Friday, July 30, 2010

The 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year C

When Does Need Become Greed

Readings: Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Col 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Ours is a very materialistic age. We want bigger and better homes so that we fill them with “stuff” and it is far more about what we want than what we need. Every once in a while we go on cleaning spree. We sort into what we can sell or give away. The rest we throw away only to buy more things to fill the void.

Thomas Merton known primarily for his more than seventy books, was a Trappist monk. He was preparing to leave his monastery in Kentucky to live alone. It had taken him some time to convince his abbot that living the life of a hermit was the right thing for him. Then on top of that there was the ordeal of moving. He describes it in his diary. It was a time of emptying of closets, of cleaning out of files and of leaving items behind. Many useful things he gave away. Some things he burned – the kinds of things that accumulate but have no purpose in your life. As he lit the fire and then watched all that “stuff” burn up, he experienced a deep sense of liberation. In the ashes, he left behind his past and began to start his new life.

In contrast there was an article a few years back about Oprah Winfrey. In the course of the interview it came out that although she is one of the wealthiest women in the world, yet she feels insecure about her future. She worries that she does not have enough. She worries that she will lose everything and become poor again. It says so much to me about the current attitude in our society. As North Americans we do not seem to know how much is enough. We seem to be far more concerned with our wants than we are with our needs. Materialism has overtaken spirituality. It has become a new religion. We measure success by what we have.

One of the real downsides is that sense of entitlement that is so prevalent amongst young people. “Life is short,” many seem to be saying. “Grab what you can. Get it and get it now.” There are, of course, personal consequences to such a philosophy. Debt! Even bankruptcy! On top of that, the consequences to society, loss of spiritual values, are inestimable.

Yet if you look at Scripture, the problem is not totally new. Just exacerbated by our ability to produce wealth!

A man came to Jesus with a request. “Make my brother share the family inheritance with me,” he demands. Jesus looks behind the request to something deeper. The request, after all, is only a symptom. He could referee the situation and resolve the immediate issue. Nothing would really change. And so Jesus refuses to get embroiled in the argument.

Instead he tells a parable. There is a rich farmer whose land is so prosperous that he has nowhere to store his grain. He does the prudent thing. He builds new and bigger barns. This done, one might imagine that he would sit back and really enjoy life. But no! His sole aim is to amass as much grain as possible. The unthinkable happens. He dies suddenly and without warning.

“What really is the problem?” you may be asking yourself. “It was simply good management on his part. He worked hard his whole life. He made a success of himself. It is tragic that he died before he could really enjoy the benefits of his hard work.”

By telling the story, Jesus is pointing out some important things. Here is a person who is equating material success with spiritual progress. Like so many people, he is saying: “I am prosperous, so God must be blessing me, rewarding me.” He is regarding his possessions as the ultimate measure and value of his life. Possessions are not in and of themselves evil. They could be used responsibly and become a blessing to society in so many ways. They could do so much good. But if building up his empire is the end goal, then it has impoverished him spiritually.

Like Oprah, he is worrying that he does not have enough. What should be worrying him is whether or not he is becoming the person God intends him to be. He should be asking who he is.

It is a vivid parable, not about an evil person, but about a foolish one. There is no problem with looking working hard. There is no problem in being prudent. There is no problem in being successful. It is good planning. It is common sense. But we need to continually ask ourselves at what cost we are prosperous? At what cost has it come to my life? At what cost has it come to my country? At what cost has it come to the world? Who is suffering for my success? And then we need to do something about it. There is a danger in becoming too materialistic. It is tragic when things take precedence over God and spiritual values. How do we refocus, put things into their proper perspective, so that we do not lose out on divine meaning and purpose and its order and joy in our lives?

That makes it a very contemporary problem. As Canadians we enjoy the best that this world has to offer. In the whole scheme of things we may not consider ourselves to be wealthy. But who of us in this parish does not have enough? And let us be honest about what is enough. Enough to put food on the table! Enough to clothe ourselves! Enough to provide shelter for our families! Enough to educate ourselves! Enough to keep ourselves healthy! Enough to share! Even enough to dream!

What we cannot allow to happen is for the dreams to take over lives. When does ‘need’ become ‘greed’? It is when we begin to see our wants as needs that we are in peril of losing ourselves. Then we are in peril of losing our spiritual connection to God. We are “storing up treasures for ourselves but are not rich toward God”.

So how do we ensure that we are “rich toward God”? What would our parish life be like if we were truly “rich toward God”? We are not a wealthy congregation. At least, that is what we seem to like to tell ourselves. Consider the riches of the members of this congregation. We have gifts and talents beyond measure. We have beautiful children and young people who bring such life and excitement into our worship. We have readers who bring the Word of God alive. We have lay readers who help to beautify our liturgies. And we have people who give faithfully of their treasures. Otherwise we would not be able to open our doors.

But we could do so much more! What riches do we bring to our local community? What do we bring in terms of knowledge, of income, of time? How can our gifts be used for the benefit of others? How are our gifts used to spread the message of the gospel?

