Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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Generosity Instead of Greed

Luke 12: 13-21

Series:  Alternatives to the Seven Deadly Sins

Sermon #5:  Generosity Instead of Greed

“Oh! But he was a tightfisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!  A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had struck out generous fire; secret and self contained, and solitary as an oyster.”[1] You may recognize the character – -Ebenezer Scrooge from the 1843 Charles Dickens Novel, A Christmas Carol – -the character who hates Christmas and all things that represent happiness.  In Dickens’ description of him, he also personifies the fifth in our series of Seven Deadly Sins – -Greed.

Greed:  Aquinas described it as an excessive love of or desire for money or any possession that money can buy.  Greed affects all of us, no matter how old we are, no matter what race, gender, or status we claim.  Greed looks like overflowing shopping carts or stock portfolios.  It looks like wallets full of credit cards or safety deposit boxes with just a few treasured heirlooms.  Greed looks like a house stocked with expensive electronics or a closet containing the best steals and deals from the stores. [2] Greed is an internal attachment problem – we cling to what we have with closed fists and are reluctant to let go.  Greed is not about how much we have or how much we spend – -it is about the attitude with which we acquire and hold on to our possessions.  And greed runs deeper than that.

Greed runs us right into the 10 commandments – -especially the one about not worshipping false idols.  Thou shall have no other gods before me…  Our society proclaims from every available media outlet that we are a self sufficient people who can do it all, have it all and be it all —  if we just have the right stuff.  There are entire stores designed to get our babies outfitted, our expeditions prepared, our dogs dressed, and our homes contained.  Did you know there is a National Association of Professional Organizers – -an entire profession has developed to help our society take control of our stuff.  As a response there are individuals who vow to spend 6 months, a year, or longer, without spending any money on anything that is unnecessary or not needed or worn out.  The sin in all of this is that we shift our focus to our stuff – -what we think sustains us — how we do, or do not acquire it; how we keep it contained and wrangled and boxed.  Sometimes we focus on how we do not acquire it.  Our focus shifts away from our faith in the one who truly sustains us  –Jesus Christ.  Greed is sneaky and slippery. Like envy, and most of the other seven sins we are exploring in this season, it encroaches slowly and sometimes without our noticing.  How did we go from worshipping at the altar of the Lord to worshipping at the altar of the cash register?   In his book, Sinning Like a Christian, William Willimon describes our society and our economy as one where we are encouraged to want more, and to want it better and to want it faster.  “One of the skills for surviving in our society that has so much of so much, is the ability to know when enough is enough, to know when our otherwise admirable desire has led down the slippery slope of Greed.  The New Testament tends to link Greed with idolatry.  The first banks were built as temples.”

That sounds harsh.  Because, really, I don’t think we worship the stuff.  Not always.  What we like is the sense of power the stuff gives us, the sense of control over our rapidly changing lives.  The sense of self-sufficiency.  With our Blackberries and iPhones there’s not much we think we can’t handle –our schedules, e-mail, internet, buying concert tickets or shoes, reading x-rays, making dinner reservations, playing games or finding the car if we forgot where we parked — if the situation arises that we can’t manage ourselves, “hey, there’s an app for that!”  If we can manage, manipulate, contain, or even reject the need for stuff in our lives, then we feel like we are actually managing our lives themselves – we can do this on our own, all by ourselves and we don’t need help from God or anyone else, thank you very much.  What we wind up worshipping, in our quest to acquire more and more to manage what we have and don’t need, is the idol of our own self sufficiency —  not the Lord.

Our greed makes us think we can be self sufficient – -that we do not need to rely on God.  In placing our security in our money rather than in God, we worship a false God, a false idol, and create for ourselves a false sense of security.  We place ourselves and our money – money that we forget God provided us with in the first place – before God.  We worship at the altar of the dollar, not at the house of the Lord.

Take a look at the rich fool from today’s New Testament reading.  At first glance, he may not seem to be such a bad guy.  He planned well, and he prospered.  He had a windfall harvest, and brought in more crops than his barns could hold.  So he decided to build bigger barns and store the windfall so that he could have some for the future.  Those of us with savings accounts, pensions, college funds for children and grandchildren, or even groceries in the pantry for next week can relate – -he planned for the future.  As author Audrey West points out, “Frugal minded folk have long stashed excess food and supplies in silos, pantries, and basement shelves; they have saved for rainy days, squirreled away funds for rainy days and even secreted dollar bills under mattresses.  Is this not a prudent hedge against future economic uncertainty?”[3] How many people who were laid off in recent years were able to survive because they made these very decisions?  I don’t think his wanting to plan ahead was what upset Jesus so much.  So why do we call him greedy, why was he a fool?  Why was Jesus so upset with his decision?  Listen again to his response to the harvest — read along with me in your pew Bibles on page 74:  The text is Luke 12, I’m starting at verse 17:

