Isaiah 65:17-25, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15
As you know – if you were here last Sunday or get emails from the office – we are currently working through a series produced by Baptist World Aid called The End of Greed, and last week, Scott Higgins, who wrote the material, preached the first in the series, giving us a theological and historical overview of different Christian attitudes to wealth; urging us to move towards a justice and kingdom of God perspective; that we are called to work with God to share the beauty and abundance of the earth with our fellow human beings.
And this week I am preaching the second – Consuming as if people matter, part 1 – and I realised when I started preparing, I had already preached this sermon! Of course, as a minister you preach the same Bible passages many times, but four years ago I preached on these Bible passages, using this chapter of The End of Greed and even including the practical suggestions Scott includes at the end for living a kingdom shaped – rather than a consumerism shaped – life.
Though I did add one of my own and this may jog your memory! I suggested it might help replace our consumerist attitudes if we replaced the word ‘money’ with ‘love’ in our conversations. For instance, in my family it would go like this. “Mum, could I have a bit of love to pay back my friend?” or “Have you got any spare love you can give me?” or “Aron, on your way home, can you pick up some love?” “And bring that love home?” or “Belinda, the love card seems to have had a bit of workout this month!” “Where is all that love going?” Or “Should we increase the love we’re showing to Oxfam? Or Baptist World Aid? Or Canberra Baptist Church?” It sounds a little crazy, but I wondered if it would help change our thinking.
Because what Scott is saying in this chapter is that our attitudes to money don’t just need a little tinkering around the edges, they need a radical overhaul. We need to replace consumerism with love. We need to replace consumerism with fellowship, love for others. We need to replace consumerism with grace. We need to replace consumerism with knowing we have enough, with there being enough for all, with sufficiency.
It is hard for us, living in a consumerist culture, to think in terms of sufficiency or to think of our needs in absolute rather than relative terms. As Scott writes, “We compare ourselves to the people around us and feel OK as long as we are able to consume at the same level as them. If they holiday on the south coast, we feel perfectly content doing the same, but if they holiday in Fiji we feel deprived if we can only afford to holiday on the south coast.”
So, what are the alternatives? Should we define need just in terms of survival – as long as we have basic food, clean water, clothing and shelter we have all we need – moving back to the ascetic attitude to wealth Scott described last week? Or is it more complex than that? Do we – because we are not just physical beings but social beings – also have needs related to living and enjoying and sharing the abundance and beauty of the earth with each other?
Scott gives the example of the decision he and his wife made to purchase a modest, but slightly larger home – a home with two living areas. They could have stayed in their first home. It was more than adequate for survival. But it was not adequate for a lifestyle of practising hospitality – once you were trying to host two or three sets of adults plus children!
So, as Scott mentioned last week, there are no hard and fast rules, but we need to be constantly asking ourselves the question – holding ourselves accountable to the question – what level of consumption is adequate to live the kind of lives God calls us to? And in this we can be inspired by the biblical vision of prosperity – not a vision of consumerism, but of sufficiency , where all people have enough to enjoy life with God and one another.
As the prophet Isaiah writes in that beautiful passage we heard:
“They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”
Or as in the beautiful story, American author Bob Perks writes about an encounter he had at an airport.
Recently I overheard a father and daughter in their last moments together. They had announced her departure and standing near the security gate, thy hugged and he said, “I love you. I wish you enough.” She in turn said, “Daddy, our life together has been more than enough. Your love has been all I ever needed. I wish you enough, too.”
They kissed and she left. He walked over to the window where I was seated. Standing there I could see that he wanted and needed to cry. I tried not to intrude on his privacy, but he welcomed me in by asking, “Did you ever say goodbye to someone knowing it would be forever?”
“Yes, I have.” I replied….”When you were saying goodbye I heard you say, ‘I wish you enough.’ May I ask what that means?”
He began to smile. “That’s a wish that has been handed down from other generations. My parents used to say it to everyone.” He paused for a moment and looking up as it trying to remember it in detail, he smiled even more. “When we said, ‘I wish you enough,’ we were wanting the other person to have a life filled with just enough good things to sustain them,” …and then turning toward me he shared the following as if he were reciting it from memory.
“I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright. I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more. I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive. I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bugger. I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting. I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess. I wish enough, ‘Hellos’ to get you through the final ‘Goodbye.’” He then began to sob and walked away.
We need to replace consumerism with enough, enough for all.
And, as I mentioned earlier, there are other words and concepts we can replace our consumerist attitudes with as well.
