“Does Your Stuff Spark Joy?”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on April 17, 2016
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
Everyone who felt good today
after seeing the first
green buds on the trees
should rise at 10 A.M.
from their desks, computers,
beds, or steering wheels,
find a window to admire
the new green world
and yell as loud as possible:
“We Made It!”
by Anne Sexton
There is joy
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
By Sarah Getty
Open the house.
Let the sun roar in and corner
the huddling dust.
Let the March wind tear down cobwebs,
sweep out crayon- and cookie-crumbs,
smells of Vapo-rub and smoke.
In the brisk new daylight
get things straight.
Clean the hall closet. Organize your desk.
Go through your wardrobe, your game-plan, your old loves.
Throw things away.
Remove the victims of winter’s grudge,
littering the yard like a battlefield.
Haul away the big black branch that’s lurked there,
like a beached squid, since January.
Lop off its limbs and stack them.
Rake slimy leaf-rot off the tulip beds.
Let clean heat reach the bulbs.
Root out the old hurts,
the cozy unsuccesses.
Forget that your sister wasn’t at your wedding,
that your father didn’t seem to like you much.
Get rid of the birthday party no one came to
and the men who never asked you out again.
Bundle the demeaning medical procedures
and leave them at the curb.
Pile up the lost job, the student evaluations,
the ideas of what your in-laws should be like.
Burn the time your six-year-old came home from school
and you weren’t there.
Burn the anniversary evening that wasn’t fun.
Burn the bad poems and the rejection slips.
Be ruthless as March.
Be a lion.
Under the clean-limbed trees be fierce and neat.
Hunt out the beasties that fatten in the dark.
Let the sun scour.
Let the wind prowl and pounce.
There is a story that a mother came to the Buddha and asked his advice as to how she might help her child break an addiction to sugar. The Buddha said “Come back to me in two weeks.” The mother did so, and apparently the Buddha gave her good advice, but then she asked, “Why couldn’t you have told me this two weeks ago?” The Buddha replied, “Well, two weeks ago I was addicted to sugar and I had to break my own addiction before helping you.”
If the point of this sermon is to encourage you to do some spring-cleaning and to break your addiction to stuff, you may rightly call me a hypocrite!
Many of you have seen my office…though a friend once looked at my vast assortment of books and trinkets and fascinating gee-gaws and said, “This is not an office! This is a curiosity shop!”
Last fall, I tried to recruit some of you into being a kind of altar guild who would come and even dust my office; and none of you would fall for that, except for one person who kindly brought me several new-fangled dusters…so that now I have 12 lords-a-leaping, 11 ladies dancing…and several new-fangled dusters.
And so, emulating the Buddha, I have arrayed before you some stuff in case you’d like to go home with a concealed weapons yard sign, or some books, or a few Transylvanian shot glasses or wood carving, or a frieze from a Hindu temple, or a few duct-taped whoopee cushions or an urn for your ashes! A basket is placed on this pulpit for your free-will donations to the church!
There’s plenty more where this stuff came from, so consider this yet another not holier-than-thou sermon where, in fact, I am largely preaching to myself!
And the most recent addition to my office is…my ponytail! Which looks rather good on my bust of Tom Paine!
Sarah’s poem “Spring Cleaning” is an annual reading but I also take note that several parishioners – and my wife – have recently read the latest book by the phenomenally popular tidying expert Marie Kondo, titled “Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up.” Have some of you encountered this book? It’s something of a rage. I have simplified my life by not purchasing or reading this book (though I have read its reviews) and it is not coincidental that my wife is out of town today while I preach this sermon.
One of the reviews says,
“… humankind has had a long, complicated relationship to stuff. Even as recently as the ’70s, people just didn’t own that much. But with the rise of the megamall in the ’80s, shopping became a legitimate leisure activity for the middle class, and people started to accumulate lots of junk. By the ’90s, thanks to low overseas-manufacturing costs, the struggle to avoid getting crushed under your mountains of cheap crap was real. That’s when storing and organizing started to look like the key to happiness. (Enter the Container Store, Hold Everything, and the rise of the professional organizer.) The early ’00s ushered in the decluttering movement: You couldn’t just store your stuff; you had to whisk everything out of sight. Closets were all the rage. The rich hired closet designers and bought houses based on how many closets they had; the non-rich stuffed their gigantic CD towers into their closets with the rest of their unsightly possessions.
By the late ’00s, though, hoarding shows made owning too much stuff look less like an inconvenience and more like an outright pathology. But the rise of the Cloud in the 2010s was the final nail in the coffin of too much stuff. Suddenly books and CDs and photo albums alike became the purview of clutter-lovers. Clearly one’s best life can only be lived against a backdrop as pristine and empty as an art gallery. From Pinterest to Instagram to the pages of Real Simple and Dwell, the same message rings loud and clear: Owning too much stuff is tantamount to actively choosing unhappiness.”
This sets the stage for the tidying messiah Marie Kondo. Her basic message is “Get rid of most of your stuff, right now, and your whole life will improve more than you can possibly imagine.”
Kondo – I am told – goes into great detail about the spiritual discipline of folding stuff, and the finer points of “storing joyfully.” In freaky Kondo-speak, “she discusses the proper ways of organizing everything from makeup to memory cards to “memories of past lovers,” the heart and soul of Kondo-izing is not her road map to categorizing and storing everything under the sun. Kondo’s central, underlying message — her haunting subtext and the primary reason for her massive popularity — is that most of the stuff we own is not only pointless and deeply unnecessary and horribly burdensome in every single way, but it holds us back from growing into fully empowered, happy, satisfied people. Our extra stuff is not a sign of our prosperity; it’s a sign of our impoverishment.”
