Sermon 6/30/2019: Greed Gratitude & Generosity

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Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig on Luke 12:13-21 and II Corinthians 8:1-15


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Sermon Part II

[SLIDE #1–Bertram Poole Art]  The Rich Fool and Us

No storage bin large enough to keep your bumper crop?   We may not face the exact situation of the rich fool, but you know how it is when you have so much cash that you can’t even close your wallet?  Or, you go to the bank only to discover that they can’t insure a deposit as large as yours? Can we identify with the rich fool in the parable? I doubt any of the people listening to Jesus that day had the problem of having way too much.  Caveat: at the beginning of chapter 12 it says that the crowd was several thousand people–so large that they were trampling each other.  So maybe–just maybe–there was one guy who said: “yeah, that happened to me last year–the barley harvest was mind-blowing. I had to hire extra labor working three shifts to build enough barns to store the grain.”   I doubt it.

Maybe Jesus gave us this parable because we love to hate the rich fool.  He has so much he can’t think straight. He’s lost sight of life’s meaning and purpose.  His obsession with wealth is literally driving him into the grave. And, cruel as we are, we chortle when we hear:  Tonight your life is demanded of you.  

And yet, there is something familiar about the guy.  Maybe it’s that internal conversation–the ethical question:  What should I do?  This parable is actually cutting edge literature of the time because in Bible stories we don’t often hear a character’s interior thoughts the way we might in novels.  This week I sent out the CMC Greed Survey and 98 people responded. Maybe just pondering a few questions about greed stirred some internal or household conversation this week.  Here are the results of our survey.

[SLIDE #2] Greed is a problem for me.

Many of us–about 38%–report that greed is a problem for us.  We do identify with the rich fool because we have enough, yet we’re greedy.  We want more–more than our fair share, more than we need. The problem with greed is not only the inequity it creates across the community, but also that wanting  more and more, or even getting more, doesn’t satisfy.  

The good news is that when we recognize greed as a problem in our lives, we can take action to address it.  We’re not helpless in the face of greed because God is for us. Our captivity to vice and sin has been broken by the power of the cross.  By his death, Jesus exposed the world’s vices and demonstrated divine virtues. If greed seems to be taking over some area of our life, we can cry out to God for release for help, for deliverance.  God will not abandon us. Throughout the scriptures faithful people turn to God for real help in their daily lives. Turning to God in prayer is a real way to address the grip of greed. When we recognize greed as a problem in addition to prayer, we can take action through intentional gratitude.  We can also look to people who are models of generosity–who see abundance as an opportunity for sharing. Another antidote to greed is to respond to the needs of others, rather than entertaining our selfish desires.  

[SLIDE #3] According to the CMC Greed Survey, our top three areas of greed are:  Money, food/drink and fame/recognition. If we don’t counter the impulse toward greed, it will threaten our lives.  The rich man in the parable–through no effort of his own, but through the land’s productivity–had an unexpected harvest.  He asks himself: what shall I do?  

What shall we do, when we receive an inheritance of $10,000 dollars?
What shall we do, when our business is especially successful this year?
What shall we do, when we’re given a gift of money
or when we simply have more than enough?
What shall we do when we’ve eaten dessert and still want more?
What shall we do when we’ve reached our limit and are offered another drink?
What shall we do when our project at work won’t get us the recognition we crave?
What shall we do when we’re up for a promotion?
The rich fool decides:  I deserve it all. But what shall we do?  

To some extent greed is biological.  We’re designed to store up in plentiful seasons so that we don’t literally starve and die in lean times.  But this greed impulse is from our amygdala, the part of our brain that helps us survive. To resist greed, we need to use reason and compassion and engage different parts of our brain.  When we recognize a pattern of greed, we need to stop and think. Is this something I need or something I want? Do I have enough already? Is this an opportunity for generosity?

Indulging our greedy impulses doesn’t provide the long-term satisfaction and joy that God intends for human life.  So, when greed is arising, our brains can help us reorient ourselves toward God’s kingdom of love. Other people on our faith journey can also help us resist greed.  Most of us behave better when others are watching us–not watching with suspicion, not watching to catch us doing something wrong–but watching out for us, helping us see opportunities for gratitude and contentment in our lives.  

