by Sarah Scherschligt  

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases. And he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money — not even an extra tunic.” (Luke 9:1–3 )

I sat down at the computer to write this article but got distracted shopping online. I need a new dress to wear to a wedding later this summer.

I’m writing on faith and consumption because as a pastor and a Christian, I care about how greed and consumerism affect our spiritual health. I understand that “life abundant” and “stuff abundant” are not the same thing. I also take seriously the charge to love God’s creation, and our current rate of consumption is choking the earth.

But the embarrassing truth is that I’m also writing this article on faith and consumption because the extra money will help me afford that new dress.

I want to follow Jesus, and I believe that Jesus had good reasons for sending his disciples out into the world with only one tunic. By contrast, I have seven dresses hanging in my closet and still don’t have a thing to wear.

And that’s a problem.

Maybe your problem isn’t clothes but gadgets, vacations, furniture, golf clubs, or that irresistible piece of chocolate cake. We all know it’s not good for us, but most of us have some consumptive habit we just can’t break.

Now I could hit you over the head with 47 reasons why over-consumption is bad, but you’ve heard them all before. And that would just make me wallow in the kind of guilt that only retail therapy can alleviate. Sometimes.

Maybe, instead, the better approach is reflecting on Jesus’ directive to the disciples and imagining why going with only one tunic was good for them — and might be good for us.

1. It’s good for your relationships with others.
When I was in high school, I borrowed my prom dress from a friend. I only needed it for one evening and didn’t have a lot of spare cash. She wasn’t wearing it and had plenty of other prom dresses. It made perfect sense.

By borrowing rather than buying a dress, I got more than a dress. I got a memorable experience with a friend as we searched through her closet and goofed around together. And she got something too: She got a chance to practice generosity and to feel good about helping me out. Our friendship deepened.

One tunic instead of two? The disciples who only had one tunic had to rely on the good graces of other people. They had to ask for something to wear while they did their laundry. Their poverty and dependence were real. But their hosts got the opportunity to practice hospitality, and they all experienced the give and take of human relationships.

When we have less, we have to depend on one another to fill in the gaps. If we can lean on one another for the little things — a dress, a meal, a ride somewhere — we develop relationships that help us depend on one another through the big things too. Those disciples built relationships out of their poverty. We can too.

2. It’s good for your relationship with yourself.
Consumption is often driven more by lack of self-worth than by actual material need. Am I wanting a new dress or am I really wanting to cover up something else?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be look good, have a lovely home, or improve your golf swing. But you can probably look good, have a lovely home, and develop a decent golf swing without buying a single new thing. And if you buy clothes to cover up your own sense of ugliness, decorations to distract you from your unease in your surroundings, or golf clubs to compensate for feeling like a klutz, it’s counterproductive.

One tunic instead of two? If you always wear the same few things, something other than the clothes you wear begins to define you. In the case of the disciples, it was the gospel that they wanted people to see — not the nice new suit or the stylish new sofa — the gospel, given to them to preach despite their personal inadequacies.

The accumulation of stuff easily masks who we really are and clouds our ability to shine God’s love into the world. With less stuff, we discover more of ourselves to love and to offer.

3. It’s good for your relationship with the rest of creation.
Everything we consume has an impact on other living things. We can’t help that, but we can choose to limit the extent of that impact. Most of us are so far removed from the environmental impact of our consumption that it is hard to factor the effects on the earth into our decisions. If I were to discover that my favorite plot of land was going to be bulldozed to make a cotton field so I can have another dress, I’m betting my desire for that dress would disappear.

One tunic instead of two? By only wearing one tunic the disciples were “living green,” even if at that time in history over-consumption of the earth’s resources wasn’t on anyone’s mind yet. They also had less to worry about. The disciples weren’t preoccupied with taking care of their stuff, and that allowed them time to build relationships with their hosts.

The earth is our host. If we get to know and love the ground that provides our food and clothing and receives our waste, we might be less inclined to consume without care. You want to go to the mall because you’re bored? Go for a walk outside instead. See what happens.

4. It’s good for your relationship with God.
Throughout the Bible, sages and prophets and Jesus himself recommend fasting as a way to deepen our relationship with God. You can’t fast and consume at the same time. There is something about breaking the chain of intake that allows us to tap into that great source of all being, God.

One tunic instead of two? The one tunic was a constant reminder to the disciples of their real source and ground, their mission and their message. With only one tunic, they became vulnerable not only to the graces of their hosts but to the power of God at work in their lives.

Only one tunic? It’s a challenge to someone like me. If buying a new dress will really make me happy and free me from worrying about how I look so I can enjoy my family and friends, then I’m going to buy it and get on with the day. But then for the next wedding, I’m going to try to let go of the need for another dress and spend time with the people I love rather than shopping. I’d rather have an outdated tunic, a beautiful set of relationships, a healthy earth, and the deep knowledge of God’s power than the other way around. Wouldn’t you?

The Rev. Sarah Scherschligt is a pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

This article first appeared in the July 2008 issue.