Sunday, July 30, 2006

7 Deadly Sins -- 5: Greed -- The Solitude of Greed

Luke 12:15-34; 1 Tim. 6:3-10

We should all thank Charles Dickens
for raising awareness of what the sin of greed can do to a person.
Ebenezer Scrooge has become a cultural icon of greed
for Western civilization.
And Scrooge illustrates magnificently,
the main point of my sermon this morning.
Greed isolates us. Makes us lonely and bitter.

Here’s a direct quote from Charles Dickens’ novel, “A Christmas Carol.”
“O, 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 ever struck out generous fire.
Secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

That notion is part of our cultural consciousness—
the utter misery and loneliness of living a life of greed.
Thank you, Mr. Dickens.

What the story doesn’t tell us, however,
is how agonizingly difficult it is
to eradicate the sin of greed from our lives.
Scrooge was transformed overnight, literally.
After his several dreams,
the sheer act of letting go of a small amount of his wealth,
throwing some money into the streets of London,
giving away some large Christmas turkeys,
giving Bob Cratchet a well-deserved day off,
cured Scrooge of the sin of greed.
His solitary, miserable life was gone,
and in its place was a life of joy and friendship
and admiration by all of London.

Giving away our possessions could be a very good start,
no doubt.
Jesus, in fact, told the rich young ruler,
that was precisely what he needed to do to find real life.
His wealth had a stranglehold on him,
and letting go of it, was a first step toward eternal life.

But I have a hunch that for most of us,
ridding our lives of the sin of greed,
is more complicated than giving away stuff.
That would be a good start.
But greed is part of our culture.
Greed is so ingrained in our lives,
that we consider it normal, and give it a new name:
ambition, drive, the will to succeed.
In fact, some have gone so far as to clearly say that greed is good.
That’s what actor Michael Douglas says in a speech
in the movie Wall Street,
when he addresses a meeting of the stockholders
of Teldar Paper corporation.
Listen to this sound clip.
[The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed—
for lack of a better word—is good.
Greed is right.
Greed works.
Greed clarifies, cuts through,
and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
Greed, in all of its forms—
greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—
has marked the upward surge of mankind.
And greed—you mark my words—will not only save Teldar Paper,
but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.]

Maybe it’s just the authoritative sound of Michael Douglas’ voice,
but it’s kind of hard to argue with that.
And it’s also hard, when it comes down to it,
to make a clear distinction between healthy ambition and greed.
It’s a hard to be honest with ourselves,
when we cross the line to greed.

The drive for more, and better, and bigger is the engine of our economy.
Greed is everywhere we look, and we love it.
We celebrate those who are able to get more than they dreamed.
We are fascinated, even enchanted, by them.
We want to hear every juicy detail about the latest lottery winner.
We sit on the edge of our seats,
cheering on game show contestants,
who simply by guessing the right letters,
can drive home in a new SUV.

Think of how dull television programming would be,
if we suddenly stopped worshiping greed.
No more “Who wants to be a millionaire?”
No more sneak peeks into the “lives of the rich and famous.”
Even a heartwarming show like “Extreme Home Makeover,”
is built on the premise that greed is good.
That’s the show where they send a poor, hardworking family
off to Disney World for a week,
while they complete renovate and refurnish their house.
Call me crazy, but I have to wonder:
Is it really a good thing that children
being raised by a poor, single parent,
now each have their own private transformed bedroom,
where they can hide out for days in luxury, comfort, and style,
and be surrounded by expensive gadgets
that give them their own non-stop private entertainment?
Why of course it’s a good thing, we say,
if this poor family can suddenly have the American Dream,
of more, and better, and bigger.
Why wouldn’t that be good?

