Sunday, July 25, 2010

"Greed," A Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

Here are some temptations I was faced with as I sat down to write this sermon.

Temptation #1: Statistics. You know, about how the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and there’s no end in sight to these trends, especially if our government decides to continue with the program of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Statistics about what percentage of our children live in poverty today versus fifty years ago—just before President Lyndon Johnson embarked on the famous “War on Poverty.” Statistics about how the tiniest portion of the population owns and controls the vast majority of the wealth, and how the vast majority of the population owns and controls the tiniest portion of the wealth. Statistics about the breakdown of poverty by ethnicity, race. Statistics like that.

The problem with statistics is, they usually make our eyes glaze over. Perhaps I should just speak for myself. Statistics make my eyes glaze over. And when I hear statistics about things I already know or already believe, and about which I’m already feeling somewhat pessimistic—well, I often have the experience of feeling just a little bit beaten down by them. So, no statistics.

Temptation #2: Quotations from The Divine Comedy, Inferno section, on the eternal punishments meted out to the greedy. What sermon couldn’t be improved by the judicious insertion of some Dante? I spent a good deal of time pursuing this plan, until I remembered two things. The first thing I remembered was my sermon of two weeks ago, titled “Hell.” And I thought, well, I may have said all I’d like to say about that for a while, and why run the risk of contradicting myself? And the second thing I remembered was the fact that encouraging behavior driven by the fear of punishment is setting the bar pretty low. In fact, it can’t get any lower. Perhaps you remember your Kohlberg from psychology class in high school or college? Lawrence Kohlberg speaks of our moral development as occurring in stages. The earliest, most primitive stage is that in which we behave in such a way as to avoid punishments and to gain rewards. This is, essentially, where toddlers are. The highest stage of moral development is that in which we behave entirely according to universal principles of “right” and “wrong.” Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. At any rate, encouraging us to not fall prey to greed simply to avoid punishment or gain some other reward seems ironic at best, and self-defeating at worst.

Temptation #3: Examples of greed “ripped from the headlines.” Oh, and the headlines provide us with more than enough material. From Bernie Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme cost investors more than $18 billion collectively (which is still missing, by the way), to British Petroleum, whose corner-cutting is resulting in costs measured in marine life, an entire coastal economy, suicides among fishermen… well, we can see in vivid terms that greed is still alive and well and wreaking havoc.

Temptation #4: When in doubt, there are always movie quotes! Gordon Gekko, the fictional character from “Wall Street,” the 1987 film about corporate raiders and inside stock trading. The quote cited in the 100 most memorable movie quotes. OK, I’m going to succumb to this temptation. Here’s what he said:

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, for knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save [this company], but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. [1]

And you know, that argument was pretty compelling to a lot of people. In fact, more than twenty years after the film, the actors report that people still approach them to tell them that they were inspired by their characters to become stockbrokers, which is ironic, because a lot of those characters end up in jail. The argument made in that speech can be summarized by the economic slogan, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” classic Reaganomics. And it does! The problem is, when the tide goes out, the wealthy, while they have less, are still wealthy. And the vast majority of the populace are swept out to sea by a terrible undertow which they did not create, and which they may not survive.

So. How do we talk about greed? How do I talk about greed, I who had a meltdown on Thursday of this week because my phone died and I was without Internet access? Both of which, by any rational measure, can only accurately be described as luxuries? How do we talk, in a country that is still struggling to recover from a recession—let’s face it—brought on by the greed of a small number of people who still haven’t had to pay for the mess they created, while people we know and people we will never know—millions of God’s children, all around the world—are still struggling to find work, or to keep their families together…? How do we talk about this?

Do I sound angry? It’s hard to talk about this without getting angry.

The first thing I’d like to say about “greed,” and, perhaps, about most sin, most things that cut us off from recognizing the presence of God (which is how I define sin), is this: Greed takes what is a basic human impulse or instinct and distorts it, twists it, renders it unrecognizable. In the case of “greed,” the basic instinct is for security, and not one person can or should be faulted for wanting security. To know that you will be clothed, that you will eat a meal, that you will have a safe place to lay your head at night, to know that you will have all these things even beyond your so-called “productive years,”—this is part of what it means to be human, to have these needs and try to meet them. Greed, on the other hand, takes this instinct and pumps it up, inflates it, so that we think we “need” all sorts of things that turn out to be unnecessary, or even potentially harmful, to us or to others. And the way we know something is sin, is because it results in cut-off—we are cut-off from recognizing the presence of God, we are cut-off from others, we are cut-off from recognizing that our human calling is to be in community. Greed, as does all sin, cuts us off.

