How Much is Enough?

Stuff Logo NewHow much is enough? The author of Proverbs 30 offers interesting reflection–“Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8).

In other words, this obscure author (his name is Agur, son of Jakeh, but that’s about all I know) is crying out for enough. He doesn’t want too much because he knows that having great wealth tempts us into idolatry, assuming that one is no longer in need of anything or anyone including God. Likewise being caught in the cycle of abject poverty can lead one to a cynical place where mention of God’s goodness seems as believable as having a good night’s rest under an overpass.

C.S. Lewis describes Hell as a place in which one can have too much and not enough at the same time. In Hell you can have anything you can dream up. So, if I want a 100 inch big screen tv, I can have it. The problem is, the guy living next to me can have my tv too should he wish it. Eventually quarreling becomes so terrible that humanity becomes increasingly isolated. Stuff becomes our master. Hell is a place where we can have anything we want, but the stuff of which we dream leaves us lonely, isolated, and depressed. Of course . . . this is fiction . . . right?

How do I know if I have enough? The author of Proverbs 30 offers a clue. He begins by asking for God to “Remove far from me falsehood and lying.” In other words whether we have too much or whether we are in want, the point is to reflect truth: the truth that God makes it rain on the just and unjust, the truth that you cannot serve both God and money, the truth that valuing profit over people is far from God’s heart, the truth that the master invited the poor, the blind, and the lame to the table because the elite were too busy (Luke 14:21), the truth that Christ’s Resurrection changed the rules of the world and we are no longer slaves to the mammon of human hands.

How much is enough? When truth is proclaimed you will know.

Longing for Enough Part 1

Longing for Enough

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Light—the separation of waters—dry land—sun and moon and stars—fish, birds, animals, humanity–God looked upon creation and said it was good.  It was very good.  This seems to be the understatement of the whole of history.  Shouldn’t have God said that it was perfect?  But God did not.  God said that it was indeed, very good.  It seems that from the very beginning, God left room for growth.

     God took the man and placed him in the garden and said, and pay attention to the language, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”  Notice the language used.  You may freely eat . . . you shall not eat.  There is freedom in following the will of God.  “You may freely eat of every tree.”  Some have asked why God planted a tree in the garden from which we could not eat.  It’s a fine question, and it certainly speaks to the human condition.  God provided the freedom to choose out of God’s abundance, yet we ask, “Why not that tree?”  This is one of the reasons I rarely preach on the devil.  There’s a temptation in making the devil sound more interesting than God.  I think that God reveals to us why that single tree is not to be desired—God knew that we could not follow God’s will without community.  Let me explain.

Immediately following the command not to eat from a single, set apart tree, God says to himself, “It is not good that the man should be alone.”  It is the first time that God pronounces something to be “not good.”  Isolation and loneliness and extreme solitude is not good, which is why there is only one tree from which God commanded us not to eat.  God separates it and shows humanity physically what God’s will is. The forbidden tree is isolated, apart from God’s abundance.  It is not good that the man should be alone, so God created woman.  Community is born out of God’s goodness and desire that we not be alone.  Being in community is God’s gift, which reminds us that God’s will is not only about me or you, but me and you.  Jean Vanier in his remarkable book, Community and Growth, writes, “Community is the place where the power of the ego is revealed and where it is called to die so that people become one body and give much life.”  Jesus said that ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’” (John 12:24).  God separates out the tree from which we shall not eat, and the man who was alone is given community, and it is good.  It is very good.

Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand, it’s the parts I do understand that scare me.”  God’s will is clear, and yet it’s not enough for us.  The serpent asks the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  The woman replied, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”  God’s command is not enough.  Humanity felt the need to add to it— “nor shall you touch it,” the woman replies.  This gives the serpent an opportunity to plant seeds of illusion.  “You will not die, you will become like God, knowing good and evil.”  Now humanity’s eyes have lost focus.  God’s will begins to unravel.  The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that the tree was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her (by the way, some folks conveniently forget that Adam was there as well) and he ate and their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked.

It all sounds good enough.  The tree was good for food.  The tree was a delight to the eyes.  The tree was to be desired to make one wise.  What is so wrong with nourishment and delight and the desire for wisdom?  Nothing, except that it is no longer God who is good, but the tree.  The tree is good—three times over, once forgetting the Father, once forgetting the Son, and once forgetting the Spirit.  I’ve mentioned this before, but the problem with sin is that it’s half right at best.  Before God spoke of the tree, God called to the man and the woman and said, “Be fruitful and multiply.”  Sin is half right.  It’s great at multiplying, but it is never fruitful.  It is a cancer of sorts because it is fruitless multiplication.  There is nothing wrong with seeking the goodness of food, but at what cost.  “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.”  “Man does not live by bread alone.”  There is nothing wrong with our eyes being filled with delight, but at whose expense?  David peered over the walls and saw that Bathseba was very beautiful.  There’s nothing wrong with the desire for wisdom, but at what price?  Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?  “Why do you call me good?” Jesus replies.  “Only God is good.”  Having the knowledge of good and evil is not the same as following.  James Howell writes, “We may voice a holy intention: “I ought to pray more.  I ought to read the Bible.  I ought to volunteer. I ought to go on a diet.”  But “ought” doesn’t get us anywhere.  The first Christians were accused of turning the world upside down!  God’s will is not simply what is better than our “oughtness.”  God’s name is not “I Ought,” but “I Am.”

