Thursday, August 11, 2011

Greed Prevents Generosity and Community

Any casual reader of the Gospels will know that Jesus had a great deal to say about wealth and possessions and our proper response to them. In fact, he had more to say about the subject of money and care for the poor than any other subject. Indeed, Jesus constantly provoked his hearers with radical ideas about wealth and possessions; ideas so radical that we still attempt to explain them away or ignore them altogether. But, at the heart of his message was a strong warning against greed.

Defining a term like greed can be somewhat difficult. After all, greed can be understood in fairly relative terms. At some level all of us are greedy. So, a clear definition of the term greed, apart from a dictionary meaning, is quite difficult to pin down.

But I think we can at least come to some level of an understanding of the concept of greed from the point of view of Jesus. To do so, we need to see greed along two intersecting planes: The vertical and the horizontal.

The vertical plane of greed is our greed in terms of our relationship to God. When we are greedy toward God, that is, when we desire more and more wealth and possessions, we put these things in the place of God. We make wealth an idol and we serve mammon as our god. This is what Jesus warns us against when he states that we cannot serve both God and mammon, for one will always come before the other in receiving our devotion. It is this kind of greed that most Christians associate with sin; greed is putting material things before God.

But, although we might find this vertical plane of greed convicting, we also believe it to be manageable. We believe this kind of greed is more easily overcome through our words that convince us that we are not guilty of the sin of greed. The remedy we have for greed against God is just to say to ourselves, and to God, that we do not put wealth and possessions in place of God; mammon is not our idol. After all, many of us do not consider ourselves wealthy in the first place, so how could we put our wealth before God when we do not see ourselves as wealthy? And those Christians who are wealthy simply argue that they have been blessed by God with their wealth.

Moreover, we quickly defend our innocence of vertical greed by saying that we always put God first. We pray, we attend worship, we do good things, and here is the big one, we tithe, perhaps even more than 10%. Yes, many, if not all of us, would quickly say that we are not guilty of greed against God, for wealth is not our idol.

The other intersecting plane, however, is what catches us. And this is perhaps why Jesus has more to say about our holding possessions in light of the plight of the poor. The horizontal plane is our greed in relation to our fellow human beings.

Just as Jesus stated that the two greatest commandments, to love both God and our neighbors, are of equal value, so Scripture is also clear that greed is not only sin because we put wealth and possessions in place of God, but also, and perhaps an even greater sin, because it prevents us from sharing with others who are in need.

As John rightly asks, “How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” John’s rhetorical question implies that one cannot logically say they love God and also withhold aid from those in need.

So, although we can rationalize that we are not greedy because we do not put possessions in the place reserved for God, our hoarding and not sharing with others reveals our true spirit of greed toward others and toward God. When we hoard our wealth and possessions, however large or small that amount is, we neglect the needs of those who are in great need. Doing this is the tell-tale sign of where our hearts really are.

Greed is caused by placing inappropriate value on possessions that lead us to rationalize why we need this new thing or that new thing. Once we begin to make such rationalizations, we become trapped in an uncontrollable sequence of desiring more, obtaining more, and then desiring more.

But if we repent of our vertical greed toward God and our horizontal greed toward others, our perspective and the use of our possessions can change. We can begin to see the essential worth of possessions primarily as God’s gracious gifts given to meet our basic needs, and not as things we cling to. Such a perspective sets us free from the need to want more, and we can reject wealth as an idol in order to serve God fully.

Moreover, if we change our perspective of possessions to be the things that meet our basic needs, we can also act more generously toward those who are in much greater need than we are. We can share our money and possessions with the hurting in our neighborhoods, our communities, and indeed across the globe.

I recently preached at a church in which the following served as the Prayer of Confession:

O God, Source of all that makes life possible, Giver of all that makes life good, we gather to give you our thanks. Yet we confess that we have often failed to live thankful lives: What we have we take for granted, and we grumble about what we lack. We have squandered your bounty with little thought for those who will come after us. We are more troubled by the few who have more than we do, than by the many who have so much less.

