Sunday, August 4, 2013

Vanity of Vanities - Homily for the 18th Sunday in OT

A Dumpster of Vanity

            Have you ever seen one of those green street signs that say “End St. Louis County Maintenance”? I don’t know where he got it, but my grandpa had one. He had it placed above the entrance to his basement: “End St. Louis County Maintenance.” You can figure, then, that grandpa had piles and piles of junk in the basement: several televisions that he was “working on”; typewriters; boxes and boxes of electrical equipment and tools…  The joke was that if one of the kids was going down there, be sure to have string tied around its wrist so that it wouldn’t get lost.
            When grandpa died, it was his family who had to clean up the piles of stuff. Piles that he had never got to. So much stuff he had that it filled two dumpsters—and not like the ones on our parking lot. We’re talking semi-truck dumpsters. Grandpa was a hoarder.
            I thought of this when I heard the first reading today: “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” My grandpa had all that stuff, had spent so much money on all the stuff, and the vast majority ended up in the dumpster. “Vanity of vanities!”

Am I Building Bigger Barns?

In the Gospel, we see vanity clearly: the rich man has a bountiful harvest, but in trying to hold on to it all, he finds himself anxious: “What shall I do?” he worries. So he comes up with the idea that he will simply organize his riches better and then he goes to bed content. But he dies that night. And he loses all of his stuff. To that man God says, “You fool!”
(Not too often that you hear Jesus saying that!)
            So, the question is: at what point do our possessions make us foolish?
            Perhaps we need to take an inventory of what we own and why we own it. Does a girl of 9, for example, need 20 My Little Ponies and 14 Barbie Dolls to be happy? And if she does, what does that say about her and her parents? Or the boy: does he need 140 matchbox cars, 15 lego sets, 3 light sabers, and a few baseball gloves to be happy? If so, then we are all foolish. All of these items have been given from good intention—we want our children to be happy—but all of this “stuff” can easily make our lives miserable. 

For the parents, we find ourselves harping on our children to put away their stuff. And sometimes there is just so much stuff that it is impossible for the brain to organize it—especially a little brain as a child’s. So, we think and we think and then we come up with the solution: let’s buy organizers! Yes, spend more money for organizers—that will solve the problem! And so we “organize” our stuff as the rich man did with barns. How foolish!
            And we rationalize it, don’t we? We say “I might need it… later…” And later becomes tomorrow and tomorrow becomes a month and a month becomes a year and then five years, fifteen, … and then we’re dead and it’s thrown in the dumpster—and we never used it. How foolish!

The Weakened Imagination

For the child, the seed has been planted. Our children grow up with the mentality that this is “normal”—that to have a lot of stuff and to organize it is the way to go. So, when they become parents, they think that this is what they need to do. And when they can’t afford giving their children as much stuff as they had, they feel like they are bad parents. And even if they can afford all of the stuff, they feel overwhelmed by it all.
            This has side-effects too for the greater community. Take for example the current cultural revolution. If you haven’t noticed, fewer and fewer kids are going outside to play. Why is it that fewer are riding bikes? or playing hide-and-seek? or playing in the mud? Sure, parents might be more protective, but I think another big part of this is the electronic devices we throw at kids. The iphones, ipods, ds’s and whatnot—while they are not bad in themselves—they do not stimulate the active imagination of a child. In fact, these devices retard the active imagination because the device itself is what does the imagining. Thus, the child is trained to have things imagined for it. As a result, the child never is challenged to create: wonder, imagination, and the desire to seek the adventure of what lays beyond us is weakened and oftentimes destroyed. (We wonder why we have teenagers, 20-somethings, and even grown ups who can’t think outside the box, create, imagine, wonder, go outside—and instead prefer to sit and have a device imagine a world for them). They have become neutralized, perfectly content to stay indoors. (I find it lamentable that most kids have never seen the Milky Way. Instead, they think it is a candy bar).

The “New Normal

            And it’s not just about going outdoors; it’s about being able to go outside of ourselves. Study after study is showing that material contentment does not lead to community life; it leads to isolation—like a dragon that sits on its gold alone. We can see this in the declining rate of marriages and families, and a declining rate of feeling responsible to take active part in the greater community.
This not only has a detrimental effect on making our world a better place, but it makes it nearly impossible for young adults to find that suitable spouse. And if they should find that special someone, they face the worry of sharing money and finances, and they worry about how their lifestyle might change. So they don’t marry or they get a “pre-nup.”
            All of this has developed a “new normal” in our American culture. “Normal” is now marrying at 30 with separate bank accounts and a pile of debt because of student loans. The couple believes that they must have a house—and typically a house the size of their parents’ last house: the house that their parents had saved and saved and started saving by starting out with an apartment—that house. So the young couple mortgages themselves into such a spot that they will have 2 kids, max—and Catholic education? Don’t even start on that! It is just too expensive! Fools!

