A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 16, 2016
1 Timothy 6:6-10 ESV
Last Sunday’s sermon included a couple of references to the fact that the tiny, stooped-over, Albanian nun that all of us had known for decades as Mother Teresa of Calcutta is now known as Saint Teresa. Pope John Paul II had beatified her in 2003. And Pope Francis canonized her on September 4 – a mere six weeks ago today.
I have long been an admirer of Mother Teresa. As pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Mother Teresa is admired all around the world as “an icon of charity, having spent half a century caring for the ‘poorest of the poor’ in India.”1 Teresa started the Missionaries of Charity from nothing with only 12 followers. Today Missionaries of Charity members number more than 5,600 in 139 countries, running hospices, homeless shelters, homes for the mentally ill, among other things. We admire the dedication of Mother Teresa in living a life of compassion with the poor, ill, outcasts, and dying of India, realizing that few, if any, of us could ever do what she did.
I also have a few of Mother Teresa’s books on my shelves and have been inspired by her short sayings and some of her prayers. I identify with and appreciate the universal outlook she had, believing that “Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, etc., all have access to the same God.”1 And I take comfort in knowing that even she often doubted her faith and the presence of God in her life. Yes, I have been inspired by the life, example, and writings of Mother Teresa since my seminary days when I bought her little book titled, A Gift for God.
But then as I read articles about Mother Teresa being canonized by Pope Francis, a couple of things I read having to do with her Missionaries of Charity jumped out at me and, I must confess, disturbed me a bit. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. In talking about the stringent requirements for those who aspire to becoming permanent members of the Missionaries of Charity, it was noted that they must go through a nine-year trial period. But the fact that really set me to thinking is that for all Missionaries of Charity, “all their possessions must fit into a small box and visits to relatives are limited to one every 10 years.” Such is intended to guard “against attachment to earthly goods and relationships.” A spokesman for the Missionaries of Charity went on to explain, “A member must always be ready to ‘pick up your stuff, put it in your box and off you go.’”1
Now, stop momentarily to think about that: Limiting all your earthly possessions to what you can put in a small cardboard box! I envision a box that copy paper comes in—about 18” long by 12” wide and 10” high. My gut reaction when I first read that was, No way! That seems to be a bit extreme, harsh even. How in the world could I choose from among my earthly possessions so as to pair it all down to a small cardboard box? I have way too many things that I love, cherish, am attached to, and that help define me and are a part of who I am. Beloved books, a stack of favorite Bibles of various translations, family photos, cameras, cherished pocket knives given to me by family and friends, favorite articles of clothing (national park tee shirts, favorite sweater, favorite winter coats), cherished carpentry tools, beloved pieces of furniture, quilts my wife has made for me, not to mention my Jeep! Limit my earthly possessions to one small cardboard box? No way! And most of us feel that way, I imagine.
But the Missionaries of Charity requirements regarding earthly possessions do have a biblical basis, as we have seen from today’s reading. Now, the Apostle Paul has long gotten credit for writing the letters to Timothy and Titus. But few biblical scholars today believe that Paul actually wrote these letters. They are much later in composition than Paul’s time, and back in that day it was common practice for someone’s followers to write in their mentor’s name. The letters hold truth nonetheless.
At any rate, whoever the writer of this epistle was, he warned against becoming too attached to earthly belongings, reminding his readers of all times that “we brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of this world (1 Timothy 6:7).” Channeling the spirit of Paul, he said, “if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content (6:8).”
Now, all of this thought about limiting earthly possessions to a small cardboard box led me to some random considerations that may be common to you as well. For instance, the reality is that for thousands – probably millions – of our world, limiting their earthly possessions to a small cardboard box is no problem at all; it is more a reality than a problem. For many in developing nations, if they have food and clothing, they are content, because that is all they can ever hope to have and all they may long for as each new day begins.
But the number whose earthly belongings are limited to a small cardboard box is much greater now than it was ten days ago, as Hurricane Matthew wiped out the homes and possessions of thousands in the Caribbean and up the East Coast. For these poor souls, limiting their earthly possessions is no longer a problem or a conscious choice. Occasionally we need to be reminded of that.
Another random consideration is the confession that we do have too much stuff. I am reminded of this every time I go down to our basement and see all the “overflow stuff” that ends up there because we don’t have anywhere else to store it.
Why are we saving that? Well, it is too good to get rid of.
Why not get rid of that? Well, we might need it someday.
Why not give that away? Well, we have sentimental attachment to it.
Our daughter has reminded us on more than one occasion – and rightly so, I must admit – that we need to have a massive yard sale and get rid of some stuff, because someday when we are dead and gone, she doesn’t want to have to deal with it. And I understand that. We have had the task of sorting through and getting rid of massive piles of stuff that relatives left us and siblings to sort. And our daughter and son-in-law had the task of sorting through and getting rid of massive piles of stuff that a relative of his left behind. It can be an overwhelming task!
Someone in our congregation shared the story of how after the parents had died, the children climbed into the attic of their house to find it packed with stuff, and one of them made the comment, “This is child abuse!” And yet, how many of us at or nearing retirement age would have to plead guilty?
But the truth of the matter is, for those of us who have become accustomed to accumulating and being attached to “our stuff,” downsizing and pairing back our earthly belongings doesn’t come easily. I see this all the time with those who face the prospect of leaving their homes of 40, 50, or 60 years to move into a small assisted living studio or apartment. As Bill Clinton once remarked, “I feel your pain.” It can be a painful experience, but one that all of us will eventually face. Although some may be a bit farther along than others, we are all in this boat together.
One of my favorite tv shows of late is “American Pickers” aired on the History Channel. “American Pickers” chronicles the adventures of two antique pickers and their assistant who travel the United States in search of unique and rare antiques and Americana; things like old metal gas station and car dealership signs, bicycles, antique metal toys, and so on. But the pertinent point here is the fact that the collectors and hoarders from whom they try to buy these items are often reluctant or unwilling to let them go because of their sentimental attachment to the stuff.
Now, when I started this sermon, I broke one of the cardinal rules of seminary preaching class – I had no idea where I was going with it. My early preaching professor, Dr. John Ed Gardner, taught us to write your conclusion first; that is, know where you are going with your sermon development and stay on track to make sure you get there. But I didn’t really know where I was going with today’s topic, “How Much Stuff Is Enough?”
But I think where I want to go is to suggest that all of us take the idea of limiting our earthly possessions to a small cardboard box as a motivator to start thinking about how much stuff is enough. And then slowly start the process of limiting purchases, asking, “Do I really need to add that to all my stuff?”; gradually scaling back; slowly giving away; and so on, while blessing someone else’s life with something we don’t need any more but they do need, and by making it easier on our children or grandchildren who will someday have to sort through it all.
Yes, the Missionaries of Charity requirement of limiting all your earthly possessions to a small, cardboard box has led me to do some thinking and start addressing the question that beckons to be answered by all of us – “How much stuff is enough?” May we at least start thinking about it. Amen.
1Francis X. Rocca, “Teresa’s Other Lifework: Building a Religious Order. Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, September 3-4, 2016.