What makes greed so terrible, anyway?
Why would Pope Gregory the Great call it a deadly sin?
Well, to put it simply, and honestly, it kills people.
It robs us of the very life we seek.
Proverbs 1 says that, in so many words.
I quote: “Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain;
it takes away the life of its possessors.”
It takes away life.
It may not literally kill us straightaway,
but it reduces the breadth of our lives,
it narrows us,
draws in our boundaries,
isolates us,
diminishes us.
Well, think about it.
As soon as we accept the notion, even subconsciously,
that having more things adds to life,
accumulating possessions begins to take over our lives.
And we are less free than we were before.

The British essayist, Henry Fairlie, was insightful when he said
we have a strong tendency,
not so much to love our possessions,
but to love possessing.
And possessing, for the sake of possessing,
strangles us, distracts us, stifles us.
Our possessions begin to possess us.
Fairlie called it an “anxiety to possess.”
And this anxiety drives us into ourselves.
It is a form of solitude.
We are walled off from our neighbors by our possessions,
because we have made our neighbors into objects,
and they see us as objects.

Fairlie, who’s British, made this observation about Americans,
which I think is right on.
He said, “Americans do not usually make friends or acquaintances,
but allies.”
Sad, but true.
And when we seek people as allies, we see them as assets,
in other words, objects.
Greed leads us to make everything a commodity,
even relationships with other human beings,
even love.
You remember the myth of Midas:
everything he touched turned to gold,
including food and other things necessary for life.
Greed for gold made Midas a prisoner in his own castle.
Greed is bondage.
Our freedom is so reduced that we might as well be in the slammer.
Our humanity is so reduced that we might as well be in the tomb.

There is a book by Randy Frazee called, Making Room for Life:
Trading Chaotic Lifestyles for Connected Relationships.
Frazee argues in this book,
that the thing that makes so many people’s lives so chaotic,
and at the same time, so empty,
is that we choose a lifestyle of accumulation,
over a lifestyle of conversation and community.
On the other hand, when we let go of possessions,
let go of the need to possess,
and reach instead for community, for friendship,
for simple conversation,
we make room for life.
When it’s the other way around,
accumulation over connectedness,
we crowd out life.

I mentioned in my first sermon in this series,
that Luther once said sin is “the absence of love.”
That couldn’t be more true, than with the sin of greed.
When we are greedy for personal gain,
we fail to love.
If love is self-giving, and self-sacrificing,
then greed and love cannot coexist.
That includes love for God.
Someone said that greed is “refusal to worship.”
Greed prevents us from bowing before God
as the giver of every good and perfect gift.

So what can we do, sinful, greedy people that we are?
Maybe the first thing is renew our worship.
To learn what it means to bow down,
to humble ourselves before the great Creator God.
How would our lives be transformed, I wonder,
if we literally bowed down before God several times a day,
like devout Muslims do?
What would it do to our priorities,
to our self-oriented spirits,
to our relationships with others,
if we would regularly fall to our knees,
and acknowledge we are utterly, and completely
dependent on God for all we are
and all we have.
How might it change us,
if we bowed down to our Lord Jesus Christ every day,
and said, “I am yours. Lead me in your way”?

I can’t think of any better antidote for the sin of greed,
or for any other sin, for that matter.

I think there are other practical things we can do,
to reorient our lives...if we are willing.
Specific practices to implement.
And I choose the word practice deliberately.
It takes lots of time and practice,
to reorient ways of thinking and behaving.
One thing we need to practice,
is the art of saying, “No, thank you.”
I’m not only talking about turning down
a second piece of chocolate cake—
that’s getting into next Sunday’s sin of gluttony.
Will Willimon writes that what we need is the strength of character,
to be able to look at the world and all it has to offer,
and at certain key moments say simply,
“No, thank you. I’m satisfied.”
He said that because of the way our culture forms us today,
it takes huge moral stamina to say,
“Yes we could afford it, but we’re not going to buy it,
because it does little to contribute
to the basic goodness of our lives.”
Another author, Shane Claiborne,
who happens to be an activist for the Gospel
living in a Christian community in inner-city Philadelphia,
says this, “What we need to proclaim is a gospel of abundance,
rooted in a theology of enough.”
Mennonites have produced a whole study curriculum
called a “World of Enough.”
We need to be retrained, to know when enough is enough.
Culture tells us we never have enough.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ says another thing.
In the Gospel reading this morning,
Jesus told a parable of a farmer with a bumper crop.
Instead of rejoicing and sharing his abundance,
the farmer decided he needed more for himself,
he wasn’t satisfied with enough.
So God judged him a fool.
But then Jesus gave the disciples, gave us, a word of grace.
After this hard teaching that we should let go of possessions,
to release our grasp on things,
he said,
“Do not be afraid, dear children, for it is your Father’s pleasure
to give you the whole kingdom.”
So be free! Sell your possessions. Give to the poor.
“Make purses that never wear out.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Followers of Jesus are called to abandon the things of life,
to stop putting our security in what we gather around us,
and instead trust completely on God, on God’s providence.
That’s where bowing down every day might help us.

