Greed (Which is Idolatry)

This sermon was preached November 18th 2018 at the Wolcott Congregational Church. The Scriptures are Psalm 145:13-21 and Colossians 3: 5-15

Pierre de Fermat was a French lawyer in the 1600s- a real renaissance man, if you will.  He spoke six languages fluently, and did pioneering work in many fields of mathematics.

But the most infuriating thing about this genius was that he often did not show his work. Indeed, his most famous theorem was written in the margin of a book, and underneath wrote out, “I have the proof, but not enough room here to write it.”

Noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s hardest math problem”, eventually the ideas it spawned in trying to work it out became greater than the theorem itself, this little piece of writing in the margin of a textbook.

The first time I read this morning’s scripture from the book of Colossians for the first time, one particular line in it had the same effect on me that Fermat’s little marginal theorem had on generations of mathematicians. 

“Greed” (Which is idolatry). That floored me.

It’s a short aside, delivered in our translation today in parentheses, which adds to its mystique and to its power.  There’s no explanation given, no long winded argument like what we heard some weeks ago in the book of Romans.

Just an assertion delivered almost as an aside, But one that, the more we consider it, the more it makes sense. Let’s break this down why this is the case.

Gratitude tells us that God is Good, and the provider of all that we need. Greed does the opposite. Greed lies to us, and tells us that we are the ones who are in ultimately in control.

That we have a right to dominate, to exploit, to render to our own advantage more, and more and more, not for any purpose but  to exalt the self. Greed exalts the one over the community. Greed, which is idolatry,says that God’s dominion is not unlimited, and that there are things worth worshiping that are not God.

Things like money, like sex, like power, even something like racism. Greed tells me that I am capable of meeting all of my needs on my own.

That other people are merely a means to an end, objects to be used rather than beloved children of God. It is in this context that our phrase appears in the text, as part of a list of behaviors and emotions that are counter to Christian living.

The first things that our author condemns are selfish sexual practices which tear communities apart, which I won’t go in to. For that we can all be grateful. But he moves beyond this to also condemning living in such a manner that exults the self over the needs of the community. 

This isn’t to say we should all live in poverty, but that lives of unmitigated luxury subconsciously (or consciously) encourage us to believe that we can meet our needs apart from our communities and our God.

But I believe it is telling that in this list, after two specific behaviors are condemned, it is three emotions or feelings that are condemned.For greed is one of those deeply planted seeds that causes bad behaviors to sprout up in ways and places we don’t expect.

Our author warns us of passion, which in this case does not mean any strong emotion, but rather those feelings that wrest control our hearts away from God and toward consumption with no purpose.

Our author warns us of evil desire, which does not tell us to become like Buddhist monks and eliminate all desire, but rather to beware the seeds of evil that lurk in our hearts and attempt to root them out.

And last, our author warns us about greed, which is idolatry. Idolatry, of course, is the replacement of God as our object of worship, devotion, or trust, with anything else.  Greed, tells us that some small part of creation, belongs not to God, but to me. This, is counter to the word of God.

One of the primary lessons of the Bible is that the Earth and the whole of creation belongs ultimately not to any person, corporation, or government, but to God, who is Lord of all peoples, places, and nations.

We explore this today in our psalm. Our psalm today is psalm 145, a psalm attributed to King David, the epitome of earthly sovereign authority and power.

David is the King who the prophet Samuel warned would take the people’s wealth in taxes and send sons off to war. Yet David in this psalm acknowledges that his ruling over his piece of territory is nothing compared to the sovereignty of God.

This psalm recognizes that David’s power is not absolute, for the only power that is absolute in this world is the Lord’s.  This psalm is a psalm of gratitude for the dominion of the Lord. It is a psalm of gratitude that God is a better King than David could ever be.

Gratitude that recognizes the dominion of God brings people together and makes us equal before God.  Gratitude places our hearts in a place to acknowledge the power and righteousness of a god who lifts those who are failing and bowing.

It is our shared gratitude, which allows us to acknowledge the universal lordship of God and equality of humanity in Christ, as we see throughout both the Old and New Testaments, that God is the God of all the Nations. 

In Colossians, we find the declaration that “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! This included people at the center of the Roman world- Greeks, and those beyond its far edges, the barbarians and Scythians, who inhabited the far away and wild lands.

Gratitude makes kin of the people of God. It erases the borders of nation and race and class.  It brings people together. This is one of the most important aspects of gratitude for Paul.  When Paul names the good behaviors that Christians are supposed to exhibit, they are all things that bring people together. 

We are called to clothe ourselves in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Note that these qualities all deal with drawing people more closely into relationships, drawing together the ties of community.

What greed tears apart, gratitude binds together. And if this sounds a little bit like feel good hippy nonsense, think about what might be the most peaceful moment of thanksgiving dinner.

It’s that moment before the political discussions start, before we take the first bite of turkey and stuffing and sweet potato casserole. That moment before that one Uncle has had a little too much to drink. When we either hold hands or silently bow our heads.

When someone begins to pray, naming the things that the gathered are grateful for. When we remember that the bounty in front of us, whether it be in friends, family, food, is a gift from God, and not ours alone.

And especially in that silent moment just after the prayer. When we Christ’s final commandment for us to love each other has he loved us seems just a little more achievable.

That, friends, is the power of gratitude.