Surplus, Simplicity, and Community

A sermon presented by Doug Muder and Deb Bodeau at First Parish in Lexington, Mass. in February, 1993

Order of Service


HYMN # 14 (Cong. songbook) “Here We Have Gathered”





CHILDREN’S STORY– The Wizard of Christchurch


SONG “As We Leave This Friendly Place”

FIRST READING (Doug) from The Discourses of Epictetus

SECOND READING (Deb) from Your Money or Your Life by Joe Domnguez and Vicki Robin




SERMON “Surplus, Simplicity, and Community”

HYMN “Simple Gifts”


Opening Words

From many places, many stories and many walks of life, we have come to be with each other this morning in this place of sanctuary. We light this candle to symbolize the light and warmth of the community that we make together.

Children’s Story: The Wizard of Christchurch

Introducer [Katy Weeks] [with globe]:  Will the children please come forward? [wait]

How many of you have ever heard a story that has a wizard in it?

How many of you have every seen a wizard in a movie or on TV?

Well, last year about this time my husband and I and a couple of our friends saw a wizard in person. Now, in all the stories you usually have to go a long, long way to see a wizard, and we did. We started here [show on globe] in Massachusetts and went all the way to New Zealand, to a city called Christchurch.

[Wizard (Dave Kay) enters from left door, away from children. He stands and watches from a distance.]

Now Christchurch is a city with a big church in it. And out in front of the church is a public square. Every afternoon at about one o’clock the Wizard comes out and starts to talk.  He wears a really strange costume and–

Wizard: What are you doing?

Introducer: I have to introduce you. You need an introduction.

Wizard: I need nothing and you don’t have to do any such thing. I want to talk and I’m going to. Now go sit down.

[Introducer sits down.]

Have you ever noticed how many things people “have to do”? Your parents have to do a lot of things, don ‘t they? Especially when there’s something you’d like them to do. They have to go to work. They have to pay the bills. They have to clean the house.  They have to go through the mail. They have to read the paper. They have to go to the store. They have to talk to people on the telephone. [stage whisper] Do you think they really have to do all those things?

But you do it too, don’t you? You can’t come to dinnner right now, you have to finish watching this television show. You have to finish the game you’re playing. You have to do your homework. At Christmas you had to get that special toy everyone else was getting. You have to see this movie. You have to go to baseball practice. You have to wear what everyone else is wearing. You have to shave your head the way Tommy’s older brother shaved his. There are a lot of things you have to do.

Well. I am a wizard. And do you know what that means? It means I don’t have to do anything.

Was I always a wizard? Well, no. Once I was a child just like you. More intelligent and more handsome, of course, but a lot like you all the same. I remember quite clearly: I was sitting at the dinner table and my mother was telling me that I had to eat my green beans. And suddenly I had a revelation. I said, “Why do I have to eat my green beans?” which I had never asked before. My mother said “If you don’t eat your green beans, you won’t grow up big and strong like your father.” I looked at my father, and then I said “I am prepared to take that risk.” Much unpleasantness followed, but I did not eat my green beans.

Soon I began to ask why about a great many things. Why did I have to go to school? They told me, “If you don’t go to school you won’t get a job.” But I said, “I don’t want a job.” Think about it: Did Jesus have a job? Socrates? Jeremiah? In the entire history of the world has any really interesting person had a job? I think not.

“But you have to get a job,” they told me. “Why?” I asked.

“Because you have to have money,” they said. And I said, “Why?”

“Because you have to have a car. You have to have a house. You have to raise children. You have to have a television, designer jeans, Nintendo, furniture, carpeting, washing machines, microwaves, computers, Air Jordans, MTV, Big Macs, Coca-Colas.” And I said “No.” Because that is the special perogative of a wizard. A wizard can always say “No.”  And since that time I have not done any of those things that people said I had to do unless it pleased me to do so. And I do not have any of those things that people said I had to have.

Now you probably like a lot of those things, and so you will probably never want to be a wizard. There are very few of us. But just in case you ever do, you will have to remember the secret. No one can become a wizard unless they know the secret. It’s a secret that your parents will never tell you. Your teachers will never tell you. You will never hear it on television or read it in a newspaper. No one but a wizard will ever tell you this secret. And so you’d better listen closely, because unless you meet another wizard you will never hear this secret again: Nobody has to have anything. Nobody has to do anything.

You’ll go back to your seats and your parents will say “Oh that crazy wizard, you can’t listen to him.” But you and me, we know the secret.

Now go. [Waves his hand, turns and leaves.]