According to this parable–and a lot of other things Jesus said–making decisions about wealth requires spiritual discipline.  As Christians, we don’t go it alone. We need the Holy Spirit’s helps to discern wisely because for many of us racial and class privilege obscures our greed as an entitlement.  The Spirit helps us remember what Jesus’ message–love God, to be rich toward God and to love our neighbor, particularly our neighbor in need. What shall we do? We will follow Jesus–both his teachings about wealth and the parable of his life and death for others, enriching the world with his legacy of love, mercy, salvation and healing.  

In a couple weeks, Pastor Dayna will be preaching on gluttony, so I won’t focus so much on our greed for food and drink, but cravings and indulgence in this area need a similar kind of spiritual attention or they will drain away our health and happiness in a hurry.  

Being greedy for fame or recognition means we need to be noticed.  We seek the limelight and fight to prove our value. Honor rolls, an employee of the month programs and American pressure for success can feed our craving for public praise.  Just prior to this passage, Jesus describes the extraordinary value of human beings, saying that the very hairs of our head are numbered. The One who knows us by name formed us in the womb and loves us beyond measure has already secured our future.  We don’t need to greed to survive or thrive.  

[SLIDE# 4] In May I taught a couple of Sunday School sessions to CMC children and they shared their areas of greed.  They identified candy, screen time and video games as serious temptations in their lives. As parents and church members charged with the spiritual formation of our children, we must model and discuss with children how to deal with greed.  As children mature, we also begin to share with them how we deal with adult temptations to be greedy. Jesus said: Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.  [SLIDE #5]

Children’s Time Interlude (Gratitude)

Reasons to be grateful.  What was the first thing that happened this morning when you woke up?  

Thank you God, for…breakfast, for teeth, for clothes to wear, for parents, for siblings, for our church, for the car/bike/feet that got us here.  

Thank you Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpa for bringing us to church.

Saying please and thank you.  When do you say please and thank you?  Who reminds you? When do you forget? Saying please and thank you is a skill.  We have to learn it. We have to practice it. Can the babies among us say thank you?  They might learn to say thank you with American Sign Language before they learn how to speak verbally. (Teach sign.)

Thank you notes.  Who knows how to write already?  Writing is a skill. Writing thank you notes is a skill.  If you don’t know how to write yet, then I think there is someone at home who will help you.  

Prayer.  Thank you, God, for all the goodness of our lives.  We want to be grateful, and say thank you, whenever we notice your goodness.  Thank you for the children in our church and in our families. Thank you for the parents and grandparents of our congregation.  

Distribute thank you notes–1 per child.  

Sermon Part II

Jesus drives home the danger of greed with a parable that ends in the grave.  [SLIDE #6] The Apostle Paul makes the pitch, the ask, the invitation to generously give.  What I’m going to share from II Corinthians is part of a fundraising letter. Considering how many fundraising letters hit the recycling bin in our house, one wonders how this one ended up in the New Testament. For the early Christians their relationship between their faith and their money was completely intertwined.  They didn’t think of these as separate spheres of life. Some early Christians were materially wealthy and some were very poor, but all of them, had received the priceless gift of salvation, just as we have. They were seeking to live their whole lives in response to God’s love, Christ’s forgiveness of sin and the wholesome abundance they were experiencing in this new community of the church.  Now, they had the same greedy impulses we have, so they preserved a lot of material about how to combat greed and live generously. Everyone can afford to be generous. Everyone has something to give. Listen: II Cor 8:1-15

[SLIDE #7] Paul was an effective fundraiser.  He shared his vision for mission in the name of Christ with congregations that had financial means–like the church in Corinth–and with congregations that had financial hardships–like the ones in Macedonia.  In fact, sharing in the same giving project was one of the peace-building strategies across different parts of the church–like our VMC giving project to rebuild the home of a West Virginia family. At this point, Paul’s raising money so that he and his coworkers can travel back to Jerusalem and bring a gift for the church there, which was suffering financial hardship.  

