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August 2010

Luke 12:13-21 - Greed is Good?!


Greed is good!  This phrase was popularized 20 years ago in the movie Wall Street, where Michael Douglas played Gordon Gekko, who liked to merge companies for his profit and the employee’s nightmare.  The movie was meant to be an indictment and warning against Wall Street greed, but instead Gordon Gekko became a hero to many who would now eat him for breakfast.  Many people are now calling big bankers “banksters.”   Now we are in such as mess and learning the lesson that greed is not good, rather it is wrecking our country. 


Greed gets me angry.  When I hear that in 2009, the Forbes 400 added an average of $500M EACH to their net worth, it makes me angry when I think what most of us got- salary freezes, cut backs and declining home values.  The wealthiest people, the top 1% of this world, have grown their fortunes by over $20 trillion in the past decade while, coincidentally, the world’s governments have gone over $20 trillion into debt.  The gap in inequality between the super wealthy and the rest of us is increasing dramatically as we go through the worst recession in decades. 


I’m still trying to understand how this is happening, but I do see part of the problem.  Last week it was revealed that one of our New York Congressman, Charles Rangel, is being investigated for enriching himself with rent controlled apartments and large gifts while making loopholes in laws for oil companies and powerful friends.  That is the tip of a massive Washington DC iceberg which is growing despite global warming.  One of the warnings of the movie Wall Street, was that the power of big corporations would take over democracy with its wealth and influence.


What do Jesus and the Bible have to say about greed and wealth?  As I look at the lectionary for the next few weeks, we will get several opportunities to look at this issue from different angles, as Jesus talks about living like the lilies of the fields and giving great banquets.  Jesus words give us the grounds to challenge what I see as economic injustice, but also caution me against how easy it is to be greedy myself.  And Jesus advises us on ways to think about wealth that are life-giving.


Jesus clearly warns against greed in today’s parables, and I’m interested in what he means.  First, a man asks Jesus to settle an inheritance dispute with his brother.  On close reading, its hard to know the dynamics of what set Jesus off.  The man who wants his inheritance doesn’t reveal any bad traits and what he asks for may not be unreasonable or wrong.  Of course we probably know how siblings can be torn apart over unclear inheritances.  It can get very ugly.  My thought here is that Jesus is counseling this man to not let his desire for wealth overshadow the importance of his relationships with his family.  This is the essence of what is wrong with greed-it unbalances our relationships with others.


The next parable Jesus tells is intriguing.  Jesus notes that the land of a rich man produces abundantly and he doesn’t have room for all his crops.  So he decides he will build bigger barns, store his abundance and relax, eat, drink and be merry.  Now what is so bad about that?  Would you honestly handle the situation any differently?  Nowhere in this parable does Jesus say the man acted unjustly.  He does not lie, cheat or steal to get his wealth.  He grew it on his own land, there is no reference to underpaying his workers or any other form of injustice.  What has he done wrong? 


The book of Proverbs has much to say about how God views wealth.  There are many verses that tell us that those who work diligently and live righteously will prosper and those who are sluggards will be poor.  Proverbs 6:6 counsels us to be diligent like the ant and gather provisions during harvest so we will have enough, but too much sleep and you will be poor.  Proverbs 11:18 reads “The wicked earns deceptive wages, but he who sows righteousness gets a true reward.”   The idea that the righteous will prosper is so ingrained in the wisdom literature that Job and his friends are quite perplexed that so much tragedy has befallen him.  Job’s friends feel terrible about his calamities, but they begin to question him, taking a moral inventory to see what thing he did wrong to bring all this misfortune into his life.  Last week a co-worker of mine was struggling with many challenges at home and said, “I don’t know what I did to bring all this on myself.”


 Today there are many popular books like “The Secret” that believe we create our own fortunes and misfortunes by the positive and negative thoughts we send out into the universe.  If you think rich you will grow rich and if you think poor you will be poor.  I think we want to believe this is true, in part because our culture worships wealth.  We are conditioned to believe that if we work hard and live a good life we will prosper.  This may have been true for much of our history, but things have changed.  Now we see people getting wealthy through political connections and hard working people struggling. 


While the Bible does affirm that righteous and wealth should go together, it gives us a much more complex point of view.  Proverbs 3:9 reads, “Honor the Lord from your wealth, and from the first of all your produce.”  From Proverbs 11:25 we learn, “The generous man will be prosperous, And he who waters will himself be watered.”  The Bible is very clear that we are called to be generous with our wealth and if we have an abundance, we are to give to others in need. 


