Saturday, August 4, 2007
I am not sure where the compilers of the Lectionary get their readings for August. I am sure, however, they were all Rectors who took their vacations during August and left such readings for the supply clergy to have to deal with.
In the Gospel reading we find Jesus being asked to settle a dispute between two brothers. Jesus responds in a harsh way that to us is surprising. He says “who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Jesus will not be drawn into a dispute over things.
The role of a rabbi in the first century was often to be the arbiter of such squabbles in a community. Rabbis knew the Law, and could render judgments that were binding. But Jesus did not want to enter into this kind of legal fracas. He wanted to deal with the issue for what it was—a fight over money. At the center of the feud was not fairness, not justice, but greed. Jesus’ response is harsh. He will not be pulled into a fight over things.
All too often we fight over ‘things.’ We even get to the place where the things are made into principles, principles that become some how holy and righteous in the process. But in this instance, Jesus, stops the discussion and tells the parable about the rich man who tears down his barns to build even bigger ones for all the things he has. ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’
Jesus cuts through all the pious ‘fairness’ stuff and gets to the heart of the man’s request. It is GREED.
There is no greater sin in the Bible than idolatry. It is the sin that God punishes unmercifully in Hebrew Scripture. The Old Testament is filled with stories of the Hebrew people betraying their covenant and losing their inheritance. Idolatry, the going after other gods, is the fundamental distrust in the God who has given everything to the believer. In today’s epistle reading from Colossians, the writer equates greed with idolatry—placing things above the place of God. Anytime believers put more trust in their possessions than God, they commit the sin of idolatry. And I would suggest that the greatest sin that tempts us today is not sexual profligacy. I would suggest that in a consumer economy the greatest temptation to sin is greed.
Everywhere we turn we are bombarded with the temptation to put things before God and others. Our media is lousy with ads that badger us to buy this or that so that we will be prettier, stronger, brighter, and more with-it than the next guy. And ultimately we are to be so self-sufficient that we no longer need God. Once we have all the things that we want, we must be willing to protect those things. We build bigger barns, move to a larger house, buy more insurance, and put up higher fences. We cannot leave our things any longer to visit other places or cultures to broaden our perspectives about life. We must find ways to guard our property. We become prisoners of our possessions.
Judy and I have so many books that it has become too expensive to move. The cost of moving all those books is prohibitive. Will we reread all those books? Not in a lifetime! Now, I know that none of you have this problem. But over the years we have inherited things like our mother’s china, or been given all kinds of ‘valuable’ things for which we have no earthly use, but because they are ‘heirlooms’ we feel some responsibility for. These have become albatrosses hung about our collective necks. I remember when we moved Mom to a retirement center; I found my high school prom dress, which she had painstakingly made, still in the closet. I had a hard time sending that to Salvation Army. I guess I could have sold it as an antique on EBay but…. We become overwhelmed with things.
Now, I often divide the world up into “Keepers” and “Neatnicks.” For those of us who are packrats, we must be willing to see our penchant for nostalgia may be rooted in the sin of putting our trust in things. For those of us who can throw things away easily, we must guard against consuming more than our share of the world’s commodity. In either case, the glorious age of consumerism that is gripping the world is a time when we must guard against the sin that would have us believe that we deserve or are entitled to whatever simply because we can afford it, or more importantly, even when we can’t. The sin of greed is insidious. It makes us think we are invulnerable. It can make us foolish thinking that somehow we may ignore God’s command to love others as ourselves. We can merely send our money rather than screw up enough compassion to care about people in dire situations.
Greed is an embarrassing sin. At some level we know that the quality of life that we have in the US impinges upon the rest of the world. We make all kinds of excuses---we give so much to other nations, or we are basically good people, or we WORK for our things, or we deserve it because we have made ourselves great. “God helps those who help themselves” we say. (By the way, that does not come from the Bible. It is found in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, but it is not from Scripture.)
But the Christian life is not about what we deserve. If we follow Protestant theology, we are nothing and deserving of nothing except by the grace of God. There is one thing that working among the Lutherans for the past couple of years has done is reacquaint me with the concept of sin. Lutherans don’t believe they have been to church if they have not been made aware of their sins and then told that God has forgiven them. We, Episcopalians on the other hand, are likely to say, “Sin, do we still talk about that?”
But we must be willing to recognize that we are being tempted by an economic-political sphere that would have us believe that we can fiscally control the world. The adage “he who dies with the most toys, wins” is not only NOT true; it is remarkably leading many of us away from trusting in God. We are creating false gods to follow. At some point we are going to have to hear: ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’
There is a story going around that I heard at Luther leadership camp a week ago. A wealthy man was dying, and he made arrangements with the local funeral home for his burial. He asked that a specific picture of his family that hung over his mantle be buried with him. The family all gathered around the man when he died. At the funeral home, the director could not get the picture and its frame into the coffin so he took the picture out of the frame. Out of the frame fell $160,000. The family was so angry that they refused to go to the funeral! Taking it with us is not an option.
It was this kind of fight over money that Jesus refused to get involved in. He chose instead to bring the focus of the man back upon his own greed. It is a difficult task, to look upon our sinfulness. But unless we do, we can never repent. We can never come to know the real joy that comes from knowing the benevolence of God’s grace. And we can never choose to be better and happier trusting in God’s grace to save us from want.
I invite us all this week to look at the places where greed has seeped into our lives. Allow yourself to acknowledge the sin of trusting in things rather than God’s loving- mercy by changing your consumer habits. And let us rejoice, unlike the Lutherans who don’t rejoice much, that we are saved by the grace of a loving God. AMEN.