As most of you know,
I had a traumatic event in May.
The surgery I had to fix my back
was followed in three days
by an emergency surgery
to remove a blood clot on my spine.
Like so many people do,
I spent an eternity in the emergency room
before I was diagnosed and treated.
I was in what I can only describe as a cocoon of pain.
Thankfully I recovered and am doing great now
but the reason I mention it
is because, like most such events,
it was a forceful hitting of the pause button.
Kind of like hitting alt/delete on your PC
or Command/Delete on your Mac,
it cleared everything else before it
and left an empty space
within which to hold an unadorned view of life.
All of us have likely had such moments,
not always from trauma, thankfully.
Hiking or camping,
loss and grief,
there are times when we clear the space
in the field around us
and within our hearts and minds,
or have it cleared for us.
When that happens,
we suddenly see thing anew
or from a different angle,
or even from underneath
or looking down as if from above.
I think that is what Jesus
was trying to do with his proverbial saying
and follow-up parable
that we heard this morning —
to clear the space
within and around
those who were listening.
Since Jesus issued his warning
much has grown up in the world around us
like weeds and undergrowth
crowding out his words
and making them seem so, so unrealistic
or impractical — so,
But we know in our heart of hearts
that his warnings are wise
and every once in awhile
the space within and around us
and we hear him agian.
Jesus says three things
we might want to pay attention to
in that reading from Luke.
First, in response to someone complaining
about his stingy brother,
he says: “Watch Out!”
Guard against greed.
Secondly, with his parable
he warns that an abundance of possessions
does not create an abundance of joy.
And third, which seems like the background
upon which his parable is told,
he reminds us that security is an illusion.
First, watch out for greed.
Secondly, money can’t buy you joy.
Third, there is no such thing as security.
With those three,
we are at the front door
of spiritual wisdom.
If we take any of this gospel stuff
seriously at all
then we need to approach
rather than with scolding,
shaming, or guilt.
You see, all of us live in house of cards
created by our life within the kingdom of stuff.
So let us proceed
with a sense of our own fragileness.
This Greek word for greed
is translated into English
as “the yearning to have more.”
So when Jesus issues his warning,
“Take care! Be on your guard
against all kinds of greed –
for life is not about the abundance of possessions,”
he is warning us
about the hazards of our always
yearning to have more.
“Guard” against it
is all he says.
He doesn’t say “don’t feel it.”
That would be silly
because we yearn
from the first moments of hunger at birth,
and don’t stop yearning
until we can’t breath any more.
”Guard against it,” he says.
He gives no rule or plumbline
by which to measure greed.
He simply says,
“Hey, this is real
so pay attention to it.”
I wonder what he would say in our world?
In 2022 every strand of electronic data
that swirls around us on radio waves,
through optic cables and wifi,
even filling every visual void
on billboards and cereal boxes,
is charged with highly sophisticated efforts
to excite our greed
and seduce our yearning for more.
We are invited to be perpetually dissatisfied.
Think about that for a moment.
We are urged
to be perpetually dissatisfied.
We are taught
to be chronically hungry.
Our weaknesses and vulnerabilities
are taunted and teased.
We are titillated constantly
by the hawkers of “More!”
and they are very good at their trade.
“Watch out!” Jesus warns.
”Guard against your greed.”
So how do we do that?
Well, in the midst of our yearnings
if we can remember the difference
between joy and happiness,
we can guard against greed.
Happiness is something we can manufacture
or momentarily create
but joy is something we must open ourselves to
and allow its visitation
when it comes along.
We do not create joy, it happens.
We know how to make ourselves happy
when we need a pick-me-up:
For me a bike ride will make me happy,
for someone else it may be a walk.
Calling a friend,
some people shop to make themselves happy
others drink a beer.
We can make ourselves happy
with things we do,
but there is nothing we can do
to make joy.
We get visited by joy instead.
It happens sometimes when we least expect it.
Driving down the highway
we are filled with a sense of calm serenity
that we did not invite or invent.
Or we are with a friend or lover
and what was at one moment
a normal conversation
suddenly becomes a joyful intimacy
that we did not invite or invent.
Joy visits us
but we must be open to it.
We must be predisposed
to be taken over by it when it arrives
and not try to clutch it
and keep hold of it as it leaves.
Of course we will yearn for more of it
once it passes,
but we smile and let it go,
and think, “That was nice.”
