Sunday, February 10, 2019

Phil Kniss: Content to fill a little space

“from AVARICE, toward JOY IN WHAT IS”
Luke 12:15-21, 32-34

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Thank you, Charles Dickens,
for giving us Ebenezer Scrooge—
one of the most memorable characters in English literature,
one who is fixed in our minds
as a prime example of the deadly sin of avarice, or greed,
and the damage it can do to a person.

Let me read a brilliant line from Dicken’s book, The 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.”

Now some of the seven deadly sins,
like pride, anger, sloth and the like,
I have to take care in defining them for us,
in such a way that convinces us they actually are sins.
Because there are types of anger and pride and idleness,
that are noble and righteous,
and must be distinguished from the sinful types.

Not so much with avarice.
Most people instantly see greed as,
if not sinful, at least harmful to human relationships.
As it did with Scrooge, it cuts us off from love and beauty,
makes us insensitive to others,
full of misery,
solitary as an oyster.
Greed is rarely held up as noble.
There’s a notable exception, in the movie Wall Street,
where the Michael Douglas character makes a speech,
and I quote, “Greed is good.
Greed works.
Greed clarifies, cuts through,
and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
Greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge,
has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

That movie quote is memorable by how much it shocks us,
to hear someone say it so brazenly.
But . . . maybe . . . on a big scale,
if you arguing economic theory,
and if you shift the meaning of greed to include
a broad embrace of passion and ambition,
and hunger for life and love and other good things—
then okay, I’ll grant you some positive attributes for “greed.”
That kind of hunger can activate an economy.

But . . . when it comes to personal character,
even communal character,
greed—the notion of wanting to acquire more and more and more—
the thrill of the chase,
the striving for power over others,
the urge to accumulate more, consume more, and control more,
that does damage.
It’s not difficult to describe the harm it can do to our character.
It’s not hard to see how it distances us from God and others.
It’s not a stretch to name it . . . sin.

So, assuming greed is sinful,
assuming greed creates distance
between us and others, between us and God,
let’s jump right into the question of what will save us from it?
What is the antidote?
What virtue will shape our character in the opposite direction?
What will help us become more generous and gracious?
What will help us cultivate contentment?
What will help us be satisfied, that is find joy,
in what already is—
in who we now are,
and what we now have.

As I pondered what encourages contentment,
something immediately came to mind, which is common wisdom.
We compare ourselves to those with much less.
We look around at those who possess far fewer things,
and far less wealth than what we have.
We can all think of examples
when we were confronted with the reality
that someone has it a lot worse than I do,
yet they are still living in joy and contentment.
If we ever spent time in the global south,
and saw whole communities poor and destitute,
yet full of kindness and hospitality and generosity and joy,
we came away in awe and wonder,
and perhaps a bit of embarrassment or shame,
and we determined to live our lives
with greater generosity and joy and contentment.

So that strategy is pretty effective, right?
We give ourselves a different point of reference.
Instead of looking around at our affluent neighbors,
or the lives of the rich and famous,
and lamenting the wealth and leisure
we will never be able to access,
we expose ourselves to the lives and realities of those with less,
and we are inspired to find joy in what we already have.

But that is a temporary fix . . . at best.
Because eventually,
our eyes will return to other points of reference.
Our attention will not stay fixed
on the less fortunate who live with joy.
And as soon as we look away,
we notice those with much more than ourselves,
who drive comfortable and well-appointed cars,
who live in spacious and well-furnished homes,
who seem to enjoy an unencumbered life
of leisure, travel, and adventure,
who seem to have many more options than we do.
And immediately, greed rears its ugly head again.
Gratitude evaporates.
Contentment flees.

And it’s not that we just chose to turn our eyes.
We cannot escape exposure to affluence and excess and greed,
anymore than a fish can escape the water it swims in.
Our culture runs on greed.
It continually bombards us with images and messages,
that tell us life and joy are found by acquiring more.
There is always something bigger, newer, faster, better, easier.
And if we can only get our hands on it,
joy and contentment will be ours.
Just look at all those smiling happy people in the ads.

So even if we adopt a clear and firm strategy
to focus on the less fortunate,
we cannot escape seeing the opposite,
because it’s in our face, all the time—
in all forms of public media and entertainment, and
in real people we know and relate to.

So, what is an appropriate counterpoint to greed?
Seems to me, it’s learning to rest in the love and goodness
and incarnational presence of God.
It’s “practicing the presence,”
as did the 17th century Carmelite monk, Brother Lawrence.
He wrote that his “only desire was to find joy
in doing little things for the love of God.”

