Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shell Game: Sermon with Chicken and Mushrooms

(This sermon was preached at a UCC church in Southern Maine on August 1st, 2010. It is based on the assigned lectionary readings for Proper 13C: Hosea 11:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21.)

And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Yeah, maybe that was the reason they got mad at us, when I was fifteen, the Sunday they let our church youth group plan and lead worship. It wasn't so much the blacklight and neon draperies we put around the sanctuary cross. It wasn't even that liturgical dance we did during the introit, processing in with votive candles we waved in circles as we moved down the aisle. Looking back, I think I finally get what we did that upset everyone—I think it was during the offering. Maybe Pink Floyd's song, “Money”, with all its cash-register sound effects and crass, ironic lyrics, was not the brilliant soundtrack we thought it would be. And when we followed it with a recording of “Money Makes the World Go Round...” well, I guess we were kind of to blame for the fact that there was no “Youth Sunday” the following year.

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed...” I kind of get it. I mean, I know we're not supposed to eat too much, drink too much, buy too much, use more than our least, I think I know it. Part of me knows it. The good part of me, the part of my brain that loves to be moral and true and exquisitely well-behaved, the part that's always trying to earn that halo and wings—it gets this. But then there's the soft, fuzzy animal part of me—the part that wants a full belly. The part that wants a cosy burrow. The part that gets scared really easily. It doesn't really listen when you tell it that wanting too much is bad.
And then there's the chicken part of me, that just wants to perch and stare, the part that reaches out to grab whatever edible morsel comes its way, the part that will take whatever it wants, because it can. That part of me doesn't get why greed is wrong. It doesn't get that the power of money is any different than the power of God. It loves treasure. It admires the glittering statues of Baal, the Wall Street Bull, and Mammon.

I admit it—I've bowed to these idols myself-- during those daydreams where life would be perfect if only we had a...fill in the blank. Our farm would be perfect if we had a terraced perennial garden with about 24 of those snap-together raised beds they have in the gardeners'' supply catalog, and a row of those solar path lights that look like copper and glass lilies weaving up the hillside path. And wouldn't the place be altogether great with one of those sturdy commercial greenhouses, the ones with the automatic temperature-sensing system of fans and heaters? Or, really, we'd settle for a decent mid-sized tractor--with just a couple of attachments...well, maybe three or four?--and things really would be so much easier with a bigger barn! Why, we could fill it with all kinds of critters and put up all kinds of food and just sit around all winter, feasting and telling stories and feeding the woodstove...

Perhaps this plays out in our church family, too: sometimes, the place we've got seems alright. We're good people, good at welcoming guests, good at running to help when one of us falls or suffers a setback and needs a prayer or a helping hand. And these are things to be celebrated. But when was the last time we got together—as a whole church family—not to cook a fundraising dinner, but to hear someone witness to the life-changing power of love or the challenge of working on God's behalf? Can you remember the last time we sent a team to work on a Habitat for Humanity house, the last time anyone went to a local or statewide church event and discovered all the amazing things our Church is doing in our communities and across the world? Do we spend time listening, each day, for our Still-Speaking God? Or are we just too worn-out from all our worrying and anxieties, too tired from all the fundraising it takes to repair the roof, clean the floors, fix the kitchen and fill the oil tank of this beautiful big... barn?

There are good reasons to want a barn. The disciples of Jesus may have been tent-makers, but we are not first-century people. We are anchored to this challenging time, this wild-weathered place. Long winters, high winds and damaging storms have a way of making us want to hunker down, to get everything under cover, to secure our stuff. The challenge is to keep from focusing too hard on the security of our stuff. There's a term for people who do this: “practical athiests.” We may say we believe in God, but if we're holding on too tightly to let God in—if we're driven not by hope and faith, but by our fears, then we are practical atheists. Instead of learning to soar, we spend our time building shells to crawl back into. Our way of living proclaims not the love of God, but our fear that “stuff” really is all there is, and we have no-one to call on, no-one to answer to, but our own selves.

When I read this week's gospel lesson, I hear a bit too much of myself. I'm with that guy in the parable when he longs to build something magnificent, fill his storehouse to the brim, then relax, eat, drink and be merry. But, meanwhile, I'm working three jobs to cover the bills. I'm laying awake nights, wondering how to hold on to everything we've got. During the day, I move from place to place in a cloud of anxiety, blind to the abundance of this place. I'm shutting out the birdsongs, the slow opening of blooms, the rising blush of the first tomatoes of the season. And I'm shutting out the friends I'm too busy to visit, the call to my folks I never quite manage to make, even though I think about doing it every day. I'm missing the gifts of Creation, offering themselves up on every side: the soaring hawk above the pine trees. The butterflies in the wildflowers along the road. The strange beauty—and free bounty—of wild mushrooms, quietly pushing up from the forest's damp earth.

Let me tell you about mushrooms and chickens. Our friend David, a self-proclaimed “foodie”, who lives to cook and eat, asked if he could learn to butcher a chicken. After years of enthusiastic meat-eating, he figured it was the honest thing to do. And so I shepherded him through the steps: the sharpening of the knife, the respectful, gentle handling of the bird, the actual butchering and feather-plucking and all the unglamourous messy bits. And David was grateful—momentarily sick to his stomach, but grateful—for the learning experience. He took the rooster home, and presented us that evening with a very tasty pot of coq au vin.

I had shared my knowledge, but there was something I wanted to learn, too-- our foodie friend is also a skilled mushroom forager. I've lived close to the woods most of my life, but I've always been afraid of mushrooms. I wanted to be able to walk in the woods and know more about the place. I was intrigued by the idea that shady, untended landscape, the opposite of my sunny garden, might contain some harvestable gourmet treats.

