This sermon was given at Church of the Atonement, Carnegie
8AM service on 8-1-10.
For years I’ve been commenting to friends that I wish someone would preach a sermon about greed. I don’t know about you, but in all my years in church I don’t think I have ever heard a sermon about greed. I have heard lots of sermons about stewardship, and I have heard sermons warning about the dangers of wealth, but I have never heard a sermon preached on greed, and I have been complaining about that for some time.
So after accepting the pastor’s invitation to preach, I looked at the scripture readings for today and I got the feeling maybe God was telling me to put my money where my mouth is (so to speak). Because every single one of our scripture readings for the day – even the one we didn’t read – deal with how chasing after money and things effects our relationships.
The ironic thing is, where it comes to this congregation I feel like I’m preaching to the choir. I wanted to preach a message on greed to people who feel trapped by money, who feel like they’ve been running on the hamster wheel long enough and want to get off. I’ve discovered that in life some people learn how to master money, while other people become slaves to it. And I don’t know for sure but my gut feeling is that most of you have mastered money fairly well. What I mean by that is, you use it rather than it using you.
So I’d like to ask you to do something a little different today: as you listen, see if you can find a nugget or two to share with people – family, friends, co-workers, whoever. Help me spread the word. Because I think greed is the #1 battlefield for peoples’ souls. Here in America, we are one of the largest and wealthiest nations in the history of the world. But even in poorer countries, and in other times, I think greed has been the #1 battlefield for peoples’ souls. I think that’s why Jesus talked about money so much.
Think for a minute about the evils of this world and how many are caused by greed. Addictions? Addictions are a form of illness, but it’s the greedy who keep the addicts supplied. In the case of drug lords they subjugate entire populations of nations in order to keep up the supply. Pornography, prostitution, and other abuses of the human body? These things wouldn’t happen if there wasn’t big money to be made. Slavery? Or “human trafficking” as it’s called – happening in parts of Africa and Asia today – greed is at the root of it. Corporate executives raiding employee pension plans. Credit card companies who not only charge interest but charge interest on the interest, enslaving people in years of debt. Nations doing outrageous things to each other in their mad rush for oil. And even in small communities like Carnegie much of the evil we see happening can be traced to greed.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. What amazes me is that nobody ever points to greed as being the problem. Nobody in the public eye ever stands up and says “Don’t you know that people are worth more than money? Don’t you respect your own souls enough not to sell them, doing these things?” Greed is the proverbial elephant standing in the middle of the living room that everyone ignores and talks around.
Thank God Jesus doesn’t ignore it. In our Gospel reading for today He takes it on. He says to the crowd – “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And He gives His famous example of the foolish rich man who says to himself “I have everything I need: eat, drink, and be merry.” And God answers, “this very night your life is required of you.”
I think a common mistake here is to think Jesus is preaching against wealth. Jesus does warn about the dangers of wealth in other places. But as St. Paul says, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”. It’s not being rich per se that gets a person into trouble – it’s loving money. If being rich was the issue, we’d have a hard time finding one person in America who could be saved, because even the poorest of us is wealthy by most standards. And Jesus’ disciples questioned Him on this very point. In Matt. 19:25 they ask Him, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus answers, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
Which brings us to the Psalm appointed for today. Today’s Psalm was written by the “Sons of Korah”. These guys were Levites, warriors, and musicians (interesting combination!) They were familiar with wealth and with life and death situations. Here’s what they have to say in Psalm 49:
v. 1 – Hear this all peoples!
v. 3 – I will set forth my riddle upon the harp…
v. 4 – Why should I be afraid in evil days,
when the wickedness of those at my heels surround me,
v.5 – The wickedness of those who put their trust in goods…
And they give two answers to their riddle:
Answer #1 – They know that:
v. 6 We can never ransom ourselves,
v.7 For the ransom of our life is so great
that we should never have enough to pay it.
And… Answer #2 – They know that:
v. 15 God will ransom my life
He will snatch me from the grasp of death.
The bottom line for the sons of Korah is trust: the wicked trust in wealth, but they trust in God. And the Sons of Korah know that they’re dealing with a life-and-death issue. Security is found in God, not in things.
Greed is not just a little sin. It is not just a sin we commit within ourselves. It is a sin that has repercussions in the lives of others, often for generations. But at its heart, greed is what happens when people fail to trust God to provide. Is it any wonder that, as the influence of Christianity in Western nations is declining, the influence of greed in those nations is growing?
Greed is a lack of trust and a lack of faith. It’s a lack of trust in the One who is trustworthy, a lack of faith in the One who is faithful. Greed is buying into a lie. Because with God (not money) all things are possible.
For people who are not yet convinced of this, the words of Ecclesiastes might provide a starting point for conversation. These words come from King Solomon, David’s son, probably the richest and wisest king in ancient Israel. Solomon writes:
“I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)
As anyone who has ever tried to build a career knows, if we are honest with ourselves, at some point we begin to question why we do what we do. What difference will it make if I get all these reports done? What difference will it make if I ever finish this sculpture? What difference will it make if I get these books balanced? And yes, we know it matters in a small way, but only like a cog in a machine. That was the point of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and of the movie The Matrix. We’re just another brick in the wall. We’re just one more cipher in the program. We’re just chasing after the wind.
Solomon was not the kind of guy who would have a bumper sticker on his chariot reading “He who dies with the most toys wins”. His bumper sticker wouldn’t even read “He who dies with the most toys still dies” – although that’s getting closer to the point. I think Solomon’s bumper sticker might have said “He who dies with the most toys has to leave them to somebody who didn’t work for them.” That’s basically what he says in v. 21-22. He says: “one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.” And Solomon was proved right by his own son, who squandered his father’s wealth, oppressed the people, and ended up losing 5/6 of the kingdom of Israel in a revolt.
Solomon’s thoughts are dark, and Ecclesiastes can be difficult to read; but it has also been a comfort to millions who have seen and experienced the truth of it. We are not alone in our observations. The world really has gone money-mad.
So after all of Solomon’s observations of life, where does he end up? In Eccles. 12:13 he writes:
“Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
I don’t know about you, but for me reading this was a bit of a letdown, at least at first. But without knowing it, Solomon has just pointed us back to the New Testament, where Jesus is saying pretty much the same thing. At the end of his teaching on greed, Jesus says: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” This statement begs the question: what does it mean to be rich toward God?
St. Paul gives us the answer in today’s reading from Colossians. He says in Colossians 3:12-14:
“…as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience… forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love…”
It’s impossible for a greedy person, someone who is in love with money, to do these things… because greed only thinks of itself. As God’s people, we are loved (so we have received) and therefore we love (so we give). To be rich in the Kingdom is to be rich in love, to practice compassion… and the truth of Jesus’ words becomes crystal clear: it is indeed impossible to serve both God and mammon. That’s not a law or a restriction, it’s the nature of reality as God designed it.
So to sum it all up from our readings today…
- Jesus warns us to be on our guard against all kinds of greed.
- The Sons of Korah in the Psalms challenge us to choose who or what we’re going to trust. They tell us, from experience: Trust God, not wealth.
- King Solomon says that all of life is just chasing after wind. He says: Fear God and keep His commandments.
- And Jesus and St. Paul advise us to be rich in God’s eyes, reminding us that God’s commandments are summed up in “Love God and love your neighbor”.
Like I said, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir. But I think every now and then it can be encouraging to the choir to be assured that they’re on the right track. And if you’ve heard anything worthwhile, then share it. Warn people about greed, and spread the word that God doesn’t measure people by what they have but will give them everything they need if they will trust Him. AMEN.