We enjoy the abundance of God’s grace. Yet often we live as if we are impoverished. Let us, as a congregation, invest our time, our talents and our treasures wisely. Let us use our wealth to build up God’s realm. Let us be “rich toward God”!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 14)

Leaving Your Baggage Behind

Readings: 1 Kings 21:1-3, 17-21; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 6:7-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

The message of the gospel this week is that sometimes in life we feel powerless and must seek a power beyond ourselves. We must learn to depend on God’s grace, our need of it, and our need to share it for the empowerment of others and ourselves. A bumper sticker that I saw the other day brought it all home to me. It proclaimed, “When the world ends the one with the most stuff wins!” It caused me to reflect that most of us don’t travel through this world lightly. We carry a great deal of baggage, emotional and otherwise. It is a big learning for most of us to trust that God can meet our needs. As Christians we know that God’s grace is abundantly available to us. We know how much we need that free gift. But to really depend on God’s grace and God’s grace alone, to follow God’s agenda, is contrary to all that our self-reliant society stands for. It is very difficult for us to even acknowledge that we are in need of God’s grace. We are often unaware of the needs of others. We don’t even see our own neediness. It comes from the self-indulgent behaviour that is so prevalent in our modern day society.

If you don’t think we are self-indulgent, simply walk through a mall observing how people react. People these days expect doors to open for them. They walk around with cell phones to their ears, oblivious to the effect they are having on other people. Most of us give little thought to how dependent we are on other people, never mind on God. When we find ourselves in need, it is very difficult to ask for help.

Not that it is unique to our society or era. I suspect it is part of human nature. It comes through loud and clear in that wonderful narrative that we heard in the Old Testament reading. Naaman is the commander of the army of the king of Aram. He is a great man, honoured in his country because of his leadership. This man who possesses great power has to learn the hard lesson that he is human and vulnerable, and that there are other kinds of power beyond his own. He has leprosy, probably not the virulent disease that would have banished him into exile, but difficult all the same for a man of his position to deal with. He tries every cure possible, but nothing works. His wife’s maid, a young woman from Israel, tells him about the prophet Elisha who may be able to cure him. He doesn’t take any chances. He gets a letter to the king of Israel, lots of money and clothing, and sets off for Israel. He arrives with all of his entourage at Elisha’s house. After all that, Elisha doesn’t even come out to see him. Instead he sends a messenger, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” He might as well have told Naaman to go jump in the lake! Naaman is beyond angry. After all, he wants a performance equal to his self-importance. His pride is deeply wounded. He refuses to do as Elisha has told him.

Once again it is one of his servants who persuades him to come to his senses. “If he had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it.” Finally he is able to hear the good sense of what the servant is saying. He does as Elisha has told him. He immerses himself seven times in the Jordan, and he is made clean.

It is a wonderful story that reminds us of the struggle most of us have in accepting help. It is a wonderful reminder that there are sources of grace other than those we know in our public lives.

Jesus’ disciples too must learn to depend on God’s grace for their needs. Jesus empowers them to go out into the society around them, to share the good news of what they have come to believe and experience. They go out trusting that God will provide. They don’t pack a lunch. They don’t take money – not even an extra pair of sandals. They stay wherever they are welcomed. And they come back filled with stories and experiences of God at work in and through them. They are happy, not because of their new found power, but because they belong to God. They know that the glory belongs to God, not to them. They know that they are utterly dependent on God, and that they can trust God to be there in all of their needs.

How do we learn to be grace-filled people, dependent on God for our needs? How do we put God’s grace into action in our world? For most of us it begins with learning that we need God and that we can depend on God meet our needs. I can certainly think of times in my life when it became abundantly clear to me that I had a share in God’s grace and that God would be there in my needs. It has usually been times when I needed God and made an active decision to trust that God would meet my needs.

When I was studying theology I spent two years in urban ministry. The first year I worked in a Food Bank. Most often my job was at the intake desk. I would interview people and make recommendations for how to help them. The desk was at the entrance to the building. I would watch people walk back and forth in front of the building, sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes before they came in. I wondered what kept them from just coming in. We always helped them. For many people, just to say ‘I need’ was very difficult.

Then I did a course that required a ‘plunge’. To pass we needed to spend a weekend on the streets. “Take no money, no sleeping bag, no food!” we were told. We could sleep outside, or we could find a hostel to stay in. I felt like a lamb amongst wolves. It was a terrifying but life-changing experience! I found myself walking back and forth outside a hostel trying to get up the courage to go inside and ask for a place to stay for the night. It was just so difficult to say, “I need”! When I did I received the help I needed. I learned a great deal about myself that weekend. I learned a great deal about people, about how dependent we are on one another, about how kind we can be; and I learned that I could trust God to take care of me.

We don’t all need to take a ‘plunge’ to learn that God takes care of our needs. We do need to learn to depend on God’s grace. We do need to get rid of some of our baggage. We do need to the grace of God with others. Like the seventy Jesus sent out, we are called to seek out people who will respond. We are to listen to them, to share with them in their pain and their joy. We are to meet their needs. We are to relate to them the gospel message that God loves them and is the answer to their deepest needs. We are called to allow God to work through us. We are called to responsible action, to finding the ways and means that others can know God. We are called to live out the Gospel message in our lives. It is a call to respond in the way we live and work. May we know the urgency of that call! May we respond and live in love as God has called us. Amen.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...