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  • Writer's pictureNorthminster Church

"Owning What We Own" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

February 5, 2023

Matthew 6:7-15 & 19-21

You probably know that "Hoarders" is one of the most intriguing and popular programs on cable TV today. By some estimates, there are 3 million compulsive hoarders in the United States which is particularly saddening because hoarding is a mental health issue that often needs serious therapy and even medication.

It feels a bit wrong to watch people with this mental health struggle on their worst days as they try and often fail to clean out their hoards. And yet, I’ve seen a lot of “Hoarders” episodes as during the pandemic it was something our daughter Robyn and I watched together.

I am not a hoarder. But I am a bit of a packrat and have long fought against my tendency to keep things of sentimental value. To be clear this does not include a hidden underground vault filled with gold and rare gems. There are no Van Goghs or Monets, tucked away. I have a few nice pieces of jewelry that belong to both of my grandmothers and just recently got rid of all but one of my Disney VHS tapes from the early 90s that could be resold if I’d had the energy to post them somewhere.

But on the whole, the things I hold onto are valuable only to me. They are personal treasures. A VHS from my senior year of high school of our band competition drill. I have it though I have no way to play it. The baby blanket that I’ve had to sew back together a couple of times now. A container full of letters my great-grandfather wrote to my grandmother, several of them in Grandfather John’s beautiful, bold handwriting on the back of Illinois Central System Station Baggage Way-Bill form because my great-grandfather worked for the railroad. A paper menu from one of the restaurants Erich and I ate in during our honeymoon in Germany.

I can honestly say, however, that our move to Louisiana made me really consider what’s valuable and what I’m willing to move across the country. When we moved to PA most of our possessions were in storage as we were living with family while I looked for a job. That move didn’t allow any time for purging. But with this last move we made multiple trips to the thrift store. Part of that was out of necessity. Our little rental here is small than the parsonage in PA was and y’all don’t have basements. But also as a way to more intentionally practice Jesus' teaching when it comes to earthly treasures:

"Don't hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or -- worse! -- stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it's safe from moth and rust and burglars. It's obvious, isn't it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being." (Matthew 6:19-21 MSG)

Of course, Jesus is talking primarily about wealth, the riches the world tends to value most. I have very little of that sort of treasure. Burglars would have no interest in those yellowing family letters or Cinnamon, my stuffed golden retriever from childhood. And yet, my treasures can still possess my heart.

This morning’s reading comes in the center chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, and though we only read a portion of it it’s important to understand the entire context of chapter 6. Beyond being the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, the longest block of speech we have from Jesus, chapter 6 specifically highlights three religious practices common to first-century Judaism that continue to be practiced today: almsgiving (Matthew 6:2–4), prayer (Matthew 6:5–6), and fasting (Matthew 6:16-17).

The reference to one’s heart being where one’s treasure is, comes in the context of Jesus’ preaching and teaching. What I mean by that is that with this passage and comment on worry specifically, Jesus sets up the tension around stewardship and generosity. This tension falls in terms of where one’s devotion lies, potentially suspended, as it were, between two magnetic poles which may pull at us — two “masters.” These two “poles” are the earthly and the heavenly, that which is of God, or that which is not: You cannot serve God and wealth.

And of course, this tension causes us to worry. Worry, about our lives, or food and drink, clothing, worry about having enough. As someone who lives with anxiety and is a championship worrier, I read these verses and can’t imagine a life without worry. For those of you who’re capable of turning your brains off at night, what does that feel like? What is it like to go through life without filling your anxiety right here all the time? Is your life easier than mine or are you caught off guard in ways I’m not because I always prepare for the worst-case scenario?

I honestly can’t imagine life without being worried. I’ve told you before that when there’s nothing in my life to worry about, I worry about the other shoe dropping and ruining things going too well. But here’s what I’ve learned about worry, and specifically anxiety. Anxiety is a liar. Fear can sometimes be helpful, even life-saving. Planning ahead is a good habit, but anxiety…anxiety puts your brain on high alert when there’s no need. And worrying rarely fixes a problem and can often make a situation worse.

And what Jesus is telling us in these verses is that worry can threaten to separate us from God. Worrying about money does separate us from God, in part because it can take so many forms: too much time earning, too much time managing, too much time spent on the spendable, too much fretting over what is enough and even what to do with what one has, and on and on we go. Think for a moment, what worries you most about your money? Is it possible that worry affects your relationship with God? Thinking more broadly, how does your worry affect your awareness of and efforts toward economic justice and generosity because as commentator Karl Jacobson notes, “worry can separate us from our God and choke out our generosity.”

