Sermon Preached on August 4, 2019 – Pentecost +8
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
Generous Toward God and One Another
This summer our daughter Channing has an unpaid internship through Maine Medical Center. She’s working with Dr. Alexa Craig a neonatal neurologist. Many evenings our dinner conversation turns to babies and families and extraordinary courage and love in the face of adversity. Which has reminded me of my time as a hospital chaplain – serving in the ER, and the maternity and NICU units.
Places of drama, anxiety, urgency, lots of uncertainty; where people experience feelings of fear, loss, relief, joy. Places where people are focused on what really matters most. Sitting with people in these moments, I’ve heard and said a lot of prayers: prayers for healing, safe passage, forgiveness, mercy, a hope-filled future. And yet, with the exception of the parents surprised by a set of twins, who wondered where they were going to put the second baby; I’ve never heard anyone praying for material things, let alone wealth, or power, or status.
Facing issues of life and death is immediately clarifying – and profound. All that matters are those we spend our lives with, that we love and are loved. The path to life abundant is found in being generous in our relationships – with God, God’s creation, and one another.
In our Gospel text we hear what happens to our souls when we lose sight of those relationships. The story at the heart of our lesson is often called the Parable of the Rich Fool, it reflects a theme that we hear Jesus preach repeatedly: wealth is an impediment to the Kingdom of God. Attachment to possessions leads to soul-stifling anxiety and fear, while connection to God leads to life abundant.¹
In our parable this Rich Fool’s fault lies not in storing up grain, or in being successful, but in his perspective, his self-absorption, his greed. Consider his response to his good fortune – he only thinks about himself – his success is his alone, and his surplus is meant for him alone. Wealth and worldly prosperity can warp our perception; self-absorption damages the well-being of our soul. Greed is idolatry – worship of the wrong things. Greed is idolatry, because it puts us at the center of our universe, and leaves little room for anyone else – no room for God or other people. We weren’t meant to live only for ourselves. We know that instinctively, though sometimes it’s hard not to get caught up in it with all the competition and the marketing!
Jesus 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.”²
The verses assigned for today expand on this warning, and the verses which follow (and were not included in our assigned text), are Jesus’ response to how then we should live. Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about their lives, what to eat and wear, because life is more than these. Instead, strive for the kingdom of God, and everything else will be taken care of.
And then Jesus says:
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.³
Today’s Gospel is about values, how we choose to live and where we place our hearts. Who or what is at the center of our lives? How do we live our lives, free from crippling anxiety, free to find joy and life in abundance?
A few weeks ago, Michael stopped by the office and reminded me of this book, he actually gave me his copy, which was generous of him. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.
The image on the cover is reason enough to own the book – with the smiling profiles of the authors, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The book hopes to answer the question: “How do we find joy, in the face of life’s inevitable suffering?” For this project, the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop spent a week together being interviewed by Douglas Abrams, their co-author. I want to share a few excerpts of their wisdom – which seem most relevant to our conversation this morning.