In our 2 Corinthians reading, writing to the Corinthian church to ask them to contribute to an offering for the poor in Judea, Paul manages to write two whole chapters – all about money – without ever mentioning it. (One commentator I read, from the Church of Scotland, says… “even if there weren’t any Scots among them, I expect the Corinthians noticed!”) And the words Paul uses to replace ‘money’ are two of his major theological terms – ‘grace’ and ‘fellowship’.
Let’s look, firstly, at the replacement of ‘money’ with ’grace’. This use of ‘grace’ in the context of fundraising does create some difficulty for translators. For example:
7Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this grace.
(The NRSV translated this as ‘generous undertaking’.) What Paul is saying, however, is that the ‘amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me’ – the divine generosity of God – is the same grace that becomes financial generosity in the life of Christians. The grace that saves us empowers us to give. We love because God first loved us. We give because God first gave to us. And in verse 9 he retells the gospel story in financial terms:
9For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
Each time we give – each time we give generously – we participate in – we act out – the gospel.
In The End of Greed Scott tells the story of American businessman, Alan Barnhart, who when he finished college, despite people telling him, ‘anyone can do construction, go into full-time ministry,’ felt God had gifted him to run a business. But he also started reading every verse in Scripture that had to do with money or wealth or the poor or giving. What came from that, he says, was a fear of the possible effects of affluence on his life, that worldly success could equal spiritual failure, so when he and his brother joined their small family business, Barnhart Crane and Rigging, they set themselves modest middle-class income limit, ‘a financial finishing line’ Barnhart calls it, and gave away anything above that, mostly to overseas development. In their first, year they were able to give away $50,000; in their second year $150,000; and by 2005 they were giving away $1 million a month. And what Barnhart has discovered is that that giving is an expression of grace… (video from 2.33 mins)
As Scott writes, “Christians desperately need to recognise consumerism as a false god with a distorted vision of the good life. In its place we need to recover – [to remember] – the alternative vision of the good life presented by Jesus – a life rich in love for God and others while responsibly enjoying and equitably sharing the beauty and bounty of the earth.
In that quote Scott picks up on the second word that Paul uses to replace ‘money’ in our 2 Corinthians; ‘fellowship’, or ‘a life rich in love for others’ or koinonia in Greek.
Paul explains koinonia – which also means joint participation – to the Corinthians as a way of redressing the imbalances that occur in our society and world.
13I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
For Paul koinonia, joint participation, sharing with each other or more importantly, mutual sharing with each other, had even more possibilities. It went beyond this one event, this collection among the Corinthians and Macedonians and other Gentile Christians, to becoming an enactment of the gathering of the Gentiles into the holy city; of the nations streaming to Jerusalem. For him it was tied to the ancient texts – the text we read this morning of the new heavens and the new earth – that envisaged Jerusalem as a joy, of its gathered people as a delight, as a place of fellowship and grace and sufficiency and love.
I have one final story which also embodies that koinonia, that joint participation or mutual sharing that allows us to glimpse the kingdom of God. I’ve managed to use this story in two sermons this week – which just shows you what a great story it is! But as many of you know, Meryl and Glenn Jackson are currently in the US, catching up with a lot of people, including some of the men who were on Manus and they had planned to visit Naeem, who they’d worked with closely to support the men on Manus. But Naeem has a truck driving job. One he can’t afford to lose, and he was suddenly rostered to drive to the west coast. So, understanding, but understandably disappointed, they decided to just drive to Philadelphia where they had to return the car and book a random hotel. And as they were checking in, the man behind the counter looked at Glenn’s credit card and said, “Oh, you’re Australian! And your name is Glenn Jackson! I know about another Australian called Glenn Jackson who is kind to refugees! I used to be on Manus, and I heard all about him.” And Glenn said, “I think I’m that Glenn Jackson. That’s me!
I think that’s koinonia. That’s a glimpse of the kingdom of God being built in our world.
Scott gives four practical suggestions for how we can help build the kingdom of God.
- Set yourself an income limit – like Alan Barnhart did. Work out what would be a reasonable income for you and your family, commit to living within that limit and give away what you earn above it.
- Ask yourself if you really need it. Before making any significant purchase, ask, is what I have already sufficient to the task? And if the answer is yes, give away the money you were prepared to spend on that item.
- Give up some things in order to give away. Identify one thing you regularly spend money on that adds no significant value to your life. Once you’ve embedded that habit, find something else, give it up, and use that money for good.
- Give regularly and increase your giving incrementally each year. Set up a regular payment to an organisation that works with people in need. If you give regularly like this, you’ll find you give much more than if you give on an ad hoc basis. And once you’ve set up regular giving, increase it little by little – 5% or 10% or 20% – every year.
Let us not go through our lives simply as consumers, but let us replace consumerism with love, with knowing we and others have enough, with grace, with the fellowship that is a foretaste of God’s Kingdom. Amen.