The apostle Paul echoes this in his letter to Timothy,
which we also heard this morning.
“There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment;
for we brought nothing into the world,
so that we can take nothing out of it;
but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”

When we believe the lie our culture tells us, that we never have enough,
we lose the ability to celebrate life,
to rejoice in the goodness and beauty that is around us.

Shane Claiborne tells a story about when he was in Calcutta, India,
a desperately poor girl approached him.
He had no money on him, but found a piece of gum in his pocket,
and handed it to the girl.
She had probably not had the pleasure of chewing gum
for a very long time.
She got so excited, she tore the piece of gum into three pieces,
and handed one back to Shane, and one to his friend
so they could all share in the excitement.

That’s what happens when we are not in bondage to our possessions.
We are free to celebrate.
Free to live joyfully.
Free to share generously.

And sometimes, just the act of generosity,
even if we do it with some reluctance,
can help cultivate the spirit of generosity,
and help drive away the sin of greed.
We discover the freedom that comes,
from the simple act of opening our hands, of letting go.
That’s what Scrooge discovered when he first tried it.

Will Willimon suggests that if we want to work against greed,
we need to practice—there’s that word again—
“practice open-handed, gratuitous giving,
practice in the art of letting go.”

It’s not ours, anyway, I guess you know.
At least,
that’s what the whole Jewish and Christian tradition teaches us.
The psalmist proclaims God as the owner of all things in creation,
including the “cattle on a thousand hills.”
King David, after the people of Israel gave their possessions
to build a place of worship, said to God,
“Who am I, and who are my people,
that we should be able to give as generously as this?
Everything comes from you,
and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”

To look at anything that came from God’s hand, and call it “mine,”
amounts to profanity.
It’s taking what is holy, and making it profane.
Let’s add the word “mine” to the list of 4-letter words
that we ought not to say.

And instead, practice the art of saying, “Thank you.”
Thank you, God, for the privilege of caring for these things
that belong only to you.
Thank you, God. Thank you.

Meister Eckhart once said:
“If the only prayer you say in your whole life is, ‘Thank You’,
that would suffice.”
And like generosity,
practicing gratitude helps to cultivate a spirit of gratitude,
and drives away the sin of greed.

Let’s practice gratitude together,
as we sing with thankful hearts to God.
Open your bulletin to the insert,
where there is a song, from the Taizé community, called,
“In the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful.”

Let us sing, and let us listen to what God might be saying to us.

"In the Lord, I'll be ever thankful,
In the Lord, I will rejoice,
Look to God, do not be afraid,
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near,
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near."

from Proverbs 30
Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, “Who is the LORD?” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.

from Deuteronomy 6
“When the Lord God brings you into the land he swore to your ancestors to give you--a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill--take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the house of slavery.”

from Ecclesiastes 4
Again, I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This is an unhappy business.

from the life of Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa’s feet were deformed, because her mission got only enough donated shoes for one pair per person. Rather than someone else getting stuck with the worst pair, she dug through the pile first, and chose the worst for herself. Years of doing that deformed her feet.

—Phil Kniss, July 30, 2006

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