Monday, March 07, 2016

February 28, 2016 The Seven Deadly Sins: Greed

As we continue our series of messages on the Seven Deadly Sins, this morning we come to the sin of greed.  This morning’s text is one that is no doubt familiar to you, although most of us are more accustomed to Matthew’s version (Matthew 6:25-34).  I use Luke’s version today because it follows the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21).  That parable helps to set up the passage that serves as today’s text, as it tells of a man who had enough resources to tear down his barns and to build larger ones.  I have often wondered why he didn’t build more barns.  Why tear down the existing ones simply to build new ones?  Because he could.  It was a demonstration of his wealth.  But it also reminds us that no matter how much money one has, it can never insulate us against every potential problem in life and it can only provide a limited amount of security.

Luke 12:22-34

22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear.
23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.
24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!
25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.
28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!
29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it.
30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.
31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.
33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.
34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This passage is what I would call the castor oil of the Bible.  Has anyone here every taken castor oil?  I don’t know what it is, but I used to hear of it often when I was younger.  It sounded nasty to me and I hoped I would never have to take it.  My dad, my brothers, and I used to ride motorcycles, and in our two-stroke motorcycles we used Castrol Oil, and because it sounded so much alike I knew I never wanted to have to take castor oil.  This is a passage that is theologically beautiful, but very challenging on a practical level, as it sets the bar of life so very high.

It’s easy to read this passage and think, you know, it takes a lot of money to live.  And I can’t help but worry about having enough money to get by.  It’s expensive to raise kids, and medical care is very expensive, and when my kids get to college, how will we afford what that costs?  That’s why this passage is so difficult, because we simply cannot help but worry about having enough, and Jesus tells us not to worry.  How are we supposed to set aside our worries?  We worry about our lives and we worry about what we will wear, and we worry about food and we can’t get over our fear of tomorrow – or today – and we don’t want to sell our possessions, and our heart is often with our treasure. 

With those as some introductory comments, I have three brief points to make about greed this morning.

1.  Greed is sometimes – sometimes – shown in a desire for money.
It is often said that money cannot buy happiness, but in the words of one comedian, it can help us to look for it in much better places.

Greed is almost universally connected to money.  Many of you will remember the 1987 movie Wall Street, and the character of Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas.  In the movie, as he addresses a group of stockholders, he offered a phrase that became the buzz phrase for that movie, and, perhaps, the decade of the 80s – greed is good!  And, amazingly, a lot of people who saw the movie believed that statement to be correct.  But it’s what we call a false equivalency, where someone make a statement that appears to have an element of truth, but the fundamental assertion of the statement goes unchallenged.  A good work ethic is good; greed is not good.

We saw in 2008 that greed is not good, as it played a central role in the development of the financial instruments that led to the financial crisis, which crippled the lives of millions of people (by the way, has anyone yet figured out what a credit default swap is?)

We all feel the desire to have more money.  We all dream about hitting the big lottery prize.  Imagine what one could do with the winning ticket!  But what if I did win the big lottery prize, what would it do for me?  I have a house.  I could buy a bigger house, or more houses, but I already have one.  I already buy a car but I could buy another one.  I already have some guitars, but I could buy more of them.  Most of what I could do with sudden wealth would be to get more of what I already have.  Make no mistake, more money could make some things easier.  More money could help reduce the stress of financial emergencies and the constant worry of paying the regular bills, but money would certainly not provide me with any lasting answer, because it cannot bring a sense of ultimate satisfaction to my life.
So, greed is sometimes connected with money, but –

Greed is really about insecurity. 
Greed is not so much about getting more money as it is a search for security.  While money can take care of many of the tangibles in life (a house, car, etc.), it cannot assure us of the intangibles of life (security, for example).

In Luke 11:13-21, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool.  This parable is often misread because of the way in which verse 20 is translated.  Verse 20 reads, in English, as this very night your life will be demanded from you.  While it sounds as though the man has been consigned to a physical death that is not what is meant.  The original language uses a verb tense that indicates a spiritual, not a physical, death.  The warning to the man is this – you are no longer the possessor, but are the possessed.  You do not own your things; they own you.  You have fallen into the trap of which Jesus speaks when he said “what good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?  Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew16:26).  The man had covered all the tangibles in life, but even with his vast well he was unable to provide for the intangibles.

Mark 10:17-31 is another passage that is often misread (this passage tells us of the exchange between Jesus and a rich young man).  Containing the famous verse it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (verse 25), Jesus is telling us not to have unrealistic expectations and beliefs about wealth, most notably, that it is not necessarily a sign of God’s blessing upon a person’s life.  In the time of Jesus many people believed that a wealthy person had arrived at that state because God had blessed them, so it was a shock when Jesus said that a wealthy person could not enter into the kingdom of God.  That belief is still alive and well in what is commonly referred to as the prosperity gospel.  The prosperity gospel interprets the words of Jesus about an abundant life – I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10, NASV), as referring primarily to material wealth and possessions.

Greed is really about insecurity. Greed is often seen as the desire to accumulate more of something – money or possessions, for instance.  But greed goes deeper than simply accumulating for the sake of accumulation.  Greed is a driving force in our lives, really, because of insecurity.

Insecurity is the feeling that enough is never really enough to protect us against all the possibilities we might encounter, so we try and accumulate even more, with the hope that we will some day have enough to protect us against every potential difficulty, but there is no amount of money that can protect us against every difficult of life.

Our hearts are always searching for something deeper, and filling that desire with stuff and with money will never bring ultimate satisfaction. Insecurity drives us to seek more of something – money, love, affirmation, or possessions, for example – that we believe will fill what can be a gaping hope within us that longs to be filled.

I’m not naïve enough to say that a certain amount of money won’t relieve some stress and make life simpler in some ways, but it’s not the ultimate answer in life, I can assure you of that.

Greed is a matter of what owns our hearts.
I told a friend of mine that I often wondered what it would take for me to take a prized possession, bring it to church, and place it on the communion table and say it’s yours God.  He thought that was a great idea, and added that maybe I should encourage people to do just that, and load it all into a truck and take it all away and donate it.  My first thought was hold on a minute.  Let’s not go crazy.  I was simply thinking out loud!

About eight months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, I traveled with a group to Waveland, Mississippi, where we worked for a week helping to clean up and to rebuild.  The town of Waveland is smaller than Shelbyville and many of its residents had left for other areas, leaving a population of less than half what it was before the storm.  Even though it was months after the storm, the town was still overwhelmed by the destruction. 

The week we were there we stayed in the back of an auto parts store, or what was left of it.  There were about 75 – 100 people sharing that space, which was one big, open room in the back where we slept, men on one side and women on the other.  There were two restroom facilities and two showers for all those people, which certainly made things challenging.  We slept on cots, that bowed down in the middle, so that when you got in your sleeping bag it was like getting swallowed up to the point that it was difficult to move.  And out of all those people, I believe I was the only person who did not snore.  It was a choir of people snoring and creaking in folding cots, every night, all night.  

In one way, it was a crazy way to spend a week, but it was such a fulfilling week!  Why?  Because it spoke to our hearts.  Everyone there had given of their time and resources.  We slept in one big, open space, in uncomfortable surroundings, getting little sleep after long, hard days of work.  But we were doing the work of God.  We were the hands and feet of Christ in a community that has suffered much devastation.  Our hearts were not given over to the accumulation of earthly treasure, but to heavenly treasure.

Our hearts are indeed searching for treasure, but it is treasure of the heavenly sort, not the earthly type.  Allow God to fill your heart with the treasures of his kingdom! 

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