Sunday, July 31, 2016

Practicing Enough

Sermon from Sunday, July 31, 2016
Luke 12:13-21; Colossians 3:1-11

I won’t ask you to say it out loud, but I do want you to think about how you might answer this question:  What do you always want to have more of?  Where do you struggle with understanding how much is enough? 
For me, it’s French fries.  It’s hard for me to get a good handle on how many French fries is enough.  And sometimes – when I’m finally leaving church at the end of one of those days, when I haven’t had anything to eat but some nuts at my desk, after another meeting that drags into the middle of the evening, when I’m tired and frustrated and feel like George Bailey in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life – sometimes, when I’m finally leaving church, I go by McDonald’s on the way home.  I get a Quarter Pounder, and I get fries.  And not just some fries.  A large order of fries.  If they’re spilling out the top of the carton and falling to the bottom of the bag, that’s about right.  The more, the better.  Then once I get home, I drown my sorrows in salty, greasy goodness. 
Or at least I think that’s what I’m doing.  But what if my attitude toward French fries actually says something about my relationship with God?  I mean, I am hungry as I wait in line at the drive-thru; but it’s not really hunger that’s motivating my order.  I could just eat food I have at home.  Instead, at that moment, those French fries don’t really represent a source of nutrition, good or bad.  Those French fries represent greed, as well as gluttony.  I get those fries simply because I want them – and lots of them.
So what’s wrong with that?  Well, maybe nothing’s wrong with that, other than raising my cholesterol.  But maybe those French fries represent a little rebellion.  Maybe those French fries are a way for me to say, “I’m going to have what I want.”  And that’s where greed begins.
The Gospel reading we heard today starts with someone trying to get what he wants – and asking Jesus to justify it.  The man’s asking for a share of the family inheritance, but Jesus sees into the man’s heart.  So Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who’s struggling with a problem most of us would envy.  He’s got more wealth than he can store.  He’s been blessed with the abundance of God’s creation, and now he’s struggling to find a place just to keep all he has.  There’s nothing obviously wrong with this man’s wealth or how he came by it.  We’re given no reason to believe he oppressed his workers or cheated his customers.  He may well have followed Jewish Law and left some crops in the field after the harvest so poor people and strangers could come and take the gleanings.  Nothing in this story leads us to judge the man’s business practices.  But it’s his heart that God’s concerned about.
The man’s heart problem is its orientation.  In his day-to-day practice of worship, this man is looking in the mirror a lot more than he’s looking to an altar of sacrifice.  He sees all that he’s produced, and he thinks, “What should I do, for I have no place to story my crops?”  Then he says, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store my grain and my goods.  And I will say to myself, ‘Self, you have many goods laid up for many years.  Relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’” (Luke 12:17-19)  Now, in that quotation, you may have noticed a lot of personal pronouns – “I” and “my,” specifically.  That might be a clue that something’s out of kilter.  This man has placed his hope and his trust in himself – his own work, his own wisdom, his own giftedness.  He’s filled his barns with the fruits of his own capacity.  He is a case study of wanting to be in control.
Except, of course, God has the last word.  Unfortunately for the man in the story, it’s literally the last word he’ll hear.  “You fool,” God says, “this very night, your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20).
There’s a big difference between stewardship and control.  In a sense, we might see the man in the story as a paragon of stewardship:  He takes what he has and manages it very carefully.  But that’s only half the recipe.  Stewardship is not simply careful control.  In fact, it’s the opposite of control.  Stewardship is managing the abundance God shares with us in ways that foster God’s purposes and honor God’s sovereignty.  The steward says, I’m here to take care of my master’s estate.  The steward says, I’m here to carry out my master’s plan.  The steward says, God is God, and I am not.
This is why Jesus says what he says about greed at the beginning of the parable.  Listen to his language – it’s not about judgment but about loving protection.  To the man in the crowd who wants to make sure he gets a share of the family inheritance, Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” (Luke 12:15).  He isn’t looking at the man and saying, “Bad boy!”  He’s saying, “Be careful, because greed will hurt you.”  
So, Jesus says, be careful to protect yourself from … what is it exactly?  How does greed hurt us? 
The reading we heard from Colossians names the risk out loud: idolatry.  Idolatry – now, that’s an interesting word.  We may hear that word idolatry and think about little statues of fertility goddesses or calves made of gold.  But idolatry doesn’t mean pagan worship; idolatry simply means the worship of that which is not God.  Idolatry is ascribing power and ultimate value to a creation rather than the Creator.  And I believe it’s the root of every other sin.  Everything that breaks the heart of God, everything that imperils our salvation, all of it is rooted in idolatry – in honoring something else in the place of the One who creates us and redeems us and sustains us.
So, most of us are probably thinking, “OK.  I don’t worship money, or my house, or my car, or my job.”  Probably not; and that’s good, because the neighbors might talk if you were out in the driveway, saying prayers to your Mercedes.  But you know, the stuff is not the real temptation.  It’s not the golden calves that attract us.  It’s not the idols themselves; it’s the source of power to which the idols point, which is … us.  The people of Israel made the golden calf, after all.  It was the work of their own hands.  The man in the story raised his crops and built his barns; they were the work of his own hands.  Our houses or cars or professional success – we can look at those and say, “I did that.  That’s the work of my hands.”  We may not be worshiping the car, but we may be worshiping the one who bought the car.  At the least, we’re tempted to see ourselves as the ones in control.
Jesus warns us to be on our guard against the threat of greed in order to save us from the sin of idolatry, the delusion of control.  So if that’s the poison that threatens us, what’s the antidote?  Well, we heard it in the Gospel reading last week and in Fr. Marcus’ sermon; and we’ll hear it again when we pray the Lord’s Prayer this morning.  The antidote to idolatry is daily bread.  “Lord, give us today our bread for tomorrow.”  Give us enough.  That’s it, really.  The treatment for greed is the practice of enough.
Now, your temptation may not be French fries, but I’ll bet we’ve each got a place or two in our lives where we never quite feel like what we have is enough.  Maybe it’s shoes in the closet.  Maybe it’s cash in the bank.  Maybe it’s time.  Maybe it’s certainty that we’re right.  Maybe it’s affirmation of our value.  For each of us, there’s probably some bucket we just can’t quite seem to fill, so we pour in more and more, not seeing how much less of it we need as it spills out over the top.
The practice of enough says this:  Seek less to find more.  Having fewer fries on my plate might encourage me actually to taste them and revel in that salty, greasy goodness – and to be thankful.  Thankful that I have the cash to buy them.  Thankful that I have an hour to turn on the TV and enjoy them.  Thankful that I never go hungry.  Thankful enough, in fact, to share that salty, greasy goodness with the person next to me on the couch.
That’s not a bad working definition of enough: having what you need, plus some to share.  If we have that, where’s the value in having more?  And beyond that, remember the risk in having more – the risk of forgetting who’s in charge.  The practice of enough is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of the fundamental truth of our lives, the first sentence of all theology, and the first beat of a peaceful heart – that God is God, and I am not.
             There’s really nothing wrong with French fries.  I just have to be careful why I’m eating them and remember that more is not better.  I can have a few in gratitude for the blessings of that long, hard day – maybe simply in gratitude that the long, hard day is finally over.  Or I can have a lot in the momentary fantasy that I’m the one in control.  The right choice reveals the holy irony of God’s abundance:  We may well need to part with some of what we have in order to have enough.

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