Stocktaking for the Soul
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 11, 2020
Reading: Luke 9:51-62
I visited a merchant this past week and because I know how hard it is for people in retail, I asked, “How are things going?” Well, immediately she began to tell me the struggles in retail sector. I said, “Where have you seen the biggest difference in your business during the COVID-19 restrictions?”
She made two interesting observations; she said, “First of all, everything is unpredictable.” I used to know pretty much when I needed stock on my shelves. I knew when there would be a rush for certain things, when my advertising would have an impact. I knew whether people would be in on Thursdays or Saturdays or Mondays; but not anymore. It’s totally unpredictable.” She also said that impulse buying is way down. She said, “Nearly everything is targeted. People come in, they know what they want, they spent the time to come to the store, they go in, they buy it, they leave.” She said that it’s so different from how she used to sell merchandise. And she’s absolutely right. Impulse buying, emotional buying, is very much part of who we are as human beings. Some people live to shop and impulse buying is a big part of that. It’s no coincidence that in a conversation with a clerk at Harrods some years ago, I discovered that in the arcade where they sell all their cheaper paraphernalia, they do 75 percent of their business.
People come in and say, “Oh, I’ll have a Harrods pen, bear, or iconic green bag.” It’s impulse driven, and no matter what they’ve come into the store for, they often leave with more. Consumer studies show that the average North American spends $183 a month on impulse purchases – about $6 a day – buying things that they hadn’t planned on buying online or in a store. The reasons given for this: it feels good to be impulsive once in a while; it’s something you bought on impulse in the past and want to buy it again; or it’s a good deal and you don’t want to pass it up.
That’s impulse buying. I’ve found myself doing the same thing. Now, people are impulse buying different things than they normally would: Lysol spray and wipes, hand sanitizer, and bath tissue. What is it with bath tissue? But we do; we impulse buy because we’re not quite sure whether we’re going to have another opportunity. I’m doing this with butter. I don’t know why but every time I go to the grocery store I buy more butter. I now have more butter than there are cows roaming the fields in Alberta.
Psychological tests and recommendations on how we can constrain impulse buying, particularly in difficult economic times have been done. One recommendation – and this is central to my sermon – is that we need to take stock of the things that we have before we buy something. You need to take stock of what you have. You also need to budget your spending for impulse purchases with the understanding that you will make those impulse buys even if you think you won’t. A third thing is you should always wait, wait and think before you actually buy something.
In today’s passage from the Book of Luke, this incredible story of an encounter between Jesus and two or three different people who offered to be his disciples out of the blue. The first one stands out. He comes up to Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” He was acting on impulse, driven by emotion, and caught up in Christ’s presence when he made this declaration. You have to look at the context in which this all occurred. One of my former professors at Acadia, Dr Evans, always says “Andrew, I’ve analysed your sermons over the years, you don’t do enough context.” So, Dr Evans, for you, a little context. Jesus was in Samaria. He sent his disciples out ahead of him and they were rejected by the Samaritans. It was common for Jews to go through Samaria to Jerusalem, but they’d been stopped, and Jesus’ ministry was rejected. A second problem was that James and John, two of the disciples in response to this, said “Do we bring down fire from heaven on these people?” and Jesus says, “No, don’t do that.” But it was a bad week for Jesus; he’d been threatened by Herod Tetrarch who beheaded John the Baptist. People were rejecting his miracles because he was performing them on a Sabbath and on the poor, the needy, and the outcast, no less.
Even Peter, God bless his soul, had to have a reality check from Jesus to make sure that he understood what following him really meant. Which meant following him all the way to the cross. With the rejection in Samaria, a man comes up out of the blue says, “I will follow you wherever you may go.” What does Jesus do with this man? He reminds him of the reality that he’s just experienced. He knows that being a disciple is a costly thing and he says, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, I have nowhere where I belong so if you’re going to follow me, never mind your impulse, you have got to take stock, and do a reality check before you decide you’re going to follow me.
This Thanksgiving, I think we need to do some stocktaking ourselves. We need to think long and hard about what we already have. This impulsive disciple was acting out of the goodness of his heart. He was trying to follow Jesus and be true to him, which you must respect and admire, but he hadn’t taken stock of the things that he needed to do in his life. Jesus tells him this saying, “Foxes have dens and the birds have nests. These are things that God provides for us.” God takes care of the foxes, God takes care of the birds, God provides for humanity in its needs.” This Thanksgiving we take stock of the things that God had given us. Everything we have been given, everything beautiful by nature, everything created by hard work and intellect, all these things are ultimately a gift.
I love what John Wesley once wrote: “We are not the owners of things as we seem to think of everything that we have, we’re merely the stewards. God gives us something in time and in place and we are stewards of that which we have been given; we are not owners.” This was brought home to me years ago but it’s worth repeating. When I visited my cousin Jill, who at that time lived in North Yorkshire in the hills bordering the lake District, in a gorgeous 16th century farmhouse. I remember saying to her, “You know, it must be wonderful to own something with this history, to actually possess this incredible house with its magnificent views of Pendle Hill.”