What struck me the most about this prayer was the last sentence: “We are more troubled by the few who have more than we do, than by the many who have so much less.” Unfortunately, in the current economic state of our nation, the latter group is growing larger and is increasingly being neglected.

Greed is a desire to have what others have. When we cannot, we become jealous of their riches. But Jesus calls us to reverse our gaze by turning from our desire to have what others have, to notice and serve those who have less. In doing so, we will not only find healing from greed; we will also become more generous towards and find community with the people with whom Jesus found community.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Why Tolerance is Not the Answer to Exclusion

In the first chapter of his 1967 book entitled, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. describes the state of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the state of white America’s acceptance of African Americans. He asserts:

“With Selma and the Voting Rights Act one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end. A new phase opened, but few observers realized it or were prepared for its implications. For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade—the first phase—had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination. The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor. It appeared that the white segregationist and the ordinary white citizen had more in common with one another than either had with the Negro.”

Dr. King captures so pointedly what I believe continues to be the great sin of our world. In these insightful and prophetic remarks, King offers to us a portrait of the repetitive state of humanity that is blinded by the promotion of exclusion. Certainly we persist to live in a world that is saturated with oppression, hatred, and violence, but Dr. King also draws our attention to a sin that is more subtle than the sin of hate and violence and the sin of exclusion.

We have been duped into believing that the answer to hatred and bigotry is tolerance. The world has preached a message to us to be tolerant of others who are not like us, to bear with the differences we have and to merely tolerate them. But the downside of tolerance is that it is very short sighted. Tolerance does not go far enough.

Sure, tolerance may be the better option in the face of those who continue to ward off the message of tolerance because, in their words, it weakens the so-called truth of the Christian message. But those who preach tolerance to us are not promoting the fullness of God’s love in Christ.

The irony of the tolerance debate is that those who preach against tolerance and those who preach in favor of tolerance have made the same grave mistake. One side considers tolerance an evil, while the other considers tolerance the answer. One group preaches to us that tolerance is a construct of the pluralistic, and therefore, evil world. The other side preaches to us that tolerance is the height of humanity’s progress in social relationships.

No one doubts that Dr. King delighted in the fact that white Americans were being convinced that the brutality carried out against African Americans was immoral. But in the words that I quoted above, Dr. King is certainly lamenting the fact that this is not enough; it fell short of what it needed to be.

True community is not just the removal of exclusion and replacing it with tolerance. Tolerance must move beyond itself to become the full embrace of the other. While some call for an abandonment of tolerance, and still others call for an acceptance of tolerance, the gospel of God in Christ calls us to move beyond mere tolerance to full and vulnerable embrace.

So where does the answer to the sin of exclusion rest? Is it tolerance or the rejection of tolerance? Should we hide behind a false gospel that calls us to separate ourselves from those not like us, which only reinforces our stereotypes of others and increases our hatred? Or should we accept the mediocrity of tolerance, knowing that tolerance merely calls us to grit our teeth and bear with others not like us, but keeps us at a distance from them?

The biblical answer lies neither in abandonment of tolerance nor the reluctant acceptance of tolerance. The biblical answer lies in the activity of God in Christ, who excludes no one, and who does not merely tolerate us, but who has fully embraced us.

In the words that appear on the final pages of Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, we find these words:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of the now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. We still have a choice today: non-violent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”

And so, the time is now. We must redeem the time that has been lost to exclusion, oppression, hatred, and violence. We must repent of our sin of exclusion and our sin of mere tolerance. We must choose between chaos and community. One will lead to our destruction. But the other will lead us to embrace the world through love, justice, forgiveness, humility, peace, through which we can foster the common good of all humanity.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sermon Preparation as an Introspective Process

In college, and again in seminary, I, like most everyone else who has attended seminary to prepare for ministry, took one or more courses in sermon preparation. For the most part, these courses, at least at the introductory level, teach students on the mechanics of how to prepare and deliver a sermon. Despite what some church folks might think, sermon preparation requires a great deal of hard work; that is, if the preacher or pastor is doing what she is called to do.

