Recush - רֽכֻש
October 19, 2008, Matthew 6:19-21, 25-34, Luke 12:32-34
The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen
Early in my career as a minister I was talking to a pastor who was about a generation older than I. He was something of a mentor to me and I remember him saying, "Not only do I have everything I need; I have everything I want." I look back at my first days in ministry, and remember the longing I felt for the day I would finally...pay off my student loans. I used to worry about this. I imagined what would happen if I missed a payment. I figured the student loan goons would pound on the door of my apartment and repossess my education. Maybe they'd make me watch professional wrestling eight hours a day. I stopped worrying about getting out of debt by changing the way I conceived being in debt. Instead of paying it off, I thought of outliving my student loans. If I just made my monthly payments-and lived long enough, one day my student loans would be like my college major-history!
Last June I thought back to the words of my colleague. I realized that I too have everything I need. I have never missed a meal because I could not afford to eat. I have always had clothes to wear. I have always had a safe place to sleep. I have never, ever had to worry about having my basic needs met. And I also realized that I have everything I want. I suppose if I suddenly received a large sum of money, I'd find a way to spend it, but when I look at my life, and the things I own, I realize I really do have everything I want.
As I made repeated trips from the basement to the curb in front of my house last June, I realized that I could top my colleague's words from years ago. I not only have everything I need, and everything I want...I have a lot of things that I neither need nor want! During the two floods that hit Oshkosh in June our house, like many houses, had some things damaged by flood water. I did not count how many times I trudged up the basement stairs and down the driveway with household goods that we could not use anymore. I do not know how many pounds of stuff went from Bowen Street to the Winnebago County landfill. I do know that it was several weeks before the city began collecting recycling on garbage day, because there was so much stuff that people were getting rid of. This exercise-and it truly was exercise hauling so much stuff to the curb-made me look at the things that fill our house.
It caused me to remember a funny moment in my seminary days. We were translating an Old Testament passage about Abraham and came to the word "recush," the Hebrew dictionary offers several different translations, one of which is "goods." "What does it mean by ‘goods'?" we asked. Our professor smiled over her coffee cup and said, "Tupperware." In the Old Testament recush was a word that meant portable possessions, household items, or my favorite, moveable property. Abraham and his family were nomadic, they followed their flocks of sheep and goats. They traveled light, they had to. Most of their wealth was on the hoof, all their other stuff, like kitchen ware was recush. I presented my Hebrew professor with some recush one day, after attended "mug night" at Wrigley Field.
I have been thinking closely and critically about the objects that fill my house and office since the floods. I am amazed that I can hardly recall any of the things I threw away! We lost a box of phonograph albums that we hadn't listened to at least 15 years, our card table and its chairs and some shelves that were water damaged...but I cannot remember anything else! Our basement is a lot less cluttered now. But I am puzzled, what was all that stuff and why did we have it in the first place? I honestly cannot tell you anything else that we got rid of.
I started looking critically at all the things, all the recush, all the portable goods and moveable property, that we own. So many things we simply never use, but we do not get rid of them. I noticed a paradox, our moveable property makes it difficult for us to move!
Mary and I both grew up in families that were shaped by the Depression. One of the values our families shared was the dread of wasting anything. So it's hard for us, me especially to throw away a "perfectly good" anything. Growing up "perfectly good" was a code word for something that we could never, ever part with. Or if we did part with it, it was cause for great lamentation, as in, "It's a shame to have to throw away a perfectly good coffee can. Tom, why don't you and your brother keep the lid for a frisbee?" We held onto things because we might, one day, find a use for them, and we'd be sorry if we threw them away. We feared the feeling of regret that we would feel-we just knew it-ten years in the future. The fear of that potential future regret, and our frugality formed us into savers, keepers, horders even.
Last month I counted 27 packets of soy sauce in our kitchen cupboard. We get Chinese food about once a month, we get about a half dozen soy sauce packets each time, we use about two, you do the math, the soy sauce starts to accumulate. But, we all know it's perfectly good soy sauce. And one thing we never, ever want to hear are the dreaded words, "Honey, we're out of soy sauce." I heard a financial advisor say that everyone wants to spend his last dollar the day he dies. I think we want to use the last packet of soy sauce the day we die. Once I remember I saw how crazy it is that we have all these packets of soy sauce. Lunacy, madness, I knew we'd never use. So, bravely, I got the bottle out of the refrigerator, pried the top off, and found the scissors and opened all the little packets and poured them into the bottle. I hate to see perfectly good soy sauce go to waste.
