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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

by Kristin Berkey-Abbott

The readings for Sunday, August 1, 2010:

First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Hosea 11:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 49:1-11 (Psalm 49:1-12 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 107:1-9, 43

Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-11

Gospel: Luke 12:13-21

Here is another Gospel where Jesus tells us how to live, and he does it both directly ("Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions") and through the use of a parable.

In this parable we meet a common figure in Jesus' parables, the person saving up treasures on earth. Recognize yourself? We've moved away, many of us, from needing larger barns, although I've met more than one person who moved to a bigger house, just to have room to put all their stuff. In fact, the average square footage of new construction grows increasingly large, while the US family grows smaller. Barn, silo, house--it's all the same to Jesus. And it all goes back to the human need for security. We store up treasures because we're so afraid of the future.

It will be interesting to see how the recent economic downturn might change us. Will our houses grow increasingly large when fewer people can afford to buy a house? Will we trust more in God, since we've seen how much we can trust in our economic institutions? Or will the events of the Great Recession (or the Great Depression II, depending on your perspective) make us that much more graspy and scared to share?

Jesus comes to preach the radical Gospel of sharing. One aspect of his good news? We have a Creator who will provide for us. That news is supposed to free us up to give away what we have. Not just our surplus, but all of it.

Most of us don't even do a good job of giving away part of what we have. We're not good at sharing. We're good at hoarding, although if you look at the US savings rate, you might argue we're not even good at that. Most of us fill our longing for security by buying more and more and more--and wondering why we feel so empty.

We live in spiritually dangerous times, and the Gospel speaks to that. But most people, if they think about this concept, would tell us that the spiritual danger lies in a different place than Jesus tells us. Ask most people about spiritual danger and they'll talk about a toxic popular culture (video games, movies, song lyrics), public violence, private violence, wanton sexuality, moribund government, fundamentalists of all stripes, liberals, conservatives--the list could go on and on.

But again and again Jesus tells us to look to how we treat the poor and oppressed, that we will be judged based on how we treated the marginalized. Jesus rarely preaches about the family (he never mentions homosexuality), and when he does, he sounds downright anti-family. Again and again, Jesus tells us to pay attention to how we think about our money and how we use it.

I have often said that I think that money is spiritually dangerous, and most people think I'm insane when I say this. But I know that the more wealth people accrue, the more likely they are to trust themselves (and their wealth) and to turn away from God. I've rarely met the person who says, "I have enough money. I'm not concerned about money at all." I've met one or two people who have that attitude, and guess what? They don't have much money. They live simply, they pay attention to things that truly matter, they know that they are wealthy in terms of friends and community connections.

Usually, as we get more money, we want more money. We turn our attention to building our wealth and securing our wealth--and it takes a lot of time and attention. That process takes time and attention away from what matters: our relationship with God and our care for God's Kingdom.

Those of us who are younger know that we can't rely on the government to take care of us in our old age; the Baby Boomers will wipe out the Social Security system. Many people have decided that if they can't rely on the government, they'll rely on themselves. But again and again, Jesus calls us to turn away from that kind of thinking.

Does that mean we shouldn't save our money? More and more, I've come to think that if we save more than we give to charity, we're on shaky spiritual ground.

Let me be the first to admit. I DO save more than I give to the poor. I'm working towards getting to the point where I give equal amounts to the poor and to my savings account. But I truly think that I'd be better off if I gave MORE to the poor and less to my savings. I agree with Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said that the unequal distribution of wealth across the globe is the greatest moral crisis of our time. I'd like to be a one-woman redistributor of wealth. But I'm not there yet.

Again and again, Jesus calls us to recalibrate our values. Again and again, Jesus reminds us to turn to God. Even if we're not ready to embrace the vision that Christ has for us, even if we're not ready for full throttle Kingdom living, we can move that way. We can boost our charitable contributions. We can leave bigger tips. We can give change to panhandlers. We can invite the lonely over for a meal. We can speak up in support of the poor (advocate for affordable housing? tell our senators and representatives to fund the food stamp program? there are so many possibilities). If we're not ready to let go of our assets, we could think about how our investments could be used to support our values. Instead of giving each other stuff for every holiday, we could think about what it is we really want: maybe we want charitable contributions, or maybe we want to agree to go on a spiritual retreat or a pilgrimage, or maybe we want a prayer partner.

As with all movement, it's amazing how a small change in direction changes our trajectory over the course of a lifetime. At the very least, we can meditate on passages like these, and pray for the strength and courage to trust God and not our money.

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