Let’s start with a survey: How many of us here this morning would describe ourselves as greedy? I don’t mean once in a while, on an off-day. I mean, would you say that, generally speaking, you are a greedy person?
When I hear the word “greed” I’m inclined to think of those who make the news: Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch. When I think of greed I think of corporate CEOs, like an article this past week about the McDonald’s Corporation. Did you hear this one? Like other fast-food chains McDonald’s doesn’t pay its workers much. But here’s a company that has had the gall to publish something they call Budget Advice, showing how a McDonald’s burger flipper can get by on the pitiful wages they’re paid. Meanwhile, the corporation last year paid its CEO nearly $9 million. When I think of greed these are the kinds of stories that come to mind.
I looked up the word “greed” in the dictionary. It’s the excessive desire for getting or having;…[a] desire for more than one needs or deserves. That’s a definition that fits the description of greed we find in the Bible. Jesus said, Pray like this: Give us this day our daily bread…
Today’s gospel reading begins with a story that is all too common: it’s the story of a family that has allowed material things to poison their relationships. It’s a sad tale that even some of you have first-hand experience with and other households have yet to face. Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me. But Jesus refuses to take the bait. Instead, he tells a short story about the power of money and material things in this life to take over a person’s soul.
Greed often has something to do with money, but not always. At our Bible study this past week some of my pastor friends and I noticed that Jesus’ warnings against greed are directed not just toward corporate CEOs. Take care! he says. Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. In the story Jesus tells, God addresses the rich man: This very night your life is being demanded of you. And then he asks a question that takes us deeper into this conversation about greed. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?
This same question is asked a different way in today’s first reading, in which the author of Ecclesiastes writes, I hated all my toil which I had toiled…seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet, they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom…So I turned and gave my heart up to despair…because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.
Dear friends in Christ, this also is an example of greed! Here is a hard-working person, proud of his life’s work, who resents the fact that he must turn this work over to those who come after him. If the definition of greed is excessive desire for more than one needs or deserves here is an example of someone who longs to possess and control not only material things. This is someone who is greedy for control of the future, imposing demands and values and practices of a previous time on new generations.
The author of Colossians speaks to us today: Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. Our life on earth, no matter how long we live, is short and temporary, and as Jesus reminds us in today’s reading, gone before we know it. But–while we have breath we have opportunity to search our souls for signs of greed, to let go of our human need to possess and control, and to leave a legacy of generosity of spirit and resources.
To the extent that we make joyful generosity and not greed our habit, there is a pay-off, even in this life. Most of you are aware that this past month has been a time of loss in our congregation. One of our members lost a dear cousin and matriarch of her family. Another lost a soul-mate and partner of many years. And maybe, most difficult of all, two of our long- time members have recently lost sons. For a mother to lose a child at any age is one of the most difficult losses in life.
And yet, here is Ollie this morning. Here is Marian. Even great personal losses have not defeated them. There’s more. A week ago I got a call from Theresa Berg, asking if I could come up to our church house to help move some items for our new Compass Housing ministry. When I arrived there was Mona Landers delivering a microwave oven. Mona’s been part of this congregation for decades. At the same time Diane Robertson, one of our newest additions, was there with her three children, delivering two beautiful beds. Meanwhile, I learned that Bessie Cook had bought and donated a washer to this new ministry. Jack and Betty Laffaw donated a TV. It occurred to me that all of these people have experienced significant personal losses over the past years. And yet, habits of generosity allow these same people to give of themselves, even as they continue to grieve their loss.
Beware of all kinds of greed, Jesus warned. He wasn’t talking just to millionaires and CEOs. He was speaking to all of us, warning against the temptation to acquire and possess and control and draw attention to our own needs and desires. The habits we develop over a lifetime tend in one of two directions, one of which our second reading teaches: evil desire…greed…anger, wrath, and malice. That’s one direction.
The other direction is one of gratitude, generosity and joy. It is this spirit that I have seen growing among you as a congregation. But what really gives me joy is when my perception is affirmed by others outside our community.
Those of you who were here last Sunday know that our new bishop, Pr. Kirby Unti, and his wife Kim, paid us a surprise visit last Sunday. Afterwards the Bishop e-mailed me, and listen to what he had to say: We felt welcomed and well nourished. We both commented on how many signs of vitality were present, from how well the grounds are cared for to the strong sense of caring and community…It was a joy. This is from people who remember a time when our church was known as a place of angry people fighting with each other, struggling for control and resisting any form of change. When we are intentional about setting aside our own needs to possess and control—what the Bible calls greed—one pay-off is joy. And joy is contagious. Generosity is contagious. Did I mention that Bishop Unti and Kim offered a TV and furniture to our Compass housing ministry?
Dear friends in Christ, may you continue to build on the good work that you are doing. May you be diligent in studying the Scriptures, in listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit that will help root out all signs of greed and ingratitude, who will guide us into new opportunities and adventures—all this to the extent that we are able to submit our lives to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ; all this according to the generosity of a God who loves us now, and will forevermore. AMEN