The church is not immune from the battle between the opposing worldviews of scarcity and abundance. Scarcity insists we lack the resources for doing what God calls us to do. The contrary view expresses confidence in God's abundance.
Eric Williams, rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Jamestown, N.Y., uses two snack food ad campaigns to illustrate this tension. Read on to see if you have a Ruffles or a Doritos way of life.
Two World Views: Ruffles & Doritos (Scarcity & Abundance)
I. Biblical command to generosity
Every day, it seems I get another fundraising letter from the schools I've attended, public radio and TV, a host of organizations fighting a host of illnesses and on and on. Today we hear the first fund-raising letter in recorded history: Paul's second letter to the Corinthians. Paul proves himself to be a shrewd salesman: he compares the Corinthian Christians to their counterparts in Macedonia, who, during a severe ordeal of affliction, "voluntarily gave beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in the ministry." Now he exhorts the Corinthians to be generous in return, remembering the "generous act of Jesus Christ."
In fact, as much as we dislike these appeals to our generosity, the Bible is full of them. In Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and throughout the Old and New Testaments, we are commanded to remember those in need and open our hearts and our wallets. So why do we struggle with this message? Why do we feel vaguely put upon and resentful?
II. Two world views: Ruffles & Doritos (Scarcity & Abundance)
Not too long ago there was a Ruffles potato chip ad showing two Eskimos sitting in the midst of a vast, uninhabited, frozen wasteland. One fellow was having a wonderful time eating the contents of his bag of Ruffles, while the other was looking longingly in his direction. In reply to his request for a chip, the first man declares to his lone companion, "But if I gave one to you, I would have to give one to everybody."
At the same time, there was a nacho cheese Doritos ad employing comedian Jay Leno as philosopher/spokesperson. After extolling the chips' great flavor and radical crunch, Leno gave us Doritos eaters free reign: "Crunch all you want ... we'll make more!" The Christian theology of abundance is more Doritos than Ruffles. Share all you have. God will provide! We live in abundance. We just need to open our eyes and realize it, open our hands and share it!
III. Scarcity -- the ethos of our age
I played Monopoly for the first time in years at the junior high lock-in. The goal is not just to amass wealth and property, but to drive all the other players into bankruptcy. It's a zero sum game. One is a winner, the rest are losers. As we played, we were affected by the game. Lighthearted fun turned more serious as we got into the spirit of competition. I'm glad I didn't decide to go into business. I was driven out first. The winner was Josh.
It reminded me of another game very popular on TV now. Survivor is the number one show in America. In it, there is only one survivor who gets the whole $1 million. The twist? Groups must cooperate to survive, yet each knows the others will vote them off the island as soon as they have the chance.
This show symbolizes the scarcity mentality that dominates our world: get what you can, use other people to do it, get rid of them when they stand in your way. There's not enough to go around so get what you can while you can. Scarcity thinking usually cloaks itself as "hard-headed realism" and gives all sorts of good, rational, sensible, realistic reasons not to be generous:
- That organization has plenty of money --- they don't need mine.
- Giving money just keeps people dependent.
- I would be short-changing my family if I gave this money away.
- I'd better save this money for a rainy day.
- Money doesn't solve these problems anyway.
- I worked hard for it; I deserve to keep it.
- Isn't the government supposed to deal with those problems?
Ultimately, these rationalizations are the voice of scarcity whispering in our ears. This is the voice of the serpent in the garden of Eden saying, "Eat the apple, don't trust God, get what you can while you can." The serpent is still telling us the same old lies, and we are still listening and eating the rotten fruit. We still think that we can control our own lives and destiny. If we just work harder, save more and manage our lives better we will achieve true happiness by our own efforts. We don't need God; we don't need other people. We are self-sufficient, the center and ruler of our own universe. Nothing and no one should be allowed to get in the way of our self-fulfillment. I deserve my bag of Ruffles; go get your own.
IV. Abundance -- the biblical way of living
But there is a different way, a better way, than scarcity. The reality is that the serpent does not bring us happiness --- only the insatiable desire for more and more. The winner of the Survivor game will ultimately be alone and friendless on the island. The Bible consistently teaches us that we worship not the God of scarcity, but abundance. God's love and mercy are without end. Our cup is not just full, it is overflowing.
No where is that generosity more evident than in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul says, "For you know the generous act of Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich." In his earthly ministry, Jesus taught and lived the life of abundance. His first miracle at the wedding in Cana was to supply wine, good wine, to a feast. The story of Jairus' daughter is another example. A desperate father, Jairus, would have given anything for his daughter to be made well. But he cannot buy her cure. Only the generous act of Jesus can raise her.
These stories do not guarantee that whenever we need wine or a miraculous healing Jesus will provide it. But they do remind us that this is God's world, not ours. God is in control. It is only when we remember that central fact that generosity becomes possible at all. We cannot be truly generous by our own effort and merit. Selfishness is just too deeply ingrained in us. But we can learn generosity by focusing on God's gifts to us, by remembering to be grateful for God's abundance.
With Jesus at the center of our lives, we can claim abundance, think abundance, expect abundance. We can tune out the voice of the serpent, the voice of scarcity, and remember that we live in God's world, a Doritos world, where there is always more than we expect or imagine or deserve. With Jesus at the center everything is different. Even death is just a momentary pause. The one who said to Jairus' daughter, "Get up," will say the same to us. In God's abundance there is no room for holding back, no room for fear, for selfishness, for hesitation.
V. Another kind of "Survivor" game
We will face a crucial test in the years and decades to come, a test of survival. Our survival depends on the road that we take and the choice we make between scarcity and abundance, between competition and cooperation. Now that we have cracked the genetic code, will we use this information cooperatively to combat disease? Or will we instead attempt to create "super" and "designer" kids who will scramble more quickly to the top of the heap? In this new millennium will we, in the first world, continue to hoard natural resources? Or will we work to ensure the well being of all people, finding, as Paul says, "a fair balance between our abundance and their need" so that their abundance may be for our need? These are critical questions that will only be answered when we have decided which world we live in: the serpent's world of scarcity, suspicion and hostility; or God's world of abundance, generosity and love.
I pray that as we celebrate this Independence Day weekend we may truly appreciate the incredible liberty and abundance we enjoy as Americans and that we may be led to live lives of generosity and thankfulness. Amen.
Rev. Eric M. Williams is rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Jamestown, NY.