It's Just Stuff
By Pastor John J. Pawloski - November 19th, 2023
Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSVue)
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. At once the one who had received the five talents went off and traded with them and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
It turns out that our American Thanksgiving was not the first Thanksgiving. It turns out that Jewish people have celebrated thanksgiving for centuries. Like our Thanksgiving, it took place after the harvest. It was a way of thanking God for what they had been given. Their thanksgiving included the practice of setting aside the tithes of the third year for the widows, orphans, immigrants, and other poor. Literally, they gathered baskets of food from the harvest, and gave them to the priest to place on the altar (the place where God had chosen for the Creator’s name to be placed). These baskets would be made available to those in need to have as much as they wanted, to have their fill. We could learn a lot about living as a community of believers from the Jewish tradition of Thanksgiving. Even Deuteronomy, primarily a law-giving text of rules and codes made provision for the vulnerable. Imagine how our world might look different if our own spiritual covenant depended upon how well we cared for those in need.
Today’s scripture asks us to seriously consider the importance of all that we have been given, and to take seriously what we do with what we have been entrusted with. Most of all, it asks us to use our talents in service of something greater than ourselves. The reading from Matthew does involve a strange forum for evaluating the importance of using our gifts and talents. It is not about how God favors wise investing or capitalism. It details the practice of giving to God the best effort, and not burying our talent, but it takes place in such an odd setting. We too should consider making the most of what God gives us.
Americans consume 10 times the amount of food and energy as the average person in the world. Further 40% of our landfills are filled with discarded food. Imagine if we no longer wasted food, we could eliminate 40% of our landfills. We eat too much and waste too much while much of the world eats too little. We also know how to solve the problem of population explosion. In fact, there has been only one thing ever that has caused control of population growth: prosperity. But how do we increase the prosperity of the world? We share.
Americans are a weird hybrid of generosity and consumptive craziness. We are literally spending ourselves into prosperity. Our economy is built upon our consumptive habits. We have so much stuff that we cannot store it all which has given rise to a cottage industry of storage facilities and pods. We are quick to discard or replace things that no longer work. When was the last time you called a tv repairman or repairwoman? We need bigger and bigger houses that cost more, require more utilities, and cost more to insure. And we spend more to furnish these bigger and bigger homes. And all the while, family sizes are smaller. We look at the homes our parents raised us in, and we wonder how they did it?
What if we only ate what we needed? What if we kept only those things we used regularly? What if we gave away the things we no longer used? We have all given bags of clothes away to Goodwill or veterans charities. When was the last time you said to yourself, man, I wish I had that suit or that dress back? What was I thinking when I gave away those bell-bottom jeans? I wish I had those White loafers back? Never. But how many times have we cleaned out our garage or basement and literally felt like a weight had been lifted off our shoulders? We have a choice: we can be the master of our possessions, or we can be ruled by them. We decide. We can choose to worry about keeping all of our stuff, insuring all of our stuff, cleaning all this stuff, storing all this stuff, and in the end, remembering we even have all this stuff. But it's just stuff. It's just stuff!!!!
We are very lucky to live where we live in these times. Girls in Africa don’t get educated because they must walk 5 miles each way to get water for their families each day. Millions of people die each year from diseases related to poor sanitation. If we have to live without lettuce for a week we think the world has come to an end. Children in India and elsewhere spend the day sifting through garbage piles in search of food or something of value. All the while we have mountains of garbage containing scarcely used items. We need to change our attitudes about what we use and what we throw away. We need more gratitude about what we have, and less complacency about what it costs the world to get it to us.
So how do we cultivate gratitude and what does it do for our life? The key to happiness in life is gratitude. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard. Now, you are probably thinking this is just a platitude. You could not be more wrong--it’s actually a scientifically proven fact: the happiest people on Earth are grateful. Don’t believe me? Just listen.
Psychologists have proven that showing gratitude is one of the biggest factors in experiencing happiness in life. They did experiments with having subjects pick a person who has had the greatest impact on their life. Then they wrote down all of the reasons why that person was so important to them. Then they asked the subjects to call that person who had meant so much to them to read them what the subjects had written. They took a survey of the person’s happiness before and after the study.
Happiness measurements went up between 4 and 19% for all study participants, and most among those who were least happy at the outset. Gratitude is good for our bodies: studies suggest gratitude strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces symptoms of illness, and makes us less bothered by aches and pains. It also encourages us to exercise more and take better care of our health. So if you are looking for what’s still missing in your life, it’s probably the fact that you are loved and blessed beyond your wildest imagination. In short, gratitude. Try it, all you have to lose is unhappiness.