A simple moment of gratitude
rather than fretfully trying to keep hold of it.
The way we live without greed
in spite of our yearning for more,
is a deep and pervasive
presence of mind
that an abundant life
and sustained with joy
rather than happiness.
It turns out
that abundant life
is not about the capacity
to take the next breath
or keeping the heart beating a little longer.
is not about what we come to own or achieve.
Rather, like joy,
abundant life is measured
in what we see and know
rather than in what we have and do.
And so, in this, we are at the nexus of Jesus
and Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only those who see take off their shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…”
The presence of mind
to know that abundant life is about joy
has to do with what we see when we look around.
Most of us, most of the time,
see and touch the life that surrounds us
as if it is an object for our use.
Instead of being awed
by how crammed full everything is
with a holy presence,
we see things as an object
for our consumption
We measure it
and value it
by whether or not
it tastes good to us
or how much we want to have it
or our own for ourselves.
In so doing
we deaden our sense of the holiness
that pervades everything.
The magnificence of an apple
becomes its sweet taste
that satisfies a yearning.
The sensual beauty of an orange
becomes a vehicle for Vitamin C.
A tree becomes a house,
a forest becomes a park,
a person becomes a clerk,
a cow becomes a steak.
I do not mean
that we should deny the utility of things,
nor the certainty of our basic needs,
but must our need
and their utility
transform the holiness of that life
into an object for our use?
The way to guard against greed
is to keep a presence of mind
about the holiness of life:
The bush is crammed with God –
not because the blackberries taste good
but because it is infused with God.
We are infused with God.
All that we seek to possess,
all we yearn to own,
all that we desire to consume
is crammed with God.
Keeping a presence of mind
about the holiness of life,
while surrounded on all sides
by messages about the utility of life
and objectification of all creatures,
will help us guard against greed.
That is all we need do, Jesus said,
”guard” against it.
We need not be immune to greed
but on guard
with a presence of mind
that the sacred
is hiding in plain sight
all around us.
The last of Jesus’ three point,
and the punchline of his parable
about the foolish farmer,
is that security is an illusion.
It is a fascinating little story.
Jesus does not critique the farmer’s wealth.
He does not critique the man’s good fortune.
There is no hint of a critique
of the farmer being type-A and goal-oriented.
is that the farmer
confused safety with security.
The mistake is in imagining
that there comes a time
when we will be safe
because we have achieved something
or arrived at something
or created a particular life-style for ourselves
and all will be well.
But there is no such thing as safety.
Naturally we spend a lot of time and energy
trying to figure out how to be safe,
and such precautions
allow us to then pretend we are safe.
But Jesus’ point
is that in spite of our best efforts
we are always vulnerable.
The better diet,
the safer neighborhood,
the nicer school,
the bigger income,
the giant SUV —
none of those things
will make us safe.
We are vulnerable to all the ravages of life.
Our sense of security in life
should not be derived from how safe
we think we are
because sooner or later
that safety will be revealed as an illusion.
must come instead,
from something or somewhere else.
In the storms that swirl around us –
whether it is a personal crisis of grief,
the experience of trauma in an emergency room,
or in the midst of social and political chaos —
where are we centered?
If the Gospel is to be believed,
at our center – our core –
is a common bush afire…
At the very core of your body,
at my core —
at the nexus between
your heart and your mind,
we are crammed with heaven.
We are crammed with heaven.
If we know that,
if we really know it,
then we will be secure
in any storm.
Don’t get me wrong,
we may not be safe —
we may even perish.
But if we know that at our core
we are crammed full of God,
we will have perished with an awesome
sense of security.
- Guard against greed.
- An abundant life built upon openness to joy
more than making ourselves happy with stuff.
- And the security of knowing
we too, are crammed with God.
Just some more subversive wisdom
from the rabbi
who lives at the center of our tradition.
Julie O’Connor says
So good. I’ll keep this one for a long time. Hi Cam!
Cam Miller says
Hey Julie, wonderful to hear from you! Whatever it was that resonated, I’m pleased and grateful. Thank you.
John Botti says
Hi Cam…I was thinking about you yesterday and wondering why I haven’t seen any of your posts in my news feed. Sorry to hear about your recent health issues but glad you’re on the road to recovery. Great sermon! Sheila’s late sister-in-law used to say “Are you happy or joyful”?
Cam Miller says
Hey John, thanks. Feeling much better and stronger. Joyful, when I can get it!