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”!

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