I was struck by something Jesus said in the parable of the rich fool.  Jesus said that the man’s LAND produced a great abundance.  Yes, he played a role in farming the land through hard work, but he did not do it alone.  The land itself produced the abundance.  Without land the farmer can do nothing.  He can’t grow grain out his ears.  The fertile soil existed long before humans walked on the earth and started thinking that we own everything.  All that we have ultimately have is a gift from our creator that was made over centuries.  Human beings are remarkable.  We can figure out how to drill oil far below the surface, but we cannot create oil.  We can mine metals, gold and coal deep below into the earth’s crust, but we cannot make these things.  We can cut down forests for lumber and plant trees, but we can’t make trees.  The very air that we breath is a gift from another species.  Without lots of trees and vegetation we would suffocate.  Everything we have and life itself is ultimately a gift, not a possession.


We use the word “stewardship” to refer to our Fall fundraising, but it is a much richer concept.  Stewardship means that we are really caretakers for God.  We are to take care of the earth and its abundance, we are to use the land and its wealth wisely.  We may benefit from its abundance, but must remember that everything really belongs to God.  Greed arises from the belief that we are the sole owner of all that we have, when really everything we think we own ultimately belongs to God.  It is all on loan to us for the short period of time we walk on this earth.  We can benefit and enjoy God’s abundant world, but it is all a gift and must be used wisely and responsibly. 


How might this change the way you think about money and possessions, if it all belongs to God?  Does it change your budget?  Does it affect how you feel about people who have less or more than you?  How are we called to live in a world with great inequality and poverty?  These are deep questions, and today’s Gospel lesson gives us the starting point.  Life is a gift and we are called to be good Stewards, to use God’s abundance wisely, and to be generous.  

August Plans - Greed, Wealth and Poverty

Warnings against greed, materialism and the attitude we take towards poverty are central In the August lectionary readings from Luke's Gospel.  Together these passages make a nice five part series on issues relating to economic justice and being good stewards of God's gifts.  During this recession I have often felt like a rat trying to keep above a rising tide bad news that will drown me if I don't get to high ground. Our raises are frozen at work, money isn't there for things we need, the homeless shelter I run continues to see more new faces and I have three more children to get through college and an underwater mortgage.  Yet when I stop and think, I am blessed with abundance.  My treasure is not in my bank account (good thing!).  How will Luke's Gospel call me to live faithfully in the midst of so much fear?  The featured Gospel texts are listed below with the main themes of the passage.  I plan to post news and articles of interest as well as my own thoughts along the way.  I welcome your feedback and ideas.


August 1  -  Luke 12:13-21  

"Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

August 8  -  Luke 12:32-48

"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

August 15  Luke 12: 49-56

"Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!"

August 22  Luke 13:10-17

There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

August 29  -  Luke 14:1-14 

"But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind." 

Luke 11:1-13 Teach Us to Pray

Since the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, it got me thinking, “Who taught me to pray and what did I learn?”  Somewhere along the way my parents and Sunday School teachers taught me to close my eyes, bow my head and put my palms together.  The first prayer I learned was not the Lord’s Prayer, but “Now I lay me down to sleep…” which I discovered is from the New England Primer, which was the first American reading anthology written for children in the 1700s.  Since about 2 million copies were sold in the 18th century this prayer became more popular than the Lord’s Prayer.  From this I learned to assume a powerful God was out there somewhere keeping my soul safe, yet it raised the disturbing notion of death.  I remember being afraid to go to sleep after this prayer and wondering if this night would be my last.


I was fascinated with prayer in my college days, and the Baptist school I went to taught me much about intercessory prayer.  Much of what I read in those days was and exhortation to pray for things that needed to happen and that persistence was the key.  I learned another song that went:

 Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness.  And all these things shall be added unto you.  Allelu!  Alleluia!   Knock and the door shall be opened unto you.  Seek and ye shall find.  Ask and it shall be given unto you.  Allelu!  Alleluia!    

When we are taught the Lord’s Prayer, it isn’t always linked to what comes after in Luke’s Gospel, which is this teaching that God is generous and good and desires to be bountiful to us, much like any good parent would be to their children.  So ask, seek and knock and you will get what you need.  But the key is to seek first the Kingdom of God.  (These words aren’t in Luke’s version, but are more closely linked to Matthew’s version in Matt. 6:33.)


One book that stands out was E.M. Bounds classic “The Power of Prayer.”  Like many 18th and 19th century revivalists, Bounds taught that God moved in the world as a response to fervent prayer.  God brought revival, healing and prosperity when the petitioner had a pure heart and persistent attitude.  I read stories of pastors who wore out the knees of their pants and wore grooves into the floorboards, and that this was the key to their successful preaching.  I was inspired and at the same time felt guilty that I wasn’t capable of such devotion.  As a runner I wasn’t sure I wanted to give up my knees for Jesus, but I found myself bored and unable to sustain long hours of prayer, which made me question my lack of faith.