17And he (the farmer) thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

That’s 2 verses.  In those 2 verses, the pronouns “I” and “my” are used 11 times.  12 if we count the word “you” in verse 19 when the farmer is talking to himself.  Nowhere does the farmer give any of the credit for the harvest to God.  Nowhere does he give thanks to God, and nowhere does he give any consideration to his neighbors.  In telling the parable to the two brothers who ask Jesus the initial question about the distribution of the inheritance, Jesus is makes a bigger point – -they are being just as greedy as the farmer.  You see, the farmer ignored 2 important things.  He ignored God and he ignored his neighbor.  He did not return thanks to God in any way shape or form for his harvest; nor did he take any of his neighbors into consideration. He did not stop to consider if they needed more food for empty stomachs or how he may share his harvest with them.  He clenched his fist and looked inward.  He planned how he might be extravagant towards himself, closed in, selfish and greedy.  Scrooge was described as secret, self contained, and solitary, and that is what Greed does to us – -it turns our focus inward – -away from our neighbors, away from the world, and away from God.

In her book Glittering Vices, author Rebecca DeYoung talks about how greed causes us to look inward.  Her claim is that Greed’s claim on us corrodes generosity and dampens the desire in us to give freely.  It causes callousness towards those in want  -sometimes because of maliciousness, sometimes because of thoughtlessness or a simple disregard for others.  She says, “The greedy are excessive in keeping and acquiring possessions, even to the point of depriving others of what they deserve or need.”[4]

The farmer did not know when he had enough.  He could have filled up one barn with enough food to last him into the future and given the rest away to his neighbors in need.  Instead he clenched his fist tightly around what he considered to be his, held on tightly to what he called “mine”, looked only at himself and built bigger barns to hold what he could not use anyway.  He did not consider whether or not his neighbors might starve, what they could use before it spoiled in his second barn.  When 4th century theologian and monastic Basil of Caesarea preached this text he came down pretty hard on the greedy for their injustice – in cases where our greed deprives those in need, he says, “It is the hungry one’s bread that you hoard, the naked one’s cloak that you retain, the needy one’s money that you withhold.  Wherefore as many as you have wronged, you might have succored.”  DeYoung paraphrases it this way, “Your second doughnut (or in our context, biscuit) this morning belonged to the child who came to school with no breakfast, the new winter coat hanging in your closet next to 4 other winter coats (now out of style) belongs to the homeless person you passed on your way downtown last weekend, and the money you saved for retirement is the difference between subsistence and starvation for the sweatshop workers who made your favorite hiking boots (worn only twice).  Wherefore as many as you have wronged, you might have aided.” [5]

Greed.  When we succumb to it we don’t think twice about saying that 4 coats and 3 biscuits are required for survival and surely we cannot live without them.  When we look closely at Greed, it forces us to look closely at our lives and ask a critical question – what is enough?  The farmer would have had enough if he had filled one barn.  In his greed, he thought he needed more.  The lines between “want” and “need” keeps moving, changing, and blurring.  My step-father likes to remind my sister and I the luxury it was for him to have a typewriter to take to college – whereas we took big bulky desktop computers that we wanted to connect to the internet so we could get e-mail– for me this was 10 years ago — and students starting this fall will have netbooks provided by the universities.  Some of this is due to advances in technology, but I’m not sure students need to stream movies to their laptops in the park to write term papers.  The need: a computer with a decent word processor and a way to print.  The want: something cool and shiny that will provide lots of distractions.  What is enough?  Do you remember when the thought of having a DVD player in the backseat of a car was a decadent luxury – now it is almost standard factory issue.  How many times have you said or heard “I can’t imagine a family trip without the DVD player in the car?”  Yet, here most of us sit, having survived and dare I say it, enjoyed many a family road trip without it.  It’s a want, not a need, yet we have become conditioned to thinking that things we can get along just fine without are indispensable.  What is enough?  There is an economic term called Say’s law that says this: demand always rises to meet supply.  The more we have, the more we want.[6] Soon what used to be wants feel like needs, and then they are replaced by more wants that seem to become needs.  It is a vicious cycle.  When Greed takes over, we don’t know what “enough” is.  We don’t know what it looks like to be satisfied, to be satiated.  We think we need to build more barns to hold more stuff, rather than realizing that we can be satisfied with less.  What is enough?

How do we break the cycle of wanting more and more stuff that we don’t need?  How do we return our worship of our own self sufficiency to a worship of the God who provides for us?  The sermon series title is “Generosity instead of Greed” but before we can get to generosity, we have to start with Gratitude.

Gratitude can be hard to find in those afflicted with Greed.   One of the things that happens when we are greedy is that we refuse to worship the one who gave us the gifts of this life in the first place.  When we respond to God with gratitude, we recognize that we are not self sufficient, and that we do indeed rely upon God for our very lives and our salvation in Jesus Christ.  Meister Eckhart said that if the only prayer you ever pray is ‘thank you’ then you have prayed well enough.”  Saying “Thank you” to God shifts our focus from what we do not have to what we do.  It shifts our focus from what we think we need to what we have been blessed with.  We also loosen our clenched fists a little bit.  If we can name the things in our lives we are thankful for, we can realize how much we truly have.  Small things – -the roof over our heads, the ability to feed ourselves and our families, the work we have to do, the clothing we have.  Naming what God has given us gives us a good marker of what is “enough.”  Naming what we are thankful for can also help us see that we have indeed been blessed not by our own work, but by the work of God in our lives.  And so from that place of Gratitude we can move to a space of generosity.   Part of being generous is trusting God for the future – -that God will provide us with enough.  Do we need to hoard out of season coats that could be warming backs of others now?

