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This message is from September 2, 2007.

Scripture Reading:
Matthew 6:19-21, 25-27

Simplicity & Worry

Paisley the Pilgrim was leaving the Land of Mammon.

Mammon was a strange and disconcerting land, and Paisley was eager to be away. She kept walking, even though the sun had settled behind the trees and all the shadows were lengthening into night. In the blooming dark, Paisley could no longer distinguish between one kind of tree and the next, but she could still see the road ahead. And so, she kept walking.

The Land of Mammon was a giant bog. The ground was uncertain and wet. Anyone who stood still would find themselves sinking down. Mammon was a land that swallowed your ankles with every step and threatened to take even more.

The people who lived in the Land of Mammon spent their whole lives accumulating stuff. They gathered up hair ribbons and coffee mugs and carriage wheels. No button or trinket was beneath their attention. They wanted everything. The people of Mammon took everything they could beg, borrow or steal. With these possessions, they made elaborate mounds of stuff. To escape the muck, people made their homes upon these gaudy mounds of wealth.

But it was never enough. The swampy ground of Mammon never lost its appetite. Day by day, the ground nibbled away at the piles of wealth. Every island was sinking beneath its own weight. And so the people of Mammon were always desperate for more stuff.

They became robbers and pirates.

Paisley the Pilgrim was leaving Mammon under the cover of darkness. Already, the air was sweeter and the ground was growing firmer beneath her feet. Her pack was emptier than it had been a few days ago. Many of her possessions had been stolen or impounded or confiscated on one pretext or another. It all meant the same thing. Her things were sinking into the mire of Mammon so someone else could climb a little higher.

The Land of Mammon promises wealth to those who stayed long enough. But it's a lie. To stay in Mammon is to sink in Mammon.

As she walked beneath a canopy of long-burning stars, Paisley felt grateful for the lightness of her pack. In Mammon, the people went about like pack mules. Everyone carried a heavy burden. They wore stuff on their shoulders and strapped to their backs. People wore a helmet of stuff upon their heads. They looked like hermit crabs. Even small children were outfitted with straps and yokes, so they could carry their own weight upon their backs.

When she had asked about this curious custom, Paisley had been told, "But of course we have no choice. There's no choice at all. How else could we find any rest? Everyone needs a great heap of stuff, in case we grow weary. If we have enough, then we can put some of our possessions down upon the hungry mire and climb above them for a moment of rest. This burden allows us rest." Despite this explanation, Paisley had never actually seen anyone put their burden down. She had never seen anyone rest in this way. In fact, she had been told that it would be frivolous to do so. In the Land of Mammon, only a wastrel would throw good stuff on the sinking ground for something as fleeting as rest. And so, in practice, the people of Mammon burdened themselves with heavy loads that pushed them ever deeper into the insatiable muck, all for the promise of a rest that they would never actually take.

Paisley shook her head in disbelief.

Up ahead, she could see the light of a campfire. The warm, dancing light held the promise of rest and a chance to swap stories with a fellow traveler. As she came closer to the fire, someone called, "Who goes there?"

Paisley identified herself and added, "I am recently from the Land of Mammon. I would sit by your fire if you'll have me."

The voice by the fire called back, "Are you a resident of Mammon?"

"Heavens no," Paisley replied. She couldn't keep a note of exasperation from her voice. "I am glad to put that horrible place behind me."

"You look harmless enough," the stranger called back. "Sit down if you wish."

As she stepped into the circle of firelight, Paisley shrugged the pack from her shoulders. "You know my name," she said with a smile. "May I have yours?"

There was a moment of silence. The fire crackled and snapped. Finally, the other person said, "Where I am from, we are not so quick to give our names away. Names can be stolen, like anything else. My name is my own until I decide otherwise."

Paisley saw that she was sharing the fire with a woman twice her age. Although she was seated, the older woman still had an enormous pack strapped to her back. She leaned back against it with her legs stretched out before her. Her arms were crossed defensively.

Diplomatically, Paisley said, "Then I will call you Friend until you give me another name." Paisley kept her voice light, but she found the other woman's huge pack disconcerting. Despite the solid ground, she began to wonder if perhaps she was still within the borders of Mammon.

Paisley pulled a chunk of bread from her pack. Hoping to sound casual, she asked, "Since I am a stranger here, can you tell me the name of this land?"

Again, there was a surprising silence. Too late, Paisley realized she had asked for another name. She was about to apologize, but the older woman was the first to break the silence. She said, "You are on the road to Phobia. That is the city of my birth. I am going home."

Paisley said, "Then finding you tonight was a double stroke of luck. I am lucky to share your fire. And I would be lucky to hear the customs of your homeland before I arrive."

The older woman stirred the fire with a stick. "You are right to speak of luck," she said. "But you must take more care to separate good luck from bad. You are eating bread after sundown. That is an invitation to bad luck. And you are hiding your feet from the fire. You should sit like this." The older woman swept a hand over her outstretched legs.