Other questions began to arise.  I discovered that Bounds had been a chaplain in the Confederate Army, which made me wonder what he prayed for from 1861 to 1865.  I also saw that bad things happened despite fervent prayer.  Good people died of cancer despite prayer chains of hundreds of people asking for their healing, while other people survived despite not really showing any great deeds in their life.  Sometimes the good or evil that falls on a person seems rather random and arbitrary.  People say to me “Everything happens for a reason.”  While I agree that many things happen and only later can we see that good came of it, there is just too much senseless violence and suffering that never seems to get redeemed.  I do not think there is a great algorithm in heaven that runs the world based on the persistence and purity of prayer or at least I did not pay enough attention in algebra class to understand such things.


This leads me to the next leg of my prayer journey.  In my early 40s I struggled with my faith and explored Buddhism, where I learned a very different form of prayer.  It was a relief to sit on a pillow rather than wreck my knees even if I did get stiff sitting on the floor.  I learned to breath from my diaphragm and let go of all my thoughts in my busy “monkey mind.”  While I was learning to breath through my toes and out the top of my head, I also learned to be in the moment, accept what is and experience a connection with life around me. 


Buddhist prayer taught me the importance of acceptance.  Acceptance is the ability to see things as they are and deal with the truth.  If I can’t accept the truth about myself, the world or a given situation and the imperfectability of all the above, then no real change is possible.  That probably sounds like a paradox, and that is the Buddhist thought like things.  The ability to accept and let go was a powerful skill when I had several surgeries.  I learned to be at peace even though I felt so powerless.  When the doctor came to take out my drains I would say to myself, “I accept that this is the time for my drains to come out.  This will be painful, but that is a part of life, so breath deeply, relax and accept it.”  Then as the plastic tubes were ripped out of my body, I’d think, “The Buddha isn’t kidding, Life IS SUFFERING!  I accept that.  I don’t like it, but I accept it.”  Acceptance gave me strength to endure and heal.  I noticed that nurses would hang out in my room, as a breather from grumpy patients (so I got very good care!)


Buddhism also taught me about mindfulness.  Mindfulness is the ability to be in the present moment and having an open awareness of what is happening.  Mindfulness embraces the golden sunset with gratitude and notices the suffering of another person with compassion.  It is an awareness of all that I feel-the good, the bad and the ugly-and what those feelings can teach me.  In trying to practice being mindful, I was lead back to my Christian faith, because I started to experience a sense of the loving God at the heart of creation and in my own heart.  One day while practicing a Buddhist breathing prayer, and meditating on what they call the fifth chackra (which is the seat of creativity and expression) I had a vision that I would preach again.  So I often say that the Buddha found me in the wilderness of my faith and led me back to Jesus.  Thank God because I like the hymns so much better!


Now when I say the Lord’s Prayer I experience it with new eyes and ears.   Unlike “Now I lay me down to sleep…” which focuses on my own immortal soul and its peril, Jesus teaches us to pray to “our Father.”  This is a prayer meant to be said together as a community.  Yes, that probably sounds incredibly obvious, but sometimes the obvious escapes my attention.  When the disciples asked for instructions on how to pray, they were given a common prayer, not a private one.  St. Cyprian, when defending against charges that Christianity was a secretive cult during a third century persecution, said, “Our prayer is public for all, and when we pray, we pray not for a single person, but for the whole people, because we are all one.” 


The importance of the Kingdom in the Lord’s Prayer leaps out at me now.  “Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” and again at the end “For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever.”  Luke emphasizes Jesus’ teachings about the coming reign of God, and its presence in our midst.  God’s reign is like a great banquet where even the poor and the lame are invited in to feast.  It is like a pearl of great price that we would give all to hold in our hand.  God’s reign may start among us like a tiny mustard seed, barely noticed, but will grow to be our shade.  It is a future hope, and a present reality.  Just like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus  recognized Jesus in breaking bread with him, whenever two or three of us gather, there is Jesus and the Kingdom.  The Lord’s Prayer lays out the practical basics of what God’s will looks like.  There should be enough bread for everyone (and clean drinking water, health care, etc.) forgiveness and grace are practiced, and God will help us resist temptation and accompany us in the face of evil.    


In this light, I see the Lord’s Prayer as a commitment to participate in the work of the coming reign of God.  We pray together as our bond of trust that we are committed to being in right relationship with one another.  I think this is what I’ve come to learn about prayer.  I used to pray with a mindset that it would make me more effective.  Prayer would give me greater insight, strengthen my work, make me a better person.  But now I see prayer as seeking to be in right relationship with God and others. 


Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness.  And all these things shall be added unto you.  Allelu!  Alleluia!   Knock and the door shall be opened unto you.  Seek and ye shall find.  Ask and it shall be given unto you.  Allelu!  Alleluia!   


(I think I will end the sermon singing this again.)