I think the most galling part of the packing process is realizing how much stuff I don’t remember having. How much stuff was sitting around that I hadn’t looked at in four years. Why was I holding on to these things?

Well, part of it is that I grew up without much money. Having a mother who’s a teacher and a father’s who’s a social worker meant that we lived paycheck to paycheck much of the time. I remember eating a lot of pasta and baked potatoes as a kid - none of which is a criticism of my parents. I never wanted for anything I needed.

But I did hear “not today” quite often, and we tended to use things for as long as possible. I remember the rag bag my mom would toss old clothes into that my dad would then use to wash the cars. We also always had a box of gift bags and boxes stored in a closet for present-wrapping purposes. Erich, who grew up with money, has always found my continuation of this habit odd.

I think the other reason I’ve held onto so much over the years is because I want to hold on to the pleasant memories they rekindle. The people I have loved who’re no longer with me, personal accomplishments, memorable events, special places. I suppose I fear that I will lose that meaning if I don't have something concrete to prove that I once had it.

A commentator I read this week talked about a scientific study done several years ago in which an electric stimulus was applied to various parts of a subject's brain. When the electricity flowed, a memory stored in that particular area of the brain was replayed almost like a movie in the subject's mind -- the sounds, smells, and feelings all came back as the scene replayed itself.

Reading that description made me wonder what it would be like to relive a memory. It’s interesting to think about reliving some moments - when Erich proposed, walking into this sanctuary after you voted to call me as your pastor, finding out I was pregnant with Teigen. Of course, there are other memories I absolutely would not want to relive and the description of the study didn’t make it clear if the participant got to pick what memory they revisited. So do I really want to relive my memories? Or would I rather live my life now more meaningfully, and create new memories for the future and for eternity?

If we hold onto our treasures too tightly, we are, in a sense, forcing ourselves to constantly be looking back, protecting what has already been, and expending precious energy on something that’s already happened. This tendency has the potential to keep us from being in the present, reaching out to those around us here and now. It can keep us from looking forward to the future and living in a way that leads us in a positive direction. That leads us in Christ’s direction.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think holding onto memories and mementos of our lives is a bad or wrong thing. I will not be tossing out my Grandfather John’s letters. But there is something wrong when we need those things in order to feel good about ourselves. When we take our value from those things, those memories, those prior accomplishments rather than living into the life happening right now and just ahead of us.

One of my favorite writers and preachers Lillian Daniel wrote the following about this Matthew passage:

“A New York Times article about the demand for expensive condos in Manhattan explained: "Seemingly every week prices reach new heights-the latest is a triplex penthouse on Park Avenue that is listed for $130 million-and bidding wars have become so common as to be unexceptional." Yet, some market experts predict that the tide will turn. If too many luxury apartments are built, there may not be enough buyers willing to pay for them.

That prompted one developer, Adam Gordon, to shift his focus. Rather than developing luxury dwellings, he's chosen to take an 11-story building on 61st Street and convert it into a luxury storage facility.

According to the Self Storage Association, there are 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space in the U.S. Outside towns, on highways, those warehouses are ubiquitous. Storage pods get loaded up in people's driveways when they are trying to sell their houses. They have to hide all their junk to entice a buyer. But luxury storage space in the priciest real estate market of Manhattan? Who knew?

If you put your stuff in a storage facility, and you find that you can live without it, maybe you really can live without it. So here's a radical thought from Jesus: Don't store it in the first place.

Because somewhere in the world, there is a person who really needs the thing that you are about to lock away in a box.

Sell it. Swap it. Share it. Give it away.

You don't need more storage. You need less stuff.”

My friend, the Good News this morning is that Jesus invites us to "stockpile treasure in heaven" because "the place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being." Jesus calls us not to worry about money. Both of which is easier said than done.

So how do we do these seemingly impossible things? First, we continuously work on living lives that are oriented towards following the way of Jesus. This means choosing to go against the grain of society, which is oriented toward success, production, buying the newest and best the day it launches and instead living lives that serve others. This means continuing to be a congregation that serves others - not just with money, though that’s important, but with our time, our energy, our dedication, and being creative in the approach. Second, this means taking the time to own our wealth and privilege while also admitting our worries about money and what they mean for us personally and corporately. That doesn’t feel good but is so necessary. Finally, stockpiling treasure in heaven and not worrying about money is about knowing where to put our trust. Not in ourselves, in our abilities or talents, our hard work, or our earnestness but in God.

In the meantime, ask yourself, where do you want most to be: In a past you cannot relive or change? Or in the present, creating a life within the reign of God right now -- a life of loving service that will have eternal consequences, and that will ensure you end up being where you want to be?

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