“Tis a Gift to be Simple”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of Christ Church Greenwich
Delivered on Sunday, July 3, 2022
Every summer I try to hike one of the trails that run like a veins through Europe and lead to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where St. James the Greater (or Santiago in Spanish) is said to lie buried. They are all part of the Camino (or path) of Santiago de Compostela. I begin by thinking about what needs to go in my backpack weeks before my trip.
Hikers are encouraged to carry no more than 10 percent of their body weight in their backpack. The pack itself may weigh three pounds. Inside it, you might carry a water bladder with three pounds of water. You add a lightweight sleeping bag, toiletries, two walking sticks, two shirts, two pairs of shorts, two pairs of socks, two pair of underwear, a lightweight rain jacket, something warm to wear on a cool evening and perhaps a book to read. That’s it.
There is a joy to simplifying our lives and realizing how little we need to be happy. For a few weeks, I feel free and unencumbered. I think of the explorer Richard Byrd, who after months alone in the frozen artic, wrote in his journal, “I am learning… that a man can live profoundly without masses of things.”
In this morning’s lesson from Luke, Jesus appoints seventy followers – not just the usual twelve suspects – to go ahead of him into every town where he intended to visit and preach. He tells them, “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…” In other words, “travel lightly.” Rely on the hospitality of others. Then tell them that “the kingdom of God has come near to you.”
Perhaps there’s no coincidence that in order to serve Jesus, simplicity was required. There would be no sherpas to carry trunk loads of clothes and supplies. They took just the bare essentials. Indeed, the more we possess and the more we complicate our lives, the harder it is to experience God and experience peace and joy. All of us came into the world with nothing, and we will depart this world with nothing. One of life’s most important spiritual lessons to learn is learn how to travel lightly.
Simplicity is a rarely mentioned spiritual discipline. It is hard to message to live and to preach in wealthy communities like ours. But it is vital for Christian living. In his modern day spiritual classic Celebration of Disciple: the Path to Spiritual Growth, Richard Foster notes that “the Christian discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle.”
The things that we accumulate and the ways that we complicate our lives can easily separate us from God. Riches are deceitful precisely because they lead us to trust in them. We inhabit an very material world, where someone famously said, “We buy things that we do not want to impress people that we do not like.” The last thing that we want is to be out of fashion, to wear old clothes or drive a car or live in a house that is out of style and full of outdated furnishings.
But the preacher of Ecclesiastes writes, “God made man simple; man’s complex problems are of his own devising” (Eccles. 7:30). Simplicity brings freedom and joy. And there are a whole slew of Christian writers who have written about the need for Christian simplicity ranging from Augustine of Hippo to St. Francis of Assisi, Blaise Pascal, Richard Baxter, John Wesley and more recently Joan Chittester. The famous Shaker hymn reminds us:
Tis the gift to be simple,
Tis the gift to be free,
Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
The hymnist goes on to write,
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
The key is “to turn” from a life encumbered by too much stuff, too much pressure, and too much complexity to something simpler and more manageable. How often we try to pack 80 pounds of stuff into our 20 pound backpack of life. We live with a constant fear of missing out if we don’t attend something, buy something, try something, or say something.
To be transparent, I struggle with this a lot myself. When our group from Christ Church recently traveled to Spain to walk the Camino, each day I gave our pilgrims a little card with a Scripture verse to reflect on and some questions to ponder. On the first day I gave them one of my favorite quotes from the Bible – a passage from Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will for rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
Below it, I had written, “Part of the key to walking the Camino is to travel light. We prepare before we even arrive by packing lightly – thinking ‘Do I really need to bring this?’ Life is better when we unburden ourselves. How can you simplify your life in the coming year? What can you leave behind emotionally or mentally on the Camino or give up when you return in order to travel through life more lightly as a pilgrim rather than a pack mule?”
All was going well until my wife, Mims, who was on the pilgrimage with me, observed that no sooner had I arrived in Spain then I had bought lots of books and magazines to take back home. My suitcase was heavy as lead. The preacher, she noted, wasn’t practicing what he preached.
Tis the gift to be simple,
Tis the gift to be free…
But there are things that we carry with us in life that are not material, but weigh us down like carrying a backpack full of bricks. Each step forward becomes a struggle. In his masterful book on the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien begins by describing the various kinds of heavy weapons that the soldiers carried through the jungle. Further on, he described some of the more personal items they carried, like a letter from a parent or the lock of their finance’s hair. Finally, he examined the deeper, invisible things that they carried like envy, anger, jealousy, regrets, wounds received as a child or as an adult, or the inability to forgive someone or to forgive themselves. These were the heaviest items to lug through the jungle. In order to travel lightly through life, we must discard them.
Soren Kierkegaard addresses this in his magnificent, short book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. The one thing, he notes, is to first to seek the kingdom of God. Kierkegaard asks, should a person get an influential job in order to impact society? His answer is no, we must first seek God’s kingdom. Should we give away all of our money to feed the poor? The answer is no. We must first seek God’s kingdom. Should we go out and preach the gospel to all who seek God’s kingdom. Once again, the answer is no. We are first to seek the kingdom of God.