Jesus tells a parable about greed in today’s gospel lesson. You all know this parable, I feel sure. A man decides to save up for the future. He plans to spend a lot of time and energy building storage facilities for grain, so that he can be ready for any inevitability, any disaster. And the minute he hatches this plan—note, he hasn’t actually torn down the old barns, or built the new, larger ones, he has simply decided this is the thing to do, and he has begun to congratulate himself on how very wise he is—the minute he commences self-congratulation, he dies. And God speaks to him, and says, Wow. That was not too swift, friend.

The most compelling words in the story, though, are the words Jesus uses to introduce the parable. He says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” [Luke 12:15].

A life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Collections of things do not a life make, whether those things are our cherished cell phones or our beloved cars or our beautiful homes and all their contents. These things do not a life make. “We know there is a vacuum inside of us that will suck up an infinite supply of thrills, goods and successes without satisfying the human heart.” [2]

All of which leads us to the question, well, what does make a life? What will satisfy the human heart? What do we do? Where do we go? I suspect that the answer to this question, the antidote for greed, has to come from our own work—spiritual work—at the deepest level. We need to work at it. I believe we can work at it, we can change and grow, and the answer lies in a single, simple word: gratitude. In the words of the prophet Cheryl Crow, “It’s not getting what you want; it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

I heard a story this week by a woman who spoke of a truly challenging time in her life. She had cared for two small children at home while her husband had carried a full course load towards a graduate degree and held down a fulltime job. They barely saw each other for about three years. But they were working towards something. After he’d graduated they were hoping his new degree might land him a better job. Instead, the recession hit with full force and he was laid off from the job he did have, while opportunities in his field simply dried right up. Instead of paying off old debt, the family had to struggle to avoid taking on new debt, and the woman ended up finding employment and switching roles with her husband: he was the stay-at-home parent, and she was the primary breadwinner.

Through it all, fear and doubt and insecurity threatened her sense of peace and well-being. But she did not succumb, because she engaged in a very simple practice: the recital of a kind of mantra of gratitude. She would do this while walking to work. And she always started the same way, with the same basics: “Thank you God, that I can breathe. Thank you God, that I can walk. Thank you God, that I have [the use of my hands].” As she walked her normal route, and watched the people going by in their cars or on bikes or walking, more and more things for which to be grateful would occur to her. “Thank you God, that I was able to pay the rent last week. Thank you God, for the phone conversation with my mother last night. Thank you God, for the smiles I will see on the faces of my children when I arrive home tonight.” This ritual, which began with thanksgiving for the simplest and most basic things, ended up opening her eyes and her heart to the real, tangible blessings that were there all along—but which otherwise might have gone unnoticed. It was as if a veil had lifted, and now she could see.

What I love about this story is how it illustrates one of the most powerful truths about any of the spiritual disciplines, whether we are talking about prayer, or reading scripture, or any other of the ways we strive to open ourselves to God’s presence. The truth is this: we start where we are. If we can’t think of anything to be “truly” grateful for, we start with the things we take for granted entirely—our feet, our eyeglasses, the hair that’s left (or, the fact that baldness is “in” now!). I’ve heard people practice this kind of gratitude under astonishing circumstances—“Thank you God, the chemo didn’t make me nauseated today. Thank you God, for that memory of my loved one.” I make no claim that this is easy. I do claim that a grateful heart is a heart that is open to the peace of God. And God is always there. God is always here. We strive to open ourselves to the presence of the One who created us, and we learn to our astonishment that we are steeped in that very presence, we are awash in it.

“Greed is good”? No. Greed is a perversion of a God-given instinct for security. Greed separates my welfare from that of others, and presupposes it is every man for himself. Greed is the opposite of the way God created us to be, which is to live in community. Greed isn’t good. God is good. Evidence of God’s goodness, and God’s good intentions towards us, are all around us. And it takes work to see. It takes the intentional work of practicing gratitude. Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. It’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got. It takes work. It’s not always easy. But it is a way to live that opens us to more abundance than we can imagine, blessing upon blessing upon blessing. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Wall Street, dir. Oliver Stone, perf. Michael Douglas, DVD, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1987.
[2] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 1.


God_Guurrlll said...

That was beautiful. I'm going to start saying the thank you prayer first thing in the morning.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this sermon. In addition to a spirit of gratitude I believe a life of generosity to be a positive response to the danger of greed and avarice. I believe the challenge of Jesus is not to simply become poor but to become generous.