(On a personal note: I am convinced that student loans and mortgages are the newest and worst form of contraception today).

            When did the mentality arise that said that there had to be only one child living in only one bedroom? This is crazy. When my mom was raising four of us by herself (and gosh, I sound like an old codger: “when I was a young boy…!”) I lived in a 10X10 room with my sister (ew!) and a bunk bed. Was it a cross? Yes. But how many lessons were learned there! About how to get along when times were tough; about sharing; about community; about not killing each other in the middle of the night… We learned about sacrifice and compassion and family.

An Opportunity Missed: The Catholic School

            When we vainly spend the money God has given to us—and it is His harvest, not ours—not only do we miss out on developing an imagination, community, and greater learning, but we also miss opportunities to spend our money on the things that really matter.
            I think of our own Catholic school. It is a CATHOLIC school—and so it is specifically your school. Our Catholic school! Many think it is expensive because it costs just under $5,000 to send a child here. I agree. I wish it could be free to all. This is something Monsignor and I are working on. Let’s pray for this!
But look at the public schools in the area. I mean no disrespect to them; but people see them as free. But they aren’t. Whereas our school costs $5,000 per child, public schools cost Joe Taxpayer an average of $16,000 per child in Jefferson County. The government is providing a “service” that we can do for a third of the cost. I don’t know about you, but wouldn’t Joe Taxpayer be better off if he could spend $11,000 less per student? But the current mentality out there is costing him and is going to lead to the closing of our Catholic school. We have a choice here—oh, if only ALL CATHOLICS would support THEIR CATHOLIC school! It is our duty, whether we have a child there or not, whether we have supported in the past or not, whether we have two dollars or two million dollars—we have a duty to support our Catholic school. And we know that the Lord cherishes those who give from their living and not simply from their excess.

            I think of the woman who, in her religious fervor, has 20 different pieces of religious art in her kitchen or the grandma who has 30 “precious moments” dolls. I have nothing against them, but there comes a point when the clutter prevents us from enjoying the one thing. Have two pieces of art and two dolls! Sell the rest to sponsor a child at our school! Follow the example of Pope Francis who asks us to consider: why drive a Cadillac when a Chevy will do? Why add on an extra room for your stuff when your brother is homeless?

Becoming Rich in God

            But it’s not just about living more simply or even about living more equitably with one’s brother.
You see, an anonymous “Someone in the crowd” asked Jesus to resolve his financial dilemma. Jesus rebukes that man. Why? Because the man in his vanity had overlooked the reality that an eternal inheritance stood right in front of him! JESUS WAS RIGHT THERE. The dispute about money was petty in comparison to the riches of God that were open before him. If only that man would have asked for an eternal inheritance! But no: he was blind with vanity.
            Paul exhorts us:
If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died….
He means our baptism!
Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly….
And rise to the glory of God!

            Maybe you feel convicted by this. Maybe you realize that we all need to grow in simplicity in life and have a paradigm change in the way we spend our money. And maybe some of you feel sad that you have spent your money poorly and are in a hole.
See Jesus in front of you!

And so, if your house is a mess, have you ever asked God to help you clean it?
Lord, please help me clean my house. Please bring order to it. Please help me to let go of stuff and to be freed from the slavery of things!

If you are in a hole because of vanity, then we need to ask for God’s mercy. God’s mercy is stronger than our past vanity! Let’s run to him and ask him for his merciful help.
And then, perhaps, we need to seek someone in the parish for good financial advice. Maybe we need someone to instruct us in good habits of spending and taking care of ourselves.

            Or maybe you feel enslaved by what you own, enslaved by image and by vanity. To you, hear the words of our Lord: He says:

do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious …? … All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides…

Elsewhere, He says:
where your treasure is, there is your heart as well.
And also:
What does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and yet forfeit his soul?

Brothers and sisters: Seek God above all else. Sell all the rest. Become rich in what matters to him!