Paisley adjusted her position. She placed the soles of her feet toward the fire, but she stared ruefully at her bread. "I'm hungry," she insisted.

Again, there was a moment of silence. The native of Phobia seemed to chew upon her words before she spoke them. "If you must eat in the dark," she instructed (the orange glow of the fire spinning shadows across her face), "throw a pinch of food over your shoulder." As Paisley started to comply, the older woman threw up her hands in alarm. "No wait!" she called. "Throw the food over your left shoulder. It has to be your left shoulder. Good grief! How like a child you are. How have you come so far in the world with so little caution?"

"I'm so sorry," Paisley said, shaken by the sudden urgency in the other woman's voice. "I am a stranger and a pilgrim in your land. Please tell me so I will understand. Why do you put your feet to the fire? Why throw food over your left shoulder?"

"Like a child," the woman repeated. She reached behind her, into the giant pack that cushioned her back, and produced a pair of sticks. She beat them together, then used them to draw circles in the air. After whacking them together once more, she threw the sticks away.

"What are you doing?" Paisley inquired.

"It will keep the frost away," her companion said. "So many questions! You will stir up the Gnurkies and Poltergeists. They will put frost on the leaves and tie your hair into knots."

"What's a Gnurkie?" Paisley asked.

"Stop doing that!" The older woman commanded. Briskly, she reached into her pack once again. This time, she produced a leather bag. She loosened the strings and opened the bag. Reaching inside, she grabbed a hand of black powder. This she threw onto the fire. It burned with a flash of blue. "If you keep asking such questions," the older woman complained, "my whole pack will be empty by morning's first light!"

Paisley stared at the enormous pack. It was roughly the size and shape of an entire rowboat. "Is that all you have in your pack," Paisley asked, "charms to ward off danger?" Immediately, she threw her hand over her mouth. She had asked another question!

Apparently, however, this question was a safe one. Although she sighed, the older woman made no move to protect herself from unseen forces. In a whisper, she confided "We're in a state of orange alert. It calls for heightened security. We have to be careful, very careful."

Paisley dropped her hands away from her mouth, but she kept them hovering nearby -- vigilant against the indiscretions of her careless tongue. She said, "When I saw you with that pack, I thought you were from Mammon."

The older woman chuckled without humor. "The people of Mammon are fools," she pronounced. "They work against their own purpose. The more they accumulate, the deeper they sink into the mire. In Phobia, we have no interest in stuff. Security is our goal. In these uncertain and perilous times, we do what we must to protect ourselves.

"But you are burdened just the same," Paisley observed.

"Not the same," the older woman insisted. "Their burden is frivolous. Ours is necessary."

But to Paisley, it was hard to see any difference at all.

* * *

As Quakers, we have developed a certain skepticism toward the accumulation of stuff. We value simplicity. And we know that our deepest happiness will never come from stuff.

In my life, I try to be skeptical of every purchase. I wonder: Is what I have enough for now? Do I really need something more? If I make this purchase, what burden will I feel? Is that a burden I want to carry?

I think many of us think this way.

Lately, I am starting to ask similar questions about my fears. When I look into my heart, I see that wealth and worry run in parallel tracks. They are near neighbors. When he spoke, Jesus addressed the topic of wealth. He said, "Do not store up treasures on earth." And in the next breath, he addressed the topic of worry. "Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?" These ideas belong together. Wealth and worry go together.

Wealth and Worry are connected to our sense of control. As human beings, we want control. We want our hands on the steering wheel. We want to drive. By our wealth, we hope to gain control. By our worry, we hope to gain control.

When he spoke, Jesus was addressing our desire for control. Jesus did not talk about simplicity in a way that you might expect. He did not say, "Please recycle and buy a hybrid." Now, those are good things. But that's not what Jesus said.

Jesus said, "Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth." He said, "Do not worry about your life." Let go of your need to control.

Jesus invites us to trust. Trust. Trust is the counterweight to wealth and worry.

Jesus said, this is what you can trust: Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy. And where thieves do not break in and steal. If you set your heart on heaven, you can trust that what you really care about will last forever. That is something you can trust. When you set your heart on heaven, you can trust that what you care about will last forever.

And you can trust this: God knows what you need. God will care for you.

Jesus is inviting us relinquish the burdens of wealth and worry. Jesus invites us to trust.

* * *

As it happens, Trust is one of the most prophetic things we could offer this world.

To quote Randy Newman: Once, there was a president who said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Now it seems like we are supposed to be afraid. It's patriotic, in fact. And color-coded.

In this age, trust is revolutionary.

* * *

Once, there was a time when Quakers stood out among their peers. We dressed simply. We spoke simply. We lived simply in a way that made us distinct.

Now we dress like everyone. We talk like everyone.

Maybe we should distinguish ourselves again by living in simple trust.