To learn to see God’s mercy and grace and generosity,
and presence with us in the midst of all of life’s circumstances—
in good and bad,
in plenty and want,
in joy and sorrow,
and to see God’s face in all people—
near and far,
small and great,
friend and foe,
to learn that,
to practice that kind of generous and gracious living
is, I believe, the only reliable antidote to greed.
And for that matter, it will help keep us out of the mire
of most of the other deadly sins.

If we focus our energy, our prayers, our intentions, and our practices,
not on comparing our lot with the lot of others,
but on developing an awareness of God’s love and goodness
that is all around us,
then compassion toward others is our default response.

Instead of being driven by greed,
we are driven by compassion.
When we encounter the destitute,
our instinct will be toward compassion,
rather than pity or paternalism.
And when we encounter those who are more rich and powerful,
our instinct will be not to envy them or emulate them,
but to also view them with the compassion of God,
knowing that wealth is a gift, as well as a great burden.

Practicing the presence of God
changes our whole posture in this chaotic and sinful world.
We are more likely to notice God at work on God’s shalom project,
when we encounter either brokenness or beauty.
And we are more likely to want to participate in that project,
instead of turning away in despair.

And let’s be clear about one thing.
Greed is not the sin of the rich and powerful.
It is a besetting sin for us all.

When we read the parable from Luke 12, as we did this morning,
it’s easy to read it from outside looking in,
especially if we are not the wealthy landholder
who has too many crops and not enough barns.
It’s easy to wag our fingers at such blatant greed and materialism,
and thank God that we are not like that sinner over there.

Greed, like the other sins and vices,
is a habit that takes up residence in the human soul and spirit,
and then manifests itself in our actions,
no matter what our lot in life.

So how do we measure greed?
Am I more greedy
if I have acquired a richly furnished home,
with two high-priced vehicles in the garage,
or . . . if I live in a little frame house,
with a basement overflowing with bargains I couldn’t pass up?
Am I greedy
only if my money is in an aggressive stock portfolio,
or could greed be a factor even in my slow-growth mutual fund?
Can I exhibit greed
when I push an overflowing shopping cart up to the checkout line,
as much as when I put only one thing in the cart?
Is greed a prime motivator
only for the top 1%,
or can it overtake someone living in poverty?

Our behaviors are indicators. There is no doubt.
Practices matter.
I would never suggest greed is only a matter of the heart,
needing only an inward “spiritual” cure.

As Rebecca DeYoung suggests, in her book Glittering Vices,
“actions wear a groove or pattern in the longings of our heart.”
It’s not either-or.
It’s not attitude or practices.
Our practices, and our inner thoughts and intentions
continually shape each other,
backward and forward.

So . . . as Jesus recognized and taught,
the rich do have a much harder time.
It is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, Jesus said.
His disciples objected, “So it’s impossible?”
Jesus replied, with God’s help, it may be possible.
The rich are more likely to struggle
with allowing their possessions to possess them.
But they are not alone in that struggle.
It is a human proclivity in us all.
And you realize, of course,
we Americans are, in comparison to the world,
the rich ones in Jesus’ teachings.
We are the farmer building bigger barns.
We are the camels trying to thread the needle.

But all of us, whatever our social status,
need to pay attention to these grooves and patterns
that our deeds carve into our hearts.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck here.
On Friday evening, Irene and I went out
to a local, fine-dining, Italian restaurant,
ate some fancy food,
and went to a theater afterwards.
We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves,
and I don’t regret doing it, at all.

But it’s pretty good practice, and a good discipline,
to intentionally juxtapose those experiences sometimes,
by stepping outside our little bubble,
and simply own the fact
that many, probably most, of our neighbors,
in the City of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County,
did not have the option, financially, on Friday night,
to go out on the town
and spend $75-100 on food and entertainment.
Much less, was that an option
for the vast majority of our global neighbors.

So how do we talk about greed in our context,
when so much of the world suffers from hunger and famine,
or the deprivations of war?

When I was a kid at home,
maybe my mom wasn’t entirely accurate
when she made me feel like I was personally causing
the starvation in sub-Saharan Africa
by not finishing my Brussels sprouts at dinnertime.

As an adult, I know now,
that we don’t have a zero-sum global economy.
A dollar put into my hands does not actually mean
that a dollar was taken from the hands of the poor.

But having said that, let’s admit that local and personal behavior
actually matters on the global stage.
Our embodied practices shape our spirits and souls,
which shape all the choices we make,
which shape the world we live in.