From The Discourses of Epictetus

When I first saw the Wizard of Christchurch I thought he was unique. But after a little reading I discovered that he is a throwback to an old tradition, the tradition of the ancient cynics. These were travelling philosophers who had turned their backs on material objects and social prestige. It is said that Diogenes, the most famous cynic, once came to a stream, pulled a cup out of his pack and began to drink. He then saw a small boy come to the stream and drink from his hands. Diogenes smashed the cup and said “What a fool I’ve been all these years, lugging around that useless thing.” But although the cynics were poor, they were far from humble. They believed that they were the only free people in the world, and that all other people were slaves to materialism and social custom. They were not shy about saying so. The first reading is from a discourse by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus [3.22:45-59]. This was delivered in the first century A.D., but if you want to hear something almost like it, you can go to Cathedral Square in Christchurch, New Zealand at 1 o’clock almost any afternoon.

“And how is it possible that a man who has nothing, who is naked, houseless, without a hearth, squalid, without a servant, without a city can pass a life that flows easily? Look, God has sent you a man to show you that it is possible.  Look at me, who am without a city, without a house, without possessions, without a servant; I sleep on the ground; I have no wife, no children, no high office, but only earth and heaven, and one poor cloak.

“And what do I lack? Am I not without sorrow? Am I not without fear?  Am I not free? When did any of you ever see me disappointed? or falling into something that I wanted to avoid? did I ever blame God or man? did I ever accuse anyone? did any of you ever see me looking downcast? And how do I meet with those whom you are afraid of and admire? Do not I treat them like servants?  Who, when he sees me, does not think that he sees his king and master?”

From Your Money or Your Life by Joe Domnguez and Vicki Robin

The second reading is from the book Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. This part is next to an illustration called “The Fulfillment Curve” which graphs money spent to fullfillment obtained from it. The graph starts out low [trace in the air], goes to a peak and then goes down.

“In the beginning of our lives, more possessions did indeed mean more fulfillment. Basic needs were met. We were fed. We were warm. We were sheltered. Most of us don’t remember the fear of hunger and cold that was remedied by just a blanket and a breast–but we all went throught it. . .

We then went from bare necessities (food, clothing, shelter) to some amenities (toys, a wardrobe, a bicycle), and the positive relationship between money and fulfillment became even more deeply embedded. Remember your excitement when you got your Captain Midnight Decoder Ring or baseball mitt or Barbie doll? . . .And so it went year after year. There was the prom tux and corsage. The tennis racket.

Eventually we slipped beyond amenities to outright luxuries–and hardly registered the change. A car . . . our first trip away from home. For many of us there was going away to college. Our first apartment. Notice that while each one was still a thrill, it cost more per thrill and the ‘high’ wore off more quickly.

By now we believed that money equals fulfillment, so we barely noticed that the curve had started to level out. . . House. Job. Family responsibilities. More money brought more worry. More time and energy commitments as we rose up the corporate ladder. More time away from the family. … More taxes and more tax accountants’ fees. More demands from community charities. Therapists’ bills. Remodeling bills. Just-keeping-the-kids-happy bills.

Until one day we found ourselves sitting, unfulfilled, in our 4000 square foot home on 2.5 wooded acres with a hot tub in the back yard and Nautilus equipment in the basement, yearning for the life we had as poor college students who could find joy in a walk in the park. We hit a fulfillment ceiling and never recognized that the formula of money = fulfillment not only had stopped working but had started to work against us. No matter how much we bought, the Fulfillment Curve kept heading down. [But] there is a very interesting place on this graph–it’s the peak. … At the peak of the Fulfillment Curve we have enough. Enough for our survival. Enough comforts. And even enough little ‘luxuries’. …

So what’s all that stuff beyond enough–beyond the peak, where the Fulfillment Curve begins to go down? Clutter, that’s what! Clutter is … whatever you have that doesn’t serve you, yet takes up space in your world. To let go of clutter, then, is not deprivation, it’s lightening up and opening up space for something new to happen. …

Once you catch on to what clutter is, you’ll find it everywhere. Isn’t meaningless activity a form of clutter? … What about disorganized days, full of busyness with no sense of accomplishment? And what about items on your To Do list of tasks that never get done? Stumbling over them, week in, week out, is like the frustration of navigating the perennial newspapers and kids’ toys that litter some people’s living rooms. …  As your awareness of clutter deepens, you’ll be inspired to spring clean your whole life. …You will develop your own personal definition of clutter and will slowly, painlessly, even joyfully rid yourself of it.”


Consider the lilies of the field. They toil not, neither to they spin. And yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. [Matthew 6:28-29]


I’m not going to ask you for money this time. That’s someone else’s job this year. [Inside joke. The last two times I had been in the pulpit were as part of annual canvass drives.]