She reminded me of something I’ve never forgotten it. She said, “Andy, I am not the owner. This house existed for nearly 300 years before me and it will probably exist for years after me.” I am simply the dweller within it right now. I have a mortgage and I live in it but I don’t think any of us ever own any of these things.” I think she was right.
What Jesus is getting at with this impulsive disciple is the need to take stock. God provides for us; you need to understand that. So, before you launch into a ministry with me, before you decide to be a follower of mine, take stock of what you already have and understand that God is the provider.
This last week – on Friday – after I had written this message, a woman greeted me on an elevator. I’ve known this person for awhile and I like, respect, and admire her. She was lamenting, understandably I think, the fact that she would not be able to spend Thanksgiving with her family and that previously the tradition, the experience, had always been that Thanksgiving was one of the most family-oriented times in her life. She went on at great length about things that she was missing and said, “I’m frustrated, Andrew and I’m upset and I’m all of these things. What do you think? What do you think about all of these sacrifices we’re making?”
I said, “I don’t really know. I have just come from a burial of a beloved member of our church who died from COVID-19.”
She looked at me and apologised, saying, “I realize that the sacrifices I’m making pale.”
I said “I didn’t mean to upset you. This is just the truth.” We don’t need to be shocking to get to the point. We are all anxious, but we need to understand that what we do have are gifts of God’s grace and love for us. We should be, in all things, thankful. Lord knows, I felt thankful we were even able to do that service on Friday.
There’s a second part to this and that is the reality check. Jesus states reality very clearly, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” In his magnificent work, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the disciple in his commentary on this text. It stayed with me and I hope it stays with you. He wrote: “The first disciple offers to follow Jesus without waiting to be called. Jesus dampens his ardour by warning him that he does not know what he is doing. In fact, he’s incapable of knowing. That is the meaning of Jesus answer. He shows the would-be disciple what life with him involves. We hear the words of one who is on his way to the cross, whose whole life is summed up in the Apostles Creed by the word, “suffered”. “No man can choose such a life for himself. No man can call himself to such a destiny.” says Jesus. The gulf between a voluntary offer to follow in a genuine discipleship is clear.”
What Bonhoeffer is saying is that Jesus gave this impulsive, emotionally driven person a reality check, that to follow him means to have a life of sacrifice. It means a life of self-giving, the cross is the ultimate symbol of God’s self-giving for a broken humanity, the cross is the ultimate sign, the ultimate symbol of god’s victory over those things that bind us but nevertheless the path to it is always a path of dedication. It is a part of self-sacrifice and self-giving. It seems to me that right now with what we’re facing, making the sacrifices for the sake of the common good is bearing the way of the cross. But we’re never doing it alone. Jesus did not say to him, “Do not follow me” he just wanted him to understand what following him meant.
We’re living in a time when people are hungry for the presence of God in their lives to help them through these difficult moments. I’m not alone; a media friend of mine sent me an article by Ariana Huffington entitled: “When we ignore our need for spiritual nourishment, we pay a heavy price.” In it – I don’t always agree with Huffington, she’s a bit new age-y for me – but I like what she wrote here. She said:
“The longing to connect to something larger than ourselves is universal. We all long for it. It’s the same longing I wrote about in another book: The Fourth Instinct, the instinct beyond our instincts for survival or sex and power, it’s our relentless drive for meaning, for self-knowledge, for becoming. It’s what connects us to each other and to ourselves, it’s deeply imprinted on our instincts.”
It’s also much more except in times of crisis when it rises to the surface and we act on it. It can guide us to build a firm foundation of strength, of calm and resilience, to liberate us from the tyranny of our fight or flight responses. Without this foundation we’re blown off course again and again by the multiple storms of the pandemic, of racial injustice, of deep uncertainty and of economic losses. But when we follow this instinct there is hope.”
I think what Jesus was getting at to this man who said, “I will follow you wherever you may go” was that if you’re going to follow me, it is sacrificial; you have to give up your life to save it; and follow me wherever I lead you. Nevertheless, that is a hopeful following. It does not draw us or brings us down but rather one that lifts us up. Why? Because Christ is the one who, if we follow him, goes with us and more than anything else right now, I believe we need that affirmation and truth. But we respond to Christ’s invitation. We don’t act out of instinct or emotionally, we act out of a profound, thoughtful response in faith.
So this Thanksgiving, I hope you will take stock for a moment when Rev. Chris Miller leads us in prayer, to think about how good is our God in what we’ve been given but also to realize that to be a disciple in this day and age means following the way of the cross. That is the way of sacrifice and in the end that is the route to victory. Happy Thanksgiving everybody and may the Lord be with us. Amen.