Sermon preparation normally involves a number of steps, some of which are as follows:

1) Selecting a biblical text or texts from which one will preach. For lectionary preachers this is made somewhat easier, although not without its challenges.
2) Reading and interpreting that text, ideally by translating the text from its original Hebrew or Greek and by consulting authoritative commentaries written by biblical scholars.
3) Formulating a working outline of the sermon, along with a specific direction the preacher wants the sermon to go.
4) Writing the sermon manuscript from which the preacher might deliver the sermon either from memory or from reading the manuscript from the pulpit.

There are other steps that preachers may take in this general process and each homilitician will do things differently from others, but most would agree that the above steps are essential to sermon preparation.

One of the challenges that a preacher faces each week, particularly those who are pastors of congregations that expect to hear a word from God week each week, is how to make a sermon applicable. After all, some texts do not easily translate into applications for congregations living in our modern, and very scientific and technological world.

To be honest, I have always hated the concept of drawing an application from every biblical text. As I see it, this process seems, at times, to force something from a text that is not there. Often times the preacher is so pressured into finding an application from an ancient biblical text that matches the needs of his contemporary audience, that the application is at best a stretch.

On a personal note, I recall being criticized for not drawing out an application while leading a Bible study on a particular book of the Bible. The person commented that we need to know what each verse means to us. I replied, somewhat snarky, “Not every word in the Bible has to do with you.”

But still, folks who gather to worship on Sunday mornings gather with expectation that they have not just come to hear a good oration of a biblical text; they have come to hear what God may have to say to them about their lives and their struggles, even though many may disregard the message, particularly if it makes them feel uncomfortable.

But in preparing sermons, I wonder how many of us allow a biblical text to speak to us personally before we start making applications for those who will hear our sermons. Do I read texts with an expectation of what God may be saying to me before I concern myself with what God might want to say to others?

I am not questioning the thought process that preachers go through each week when preparing sermons. I have not talked to enough pastors to determine by any stretch of the imagination what the majority of pastors do with regards to their personal approach and involvement in sermon planning and writing. But, I wonder how many of us preachers write sermons that apply to our congregations, but allow a text’s message to pass us by?

Would we not be more authentic in our preaching if we allowed the text to take stock of our own lives before we presume to say what we think God might want to say to our congregations?

Again, as I told the person who criticized my lack of making application from every verse in Bible, I do not think every word or every verse or every passage has something to say to us. However, I do think that texts can speak to us in different ways, and for the preacher to allow the mechanics of sermon preparation to become the focal point of crafting a sermon in order to jump to how the text applies to his congregation, without first allowing one’s personal encounter with the text to shape one’s thoughts, may miss the treasure that awaits the congregation.

For me, at least for many of my sermons, sermon preparation involves an introspective process in which I read the text and allow the text to penetrate deep inside my mind. Yes, I perform the mechanics of sermon preparation, much like I was taught in that seminary class. But, I also do not treat the text as an object outside of myself. Rather, I try, though not always successfully, to allow the biblical text to become a part of me, and I become a part of it.

This is one reason why I am partial to biblical narratives because I think the narratives, whether those of the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, present plots and characters that resonate with us even though we are separated by a chasm of time and culture. I recall a college professor telling our class that the characters in the Bible were there not for historical purposes, but to help us see who we really are. By that he meant that when we read of the lives of these characters, we often find that we can be very much like them, both when it comes to accomplishments as well as deficiencies. These characters become mirrors in which we can see ourselves.

The biblical narratives complete with their plots and characters give the preacher a gateway into the introspective process of sermon preparation. The preacher thinks not how the text applies to the future audience, but rather she thinks and struggles with how the text infiltrates her own spiritual psyche and how it draws out her own humanity before God.

At least from my own experience, and I am not saying I am very good at this, I believe that such an introspective process of sermon preparation makes for more authentic and more passionate preaching. And, as preachers are inclined to say, “Now, that will preach.”