I’ve been talking about things I’ve learned from Christmas, and you all have been so patient to indulge my musings. We began by thinking about anticipation and how the anticipation of an event is often better than the event itself. I concluded by urging you to dream big and aim high, but to never lose sight of reality. Last week, we thought about the role of myths, and how they serve as gap-fillers until knowledge, experience and reason help us better understand the world.
When I sat down and planned this sermon series a month ago, I had every intention of speaking today on the saying “The best things in life aren’t things.” Which must be true since it’s written on a million t-shirts, coffee cups, and plaques. Once something is printed on a t-shirt, it must be true. Right? Plus, it’s a nice Quaker sentiment, so I thought I could segue into a nice little message about Quaker simplicity, take a jab or two at the materialism of the American culture, while simultaneously convincing Joan we didn’t need to buy one another anything for Christmas this year, saving us considerable money, which I could later spend on motorcycles.
But let’s examine this little chestnut―The best things in life aren’t things—a bit closer. It sounds so right it must be true, and certainly worthy of a sermon or two or even three.
Then I got to thinking about it and I remember a friend of mine who’d had a lousy childhood and every year at Christmas her parents sat around the house getting drunk and there were never any presents for any of the kids, and when she wondered aloud why they couldn’t have presents like normal families, her parents would always say, “The best things in life aren’t things.”
Which gave me pause about this saying because I think things are important. I would never tell a homeless person who doesn’t have a place to live, or food to eat, or a bed to sleep in, that things aren’t important. Or tell an impoverished mother who can’t buy her little girl the medicine she needs that money isn’t everything. I remember when I was a young pastor saying that to a man who’d lost his job and couldn’t pay his bills. I wanted to cheer him up, so I said “Well, money isn’t everything.” And he said, “Yeah, I hear well-off people say that all the time, but I’ve never heard a poor person say it.” He was right.
The right thing at the right time matters. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You remember the story of the three wise men visiting Jesus? What did they do? They brought the right things at the right time, gifts that symbolized worth, beauty, and appreciation. They knew better than to show up empty-handed, as if nothing significant had happened.
The best things in life aren’t things. It’s not that simple. Because things in their proper context, gestures of generosity that signal appreciation and gratitude, the right things at the right time, are important. This is why stinginess bothers us. When someone we love is tight-fisted and cheap, when someone we love fails to share and give, it makes us feel as if we don’t matter to them.
This is what is so insidious about poverty. When someone works hard, but never has anything to show for it, when they are always one step away from the poorhouse, it would be natural for them to feel unvalued and unimportant, then eventually bitter and angry. In the months following the January 6th attack on our nation’s capital, social scientists studied the background of the rioters and discovered the bankruptcy rate among the rioters was twice that of the general population. While I know we’re not inclined to think well of them, I wonder if, in an effort to understand them, we saw their anger as a result of eating table scraps when others are feasting. When people are left in the economic cold, when they can’t provide for their families or have hope for their children, they will, in their anger and desperation, follow anyone who promises a better life, even a con man who cares only for himself.
Things are important. They can help us feel valued, included, and cared for. When we create economic systems that give so much to so few, and so little to so many, misdirected anger and bitterness are a natural consequence. No one who has enough has ever picked up a pitchfork and stormed the castle. Things are important. They reflect the esteem in which we are held by our fellow beings. The right things at the right time matter.
The things we give to people merit our thoughtful attention. Giving is an opportunity to show the people you love how important they are to you, how much they mean to you. That’s why the best gifts aren’t about money, but about effort. Someone’s effort on our behalf lets us know we matter. This is my 60th Christmas, and I’ve forgotten most of the gifts I’ve been given. What I’ve never forgotten is the happiness I’ve felt in being remembered and valued. I suspect the same is true for you.
I have a friend named Charlie who I eat lunch with about once a month. Every time we meet, he brings me a small present. Do I need the gifts he brings? No. Do I leave our lunch feeling valued and cared for? Yes, I do. Every single time we meet. This to me should be the aim and goal of the Christian life, to help others feel loved and cherished, which means that sometimes the best things in life are things.