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The God of Social Security – a sermon

July 31, 2010

Luke 12: 13-21     Col 3: 1-11

“Be on guard against all kinds of greed” Anyone here suffer from greed? Any greedy people among us? I thought not. Apparently not even Bill Gates is, seeing he gives so much away to charity. But I do have it on good authority that at least some people out there are greedy. This week I saw the movie Inside Job at the Film Festival. It documented the financial crisis and how various groups of companies managed to have the government and the academic economists in their pockets to keep regulation at bay, and by betting with ordinary people’s mortgages in ways that had enormous long-term risks, they were making money hand over fist in the calm before the inevitable storm. The detail of it all makes my eyes glaze over… but the most disturbing thing is that after Obama got elected on those wonderful speeches about change, one of the first things he did was to choose as his financial advisers and leaders people who were key players in the big dodgy companies of the financial crisis.

It’s disturbing. It makes you wonder why. Were those speeches about change a con?

It would be easy to go away from today’s service thinking that when Jesus warned us about greed, he was thinking of those Wall St executives with five houses and several luxury jets and yachts. But, of course, he isn’t. He tells us a story about a guy who has a good year on the farm… And rather than using his excess or giving it to the poor, he builds bigger barns to store it. All the man is doing is a kind of insurance… even saving for his retirement… extra income one year leads to saving for a rainy day… what’s the problem with that? It’s his property isn’t it?

Jesus says, be on your guard against all kinds of greed…Greed comes in many kinds… Its sign is not the dollar, although that is certainly a key element. The real symbol of greed is the open mouth. Not the mouth of the physically starving. But the mouth of those who can never get enough….

There’s a lot of wisdom in the ancient church about greed. Prudentius in the 4th Century has this image of Greed as a Fury, a female warrior in battle for our soul… and against Greed the hero Reason charges in and the reasonable Christian can see quite clearly that Christ forbids greed and so the glint of money loses some of its shine. The church appears to be winning. But then Greed comes again, this time she [quote] “puts off her fiendish look and frightful arms, and puts on honest mien: she now becomes a Virtue, stern of face and dress, and called Frugality”. Thrift, says Prudentius is greed in disguise, a new enemy of charity…. Now we’re not getting the new house, or car, or painting for crass reasons like the ‘love of money’ it’s for the children’s future, it’s saving for retirement. It’s love of offspring. The ancient writers were well aware how mammon can corrupt the most well-meaning heart.

R. R. Reno writes:

“Avarice is not simply a product of money or the marketplace. Quite the contrary, as the Sermon on the Mount makes clear, Mammon is the god of worldly security, and he plays upon worries that afflict even those who have taken vows of poverty and fled into the desert.”

Mammon is the God of social security! Barn building… as a way to secure more than enough, thinking of the future… And of course social security is a good thing, in a sense. If all we have is our daily bread, that we pray for each Sunday, and are satisfied with that that’s a good thing… But what does it mean to be satisfied with that? Where does daily bread begin and end? The problem is that daily bread does not satisfy us, because we have a never ending source of personal insecurities

Greed may not be a product of the market. But the market certainly knows about the insecurities at the root of our greed. So when we go to the shopping mall, or watch the television and see beautiful people with the latest computers and we realise how behind the times we are. Or we realise how flabby our own body is. Or we realise that for a small price we could attract people with that perfume… We know we’re being sold a con… but it still works! We’re still vulnerable. There’s always a good reason for the new flat-screen tv or whatever.

Augustine said: Our souls are restless, until they find their rest in thee… The God of Social Security constantly offers us new forms of rest for our souls – but without healing the wounds of the soul. In fact, mammon feeds off the wounds of our soul. While all the time we tell ourselves we have no problem. Jesus warns us, be on guard against all kinds of greed – greed in all kinds of wholesome disguises.

But what happens when greed is not just an occasional temptation but a way of life? In the letter to the Colossians, the writer is talking about…new life… death with Christ … baptism. He’s talking about the fact that when we were baptised we entered a new life… And so he encourages the Christians to put off the old life….Put it to death, he says… fornication, impurity passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)

Why does he add that little phrase after greed? Greed (which is idolatry). The wandering eye which leads to fornication results in a moment of betrayal. It’s related to greed. But greed is different, greed is religious (an idol is something you worship, something you live your life around)… greed is a way of life, pseudo-life, the life of death It is the religion of our time… It is an ideology. We don’t know what life would be like without it. Witness the complete failure of world administrations to move beyond neo-liberal economics post-crash. I think it’s a bit like fish and water. We don’t know how to imagine life that is not built around greed. There are no serious contenders when it comes to economics.

But the epistle says the Christian life is something else again… so ‘something else’, that it’s hidden from sight. Your life is ‘hidden’ it says ‘with Christ in God’. To those in the dominant religion is doesn’t look like we’re really living.  We’re not chasing the same things, we don’t have the same values. To become a Christian, is in this sense to go into hiding, to give up what the world sees as life, and thus become hidden from view. The new life is ‘renewed according to the image of its creator’ – i.e. according to Christ (image of the invisible God).

When we are baptised, and when we baptize our children, we are symbolising death to one world and entry into another, death to the idolatry, the way of life, shaped by greed, and entry into the way of life in Christ. Welsh Minister Kim Fabricius recently did a sermon at the baptism of someone he called Adam (at least for publication purposes – which I can’t resist citing at length:

“For if we are introducing Adam to the new way of life of Jesus, we will try to teach him not to become an earning, shopping, and consuming machine, ever agitated and restless, or someone who wants to be “famous”, but a human being who is happy in his own skin and, above all, grateful just to be. We will also try to teach him not to become a cunning climber and schemer, ever out for Number One, but a human being whose Yes is Yes and No is No, who doesn’t deceive or discard other people but puts them first. And, finally, we will also try to teach him not to become an eye-for-an-eye kind of guy but a turn-the-cheek kind of geek, who is kind to everyone, who takes a punch rather than gives one, who prays for those who wish him ill, who lives at peace even with his enemies.

Yes, all this is so radically counter-cultural, for it clearly involves living an exposed and vulnerable life, a life at considerable risk, a life on which the “health and safety” bureaucrats might like to slap a restraining order, a life that might incur suffering in some contexts, even if only ridicule, for its eccentricity, in our own.”

So the scripture speaks to me of two things about Greed today. (i) Firstly it comes in many forms and disguises, like thriftiness and care for family. ‘Beware of ALL kinds of greed’. (ii) it becomes idolatry, a way of life and so our baptism is SO important. We do not just join a club, we enter into a shared, ALTERNATIVE, way of life.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2010 1:24 am

    Great sermon Bruce!

  2. Bruce permalink
    July 31, 2010 2:03 am


  3. August 5, 2010 2:59 pm

    “But I do have it on good authority that at least some people out there are greedy.” You’re absolutely right.

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