‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple

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Sunday, March 17, 2019
Scripture: Philippians 3:17-4:1 & Luke 13:31-35
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Our society believes bigger is better. A 12-ounce can of Coke isn’t enough; we need a Big Gulp. Specialized local stores aren’t enough; we need a Super Walmart, where we can get everything under one roof for rock bottom prices. And if Walmart doesn’t have it? Well, jump online. Amazon has everything. We lumber around Costco with carts that are almost too big to push, thinking that the 55-inch TV we bought a few years back just isn’t cutting it. Now we need an 86-inch, 4K LED TV. It’s essential to gobble up the hundreds of channels on cable or to stream the endless offerings from Netflix or Hulu. What was an indulgence a few years ago, just isn’t cutting it today.

When we were house shopping around a year ago, I can remember walking into a bedroom that was sufficient for someone growing up in the 1950s and thinking, “How can anyone fit in here?” A family needs several thousand square feet to live, right? Space enough for everyone to ignore each other.

Churches are not immune. The local church has struggled under the economic power of the megachurch, which can devote huge spaces and resources to running the most up-to-date children’s area, complete with all the slickest technology to attract people.

Of course, there are some movements that encourage us to think local and to think small. One of the things I love about this area is that there is a real sense that it is worth supporting local businesses. I’m from Pennsylvania, and I really don’t remember people taking pride in many things that were made in the state. But Michigan? People believe in Michigan. Maybe it’s because we’re a peninsula, so you don’t just pass through here, but we care about things made here. We take pride in what makes us distinct from others. We care about our craft, and I’m glad for that.

Still, that care is not going to cure what ails us as a society. The force of the bigger is so great, and modern living is complex. We are all caught up in it, no matter how hard we may try to opt out of it.

Over the coming month, we are going to teach on four spiritual disciplines. Last Lent we dwelled in the inward disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, and study. This Lent our focus will be on what Richard Foster calls “the outward disciplines” – simplicity, submission, solitude, and service. Today is all about simplicity, and I can at least tell you that focusing on this topic has led to some soul-searching for me. As a busy pastor with a busy spouse and three busy kids, my life has become ridiculously complex. It’s like doing calculus to figure out where people will be and when, who’s driving which kid to what activity, who’s making dinner. We had some car trouble over the past couple of weeks, and while I tried to get our car to start while we were all trying to get going in the morning and it wouldn’t, I had this sinking feeling that this one difficulty was going to mess up all of our delicately balanced plans. And it did. Life has become incredibly complex, and I need to restore some simplicity. And I doubt I’m alone in this.

So, this morning we’re going to think about simplicity – what it is, why it matters, and how we can regain some in our crazy busy world. I find simplicity all over the Bible. Jesus boils down the entire law into two statements – love God and love others. The psalms urge us to be still so that we can know who God is. Our two texts today come from the lectionary, and I suspect that these are here so that we pay attention to the prophetic words of Jesus and Paul that speak against the wickedness in the world that will ultimately hang Jesus on a cross. In Paul’s letter of joy to the Philippians, he urges these new Christians to imitate Paul’s way of life that stands in opposition to the ways of the world. “Their god is the belly,” Paul writes. They have an endless appetite for more. They are not concerned with higher things, only consuming to their satisfaction in the moment and then still wanting more. The Greek word for belly is koilia, and its root means “hollow.” There is this empty space inside the person, Paul says, and we have to be careful with how we try to fill that space. Put the wrong stuff in there, and you’ll never be satisfied.

Our gospel passage comes from the end of Luke 13. That entire chapter is devoted to small things – a barren fig tree, the healing of a crippled woman, parables about a mustard seed and yeast, and a narrow door. Concrete. Specific. Singular and simple. In our passage, some Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is after him. I find it fascinating that this religious group that has often been at odds with Jesus is trying to protect him here. They know the destructive power of Herod, and they see that he and all he represents are threatened by Jesus and his singularity of purpose. You see, Jesus’ inner purpose dictates how he behaves. He will not let the external – in this case the threat of Herod – control what he is about in the world. Singularity leads to simplicity.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not to worry. Your clothes? Your food? God provides for you. The birds don’t worry about food. The lilies of the field are clothed beautifully. Don’t you believe that God cares about you even more than these? Jesus asks and concludes, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things – [clothes and food and all you need] – will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).

Taking Jesus at his word, Richard Foster tells us, “The central point for the Discipline of simplicity is to seek the kingdom of God and the righteousness of his kingdom first and then everything necessary will come in its proper order.”[1] So, how do we live in this manner? Even though Foster says simplicity is an external discipline, he also tells us that it begins internally. To just make some external changes is legalism. We have to be changed on the inside for these to take root. There are three inner attitudes we must have that will lead to this kind of health. First, we must believe that all we have is a gift from God. Just as Jesus pointed out that God feeds the birds of the air, so we need to come to the point that all we have is gift. We have oxygen to breathe because of God our creator. We have seeds to plant because of God. We exist in this small corner in the vast expanse of the cosmos because God created the conditions for this creation. Society tells us that we’ve worked hard and we deserve what we get. The Bible tells us that it is gift. We must orient our hearts around the gift.