The love of money, something we all need to beware of,
does have a way of overpowering our love of justice,
and that changes the way we see and act toward our neighbors.

There is a long-standing Christian tradition,
from the desert monks, to Gregory, to Aquinas,
to contemporary theologians ,
that acts of greed lead us toward insensitivity to matters of justice,
that this particular sin can lead toward hardness of heart.

And it’s not a big leap
to go from being insensitive to another’s suffering,
to outright causing them harm.
The fruit of avarice, of greed,
is a willingness to lie, to deceive, to betray, to steal,
even to do violence, in order to acquire what we desire.

But is there a place for occasional and modest splurging,
for enjoying the resources we have and celebrating with them,
while not falling prey to the sin of greed?
I hope so.
And I believe so.

We can enjoy a good party, like Jesus did.
We can buy a beautiful painting,
or enjoy a thrilling concert,
even though our financially outlay for those things
don’t directly feed the hungry or house the homeless.

The question is,
are we freeing ourselves to love God, love others,
and love all creation.
I think the celebrations of life, even costly ones,
can make us people who love more freely and genuinely,
especially when we share,
and invite everyone to the party.
They can also do the opposite, if we’re not careful and discerning.

But at their best,
they can help us be more open and less guarded about our stuff.
They can free us from the anxiety of scarcity.
They can help us live in God’s abundance.
That is precisely what we need
to cultivate generosity and grace.

There is deep contentment when we trust in God’s ample provisions.
When we see what we have in hand,
and know where it came from,
we can say, “It is enough. Thank you!”

We live in a world that spouts lies of scarcity . . .
that constantly pushes us to acquire and accumulate.
We need to learn how to say, “No, thank you.”

Will Willimon, in his book on the deadly sins,
says, given the world we live in, it takes moral stamina to say,
“Yes we can afford it, but we’re not going to buy it,
because it does little to contribute
to the basic goodness of our lives.”
It takes practice, to look at the world and all it has to offer,
and at certain key moments say simply,
“No, thank you. I’m satisfied.”

In today’s parable,
the farmer wasn’t practiced in the art of saying “no, thank you.”
The only choice he could see in front of him,
when faced with an opportunity to have more,
was to build a bigger barn to hold it.
He was not content to fill the small space in his present barn.

There’s another anti-greed practice, according to Rebecca DeYoung.
She points out the practice of tithing—
not as some burdensome rule or religious regulation,
but as a joyful way to free ourselves from the prison of greed.

The practice of regular and proportional First-Fruits giving
is a practice to re-form our hearts, she says.
She says that like fasting, and other disciplines,
tithing can be seen as a “habitual practice of
limiting our use of a good thing . . .” in order to
“regularly and continually loosen our attachment to it.”
It’s a practice that cultivates contentment.

To spend on ourselves first,
and wait to see what’s left for God and others,
reinforces the self-orientation that greed feeds on—
it promotes the falsehood that our possessions are our own
to use and consume and dispense as we see fit,
and that ultimately we are our own providers.

Instead, we are invited to First-Fruits living,
to a full and joyful way of life
grounded in a theology of God’s abundance,
which leads us to be content,
and to find joy in what is.

It will lead us to the kind of life expressed
in a hymn I rediscovered this week,
printed in our old 1927 Church Hymnal,
the hymnal this congregation sang from when we were founded.
Don’t know how many of you know it.
The original title was “Father I know that all my life.”
I found more of the stanzas online,
and chose four of them to sing today.
You’ll find it in your order of worship.
There’s a phrase in verse two that inspired my sermon title.

Oh, to be content to fill a little space.
We can think of that literally, like crops in a barn.
Or metaphorically, like the space we fill in this world.
Are we content to fill a little space,
if God is glorified in it?
Will we find our joy, as verse three suggests,
not in serving God much, but serving God well?

Wherever in the world I am, in whatsoe’er estate,
I have a fellowship with hearts to keep and cultivate;
A work of lowly love to do for God on Whom I wait.

I ask Thee for the daily strength, to none that ask denied,
And a mind to blend with outward life while keeping at Thy side;
Content to fill a little space, if Thou be glorified.

And if some things I do not ask among my blessings be,
I’d have my spirit filled the more with grateful love to Thee,
More careful, not to serve Thee much, but please Thee perfectly.

Tho’ briers besetting every path that call for patient care;
There is a cross in every lot, and earnest need for prayer;
But lowly hearts that lean on Thee are happy anywhere.

—Phil Kniss, February 10, 2019

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