We ask ourselves, “How can I get more?” But the Christian spiritual seeker asks, “What can I do without?” We ask ourselves, “How can I find myself?” The spiritual seeker asks, “How can I lose myself?” We ask, “How can I win friends and influence people?” The spiritual seeker asks, “How can I love God?”
“To be simple,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted and turned upside down. It is to be single hearted.” That is our challenge today. It is also why Jesus challenged the rich young ruler to give what he had to the poor, because not only did he have great possessions, but more significantly his possessions had him. Jesus noted that wherever we fix as our treasure, there our heart, mind and soul will be focused.
The greatest challenge to living the gospel in communities like Greenwich is that many of us lead lavish lifestyles. Some have personal trainers, a second or third home, expensive cars, lovely vacations, private schools, and memberships at clubs. It’s a wonderful life, but it’s not a Christian life if we only give our leftovers to God – our leftover time, leftover talent, and leftover money. When we do this, we risk reducing God to but an accoutrement in our lives and leaving a church too weak to transform any lives including our own. By avoiding simplicity, we conveniently ignore much of Jesus’ teaching and miss the peace and joy of Christian living.
Tis the gift to be simple,
Tis the gift to be free…
Greenwich is a wonderful but also a challenging place to raise a family. One of the families that I most admire in our parish told me, “Greenwich is a type A community, but we are hoping to raise a type B family. We are trying to build a buffer around our family and not accept every invitation or have our sons be involved in every sport and activity. Their oldest son was the last in his class to receive a cell phone. I admire their parenting and can see how their focus on leading a simpler life is paying great dividends.
Simplicity is about more than having fewer material possessions. The simple person is humble, puts on no airs, requires no special attention, does not dominate conversations, but rather lives quietly, responsibly, and seldom requires the best of anything, let alone of everything. The higher a person goes up the ladder of wealth and success the harder it is to find simple people. Richard Rohr notes that “protocol takes over.” People act in affected ways, feel entitled to receive things, and long to display signs of their success.
When we find an exception, it truly stands out. I once had a parishioner who helped to found American Express. He was in his nineties, attended church each Sunday, and was worth tens of millions of dollars, but he lived in a modest apartment. When I had lunch at his apartment one day, he asked, “Do you like fish.” I said, “Yes.” “That’s good,” he replied, “because I clipped some coupons from the newspaper today so that my maid could go to the grocery store and buy fish for lunch.” Nothing fancy or pretentious. He used coupons to buy his fish.
When lunch was over, he asked, “What do you think of the St. Luke’s Episcopal Center?” I oversaw outreach for our church and replied, “It’s a fabulous. They do a remarkable job on a shoestring budget. They could do so much more, if they had more funds.” “That’s just what I needed to hear,” he said. “After you leave, I will instruct my lawyer to wire $100,000 to them, but please don’t tell anyone.” Humble. Simple. Unpretentious. When he died, he left $25 million to the Salvation Army and not a dollar to the church, because no one had asked him. It’s important for the church to ask for the support that we need.
A vital aspect of the spiritual discipline of simplicity is the ability to tell the simple truth. The brilliant and insightful Wall Street Journal conversative columnist Peggy Noonan noted in her column yesterday that White House Assistant Cassidy Hutchinson, who is only 26 years old, had the courage to do what few others have done. She told the simple truth to The January 6th Committee broadcast on live television. None of the men working around her had the courage to do this.
In her column, Noonan wrote, that if the former president “had succeeded, he would have produced a new era, in which democracy and its processes would no longer work in American, in which the outcome of every national election would be a question. We can’t allow that,” noted Noonan, “because we can’t survive that way, we’d be finished.” That’s the simple truth.
Part of the gift of living simply is to succeed at living gently on the earth. We cannot go on using earth as if its resources were endless and the cost of producing goods was negligible. That’s why the Supreme Court’s ruling this week that the federal government cannot limit emissions is hard to fathom and appears to be downright dangerous. To be simple is to be balanced and the result is peace and harmony.
In the end, success is a much simpler thing that we often imagine. It is learning to be happy with what we already have, being in touch with our spiritual selves, connecting deeply with family and friends, and doing some good, not harm, in this world.
Pope John XXIII declared, “The older I grow the more clearly I perceive the dignity and winning beauty of simplicity in thought, conduct, and speech: a desire to simplify all that is complicated and to treat everything with the greatest naturalness and clarity.” Simplicity is a grace because it is a gift from God, but one that we must work to maintain. Otherwise, the weeds of complexity take root and choke out the simplicity of our lives.
Meister Eckhart wrote some 700 years ago, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting.” It’s a different kind of math than the math of accumulation and acquisition that we have been taught, but it is the math of eternal peace and joy.
Tis the gift to be simple,
Tis the gift to be free…