It took a while before I booked my lesson. I was too busy, too wrapped up in my fears and anxieties: refinancing the farm, paying the bills, selling and saving enough of the harvest... and, once I finally agreed to go, I wasted precious time fretting about all the gear I'd need. You could say I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off...well, that's not the way we butcher them, but you know what I mean!

Out in the woods, on the trail of wild mushrooms, the manufactured concerns of society fell away. Our feet fell into a different rhythm, followed deer paths, allowed ourselves to be led instead of pounding out my own agenda... my eyes learned to see in new ways, and then the unfettered joy of discovery: a free gift, a harvest that harms no-one, and a delicacy that awakens all my senses to the abundance of the earth!

Listen again:
The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly.”
Oh, how worthy of celebration! In the time of Jesus, an abundant harvest was an occasion of celebration, a time to share one's bounty with the whole community, a time to recognize, publically, that the source of all goodness is God.

"And he thought to himself, what shall I do, for I have no place to store my crops? Then he said, I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and goods.” Do you see the man's self-deception? He tells himself he has no storage place, but to build it he has to tear down the buildings he already has! I fall into the same trap all too often. God lays out a feast in the woodlands, and I waste time stuffing my bag with stuff I might need on the trail, just in case. God carves a beautiful coastline and stitches it to the edge of the glorious ocean, and I can't go because I don't have the latest beach gear.

“But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Whose, indeed? I think of my Grandma Charlotte, who spent her last years sorting through a lifetime of stuff, getting rid of so much matter that really didn't matter at all, leaving us all the gift of freedom to remember her life instead of what she accumulated. Will we leave a legacy of stories that reflect the love of our creator, or will we leave a legacy of stuff over which our relatives will squabble? Will our possessions sing of the glory to God, or trumpet the glory of Bean's?

“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich towards God.” What does Jesus mean, with this parable's last words? What does it mean to be rich towards God? I suspect it's about something different than tipping our wallets into the collection plate. Being rich towards God means training ourselves to reflect God's generous Spirit, not the false anxieties of advertisements. Being rich towards God means resisting a culture of fear & greed and idolatry of possessions. It means resisting the temptation to close our fists tightly, rising instead to the challenge of open hands and outreach. Being rich towards God means paying attention, sensing God's out-stretched embrace and returning it full-force! It means loving God so much, and believing in God so much, that we refuse to let out possessions restrict our lives like a shell, loving God so much that we try our own wings, work on becoming the healthy, curious, loving creatures God longs for us to be.

God calls us away from barn-building and selfish accumulation of cold, hard stuff, and into the wide world instead. God calls us to be children of wonder, practitioners of fresh vision, shivering with anticipation and awe. Possibility springs up all around us, like mushrooms after the rain, like strangers becoming friends, like friends becoming a community. Money doesn't make the world go 'round. God makes the world go 'round. And our links to each other, the connections we make with the rest of God's creatures, that is the source of our truest security: blessing linked to blessing upon blessing.

Text and images copyright MaineCelt 2010 except CommaWoman.


God_Guurrlll said...

Beautiful sermon. Thank you.

impractical christian athiest, or, your personal satan said...

Great sermon on a complex topic too often oversimplified.

Baker + Braiser said...

Thank you for posting that beautiful sermon.
As much as we all say we care only for the company of our friends and loved ones, this is a constant struggle of human greed that inhabits us all on some small scale. Just the recognition, the act of admitting to ourselves that this challenge takes conscious effort and none of us are devoid of it, is a huge step.
To admit: "To permit to enter. To have room for; accommodate. To provide the right or a means of entrance to."
That is one of the most important things you have taught and are still teaching me, and one of the ideas in many of your sermons, it seems. The idea of clearing out a path, some space in the heart and mind to develop a curiosity and to become a loving creature is so simple and abstract, but the concrete methods of building the path, creating a clearing to begin experiencing and accumulating a legacy of stories takes personal, spiritual work that you speak of in every sermon.
You should speak more about not writing run-on sentences too, I need a lesson!
However, we should not forget that sometimes a simple barn is necessary, just as is a layer of clothes.

I never comment, but the one is long.

MaineCelt said...

God Guurrlll-- Thanks!

Personal Satan-- Jen? Is that you? (Jen was my theological sparring partner in college. I owe much to her thoughtful challenges.)

Baker-- You're right. We'll just build us a teeny extra barn--just big enough for a breeding pari of pigs or a small flock of Guinea Fowl. Wanna help? ;-)

Baker + Braiser said...

Will be there in a flash! A 2 week minus 2 day flash that is =)

Baker + Braiser said...

Also, amending the previous comment, it is not necessarily greed that causes this problem of hoarding and feeling of never quite getting what you want, or wanting more. I think it all (greed) stems from just a base desire for security. Historically, we, like other animals, were not able to have any possessions due to our migrant nature and the difficulty finding nurturing objects. Perhaps our minds have not developed as quickly as our circumstances; the desire is still there although the need is not.

impractical christian athiest, or, your personal satan said...

Yes, Holly, you found me out. I hope my nickname made you laugh.
Peace, Jen, your personal satan (in the sense of playing devil's advocate on any issue, theological or otherwise, for those of you who didn't go to college with us).

Barb said...

This isn't a comment on this post, or your blog, (although I'm glad to have discovered both :) ) rather to say thank you for your comment on Rev Gals about the BE cruise.

Thanks, because from where I sit, such a venture, for such good reasons, is very hard to understand. Thanks, because you saved me from an instantaneous unworthy judgment about everyone in the US and their care for stewardship of the environment.