We still have camera that requires film. You probably remember these antiques. But in case you don't here's how it used to work in the Stone Age. You'd buy film and it came in a little plastic canister. After you took up to 36 pictures, you'd take the roll of film out of the camera, take it to the drugstore, wait a few days and then pick up your photos. You'd put another roll of film into the camera and repeat the process. And each time you'd get a little film canister that was perfectly good. That you could use to store lots of little treasures in. Remember, these are perfectly good, so they must not be thrown away...Last week I counted 30 of them in my drawer. Not counting the one I keep in my car for parking meter change and the six I'm still saving at home, because, well, one day I might think of a use for them and would hate to be without them.
I looked in my closet at all the clothes I don't wear. I have two flannel shirts that are too big. Their sleeves are too long. I will never ever grow into them; I hardly ever wear them, so I will never wear them out. Still, it's hard to part with them because they're "perfectly good." And who knows, maybe in a few years I'll want to wear an ill-fitting flannel shirt and I'd really feel stupid if I got rid of these two shirts. Did I mention they're perfectly good? If they were worn out, even I could throw them away with a clear conscience...but they'll never wear out, because I never wear them, so they'll always be perfectly good.
I go through the same cycle with neck ties. Someone gives me an ugly tie, I never wear it, so I never wear it out, so it's perfectly good so I must keep it!
I think how much less stuff I'd have if things would wear out! Refrigerator magnets, for example, never wear out. After the Rapture and we're all sucked up into heaven with the sound of a trumpet, these little plastic things will still be bravely sticking Far Side cartoons to refrigerator doors for eons. Try throwing one away, how can you? They're all perfectly good!
My office is also home to some perfectly good things. I have ten liturgical stoles, for example. Each of them was given to me by people very special to me. In the course of a year I wear a stole about 30 times, usually for about an hour. I wear the purple one about a dozen times. At this rate I will never, ever wear out one liturgical stole! And special people will keep giving them to me on important occasions. If I never wear them out and I keep getting more, but I can't throw them away! I have never worn this one. I have four other Guatemalan stoles, and, in my opinion, this one's the ugliest. I have decided to take an important step. I have decided to...re-gift this stole. Some time in the next few months I am going to be at the installation of a new minister in Winnebago Presbytery and some lucky young Calvinist will receive this...ugly..stole! It won't be easy to give away something that, though ugly, is perfectly good, but I know this is my growing edge.
This is crazy. They say the first step in overcoming a problem is recognizing that you have a problem. So here, in this pulpit I am confessing publicly I have a problem. Maybe I'm not the only one who is afraid ... of what exactly? Are we afraid of the feeling of regret we'll feel in getting rid of things that we might one day want? Are we afraid of something that we don't use, that's perfectly good, going to waste? Are we afraid that this might lead to our having nothing at all? All these fears are as nutty as my fear that the student loan goons would repossess my education. All these fears are rooted in a mindset that is so deep in many of us that we hardly recognize it. We tell ourselves we live not in a world of abundance, but of scarcity. We live in a world where it makes sense to hold onto film canisters and coffee cans and shirts that don't fit and magnets that still stick to the refrigerator...even when we're choking on our stuff!
If Jesus had walked through Oshkosh in the middle of June he might have said something like, "Do not fill your basements and attics and garages with stuff that can be burned in a fire, or damaged in flood waters. Instead, fill your lives with the important things, like working for justice and feeding the hungry. Treasure lastingly beautiful things, because they can't be destroyed and they'll never wear out! Trust your heavenly father to give you what you need to live. You have enough clothes already-and don't get me started talking about how many shoes you have! God has given you everything you've ever needed to survive, live and thrive. God has provided you with more than enough, so relax. Relax. Relax. Stop worrying and hording. You have so much moveable property that you can't even move! Get rid of it! Make a lasting change and give your excess away!" And later Jesus might say something like, "You know what never wears out? You know what will last forever? Sharing with needy people. That's going to last longer than anything you can buy at a store. Spend your time and money on things that really matter!"
Next week, during our worship service you'll be asked to enter a covenant with this congregation. The fact is the church needs to pay for the same kinds of things that all of us need. We've got to pay the light bill and pay the staff and train and equip all our members to respond to the grace and forgiveness and we know in Christ. And I know that it has been years since our economy has been as uncertain as it has been for the past month. Many of us have seen the value of our investments decrease. Many of us are fearful that we will lose our jobs, many of us are cutting back on our expenditures because it really looks like things are getting worse. In a word, we are afraid. We are worried. And in times of fear and worry it is especially hard to hear it when Jesus says, "Don't worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own."
In times of fear and worry it is especially hard to give more money to the church. And yet, it is the hardest times that the world most needs to hear the Good News that is ours to share. It is when things are darkest, that we need to shine the light of Christ most brightly. It is when we're most afraid of that we are called to give courageously, and give to make an eternal, lasting impact.