God’s will is something holy and subversive.  It is the grain of sand upsetting the machinery of the world.  Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, a treasure buried in a field, a pearl found in the darkness of the ocean floor.  It is simple and precious and transformative and it is something the world wants buried.  This is why when Jesus gathered with his disciples he said, “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood of the covenant poured out for you.”  He didn’t call together the exalted leaders of his day.  He called to be his followers a tax collector and a zealot, mortal enemies of one another.  He shared his body and his blood with Judas who betrayed him and Peter who denied him.  God offered his broken body to broken people.  You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because it is upon this tree where I will send my Son.  When God’s will unravels God offers himself to bind up the broken pieces.  When Adam and Eve were hiding because of their nakedness, God fashioned for them clothing.  When God’s will became undone and the cruelty and hate and evil of humanity placed Jesus on the tree, our knowledge of evil was transformed into a Good Friday, because he lept out of the tomb so that we might trust that God’s will ultimately leads to good, the same good which God proclaimed when he rested on the seventh day and marveled at creation.  Why did God just say it was good?  Because God left room for the perfecting grace of Christ.

Now, hopefully you received a letter in the mail over the weekend about our first ever commitment campaign here at The Well.  Here’s what I’m asking you to do. First, I would like you to think about the Garden of Eden.  Imagine that in it are ten trees.  God says, “Here are nine of them.  You can eat freely from nine of these trees.  Leave one for me.  Let me cultivate it.  Let me take care of it.  Let me produce the fruit from this one tree.”  God certainly could have commanded more.  We are so fearful.  We fear that nine of the ten trees won’t be enough.  Now, I preach this sermon to myself a lot.  Having three small children . . . well, in the words of Dave Ramsey, “Sometimes there’s more month than money,” but then I think, “Are nine trees not enough?  Is 90% not enough?”

The second thing I would like you to do is sit together as a family and read John 6.  Maybe just before dinner tonight, you read the story together.  Maybe you can read it as a morning devotion when you wake up on Monday.  Maybe you read it again on Tuesday.  How has the story changed with the second reading, and so on and so forth.  Finally, I would like you to sit down as a family and talk about what you can give to the work that God is doing here at The Well and across the world.  Maybe you can give one out of every ten apples.  Maybe this is a really new thing for you and you need to start small and over time, grow in your giving.  The point is to pray about it and talk about it and to give what God is calling you to give.  Now, I’m not asking for your W-2, but I am asking you to pray about it.  Talk to God about it.  As a community of faith, what can we give so that the world might freely eat from God’s goodness?  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Defined by Generosity

One Sunday morning a preacher stood up behind the pulpit and read Psalm 24:1-2–“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.”  He began to preach to the crowd that all the community owned was truly God’s and they should honor God by giving of what they thought they owned.  Well, a farmer in the community took great offense at the message, so the farmer called the preacher out to his farm one afternoon.  The farmer led the preacher to a hill overlooking his farm, and said, “You mean to tell me that this land which I have cultivated for my entire life isn’t mine?”  The preacher thought for a moment and said, “I tell you what.  Call me to meet you here in 100 years and ask me again.”  It’s like the scientist who one day invented a machine, which could transform dirt into a living, breathing human being just like God had done during creation.  So, the scientist called God and asked, “Do you mind if I start making human beings?”  God replied, “No, I don’t mind.”  So, the scientist started gathering dirt into his machine, but God intervened and said, “Oh no, get your own dirt.”

It is God’s.  It’s all God’s.  God has given us an abundance of gifts and God has filled us with a creative spirit to manipulate these gifts into food, shelter, clothing, and enjoyment, yet we quickly forget that it is God who has provided and that these gifts should be used to build the kingdom of God.  Early in our story, in Genesis 2, God forms man out of the dust of the ground and places him in the garden. It is not that God picked up the man like a child’s toy and puts him in a garden-themed doll house.  The Hebrew words suggest that the phrase, “God took the man,” was a wooing of words.  That is to say that God captured his heart and called the man into the garden, using the natural gift of desire and relationship.  We often think that choice entered the human equation when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, but the story tells us that choice was always a part of the human experience, it is that before disobedience humanity was so filled with the image of God that God alone satisfied our desire.  Just as God’s voice wooed us into relationship, into the garden, a competing voice began to call us away from God.  This voice is not the hissing of a snake’s two-pronged tongue, it is the two-sided sound of fear and self-preservation.  We traded listening to the voice of God for our own.