The second inner attitude is one of trust. It is God’s business to care for what we have, not ours. If we cannot live with trust in God’s provision or protection, our lives will be riddled with anxiety. We will never have enough. We will never be safe enough. We will never see our neighbors through the eyes of Christ. They will be a threat to us and to what we have.

The third inner attitude starts to move from the internal to the external. We must have our goods available to others. When we trust God and trust that God is the source of all we possess, then we also come to know that God’s gifts are meant to be shared. This is the attitude we strive to grow in our stewardship as a church – not legalistic obligation, but an open-handed excitement about how God takes our goods and expands the kingdom through them. Our souls shrivel when we become tight-fisted or defensive about generosity. Generosity is a reflection of our souls more than anything else.

God’s gifts and generosity shape our inner attitudes about how God created us to live in the world, but those move from inside of us into concrete action in our lives. We should be different! Our beliefs should change how we live, and this is particularly evident in simplicity. The rat race is not for us. The endless drive for more, bigger, and better is not God’s desire for our lives. Seeking God’s kingdom in our lives and community is God’s desire.

We recently held a class called “Voluntary Simplicity” on Sunday mornings at the church. This group met for several weeks to think through ways they could choose to live with simplicity, and I asked them for some of their takeaways from their time together. Here’s what they shared with me.

  • They concluded that the constant push for more is fundamentally destructive personally and socially. Stuff will not bring happiness, but relationships and quality time with others can bring that about.
  • They find that choosing simplicity leads to deeper relationships with others, with care for the creation, and with self-understanding.
  • They found that time spent in front of screens – TVs, phones, and computers – frequently keeps us from tending to relationships and quality time.
    • I was at Mulligan’s Hollow a week ago in the lodge. A toddler was throwing a tantrum next to his dad, and it was clear that the dad was over it. The toddler wanted dad’s phone. I watched this guy roll his eyes, pull the phone out of his pocket, give it to the toddler, who immediately grew content – an easy solution to a tantrum, but I believe one that is ultimately harmful to the child. We are going to reap the whirlwind on plugging our kids in, I’m afraid.

So, what are some ways we could engage in the discipline of simplicity in this season of Lent? Here are a few suggestions that can make a big difference in your life if you implement them.

  1. Buy things because you need them, not because you’re trying to impress others with them. As Foster puts it, “Stop trying to impress people with your clothes and impress them with your life.”[2] We live in a consumer economy. As Christians we can operate within it, but we must be aware of how to do so in a way that shapes us for the kingdom. We must also recognize that enough stuff will never satisfy us. Be content with what you have so that you can bless others with your life and resources.
  2. Check your addictions. This is a great one for Lent. It could be coffee. It could be the need to check the news. Addictions control us, and choosing to deny those addictions leads to new space in our lives for others and for God to work in us.
  3. Develop a habit of giving away from yourself. Notice I said habit. This is not something to be done only when you are overwhelmed with your stuff or when you have received an unexpected blessing. It is something we must cultivate in ourselves at all times. Maybe Marie Kondo has helped us here. Most of us are overwhelmed with stuff. Start giving it away to others who could use it. Live with less and on less so that we have space to bless others.
  4. Learn to enjoy things that don’t cost anything. Aren’t libraries amazing? You can get books, music, movies, and more for free! And then you can give them back so you don’t get burdened by them and so that others can use them. Aren’t our county parks fabulous? For most of the year they’re all free. Go for a walk. Spend time praying or with a friend in the beauty of God’s creation. Learn to love creation and pay attention to it. This simple act will reveal the staggering beauty of our world and grow our appreciation for it.

Simplicity is the only thing that sufficiently reorients our lives so that possessions can be genuinely enjoyed without destroying us.”[3] Engaging in the discipline of simplicity has positive economic, environmental, spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical consequences for us. It’s a spiritual discipline that is so practical and so tangibly beneficial, that I hope we all make the choice to practice it. But remember, it begins inside. It begins with us resting in God’s provision and abundance. It is lived with generosity and open-handedness. And it is rooted in learning to seek God’s kingdom first, so that everything else will fall into line. It is good for each us to live simply. It is good for our neighbor. It is good for the world. It is a gift to be simple. It is a gift that makes us free.

[1] Foster, Richard J.. Celebration of Discipline: The Path To Spiritual Growth (p. 86). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] Foster, Richard J.. Celebration of Discipline: The Path To Spiritual Growth (p. 90). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[3] Foster, Richard J.. Celebration of Discipline: The Path To Spiritual Growth (pp. 84-85). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.