As they begin a discussion on the “True Nature of Joy,” the conversation quickly turns to values, as the Dalai Lama says:
Materialistic values cannot give us peace of mind. So we really need to focus on our inner values, our true humanity. Only this way can we have peace of mind – and more peace in our world. … I believe everyone has the responsibility to develop a happier world. We need, ultimately, to have a greater concern for others’ well-being. In other words, kindness or compassion, which is lacking now. We must pay more attention to our inner values. We must look inside.⁴
And then, in the chapter “Our Greatest Joy,” conversation moves to how we are interconnected, as Archbishop Tutu says:
I mean simply to say that ultimately our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others. … It’s how we are made. I mean we’re wired to be compassionate. …We are wired to be caring for the other and generous to one another. … We depend on the other in order for us to be fully who we are. … the concept we have at home, the concept of Ubuntu. It says: A person is a person through other persons. … Because, after all, none of us came into the world on our own. We needed two people to bring us into the world. … And you realize that in a very real sense we’re meant for a very profound complementarity. It is the nature of things. … I mean I could not speak as I am speaking without having learned it from other human beings. I could not walk as a human being. I could not think as a human being, except through learning it from other human beings. We belong in this delicate network. It is actually quite profound.⁵
To which the Dalai Lama adds,
… people think about money or fame or power. From the point of view of one’s personal happiness, these are short-sighted. The reality as the Archbishop mentioned, is that human beings are social animals. One individual, no matter how powerful, how clever, cannot survive without other human beings. So the best way to fulfill your wishes, to reach your goals, is to help others, to make more friends. How do we create more friends? … Trust. How do you develop trust? It’s simple. You show your genuine sense of concern for their well-being. Then trust will come. …⁶
The Archbishop then adds a comment about God’s place in this:
God is community, fellowship. Being created by this God, we are created in order to flourish. And we flourish in community. When we become self-centered, turning in on ourselves, as sure as anything, we are going to find one day a deep, deep, deep frustration.⁷
So how do we move from self-centered to outwardly focused? We shift our perspective. While how we feel about something is hard to control, changing our perspective is relatively easy, because it’s a function of our mind, which we do control. The way we see the world, the meaning we give to what we witness, then changes the way we feel. Their chapter on perspective is fantastic, and potentially lifesaving.
Their co-author, Douglas Abrams sums it up in this way:
Fundamentally, the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop were trying to shift our perspective from focusing on I and me and mine to we and us and ours. The Dalai Lama referenced a classic study that suggested the constant use of personal pronouns leads to a greater risk of heart attack. Health researcher Larry Scherwitz found that people who more frequently said I, me, or mine had a higher risk of having a heart attack, and had a higher risk of their heart attack being fatal. Scherwitz found that so-called “self-involvement” was a better predictor of death than smoking, high cholesterol levels, or high blood pressure. A more recent study by researcher Johannes Zimmerman found that people who more often use first-person singular words – I and me – are more likely to be depressed than people who more often use first-person plural – we and us. …[it seems] being too self-regarding really does make us unhappy.⁸
A shift in perspective, can be life-changing! Finding our way to joy and life – through the paradox of focusing on the joy of others. In the words of the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama:
We are most joyful when we focus on others, not on ourselves. In short, bringing joy to others is the fastest way to experience joy oneself. … When we close our heart, we cannot be joyful. When we have the courage to live with an open heart, we are able to feel our pain and the pain of others, be we are also able to experience more joy. The bigger and warmer our heart, the stronger our sense of aliveness and resilience.⁹
As their week together ended, Archbishop Tutu spoke to the core of our Gospel text, saying:
Joy is the reward of seeking to give joy to others. When you show compassion, when you show caring, when you show love to others, do things for others, in a wonderful way you have a deep joy that you can get in no other way. You can’t buy it with money. You can be the richest person on Earth, but if you care only about yourself, I can bet my bottom dollar you will not be happy and joyful. But when you are caring, compassionate, more concerned about the welfare of others than about your own, wonderfully, wonderfully, you suddenly feel a warm glow in your heart, because you have, in fact, wiped the tears from the eyes of another.10
And then he blessed us with these closing words:
Dear Child of God, you are loved with a love that nothing can shake, a love that loved you long before you were created, a love that will be there long after everything has disappeared. … And God wants you to be […] filled with life and goodness and laughter – and joy.¹¹
My friends, may it be so, Amen.
1 Meda Stamper, Commentary on Luke 12:13-21, Workingpreacher.org, July 31, 2016.
2 Luke 12:15 (NRSV).
3 Luke 12:32-34 (NRSV).
4 The Book of Joy; Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams, New York: Avery, 2016, 30.
5 The Book of Joy; Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams, New York: Avery, 2016, 59-60.
6 The Book of Joy; Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams, New York: Avery, 2016, 61-62.
7 The Book of Joy; Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams, New York: Avery, 2016, 62.
8 The Book of Joy; Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams, New York: Avery, 2016, 199 – 200.
9 The Book of Joy; Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams, New York: Avery, 2016, 261.
10 The Book of Joy; Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams, New York: Avery, 2016, 293.
11 The Book of Joy; Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams, New York: Avery, 2016, 298.