Rosina Pohlmann preached Sermon, August 4th, 2013
Scripture: Luke 12:13-21
Abundance is one of those words whose sound mimics its meaning. It is a ripe word with forward motion that rises and fills with sound as you say it. Abundance. It is satisfying to say, also because its meaning is so cheerful. A great quantity of something. A great or plentiful amount. Full to overflowing. All these definitions add up to mean that there is more than enough, and, considering that there often isn’t enough, abundance is usually cause for celebration. Of course there are many types of abundance: abundant food, abundant water, abundant harvest, abundant money, abundant life, abundant love. There are other qualities of abundance as well, such as whether it is the abundance of the many or the few, and whether it has come at the expense of another. As Jesus points out in this scripture of Luke, not all types of abundance are created equal. In response to a man hoping to settle his family inheritance he says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Jesus elaborates on this idea through a parable. He tells the story of a rich man who has invested in his possessions. The investment has paid off and he has “ample goods” for years to come. But God scolds the man, telling him that he has been mistaken, for the life in which he has invested, the physical life, will soon be over. Instead of storing up riches for ourselves, God explains, we must be rich toward God.
It is important to know that Jesus’ time was a time of fixed resources. There was only so much harvest, so much grain. Therefore, one person’s abundance implied the poverty of another. Anyone who is passingly familiar with the Bible will know that creating conditions of poverty is not ok with God. Scripture is peppered with the instruction to take care of the poor. Earlier in Luke, John the Baptist warns a crowd of people that any tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. When the crowd wants to know what they can do to bear good fruit, he replies: “If you have two coats, give one to the poor. If you have extra food, give it to those who are hungry.” To care for the oppressed and the poor is to bear good fruit and to honor God. Therefore, in an environment where one cannot have extra resources without taking them from someone else, one cannot be rich toward God and toward oneself at the same time.
But what can we learn from this passage now? Times appear to be different. In the first world at least, the harvest is great. The world’s resources are available whenever we want, as much as we want, provided we have the money to procure them. Water, light, energy, food, as well as material resources in the form of all sorts of products: not only are these resources abundant, but it seems as though there is an unlimited supply, and that anyone can have as much as they want. It may seem, therefore, that Jesus’ instruction is no longer valid. Personal abundance does not, at least in terms of resource supply, mean the poverty of another. If anything, the personal abundance of possessions and resources is a good thing, as our economy is based around the consumption of energy and material goods.
Unfortunately, this conclusion could not be more wrong. Just as in Jesus’ time, our abundance is another’s poverty, and the victim of the imbalance, like the poor of Jesus’ time, is something that God made, loved, and has asked us to care for. The victim is Creation.
Let me back up a little bit, all the way back to the beginning of Creation. In Genesis, God sets out to create the world. He creates the heavens, the earth, light, sky, water, land, seed-bearing plants, fish, birds, livestock and wild animals, and mankind in his image. He provides for all the living things of the world, and sees that it is good. And it is good. The more we learn about the earth, the more we see a world that is perfect in its ability to produce abundantly. We have an atmosphere that protects us from radiation and provides us with the very rare, narrow temperature conditions that can support life. On the earth’s surface, we have a diverse, interconnected ecological system that allows for the continued, sustainable life of billions of life forms: from the balance of oxygen to carbon dioxide in the air, to the microbes and bugs in the soil that nourish the plants, to the insects that pollinate the plants, to the animals that eat the plants and each other, to the cycle of decomposition and regeneration, we live in a rare and beautiful world that fits together intricately. By choosing humans to rule over this creation, God truly bestowed upon us an amazing priviledge and gift.
However, if the state of our environment is any indication, we are not fulfilling this role. In fact, to an outsider taking a glance at our planet, it would look as if we had set out to destroy it on every possible level. The seas that God created? Ocean habitats are quickly disintigrating, hundreds of millions of gallons of oil have seeped or have been spilled into the seas, and there is so much trash floating in the ocean that a trash vortex the size of Texas has formed and was recently named its own country. The lands? Littered with hundreds of millions of pounds of trash, spattered with more oil and seeping with toxins. The trees? Half of the world’s tropical forests have already been deforested and we cut down and we cut down another 80,000 acres a day. The seed-bearing plants and fruit? Not only is the over-use of pesticides and irresponsible farming seriously harming the integrity of our earth’s ecology, but now we are even altering the genetics of the plants themselves, to devastating effect. The fish? 80% of the world’s fisheries are over-exploited, depleted or in a state of collapse. The wild animals? Going extinct by the thousands of species. The livestock? Mass farmed in factories in appalling conditions of abuse and neglect.
