Sermon: Choosing Less over More

“A Peculiar People: Choosing Less over More”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
September 29, 2019

Exodus 16:1, 13-21
The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. In the evening quails came up and covered the camp providing them with meat to eat; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” ’ The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until morning.’ But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.

Luke 3:10-14
And the crowds asked John the Baptist, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

Our Hebrew Bible passage this morning is a lesson in less over more. God had recently delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and was bringing them through the desert to the land God had promised to their ancestors. Along the way, though, they got hungry. And thirsty. And they began to accuse Moses, and God, of having freed them just to leave them to die in the desert. Everything was out of their control, in other words, and they panicked. 

God wasn’t about to let God’s people perish in the wilderness, though; God provided flocks of quail every day for them to eat, brought water out of a rock to slake their thirst, and created the Bible’s first pun to feed them bread.

Each morning, the dew covering the ground would disappear to be replaced by a coating of flakey white stuff that could be made into cakes that tasted of honey. “What’s this?” the people asked – or “mawn” in Hebrew, which became manna in English. Despite not being able to figure out what it was, the Israelites survived by eating “huh? What is this stuff?” for 40 years. 

The interesting thing about it was that God would give them enough “what’s this?” for each day, and a double portion on Fridays so they’d have enough to avoid working on the Sabbath. Those who hoarded, thinking to protect themselves against a time when there might not be enough, found that the extra they had set aside turned maggoty and rotten. It was divine reinforcement of the idea that with God, there will always be enough.

Just like last week’s choosing Peace over Worry, we all know that possessions aren’t the key to happiness. But we also live in a society so completely enmeshed with consumerism that we’ve become blind to how inundated we are with excess – how truly “too much” surrounds us, everywhere, and how we’ve been trained by savvy advertisers to desire more, more, more.

It’s not that we’re weak, easily duped people with no willpower; it’s that we’re human, evolved to accumulate against the possibility of hard times, and in a world of material abundance – superabundance, even – we don’t always recognize how we use things to make ourselves feel better, dull our dissatisfactions, enhance our status, or insulate ourselves against worry and want. 

Think for a moment about the last item you bought on Amazon, with near-instant delivery: was it something you really needed – truly? Not something you could have put off, borrowed, used what you already had, or just plain gone without? Or think about the last time you went to the grocery store – did you walk out with only what was on your list, or did you succumb to the constant barrage of coupons, 2-for-1 deals, and “new item” displays convincing you that this healthier version of food will slim you down, give you more energy, extend your life? What about the last time you bought something to make yourself feel more professional, or to project an image that you’re athletic, or eco-savvy, or a conscious, with-it parent?

Author and pastor Joshua Becker tells the story of the moment he realized his family’s stuff was getting in the way of everything that truly mattered.

It was a beautiful Memorial Day weekend in Vermont and Joshua had planned to spend it cleaning out the garage with the help of his young son. But amidst the piles of boxes, tools, bikes, and other stuff, his son soon found a bin of toys and headed to the backyard to play Wiffle ball. 

“On his way out, he stopped. ‘Will you play with me, Dad?’ he asked, a hopeful expression on his face. ‘Sorry, buddy. I can’t,’ [Joshua] told him. ‘But we can play as soon as I finish. I promise.’”

His son “kept appearing from the backyard to…try to convince [Joshua] to play with him. Each time [Joshua would] tell him, ‘Almost done’…”  

But as he sorted and organized and cleaned and reshuffled their garage’s-worth of extra possessions, he began to realize that there was a lot more than a few hours’ work. A neighbor recognized his frustration: “Ah, the joys of home ownership,” she commiserated. 

“Well, you know what they say,” replied Joshua. “The more stuff you own, the more your stuff owns you.” “Yeah,” said the neighbor, “that’s why my daughter…keeps telling me I don’t need to own all this stuff.”

Her words were a complete and total epiphany for Joshua. “The sentence reverberated in my mind as I turned to look at the fruits of my morning labor: a large pile of dirty, dusty possessions stacked in my driveway. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my son, alone in the backyard, still playing by himself. 