Her ultimate tidying criteria is for you to behold your stuff – or preferably for you to literally hold your stuff in your hand and notice what you feel. Notice – is there in this thing, this stuff, some spark of joy? Does your stuff spark joy? If it sparks joy, well, keep it, honor and cherish it. But you can be pretty sure that you will not feel that spark in most of your stuff. That stuff you should purge. Your very soul depends on exorcising that stuff.
By the way, Marie Kondo steadfastly insists that things have feelings: “Your bunched-up stockings are insulted by their unjust treatment at your hands! Your coat appreciates a little thanks for keeping you warm everyday!” She suggests, “treating your bras like royalty,” and recommends covering stuffed animals’ eyes so they don’t flash accusatory looks when you put them in that pin you’ll take to Goodwill.
“The basic rule for papers? Discard everything!” Most people say that if their house was burning and they could retrieve but one thing, they’d save family photos, but Marie Kondo says, As for “photos: Cherish who you are now!” As for letters, “Rather than putting them directly into the recycle bin, it is more respectful to cover them in a paper bag first.”
People find Marie Kondo’s stuff riveting!
One reviewer concludes, and I’ve tidied this quote up a bit:
“Not only do we live in a world that wants us to replace the 100 bags of worthless shit we just threw out with even more worthless shit, but it will get up in our faces and insist, every waking second of every day, that we purchase more worthless shit right this very minute. The poetic, minimalist subtext that turned Marie Kondo into something akin to a globally recognized religious figure, the Dalai Lama of soothing, hygienic empowerment, is that we don’t need more. More, in fact, is a sickness. Kondo’s message is, and always has been, that we should work with what we have instead.”
Next year, Brad, I bet we could get three grand pianos up here!
Well, I’ve pretty much given you the best stuff of this sermon, but let me pile it on with a few cautionary parables.
There was an essay written by the 18th century French philosopher, Denis Diderot, and it was titled, “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown.” A friend of his had given him a beautiful scarlet dressing gown. He was delighted with it, and quickly got rid of his old one, but as he sat in his old familiar study wearing his new dressing gown he noticed that his desk looked a bit…shabby, the tapestry…threadbare…even the bookshelves no longer looked quite right. So, one by one, Diderot replaced the well-worn furnishings in his study until, one day, he found himself sitting uncomfortably at his new desk, surrounded by nothing but other new and unfamiliar things, and regretting what he called the influence of “this imperious scarlet robe that forced everything else to conform to its own elegant tone.” Economists call this “the Diderot effect: new goblets to go with the new china, a new blouse to go with the new skirt, new furniture to go with a new house.”
Please understand this is not a sermon to make us feel bad about the things we have. Stuff is not evil. Some stuff is quite useful. Some stuff is beautiful. Some stuff is just plain fun. Whoopie cushions, for example.
Some stuff, however, is just in our way: too much stuff can keep us from seeing the stuff that really matters.
So, yes, of course, let’s declutter and get rid of the junk and the stuff we don’t really like or need. But then, you know, sometimes the stuff that’s in our way, really in our way, can be the nicest stuff we have.
The next parable: The Buddha grew up as a wealthy prince – he grew up surrounded by nice stuff. He had an over-protective father who wouldn’t let him go beyond the gates of the compound. But as he grew older, the Buddha must have sensed that all this nice stuff was in his way, and he got curious and one day he left the compound and walked into the city and he was shocked by what he saw: thousands of people in the streets, many of them homeless, starving, sick, dying, people with no stuff at all. And this was the beginning of a long spiritual journey that turned him into the Buddha.
Now about that reading Josh read from Luke (this is called biblical exegesis, by the way, and – Josh and Megan and all the rest of you, I’m doing this just to prove that I really can do this biblical exegetical stuff).
So this is a story about what happens when stuff gets in our way. It goes back to a dispute between two brothers over their inheritance and Jesus refuses to get in the middle, but he uses it to suggest a way of paying attention to what’s most important: what if you stopped measuring your life in terms of wealth of possessions, what if you didn’t worry so much about what you’ll eat or wear, what if you were to learn to be “rich toward God” – which I translate as “rich in joy,” “rich in meaning,” rich in whatever for you is most worthy of your deepest truest self.
So to illustrate this, Jesus tells a parable about a rich man, one of the 1 percent! A man who already has a lot of stuff, ad he gets more stuff, and he has to build bigger barns to store it. He has so much he tells himself to eat, drink, and be merry. And the rich man is totally self-absorbed: my barn, my grain, my goods, my soul.
The rich man has no sense of gratitude, no thought of sharing with the 99%. He’s got it made with “plenty of good things laid up for many years.”
And that’s when the voice of God breaks in and says, “This very night your life will be demanded from you.”
He has stuff laid up to last him many years – but this is the night. Your time has come.
So – who or what is demanding this m’s life? When God says, “This very night your life will be demanded from you” – in the King James it’s, “This night thy soul shall be required of you” – it’s not clear who – or what – demands or requires the man’s life. But there is a clue.
The Greek verb “to demand or require” is apaitousin.
Josh, I had to do some real studyin’ to come up with this stuff.
Not only that, but the declension in this verse is the third-person plural. So the literal translation is, “They will demand your life from you this very night.” They!
They are the man’s possessions – they require his soul.
His stuff has consumed him. His stuff will kill him!
What stuff is in our way? What spring-cleaning is required of you? What stuff sparks joy and meaning? Let us seek ways to be rich with stuff that matters.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,