Money is part of what I want to talk about today, but it’s only a small part. What I really want to talk about is the kind of community we have here, and the way that it affects our lives. Let me start with some background: I grew up in a farm-and-factory town in the Midwest, and I went to the Lutheran church that my parents went to. After I left my hometown I was churchless for a long time, but about five years ago my wife and I decided that we needed to have more in our lives than just our jobs, and we started coming to this church.

It’s hard to describe to you the sense of amazement and wonder I feel about this congregation. I never fail to be impressed by the people I meet here. Almost without exception, they are very talented, extremely intelligent, well educated, thoughtful and articulate. And more than that they’re the kind of people who know how to get things done. (Being so intelligent, you probably realize that this kind of flattery is always followed by the word “but”.) But lately there’s been a thought nagging at the back of my mind: What exactly is the benefit that comes from us being such talented, educated, and efficient people? This may be naive, but I can’t shake the idea that a group of people like this ought to have some kind of advantage on a group of average people. Life ought to be easier in some way. We ought to be generating some kind of a surplus somewhere in our lives. I’ve been looking for that surplus for a while now, and I haven’t found it. I thought that today I would share with you some of my thoughts about what might have happened to our surplus and what we might be able to do about it.

Now where would you begin to look for a surplus like this? You might start by looking for a surplus in time and energy. It makes a certain amount of sense: You might expect that talented, efficient people might be able to do whatever it is that ordinary people do, but do it with a lot less time and effort. If this were what was happening, you would constantly be running into people who have extra time for things. People who sleep late, have low stress levels. People who have a lot of time to talk, a lot of time to meet new people.

I don’t know where those people are, but I haven’t been meeting them here. One constant theme I hear from everyone I meet here is that we all have no time. It’s one of the big problems of this congregation. Not just because we don’t have time to spend on the church and its projects, but because we don’t have time to spend with each other. The most obvious way this shows up is in the difficulties we have welcoming new people. But the problem is bigger than that. There are an awful lot of people in this church who have been coming for years, who have put a lot of energy into committees and activities, but who still don’t feel like they have friends here. And it’s not that people aren’t friendly. We just have no time. We don’t have time for the friends we have, and we certainly don’t have time to make any new ones.

Where else would you look for a surplus? Well, you might expect to see a surplus of money. It stands to reason: One of the big things that soaks up time is that a lot of us work very hard. Many of us work long hours at very demanding jobs. A lot of those jobs are in fields that pay reasonably well, like engineering, the hard sciences, or management. You might expect that we could live the way that ordinary people live, and have a lot of money left over.

This isn’t happening either. Believe me, I know. During the last two canvasses I have found out more about people’s finances than I ever wanted to know, and there is not a lot of surplus money out there. No matter what kind of job they have or how hard they work, most people feel like they’re just scraping by.

A third place you might look for surplus is in luxury. Self-indulgence. Hedonism. Tell the truth: this is where you thought I was going all along, isn’t it? Guilt! You thought I was going to say that the problem is that we’re all having too much fun. Too many trips to New Zealand. Too many red Miatas. [Another inside joke: One of the most popular and committed parishioners had recently bought a red sports car.] We need to get tough with ourselves and deny ourselves and think about the people starving in wherever it is that people are starving these days.

But you know, I think that the people in this congregation are very tough on themselves, and I don’t see a lot of people having fun. One of the things I’ve been struck by is how few red sports cars there are. When I was writing this sermon I had a hard time thinking of an example of a material object that someone got visible pleasure from. I saw a lot more of that when I was growing up back in my working class hometown. The farmer who had a new combine, or the factory worker who had just put a camper on the back of his truck–they felt like the King of the Hill. But right now I don’t know anybody who feels like the King of the Hill.

So where are we? No extra time, no extra money, no extra pleasure in material objects. Where’s the surplus? What happened to it? Let me try to answer that with a story from my own life. Deb and I live in an apartment in Burlington that is a short walk from where we both work. A couple of years ago the thought came into our heads that it was finally time to buy something. We watched the ads and before long there was an open house at a really nice condo in Lexington. So we toured the place. It was wonderful–two or three times the space of our apartment, a garage, a complex with nice facilities. It cost a quarter of a million dollars.

After the tour Deb and I compared notes and found that we had the same reaction: We couldn’t figure out why we weren’t excited about the prospect of buying this place. It took several days and a lot of long talks, but eventually the reason dawned on us: Neither of us really had any interest in upgrading our lifestyle. We were happy living the way we lived.