And the skies? Well, in this regard we have really accomplished something. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere recently surpassed 400 ppm, which models show was the limit that would sustain a relatively stable climate. Occurrences of extreme weather including storms, droughts and floods have been increasing across the globe; seasonal patterns are becoming unreliable; glaciers and the polar ice caps are melting at an accelerating rate; the sea level is rising and increasing amounts of land are becoming non-arable. But this is just the beginning. Conservative estimates put the degree increase by the end of this century at 4 degrees, which would render much of the planet uninhabitable. However, many dedicated scientists are putting that estimate much higher, and there are reports coming out that with feedbacks such as arctic methane release, a mass extinction event could occur before the end of century. This is scary stuff, and it’s for real: 97% of scientific research on the topic of climate change agrees that climate change is happening and that humans are the cause.
And the source of all this? I’m afraid that it comes back to that beautiful word: abundance. This destruction is occurring because we consume more energy, more resources and more materials than we need, and are taking it unsustainably from God’s creation. We are unaware, or choose not to think about, the origins of the materials and resources we constantly consume, as well as their destinations. We have lost the ability to see ourselves as a part of the interconnected, interdependent community of life that God created. In order to feed our personal abundance, we have initiated a pattern of destruction that will continue until we learn to see our planet as God’s creation and respect it as such.
The funny thing is, we totally have the ability to provide for everyone in a way that nourishes and supports the health of the planet. Remember: we are made in God’s image. We have the ability – the intelligence, the compassion – to harvest the earth’s abundance in such a way that all of God’s creation will thrive: the waters, skies, green plants, animals and the people. We can work with the earth’s natural ecology to procure all the things we need. We have the ability to figure out how to work with the soil to grow enough healthy crops for everyone. We can figure out how to capture rainwater so that there is always enough to drink. We can figure out how to harness and store sun, wind, water and gravitational energy to meet our energy needs. We can do all this and more.
However, this will require that we heed Jesus’ words. We must put the well-being of creation as a whole before our personal selves. We must trade in our personal abundace for an abundace dedicated to God. We must all act, without wasting any more time. The is a wake up call, and we all have a part to play.
In her essay “Body of God,” theologian Sallie McFague writes: “One of the ways to deal with with ecological despair, the despair we feel when we think about the future we are willing to the next generation, is to refuse the role of victim, to become active, to participate in the vocation of the planetary agenda. In different ways each of us has a calling, is being summoned, to put our talents, passion, and insights into planetary well-being. Ecology is not an extracurricular activity; rather, it must be the focus of one’s work, the central hours of one’s day, however that is spent.”
There is already a movement swelling. All over the world, people are raising the cry to end this phase of destruction. Last month, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ became the first Christian denominations to divest from oil, and students at hundreds of universities are pressuring their schools to do the same. Environmental groups are doubling and tripling their efforts to protect land and end destructive practices. Protests are happening every day, and unlikely alliances are being formed: this past June, environmentalists and Tea Partyers joined together to protest against Georgia Power for the right to choose renewable energy. Economists are building support for a climate tax and rebate that they believe can efficiently and painlessly wean the world off of carbon emissions. Every day innovators are coming up with efficient, sustainable ways to meet human needs. Even political leaders are starting to take a stance as they hear the public cry for stronger climate leadership. Christians, non-Christians, students, children, the elderly, the fully employed, the unemployed: people from all walks of life are returning to role of stewardship that God intended for us. As Christians, we must add our voices and gifts to this cry, this cry that we will not store up abundance for ourselves but instead be rich toward God.
The abundance that I dream of is an abundance that is shared, involving shared hard work and shared good will. It is an abundance much in the same spirit of Thanksgiving, in which our gratitude for creation becomes a celebration of our love for each other. It is an abundance that will nourish the planet but which will also nourish the people. It will nourish us physically as we return to the fresh food, water, air and earth that God provided for us in the very beginning. And it will nourish us spiritually as we return to the role that God imagined for us in the very beginning.
Which brings me to what I think is the most beautiful part of the passage quoted at the beginning of this sermon. Jesus contends that he has no interest in arbitrating the man’s inheritance because life does not “consist” of the abundance of possessions. Life does not “consist” of that because there is another, truer sort of life, one that survives death, and which consists of God himself. It is a life that consists of love. This is the life that, in the face of our planet’s woes, we are now being invited to join. Not tomorrow, not another oil spill from now, not another 10,000 species from now, not another 100 ppm of carbon from now, but now. Let us begin our campaign for green abundance today.