Some of you may be aware that CMC has a Generosity Team.  We’ve participated in several training events, read some books on congregational generosity, reviewed data about CMC giving patterns and begun implementing some plans.  In the big picture, in the global context, CMC is a wealthy congregation with ample resources. (We’re like Corinth.) So, although we have very real financial stresses among us, we are still rich in a global sense.  In Rockingham Country the average median household income in 2017 was $57,651. In Harrisonburg the average median household income is $43,009. Let’s imagine that all CMC households have incomes that are the lower amount $43,009.  Of course some of our households have less and others have more. If each of our households gave 7% of their income, we would more than fund CMC’s current vision for ministry in Jesus’ name. In fact, we would be discerning how to bless our local and global neighbors with the excess.  

[SLIDE #8] Here’s an image of actual CMC giving.  Now if we were all giving 7% of Hburg’s median household income, we’d be giving in the range of the pink bar.  Some CMCers are giving in this range. They may actually have a lower income and give 10% percent as a tithe. They may have a higher income and give a smaller % to church ministry.  The message to the church in Corinth is to participate in shared giving projects by making an equitable contribution, according to means, so that there will be a fair balance. For CMC households in the pink a fair balance according to means might call for increasing their gifts.  And each of our households should be aware of what it takes to fund our ministry and how we can participate. Everyone can afford to be generous.

Across the US in 2018 Americans gave $ 427.71 billion to charitable causes.  And the sector of society that received the greatest amount of these donations was religious organizations–mostly churches and mission agencies.  But over the last decade giving to congregations has steadily declined. There are generational differences that account for some of that change. And there are cultural norms that work against our need to be generous.  

[SLIDE #9] For example, of all the money Americans gave to charitable causes last year only 5% came from corporations and plenty of corporations give nothing to charitable causes.  When corporations give anything there is publicity about it. The evidence of corporate greed is not only corporate failure to give, or to give very little. We also see corporate greed in the pay gap between elite CEOs and average U.S. worker pay.  It’s 347 to 1, a gap eight times as wide as in 1980. Corporate pay gaps help drive extreme inequality in this country and may suppress our generosity.  

Thankfully, we don’t look to corporate America to guide us into a virtuous life.  Nor is the church called to be generous to offset greed in other parts of society.  We need to be generous, because it’s a matter of faith. God’s daily generosity toward us is the very gift of life, the promise of salvation, the joy of knowing Jesus as Lord and the privilege of sharing in God’s mission.  We give thanks for the gifts that have sustained our lives and blessed us–faith, relationships, health, meaningful work, natural beauty in the world, and creative engagements. Rather than indulging greed and or accepting entitlement, we practice gratitude and deepen our commitment–to love God, to be rich toward God and to love our neighbor, particularly our neighbor in need.

[SLIDE #10] Jesus told his parable against greed to a crowd of 1st century Palestinians.  Paul wrote to a little church in an ancient Greek city. And today, through scripture and sermon and song and story, God is still speaking with warning and recommendation.    The warning is: Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.  The recommendation is:  Voluntarily give, according to your means…a fair balance.  And deeper still, we hear the good news:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
though he was rich,
yet for your sakes he became poor,
so that by his poverty you might become rich.  

When we give, we participate in the divine mission of reconciling, healing, saving and blessing the world through Christ.  The message of our Generosity Team is that we want you to know about the grace of God.  Money, given in faith becomes grace at work in the world.  

Generosity doesn’t happen by accident.  We have to learn these virtues in many areas of our lives–certainly in the area of money.  But CMCers are also tempted toward greed in other areas. Today, we have an opportunity to give and if you weren’t planning on it, you may have to be spontaneous.  But as a church, as we mature in faith and shared ministry, we will grow in generosity. From our place in the global church, God invites us to resist greed, live into gratitude, and follow through on our best intentions for living generously in the name of Jesus.   If the eagerness is there, then the gift is acceptable, according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.  It’s not a command, just apostolic advice that has blessed the church for generations and thereby blessed the world in Jesus’ name.  


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