Living Simply and Traveling Lightly
Bible Text: Luke 12: 22-34 | Preacher: Earl Zimmerman | Synopsis: As my wife Ruth and I pack to move, we’re confronted with how much stuff we’ve accumulated. Who am I to talk about living simply and traveling lightly? What about Jesus’ commandment to renounce all our earthly possession and give everything away? At first I was going to say that we probably shouldn’t take it literally but, on second thought, I’m not so sure. It any respect, it certainly means travelling lighter and living more simply than most of us do. What examples do we have of people who live simply and do it graciously and joyfully?
Ruth and I are in the midst of our move to Harrisonburg. As we wait for our house to be completed, all our furniture and other belongings are packed in a storage unit and in the garage of our new house. It’s almost done. Meanwhile, we’re living in a friend’s basement apartment. Each time we move we’re confronted with how much stuff we somehow accumulate over the years.
You can see where this is going. I’m hardly an ideal candidate for joining Jesus’ band of adventurous travelers who set out with not so much as a change of clothes. I’m going to flub this before we even get started. Yet I’m still intrigued even though it’s obvious that I’m a fumbling and bumbling disciple who has a hard time freeing myself from the grip that stuff has on me.
When Ruth and I lived in India, I learned about the Hindu concept of four different ashrams or stages of life. The first stage is being a student, followed by the second stage involving the responsibilities of being a householder. The third stage is retirement, where you turn over the household responsibilities to the next generation. The final stage is called sannyasa or the renounced life. It involves renouncing and deliberately detaching oneself from material things and focuses on attaining peace and a simple spiritual life. It involves leaving one’s home and becoming an ascetic. We met many wandering ascetics called sadhus at temples and other holy places in India.
They have only the possessions they carry with them: a walking stick, a water jar, an alms bowl, a rosary, and perhaps an extra cloth to wrap around their body. That sounds like Jesus’ instructions to his disciples. I teased Ruth, not completely in jest, that I find such detachment appealing and might consider it after I retire. More seriously, it gives me a window into the kind of life that Jesus and his disciples led as they traveled from place to place as wandering sojourners in Palestine. Consider Jesus’ response to the scribe who wanted to follow him, “Foxes have dens, and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8: 20).
Biblical scholar Lamar Williamson comments, “The charge to travel light and to accept whatever accommodations are offered is an abiding call to… simplify our lives and to trust God completely.” I, however, find that my life inevitably becomes cluttered with all kinds of stuff and cares. It takes no planning or forethought. It just happens and that’s the rub.
Viewing this from different parts of life can help us better understand. One is my weekly discipline of writing sermons. Writing clear, simple prose is hard work. I usually go through several drafts and lots of that work involves cutting out words and rearranging sentences. When I speak extemporaneously, I’m more verbose but say much less.
Another example come from George Brunk III, my biblical studies professor in seminary, who taught me that none of us reads the Bible straight. We read it through our own particular lens.
We, therefore, need to constantly strive to be as aware as possible of how our own cultural and social biases influence our interpretation. We also need to be aware of the historical, cultural, and social contexts that the biblical authors were responding to.
George referred to this as a hermeneutical circle or circle of interpretation. It’s a never-ending conversation between ourselves, the historical and literary background of the Bible, and studying how others have interpreted it throughout history. It’s an exacting discipline, much more complex than lining up Bible verses that support my point of view. In reference to this, he quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; but I’d give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
Because Ruth and I wanted our new home in Harrisonburg to be energy efficient, and aging-in-place, we decided to go to the extra expense of hiring an architect. Stock house designs tend to have extraneous design features and less of the things we actually want. David Conrad, the architect we chose, has a reputation for designing simple, energy efficient buildings.
The design process took the better part of a year as we did a site layout, measured, consulted, and argued. We wanted the house to be the right size (most American houses are too big but David reminded us that a house can also be too small to be fully functional). We wanted our house to be handicap accessible, well insulated, and as energy efficient as possible.
We had built a passive solar, energy efficient house in the 80’s. It was a good functional house that could be heated on less than one cord of wood a year. But the technology today is so much more advanced than it was back then. We now have remarkably efficient insulation, heating systems, and appliances. By adding electric solar panels on the roof, we hope to have a net-zero house, meaning that we will generate as much energy as we use.
We were continually crunching the numbers to keep our house within budget. It had to fit within our other priorities such as living simply and generously. Aesthetics also matter. We wanted a beautiful but simple design. As we talked with David Conrad about this he told us that he has a quote posted above his drafting desk, “Simplicity is not a given. It’s an achievement.”
We asked ourselves, “What baggage (such as our American trend of building bigger and bigger houses) keeps us from being able to do that?” In our age of climate change and shrinking global resources, we will want to consider how traveling lightly and living simply is a matter of caring for the earth and all vulnerable people.
Even so, I’m aware that, as a middle-class American, my ecological footprint is so much bigger than that of most people in our world. One study estimates it would take 5 Earths to support the human population if everyone’s consumption patterns were similar to the average American. This is a huge problem and I’m still coming up short even as I love working at it.
How do I, therefore, take to heart Jesus’ teaching about not worrying about my life and striving after necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. Sure, we need these things but we cannot allow our focus on them to become all consuming. Jesus tells us that our focus should instead be on God’s kingdom and these other things will be given to us as well.
It would be great to have a circle conversation about this. How do I live into it? Who are the people who model this way of life for us. When I’m completely honest, the life of a wandering sadhu in India seems incredibly austere. I probably wouldn’t survive if I tried to live like that.
What if we take literally, Jesus’ commandment to sell our possessions and give alms? Does he mean renouncing all earthly possessions and giving everything away? At first In was going to say, “Probably not.” On second thought, I’m not sure about that. In any respect, it certainly means travelling much lighter and living much more simply than most of us do. Again, what examples do we have of people who actually live like this and do it graciously and joyfully?
For me, the nub of the matter comes down to the last verse in this scripture passage were Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.” Some poor people can be incredibly miserly and completely obsessed by money. And there are wealthy people who live generously and use their wealth to serve God and others. How can we check our hearts on this? How much grip does stuff and worrying about my life have on me?
Martin Luther once said that all he did was teach, preach, and translate the Bible. Otherwise, he did nothing. Then while he slept and drank Wittenberg beer with his friends, the word of God did it all. As a fumbling and bumbling disciple who has a hard time traveling light and trusting in God, I find comfort and hope in this.
 Lamar Williamson Jr., Mark: Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 121.