Pentecost 10 August 1, 2010

Colossians 3:1-11

Luke 12:13-21


“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves

but are not rich toward God.”  –Luke 12:21

I want us to reflect together this morning about what it means to be “rich toward God.” But in order to do that, we have to begin by exploring the nature of greed. Greed is one of those words, like forgiveness, that we trivialize. We tell our children not to be greedy and grab all the doughnut holes at coffee hour. But we don’t notice how our whole lives in this world are founded on greed.

The calamity of the oil spill in the Gulf has brought this home to us. It is not just the negligence of British Petroleum, its greed for corporate profit. It is not just the failure to enforce government safety regulations, our naïve hope that the greedy self-interest of the marketplace would make government oversight unnecessary. We are each of us involved in this environmental catastrophe – and all the others in the world that don’t make the evening news – because in our greed we demand cheap and abundant fuel to sustain our consumerist lifestyle.

The Greek word for greed, pleonexia, is derived from pleon, “more.” John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, then the richest man in the world, was once asked how much money he needed to be happy. “Just one dollar more,” he replied. And we too, our whole economic system, our whole lifestyle, is founded on the fallacy that we if just have “more” we will at last be happy. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins – pride, anger, greed, sloth, lust, envy, and gluttony. When we look at these sins, we see that they all arise from our insecurity, our feeling that we need to make ourselves safe. We are like the man storing up crops in his barn as security against the uncertainties of life. “Just one dollar more.”

But of course, as the parable makes clear, this security in the end is illusory. It does not bring real happiness. Greed leads to even more insecurity – and to things like the fight between the man and his brother over their inheritance that led Jesus to tell the parable. When I look at my life, I spend much of it taking care of my possessions, possessions that I really don’t need and that fail to bring me real happiness. I spend much time worrying about the crops stored in my barn, about the barn roof, about whether people will steal my stores, about whether what I’ve saved up will in the end be enough. The seven deadly sins are deadly because they kill the soul, they bring spiritual death rather than happiness.

So what is the alternative? Jesus tells us that instead of storing up treasures for ourselves, we will find happiness by being “rich toward God.” Well, how do we go about that? We know all about being greedy, but being rich toward God is pretty much a new concept, isn’t it?

I’ve been reading as part of my daily prayers a little book that Canon LaFond gave every priest in the diocese, The Essential Henri Nouwen.* It’s set up for daily spiritual reflection, divided into short sections that take just a minute or two to read. Henri Nouwen, who died in 1996, was (and still is) one of the most popular and wisest spiritual guides of our time. He was a restless man, always seeking. He was also, despite the fact that he had an international reputation and sold hundreds of thousands of books, deeply insecure, perhaps because he carried with him the secret that he was gay. But his wounds led him to seek happiness in being rich toward God and to share his search with others.

We seek happiness, Henri Nouwen says, in the “up,” positive things in life. “But [happiness] in the Christian sense has very little to do with this. [Happiness] is only possible through the deep realization that life and death are never found completely separate. [Happiness] can really come about only where fear and love, joy and sorrow, tears and smiles exist together. [Happiness] is the acceptance of life in a constantly increasing awareness of its preciousness” – by which Nouwen means the fact that it is a gift from God, all of it, the “downs” as well as the “ups,” that it will end in death and nothing we do can make us secure against this inevitability.

So, says Nouwen, we must not divide life into good things and bad things, or separate our living from our dying, our joy from our pain. We must learn to embrace everything as gift and to find God in everything. As we gradually learn to do this, we will be freed from anxiety and insecurity, able to accept life as it comes, stopping seeking “more.” We will erase the boundaries between ourselves and others, and find our greatest happiness in reaching out, in generous giving, in self-sacrifice. For as Jesus shows us again and again, richness towards God is inseparable from richness towards our neighbor.

All of this seems so simple, so obvious, when I read it in the little Essential Henri Nouwen book each morning in my prayer time. But of course it is profoundly counter to all the messages of the world around us. It requires a reorientation of our values, our vision. The other morning at our men’s breakfast we were sitting next to a large gathering of a political group, gearing up for the fall election. Their conversation was full of anger, of hate, of fear. It was really raw, in the end all about greed. We came away, all of us I think, quite shaken. But that is why it is so important that we gather here each week, to listen to another word, to internalize another vision, to reenact another way of being, to learn true happiness by being rich toward God instead of just storing up treasures for ourselves.


*The Essential Henri Nouwen, Robert A. Jonas ed. (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2009). The quoted passage is from p. 61.

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