God wooed the man into the garden and said, “You may eat freely of every tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”  Some time later the serpent hissed, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  The woman said, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die’,” but this is not what God had commanded.  God did not say that they should not touch the tree.  You see, already there is a hint of this voice within the heart of humanity that is saying, “God is not enough.”  We added to God’s command as if God’s boundaries were not sufficient.  This gave the serpent an opportunity to cultivate this voice of fear.

The woman’s reply is a fearful one.  God told us not to eat the fruit.  We aren’t even supposed to touch it.  Fear has a way of raising anxiety, making us hear things as they shouldn’t be heard.  I have a very bad habit of watching Ghost Hunters on the Travel Channel before bed.  I shouldn’t do this because ghosts really freak me out, but I’m glued to the program.  Of course, after the show is over and I’m settling down for bed I hear creaks and knocks and some sounds that aren’t even there.  These sounds happen all the time and I think nothing of them, but now that I’m primed, the sounds are now louder and spookier than ever before.  This fear causes the woman to overemphasize God’s words and the serpent convinces her that she should eat.  Our text says that the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.  The tree was good.  The tree was a delight.  The tree was to be desired.  It is not that goodness or delight or desire is evil; it is that goodness and delight and desire have now been misplaced.  It is the tree that is good, not the maker of the tree.

And this is true today.  Think of it this way.  God woos humanity into the garden and plants within it ten trees.  God says, you can eat freely from nine of the trees, but leave one for me.  Offer one of them to bloom for me.  Imagine having $1000.  God says you can use $900, and get creative!  You can use $900 for food, clothing, shelter, and fellowship, but $100 of it, let it bloom for me.  Let it be set aside to do the work I need it to do.  This is not to say that we are to squander the 90%, but if we can’t dedicate 10% to God, how can we honor God with the 90% God is giving to us?  Now, when you offer your pledge in worship next week, you may not be ready to give 10%.  Maybe you can give 5% or 7% or 2%, but the point is that you make a healthy habit of giving to the work of God.  It is so that the work of God may be done.  Giving allows mission and worship and children’s choir and everything you see in the church possible.  Sharing your gifts in the power of the Holy Spirit, gives us a tangible opportunity to be the body of Christ, but maybe more importantly, giving keeps the voice of fear silent.  Giving means that the bumps and the creaks and the darkness no longer keep you up at night.  Do not let the fearful voice of scarcity woo you away from the God who gives his life so that we may live abundantly.

In my home church on Youth Sunday the seniors were offered an opportunity to deliver the sermon during Sunday morning worship.  In 1997 it was my turn.  I tentatively got up and stuttered through the scripture and fumbled through a manuscript and forgot my place and before it got any worse I said, “Amen,” and sat down.  It wasn’t humiliating, but it wasn’t good.  After the service, Rev. Dr. John Lee, co-senior pastor of First Methodist Slidell shook my hand and said, “Boy, you’re gonna be a mighty fine preacher one day.”  That was the first time anyone had said that to me, and that got me thinking.  Several years later I decided to go to seminary and Dr. Lee gave me about 40% of his personal library, telling me that I would find great use of these books.  It was a humbling gift.  The next year Hurricane Katrina hit and Dr. Lee lost the other 60% of his library.  What he gave away is what survived, and I was telling this story last week to a group of clergy in preparation for Dr. Lee’s funeral which was on Sunday in Alexandria.

Along with the voice of fear there is the voice of self-preservation, the voice which tells us that we have to hold onto what we have or we won’t make it.  Dr. Lee’s selflessness made an impact on me that now I give books away.  I used to say, “I just read this book and it’s incredible.  You have got to get it.”  I still say, “I just read this book and it’s incredible,” but instead of saying, “You have to get it,” I now give copies away.  Isn’t this what God is doing in our lives?  God is saying, “I have created a garden, I have provided a life for you and it’s so incredible you simply have to experience it, so . . . here it is.”

This is what the church is about.  We should be telling the story of God and saying, “This a truth which is greater than anything the world has to offer, and here it is,” but in order to follow our calling it means that we, ourselves, must be willing to give, to embody God’s abundance and grace.

God is wooing us into his abundant life, filling us with a good and delightful desire to be in the body of Christ and to do the work of Christ.  It is not the tree which is good or delightful or worthy of desire, but the one who was hung upon it who calls us into communion with our Father, our Lord, and our abundant and graceful God.  Praise be to God!  Amen!