsizing their lifestyles.

One problem, I think, with our approach to simplicity back in the 1990s was that we focused mainly on outward things—like our spending, our calendars, and the contents of our closets.  That’s easy to do with simplicity, which Richard Foster classifies as an “outward” discipline, rather than an inward one like prayer or study.  It’s awfully easy to get legalistic:  we might decide simplicity means, for instance, spending money only on necessities, eating only plain food, having no more than “x” pieces of clothing or pairs of shoes (what “x” means is up for debate), and so forth.  It means keeping a strict limit of “y” evening activities per week, never doing anything fun that requires spending a lot of money, things like that.

But the problem is, simplicity isn’t just an outward discipline.  It’s not only about our behavior.  We are sure not going to earn a place at the great eternal banquet by being joyless cheapskates in this world.  There is an inward element to the discipline of simplicity, and it’s what today’s text is about.

Before my time at the Sac City church, there was evidently a man in the congregation named Homer, who had a very hard time with Scripture texts like the one before us today.  “Do not worry,” Jesus says—and Homer took that very personally.

I didn’t know him and can’t say for sure, but he could have had an anxiety disorder, at a time when such a condition wasn’t always recognized, much less treated.  Any time Homer would hear a sermon on this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, he would get very worried.  He didn’t know how to stop worrying, and was worried that since Jesus said not to worry, he was sinning because he couldn’t stop worrying.

And realistically, while we might not have as much trouble as Homer did, can anyone here honestly say they never worry about anything?  Can anybody here say they never faced a bill they weren’t sure they could pay, car repairs that were much more expensive than expected, a leaky roof, a child who’s outgrown their shoes for the third time this year?  Can anybody say they’ve never gotten a scary diagnosis for themselves or a loved one?  Can anybody honestly say that after watching the evening news, with reports of crime and economic troubles and wars, they haven’t gone to bed at least a little worried?  And can anybody here cross their heart and swear they never wake up at 3 a.m. and toss and turn over situations that seem to loom larger at that hour than they do in the daylight?

Jesus might say, “Do not worry,” but surely he couldn’t possibly have known how complex and sometimes truly frightening our modern world is, with its rate of change accelerating every day, right?  Is this advice really relevant for us?  Does it have a blessed thing to do with the discipline of simplicity?

Well, I obviously wouldn’t have chosen it for today if I didn’t think it did.

It’s worth considering who the people were who might have been there when Jesus first said these words, and what their lives were like.

After I broke my arm, and then we were locked down because of covid, I spent a lot of time watching a British archaeology program called Time Team.  It was on for quite a long time, long enough that the relatively young archaeologists and presenter were senior citizens by the end of its run.

Something that’s very interesting about British archaeology is just how much there is to find on that fairly small island.  There have been people living in the British Isles since the Ice Age, and any site where archaeologists might dig contains layer upon layer of artifacts that demonstrate that place has had people living, working, and worshiping there for thousands of years.

One of the most fascinating of those layers comes from when Britain was part of the Roman Empire.  Under the fields and towns of England, some of Wales, and a bit of Scotland there lie the ruins of Roman temples, baths, and villas—the homes of wealthy Roman farmers and their families.  There are hoards of coins, and curses written on strips of lead, rolled up, and left at holy places, not to mention some nearly intact mosaic floors that just got buried and forgotten.

The Roman Empire actually included most of western Europe by the time it fell in the late fifth century, so similar sites can be found all over Europe, and even in some parts of the Middle East.  One place where we can learn a great deal about life in the Roman Empire is in the ruins of the city of Pompeii, destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79.  Something that became evident as archaeologists and historians explored Pompeii is that there was a massive gap between rich and poor there.  That was true throughout the empire, and the part of the world where Jesus and his first followers lived was no exception.

Taxes were crushing as wealth flowed from these occupied lands upward—the emperor, governors, and client kings lived in great luxury, while most folks were desperately poor.

We might hear Jesus say, “Do not worry,” and think he’s telling us not to be concerned about whether we’ll be able to have a steak for supper this week or if we’re going to be making a pot of beans instead;[3] whether we can get clothing in the latest fashions or will have to keep wearing what was in style last year, or even the year before.  But many of his original followers would have wondered not whether they could afford a fancy meal, but whether they would have anything at all to eat.  They might have been wearing tunics and cloaks that had gotten to where they were almost entirely made of holes and patches, and they couldn’t afford to replace them.

Their worries were, I would argue, quite a lot bigger than ours.  They were about survival.

This brings us to the key to simplicity.  The key is to put first things first.  The end of today’s passage sums it up:  “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  That’s the inward part of the discipline of simplicity.

All the suggestions and rules in the world about how we should live, what we should eat or wear, how we spend our money, and so forth won’t do a bit of good if we don’t get that inner part right.  Once we do, then the priorities we place on other things take their proper place.

And that’s a difficult thing, because I don’t think I have a good handle on it for myself, much less for anybody else.  How do I have the right to tell somebody they should have a certain job, dress a certain way, drive a certain car, give a certain amount of money to their church and other worthy causes, in order to be striving for God’s kingdom and righteousness, when I don’t live in their skin and can’t know 100% of what they deal with?

All I can do is say that each person who seeks to practice the discipline of simplicity must start by focusing on that one thing.  “Strive first for the kingdom of God.” 

To do that, honestly, I think we have to incorporate all of the disciplines we’ve looked at so far, the inward disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, and study.  We need to spend a lot of time praying, as in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come.”  We might choose to set aside certain foods or fast from certain behaviors for a time, if through our meditation and prayer we come to understand they might be getting in the way of our seeking the kingdom of God.

And perhaps most importantly, if we want to understand what the kingdom of God we are striving for is like, we have to study the Bible—not just Jesus’ parables about what the kingdom of God is like, but the whole Bible, all the places where God lets us know what it means to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.

“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and everything else will fall into place—our calendars, our daily work, our spending and giving, everything.

Now the question I’m sure the folks who heard Jesus talk about this for the first time wondered, “Does that mean that I’ll always have enough to eat?  Is God going to provide me a new cloak to replace this one that’s worn so thin you can almost see through it?”

And today we might wonder, “Does this mean I’m always going to have enough money to cover all my expenses and perhaps splurge a bit from time to time?”

Maybe it would be good to turn to Paul for the answer.  This is what he says to his friends in Philippi, after they have managed to send him something to help him provide for himself while in prison, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s modern-language translation called The Message.

Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally.  I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances.  I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little.  I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty.  Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.[4]

That’s the outcome of a life focused first on the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.  That’s the reality of a life of simplicity.

[1] Carnegie was, like most people, a mixed bag, and not everything he did was as positive as his effort to make sure every community had a public library; but there’s no particular need to go into that here.

[2] Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4

[3] Personally I’d almost prefer a pot of beans, although a good steak is nice now and then.

[4][4] Philippians 4:11-13, The Message