Greed and Generosity
Proverbs 15:27, Matthew 6:19-24
There are two misnomers about some things that I want to set aside before I get to the rest of my sermon. When you looked in the paper this week and saw that I was preaching on greed, you knew that I, as your pastor, was going to do what all ministers do when it comes to that subjectówhich by the way, I think is wrong. You may think that I was going to get up here and pound on you about materialism. You were worried that I would make you feel really guilty about having things. You were worried that I would suggest that somehow by having things, you may be damned for eternity. I want to tell you why I think some ministers are wrong about that. Remember how I told you last week that one of crises of our modern age is how we dis-integrate--how we separate out parts of our lives? I told you that the gift of middle-age spirituality was how integrated such spirituality was. We should not separate our spiritual, our physical, our mental selves, or our social selves. All of our spirituality is in balance when all parts of ourselves are integrated. The physical gifts that God has given us are not things to be shunned or pushed away. They are, in fact, to be seen just as thatógifts. I often remind people, and most likely have reminded you before (all good learning is worth repeatingóthat way we learn it better) that at the end of the Apostles Creed, there are two phrases that often Protestants stumble over. The one is the term ďthe holy catholic church,Ē and we are thinking that we are not Catholic. But if you notice, that c is a small c, so when catholic is spelled with a small c, the word means universal. Thus, since the Reformation, we have affirmed our continuity with the universal Church of God from the very beginning. And we use that word, catholic, with pride. This other phrase is this obscure little passage that says, ďI believe in the resurrection of the body.Ē Most of us have a very Greek way of thinking, by the way. A Platonist view of an afterlife is one in which there are some spirits floating around somewhere. We notice that even in Jesusí resurrection, he was able to eat, and people could touch him. Whatever the resurrected life was for Jesus, it included a physical body. Now it may seem weird that I would bring this up, but in part the early church (and by the way that creed came from about 90ADónot that long after the first generation of Christians) wanted to affirm that whatever the next life was, that it would be physical. Maybe our physicality in the afterlife is not exactly as we understand what it means to be physical now, but that physical sense may be something different (but physical nonetheless) and something that we will one day understand. In the same vein, whatever is physical in our lives is not something to be shunned in favor of a spiritual focus, which is perceived as better. Remember that the material world is a gift from God as much as the spiritual part of our lives. Until we reintegrate that, we get ourselves into trouble. So if I go back to the misnomeróthat preachers should not preach about material things being wrongóI do so because at the heart of who we are as a people of faith is an affirmation of all good gifts that God has given us. By the way, I would also remind you of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was one of the greatest capitalists of all time. He acquired more money in his lifetime than anyone in his times with the exception of the King of England. He sold pamphlets that dealt with everything from religious matters to home remedies for medicine. He wrote early Readersí Digest-like condensed versions of the great classics. He sold those, and the money he made he used to pour back into ministries of grace and justice. He died without a penny. He used to say, ďgain a lot and give a lot.Ē It was not quite that quote, but it was close. I want to start today by asserting that material things are gifts. The second thing I want to remind you of is that most of the time, when we speak of greed, weíre thinking of very, very wealthy people. Weíre thinking of Ebenezer Scrooge, and we think of all the bad villains in every story we were ever told in childhood. Villians were usually the people who had all the money while other people had none. We need to be careful, because the vice of greed has nothing to do with the amount of material goods that we have. Greed has everything to do with the attitude we have about those goods. Someone as poor as a church mouse can live his or her life just as greedily as someone who lives in the top economic 1% of our country. The vice of greed is the notion that material things are what make life. In many ways, it is when material things become our god and when our most important focus becomes acquiring possessions and hording them that we fall into greed.
Now with that said, we need to be reminded that one of the foundational things of our faith is that none of us owns anything. Now I know that goes against some American values regarding private possessions and that notion that what is mine is mine. We donít want people to look our way and see too much of what weíve got, because its none of their business. Isnít that how we feel? We put a lot of stock in our private property rights, our private rights this, and our private rights that. We forget that nothing that is in our possession belongs to us. Everything, everything in our lives belongs to God. From Godís generosity come material things that enrich our lives. These things enrich and bless our lives. So the question about materialism in our lives isnít whether or not we have a lot of material things, but whether or not we understand that basically those things belong to God. We understand also that it is really how God intends us to use those things that matters most in our lives and not what we think we would like to use them for. I want to make another observation about a general misconception about sin in particular that you may have been brought up with, I suspect. That is that sins are the exact opposites of virtues. And that is not true. The best example that I can give is the issue of love. Do you know what the opposite of love is? Does anyone know? You think itís hate donít you? Do you know that that is not true? The opposite of love is apathy. Apathy is not to care at allógood or bad about someone. Apathy really is the opposite of love, because itís to be disconnected from others. To hate someone is to still be connected with that person because you have feelings about him or her. The next time you really hate someone, I want you to be reminded that youíre still connected to him or her or you wouldnít hate that person. Isnít that an interesting thought? As you look at theologians over the centuries, they have reminded us that the most evil things in life are by themselves good, but such good can become either distorted or exaggerated. The worst sins in life and the greatest temptations that will come to us come to us are not dressed up as ugly, bad things but as good things that have been pulled or yanked this way or that. As a matter of fact, some things that are most important to us in our lives for good reason, may be the things that get us into the most trouble, because they are the things that take the place of God. Thatís something to think about, isnít it? So, if the gifts of God are good, and God has given us material things, then we have all been blessed. Is there anybody here who doesnít have a few material things in life? All of us have been blessed, havenít we? Itís not so much the acquiring of those things that are wrong, and itís not so much that we get ourselves into trouble by having lots of them. It is, rather, the sin of greed to assume that those things are for me, and that I have to protect them from the other people out there. The opposite of the vice of greed is generosity. And what you may not realize is that generosity has as much to do with other things in our lives as it does the material things. Whether or not we possess that gift of generosity can be seen in many ways. How many smiles do you share with even the strangers that come into life each day? How generous are you with people that you live the most intimately with? Do you believe in the best in them and try to point out their best rather than the things you know they need to correct? A generous heart overflows with a sense of Godís generosity in my life, and so I am determined to share that same generosity with others. When you go to a restaurant and you get the bill telling you how much the meal cost, do you spend most of your time trying to figure out what is the least you can get by with in a tip? Or do you think of how blessed you have been with the service that was provided and do you do something extravagant? When you see needs that require your time, your money, or your effort in the life of another person, do you focus on what it is that you need to take care of in your life and how busy and taxed your life is? Or do you have the generous heart that Jesus has called you to have? Having that generous heart means that you give abundantly of your time, your energy, and your money to others because God has done the same through Jesus. Agape, the word that this hall was named after, is the word for self-giving love that the Apostle Paul said cements the Christian faith. Thatís what Agape means. And it is that self-giving love, that generous love that flows out of our life that shows up not only in our material giving, but also in what we give of ourselves in terms of our attitude and our spirit. And above all else, what we give, we give to God, because we know that through Jesus, God has reminded us that God is first in all of our lives and that we must struggle everyday of our life to keep God central.
I want to go back to Jesus passage. When he was speaking to us in the Sermon the Mount, he says that we should not lay up our treasures here on earth, for they may be eaten away by moth or by rust. What he says to us is that we must put our treasures up in heaven. I want to remind all of you this morning that those heavenly treasures can only be laid up when we have a sense of generous grace that we have experienced first. Then we must be willing to go and share that grace with the world around us. Letís bow our heads now for a word of prayer.
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