…I already knew that possessions don’t equal happiness. Doesn’t everybody? At least we all profess to know that our things won’t bring us true satisfaction. But in that moment, as I surveyed the pile of stuff in my driveway, another realization came to me: Not only are my possessions not bringing me happiness into my life; …they are actually distracting me from the things that do! I ran inside the house and found my wife… Still trying to catch my breath, I said, ‘Kim, you’ll never guess what just happened. June said we don’t need to own all this stuff!’”

It’s funny: the Messiah is coming, and the way that John the Baptist, the one sent to smooth the way for this Messiah, this God-with-us, is telling people to prepare by giving away their extra and learning to be content with what they have.

Really? Sharing a superfluous coat or the food stored up in the pantry is what prepares us for Jesus’ appearance on earth? Not being just or compassionate or forgiving?    

If you have two coats, says John, give one away. The implication is that one coat is enough – that one is all we need if we are trying to keep warm. If you are wearing one coat to keep out the cold, you literally cannot use a second. You will not be any warmer for owning an extra, so share the opportunity to be warm with someone who is coatless. Yet I bet we would be hard pressed to find someone in this congregation who owns only one outer later meant to keep us insulated from cold weather. 

I don’t tend to think of myself as someone with too much stuff; in fact I have a blog dedicated to purposely trying to own fewer clothes. When I went through my closet to count how many coats or coat-like garments I own, though, I counted 6. All with a distinct purpose, or style, or season, of course, yet still – six. I could stay warm with just one.

What would it be like to live with just one coat? What kind of trust does it take to live like that? Or to only buy what you needed for each meal instead of loading up on multipacks at Costco or BJ’s? To be satisfied with our wages when we’re working a job that gives us enough? To run a business not to create endless profit but to generate just what it takes to support employees? 

The thing is, if we can give away our excess and keep only what we truly need, then instead of our lives being underlaid by a false sense of security or buffered by the meaning we assign to our possessions, our lives will be directly plugged into trust in God. Our lives will be undergirded with true appreciation for what we have; and, just like when we give up worry, our time and our resources and energy will be freed up for what really matters: justice, compassion, forgiveness, worship.

John the Baptist isn’t trying to get us to Marie Kondo our closets; he’s telling us to practice the art of “enough” so that our extra can make the world a warmer, fuller, more just place, and so that our attention can be directed towards making it so.

When we choose “less” – when we choose to be content with enough – we become at home with ourselves, attentive to the present moment and the emotions we might otherwise mask with stuff. When we we choose “less,” we choose to connect with others – the young child who is waiting to play with us, the neighbor in need, the stranger we can help with our donations or the cash freed up by not buying more. And when we choose “less,” we choose to draw closer to God, the One we can trust to provide for us and the One who knows that the less we are preoccupied by our things – by getting and maintaining them – the more mental space we have for prayer and for praise. 

I want to finish with a story by UCC pastor and singer-songwriter Bryan Sirchio. His song, “Westbound on I-80,” tells about a rest stop on a family road trip where Bryan spotted a man who appeared to be homeless.

You see, both of his shoes were worn out
Most of his toes were bare
And then I heard this voice,
and I think it was the voice of God

It said, “Give the man your extra pair.”
And I thought, oh God – that’s a crazy thing to do
Besides, how am I supposed to know
If these thoughts are sent to me from you?

And anyway, my only extra pair’s my favorite
New Balance running shoes
And then that same voice said something like, “Those will do.”

So as my kids got in the car I laughed and thought, “This is insane.”
So I turned the motor over and began to drive away
I got almost to the highway when my heart stepped on the brakes
I said, “There’s something I forgot you guys – just wait.”

And so I found that man and said,
“Excuse me sir, but you look down on your luck”
And he said, “Yeah, I guess I am. You got an extra buck?”

And I said, “Yeah, but try these shoes.” And they fit just like a glove
And he said, “God bless you.” And I thought, “God sure does.”

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the lesson it took the Israelites forty years to learn is the same lesson that will prepare us for the coming of God in the flesh: choosing less, that we might all have more.