My friend Emerys, a pastor in Upstate New York, has given me permission to share part of a recent blog entry with you about his Lenten discipline – he and his wife Sara are doing something for Lent this year that will allow their Lenten sacrifices to bless someone else.  which sounds a bit like our move from greed to generosity…

Emrys writes Sara found a discipline for Lent called “40 bags for 40 days.” Every day of Lent, we will discipline ourselves to fill a bag, at least the size of a plastic grocery bag, full of items to give away to someone or an organization that needs the stuff more than we do.

Today I rifled through my closet and drawer space to get a bag’s worth of clothes to give away…

…I have a polo shirt that has been hanging in my closet(s) for years. I happened upon it today, and thought that I should give it away. When that thought occurred to me, however, a countering sensation jumped into my mind: you need that shirt.

Here’s the thing: I don’t need that shirt.

I have not worn the shirt in over three years. I don’t like the color. And here’s the kicker: it hasn’t fit since the day I bought it. The neck is too big; when it’s fully buttoned, the collar slides to one side or the other of my shoulders, making me look rather silly. The cuffs on the short sleeves double up on themselves in my armpits. And I swim in the body of the thing. It’s probably the biggest long-term waste-of-space to occupy my closet, ever.

But something told me that I needed that shirt. Why? The sensation that urged me to put it back on the hanger began as an amorphous intuition, one to which I have kow-towed for too many years. But this year, because of this Lenten discipline, I looked it right in the eye. There I saw fear.

Emrys continues to write about the power this polo shirt hanging in his closet had over him – power that greed can have over us.  He writes about the struggle it was to let the shirt go, and concludes with…

But it’s Lent, and I’m helping Sara to fill bags. So I folded up that mint-condition polo shirt and sent it to a place where it will bring someone joy instead of fear and warmth instead of clutter. …[7]

Now, if you ever meet Emrys and Sara in real life, you will know that they are two of the least greedy people you will ever meet.  And yet even Emrys had to battle with the power of the polo short in his closet.  Greed and power can intertwine and corrupt and make it hard to disentangle ourselves.  And with that polo shirt, he disentangled a little bit.  He opened his metaphorical fist – -in this case his closet –  and in letting go of the power of greed, his generosity will literally put clothes on someone’s back.

32 years ago, Bob Moore started a company called Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods in Portland Oregon.  It was a small, family run company that today is a multi-million dollar business that sells more than 400 whole grain and organic products many of which we can find in our local grocery stores.  Through the years, Bob had received many offers to sell the company, and he has declined every time – -he could not imagine selling the business to a stranger, even though the sale would make him considerably wealthy.  Instead, on his 81st birthday, Bob Moore made the announcement that his company would no longer be owned by him – instead, it would be owned by the family that helped build it over the last 30 years – -his employees.  Bob did not need to sell his company and make millions he did not need – instead, he has secured the future for those who have helped secure his. By creating an employee stock ownership program, Bob has ensured that his employees will have a way to pay their bills and put food on their own tables – -he will not receive the millions he would have if he had accepted other offers, but for Bob, this is not the point.  In the ABC news report about the move, Bob was quoted as saying, “There’s a lot of negative stuff going into business today,” he said. “It’s a good old basic Bible lesson — love of money is the root of all evil. And unfortunately, our entire philosophy today is get all the money you can and whatever way you can. It’s caused many corporations to bite off more than they can chew. And it causes people to do a lot of things just for money that they feel in their hearts is not the right thing to do.”

Bob Moore’s company logo is a building that looks like a red barn.  Bob did not need to fill 2 of them personally to be happy or satisfied.  Instead, he chose to spread the results of his good work to others – he is truly the opposite of the rich fool from our parable today.   Generosity is how we disentangle ourselves from the power of greed.  We open our hearts and hands, giving thanks for what we have been given and share our abundance.  We don’t need to pull down our barns and build bigger ones – -we have enough.  God has provided enough for us to live abundant, joy filled lives and to allow us to share that joy with others.  That is good news for us to hear in this Lenten season.  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Dickens, Charles.  A Christmas Carol. Quoted in Willimon, William.  Sinning Like a Christian.

[2] DeYoung, Rebecca.  Glittering Vices.  Pages 1214-16, Kindle edition.

[3] West, Audrey.  Feasting on the Word; Year C, Volume 3, Proper 13.

[4] DeYoung, Rebecca.  Glittering Vices.  Pages 1307, 1310, Kindle edition.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Willimon 1388-93 kindle