Texts: Genesis 15:1-6, Psalm 33:12-22, Hebrews 11:1-3 and 8-16, Luke 12:32-40
The myth of scarcity reigns. But when I see more clearly that God provides countless leaders in sharing the gospel, I can celebrate the goodness of God in giving to us the kingdom. Then Faith becomes a treasure.
Where Your Treasure is (The Lyric of Abundance)
"Do not be afraid, little flock ..." What wonderful words to hear, words of reassurance and comfort. The most common command in all of scripture is "do not be afraid."
When the women come to the tomb on Easter morning to anoint the body of Jesus, the angel tells them, "Do not be afraid."
When Jesus walks on the water to the disciples in the boat he tells them, "Take heart. It is I; do not be afraid."
When the angel appears to Mary to tell her she shall have a child, the angel begins by saying "Do not be afraid, Mary."
When Joshua is confronted by an alliance of kings and a great army, God tells him, "Do not be afraid of them."
And the first time we hear the command "do not be afraid," God is speaking to Abram. Abram is concerned because he has no heir.
A friend of mine has a son who is in college. The young man is very intelligent, which one would expect to be a blessing. However his intelligence allowed him to coast through high school without really applying himself or developing strong study habits. At the time he was not particularly interested in his classes. But once in college all that changed.
The young man began taking classes in which he was not simply interested but invested. And he discovered that far more was expected of him as a student. The subject matter was more difficult and the pace of learning faster.
One evening while the student was home from college, he was telling his parents how worried he was. Every night he was studying for several hours simply to complete the assignments. And although his grades were fine, he was no longer the top student. In fact he shared several classes with another student who appeared to handle the classes' subjects easily.
"Well," said the student's mother, "Then you will know who to ask when you have questions."
Do not be afraid. We live in an age of anxiety. Many of the decisions we make involve issues never before faced. From economics to bio-medical research, our technological age brings new situations. As a result, life moves faster and the demand for making decisions more quickly builds. But the anxiety is not reserved for one age group.
As the college student illustrated, the importance of a strong foundation brings the anxiety about the right decisions to ever-younger ages: the right college, the right high school, the right elementary teacher and for the students the right friends.
I have begun to suspect that the anxiety of our age may even extend to pets.
One night Jake had been impossible in his demands for attention. He must have been feeling insecure about all the other dogs parading by our house because he would bark at them and then insist on having our undivided attention. He would put his forelegs on my lap and stare meaningfully into my eyes, so that I could see only Jake. His unique breath filled my nostrils so that I could only think of Jake.
Almost as a form of bribery we gave him a rawhide bone to chew on. Our hope was that his attention would be fixed on the bone and he would leave us alone. And for a few minutes that was the case. After a while Jake's pacing around the room fascinated Debbie and me. At one point he placed the bone behind a pillow on the love seat. Moments later he picked the bone up and continued wandering around the house.
Eventually we realized that Jake was trying to find a place to safely store the bone. And he was becoming more agitated as his search continued. Nowhere in the house was suitable. He began to whine as he carried the bone from room to room. And his pacing and whining was worse than his meaningful stares.
Finally Debbie took the bone away form him and stored it in the cupboard. And that seemed to satisfy Jake, who by now was exhausted.
In his classic work The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran writes: "Then said a rich man, 'Speak to us of Giving.' And he answered: 'You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. For what are possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow? And tomorrow, what shall tomorrow bring to the over prudent dog burying bones in the trackless sand as he follows the pilgrims to the holy city? And what is fear of need but need itself? Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?'"
Scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann in an essay entitled "The Truth of Abundance" writes about what he calls the myth of scarcity. "The reality of a drought or a famine or some other cause creates a sense of scarcity, a deep, fearful, anxious conviction that there is not enough to go around, and that no more will be given. The proper response, given that anxiety, is to keep everything you have, to get good protection to keep what you have from others who want it, to take steps to secure still more at the expense of others, more that may belong to others, more than you need, more than you will ever need. The myth of scarcity that can drive an economy is not based on economic analysis but on anxiety. It produces and justifies violence against the neighbor. The myth of scarcity makes each an agent of acquisitiveness in the face of all the others who pursue acquisitiveness."
The myth of scarcity led the college student to see another student as a threat rather than a gift and a resource.
Jake illustrates the power of this myth by becoming more anxious when he is given a bone because now he has to find a place to hide and protect that bone in case a marauding dog should enter our house and look behind the pillow on the love seat and take Jake's bone. Or the myth convinces Jake that he will never again receive a bone from us and therefore this one must be protected at all costs even to the point of giving up the joy of chewing the bone.
Brueggemann argues that because the basis of the myth of scarcity is anxiety, not economic analysis, the best way to combat it is with a different view of reality: one he calls a lyric of abundance. The lyric of abundance begins with reflecting on the nature of the God we worship. Abram is anxious because he has no heir to carry on his name. And God's response is to invite Abram to count the stars in the sky for his descendants will be of an equal number. God does not provide one descendant but galaxies full of descendants.
So, "do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." Just sell your possessions and give alms. Amen. (A pause to let the people think the sermon is over)
Oh, do I sense that nagging anxiety, the myth of scarcity, making a return? Jesus tells his followers, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." The call to sell our possessions is a way of helping us clarify where our treasure and our hearts are. The reading from Hebrews describes faith as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." In other words faith is taking God at God's word, trusting in the promise of God. Brueggemann uses the Old Testament history to suggest a three-fold process for moving from the myth of scarcity to the lyric of abundance, the treasure of faith.
The first step is leaving. We must join an exodus away from the myth of scarcity, away from the message repeated constantly that acquiring and hoarding is the way to security. Perhaps one can still find places where the myth of scarcity does not hold sway.
E-mails from Pastor Paul and Ken Borle in Tanzania tell of a generous people who have little, yet share extravagantly of what they do have. Perhaps their model is not simply to change one's location, but rather to join a community that practices the lyric of abundance.
The second step is believing. In the New Testament the church becomes a counter cultural community practicing the lyric of abundance in the face of the myth of scarcity. And when the view of reality is of such abundance provided by God, the final step, sharing that abundance, becomes a natural part of life.
The three step process does not need to be restricted to material possessions. At a dinner recently, a former member of Faith was talking with me. At the end of our conversation, as a word of encouragement, he said, "Phil, lead the congregation!"
At first his words had the opposite effect of what he had intended. My focus shifted from a gracious God who gives abundantly to myself. Do I have enough insight, experience and resources to lead the congregation on my own? The myth of scarcity reigns. But when I see more clearly that God provides countless leaders: leaders in education, in music, in sharing the gospel, I can celebrate the goodness of God in giving to us the kingdom. Then Faith becomes a treasure.
And where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Amen.
Pastor Phil Peterson is a pastor at Faith Lutheran Church, Forest Lake, MN.