That realization gave us another mystery: Where had the idea of buying some nice place come from to begin with? Why had we thought we wanted to do that? Why hadn’t we realized that we had–in the words of the second reading–enough? After several more days and a few more long talks we had the answer to that too. Over the past year or two, all of our best friends had moved into places much nicer than our apartment. And a very subtle thing had happened: We continued to visit them, but we had stopped inviting them to visit us. Because our place wasn’t nice enough. The reason we had wanted to buy a nicer place was so that we could invite people over again.

This is the kind of thing that once you say it out loud you realize how silly it is. No one had ever refused to come over or said, “Oh, we can’t go there, it’s not nice enough.” We had just stopped inviting them. So we realized what we had to do: We threw a party for all of our friends with nice houses. They all came, they all had a good time, and we haven’t thought about buying a house or a condo since.

Now what’s the point of that story? Not that people shouldn’t buy houses. There are situations where it’s just the thing to do.  What I want to call attention to is just how crazy the whole impulse was: We were prepared to spend a quarter of a million dollars for something that neither of us really wanted.  And more than that: when you count interest and heat and maintenance and insurance and new appliances, and all the other things that an upgraded lifestyle means, we’re probably talking half a million or more. That’s not just a lot of money, it’s a lot of surplus. A lot of years of hard work. A lot of trips to New Zealand. A lot of red sports cars. And we were going to blow it all on something that we didn’t want. Just so that we could stop being ashamed of how we lived. Just so that we could hold our heads up in front of the rest of you.

That’s just one example, but there are many others. Last spring vacation I was talking to a teen-ager who was stuck here in Lexington while his friends were all off skiing or scuba-diving or touring Europe. It wasn’t that there was someplace he really wanted to go, it was just embarrassing to be here. I once spoke to someone who was embarrassed about the Ivy League college he got into–because his friends got into better Ivy League colleges. Or think of all the time and effort we put into self-improvement of one form or another. Is our unimproved state really so miserable, or are we just keeping up with each other?

Do you see what I’m getting at? We could have taken our surplus in time. We could have taken it in money. We could have taken it in pleasure or luxury. But we didn’t. All we did was raise the standards. We spend all our time and our energy and our money not to make our lives better, but just to be able to hold our heads up. We strive and work and spend like this just so that we can look each other in the eye.

But what’s my alternative? I could drop out of the race entirely like the Wizard or the cynics. Give up everything but “earth and heaven and one poor cloak”. But there is so much that I like about my life as it is. I could return to a congregation like the one I grew up in, where the people aren’t quite so impressive, the standards aren’t quite so high, and it’s easier to feel like you’re doing OK in life. But there is so much that I like about this community and the people in it. I don’t want to give it all up.

But I also know that I don’t want to spend my whole life working for things that I don’t want. Or to achieve things that are meaningless to me. So I’ve come up with another option: I’ve decided to ask for an exemption. I’ve decided to stand up here in front of everyone and announce that I’m not going to have a nice house, I’m not going to rise to the top of my profession, and I’m not going to send kids to Princeton. I’m not going to do a single impressive thing in the rest of my life unless it pleases me to do so. So it’s not my little secret any more–you’ve all been warned. And if there is no move to throw me out, I’m going to take that as a sign that my exemption has been granted. That I have the permission of this community to live life on a smaller scale.

If I get away with this, if people continue to talk to me and associate with me and accept me into their homes, some of the rest of you may want to seek your own exemptions. Can you imagine what it would be like to have permission to live more simply? Each of us could root through our lives like a cluttered attic. We could look at each expenditure of time and effort and money and ask ourselves “What are we getting out of this? Who’s benefitting from this?” And if the answers didn’t satisfy us, we could toss it out. And not be ashamed.

If you’re like me you probably don’t like to think of yourself needing permission to live the way you want to live. But Deb and I needed our friends’ permission not to buy a house. If no one had come to our party, we probably would have had to move. It’s humbling to have to admit that about myself, but there it is.

I have a feeling I’m not the only person like this. And so I want to close this sermon by challenging you to ask yourself some questions. Do you need permission from someone in order to live a simpler life? From your friends? Your spouse? Your parents? Your children? Someone who died many years ago but whose voice is still speaking inside your head? How can you ask for that permission? And if you got it, could you accept it? Are you ready to admit that this life, just the way it is, is enough?

Think it over. If you can bring yourself to ask for the permission you need, you just might get it. And then all the time you spend feeling ashamed of the way you live–that becomes free time. And all the time and money and energy that you put into compensating for feeling ashamed of the way you live–that all becomes available for whatever you want. It can be quite a surplus.

Closing Words

In the words of the Tao Te Ching
“Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize that there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.”