Pentecost 11, Year C
Readings: (Hosea 11:1–11); Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1–11; Luke 12:13–21
What’s enough? When asked, we tell pollsters about twenty to thirty percent more than we’re making right now. Not double, not ten times, just a little more. It doesn’t matter how much we’re making, twenty thousand, a hundred and twenty, it’s not quite enough.
Bill and Karen Butt used to be Overseas Personnel for the United Church of Canada. They served in Malawi and Mozambique for many years. Every month or so they sent a beautifully crafted theological reflection based on their work with churches and villages. One trip took them to a very small village where they got a chance to speak to local people. Such a great question they asked. “What does it take to be rich, and how many people around here are rich?” Villagers explained that there was a list of luxuries—a donkey, a radio, chickens, a bicycle, things like that. If a person or family had two of those, they were rich. If they had only one, they were middle class. If they had none of those things, well…
They thought about a third of the people in the village were rich, a third were in the middle, and about a third were poor. What if we asked the same questions here? What does it take to be rich? What is poor, around here? How many fall into the various categories?
The picture on the front of the bulletin is from the web site of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. You probably know about the Foodgrains Bank. A congregation here plants a crop and puts in the bank, so to speak, but people far away get the food. The way it works is that a congregation, usually a rural congregation, finds a farmer willing to assist. The congregation pays for the inputs—seed, fuel, fertilizer—and the farmer does the work. Often the whole congregation shows up to watch the harvest. Sometimes it’s a bee: nearby farmers come over to do a speed harvest. The crop is sold, and the money goes to the Foodgrains Bank. Somewhere else in the world, the money is used to buy grain in a time of drought or famine, to help people out, and in many other creative ways.
The Foodgrains Bank is excited about an idea from the G20, announced last year in Mexico. It’s called AgResults. A problem for many farmers is spoilage of their grain from insects, rodents and mold. The losses can be high. They lack effective on-farm storage for their crops.
To avoid that, many farmers sell their grain at harvest time, when prices are low. They then have to buy it back for food or seeding later in the year when prices are higher. With good storage, farmers could save their grain for family consumption, or make more money by selling it later in the year.
In this new program, companies are being encouraged to develop good storage technology for maize (corn) in Kenya, and sell it to smallholder farmers. The winning companies will be determined by the farmers themselves, and the G20 will pay rewards to companies based on how much market share they have captured. So these bins made of sticks and grass might become a thing of the past. They may hold grain, but it doesn’t look as if they can keep insects, mice or mold out.
If it works, this could lead to…what? Food security at last. But could have unintended consequences, such as greed? My crops are good this year. I will get even more of these nifty new bins. I am rich, rich! Farmers all over the world losing their souls?
Did I tell you the story about the stingy box? This one takes place on a First Nations community. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux tells it. She’s from Georgina Island First Nation, and teaches at the University of Toronto. Time was, a person who brought back birds, or deer or moose from the hunt shared it with everybody. Delicious food, great for community. Then came electricity, and soon after, freezers. Why share? I can put everything in there, and it keeps. For me and my family. This great new technology, electricity, has turned me from generous to stingy. That’s progress.
We’re not sure where Jay Gatsby got his millions. Bootlegging? Ponzi schemes? Rumours abound. But he’s spending it hard—big house, fast car, huge parties. All to impress his sweetie from several years ago, who went ahead and married a rich guy after Jay said he’d marry her as soon as he had money. The summer of 1923 is a wild one on Long Island, with lavish entertainment at the Gatsby mansion. A band, champagne, a pool, fireworks, food. How is this going to end?
It turns out exactly like the story in Luke. Rich guy dies, suddenly. Let that be a lesson to us all. It makes for a good story, anyway, even if, in real life, the rich sometimes live long lives. When does abundance, the abundance God promises to the refugees in the psalm, become greed? How much is enough?
Once again, we talked about the movie afterwards. One of us told of feeling rich in her neighbourhood, where her father had a secure job. But then, when she went to the house of a school friend in another part of the city and a butler opened the door, she felt poor. The friend was sent over very early in the morning to measure the neighbour’s in-ground pool. Her parents were going to have one installed, and they wanted to make sure it was bigger, even six inches bigger. None of had personal contact with the uber-wealthy, but we agreed you don’t get rich by being nice. We had a feeling we wouldn’t be comfortable around the very rich.
The alternative to that, says Jesus, the fearfulness, the envy, the competitiveness, is to be rich towards God. Hmmm. That’s one of those great expressions that is so open-ended. Rich towards God. What does it mean to you? Giving away your cheque, when it comes, as if it were a deer carcass that would spoil otherwise? Being more into singing, dancing and stories than storing up your harvest in mouse-proof barns? Giving such and such a percent of your time to charity? All of the above?
Daisy and Tom Buchanan, the rich couple in the movie, were jerks, we decided, although no one used that exact word. Not rich towards God. They ran through people, used them, cast them aside. They had trouble having real feelings for others. They were both unfaithful to their vows, and not truly happy anywhere. Big barns, little soul. Some of us at the Tuesday discussion had lived and worked in Africa. How different North America looks from there. How opulent, how wasteful, how decadent. Every light in the Gatsby mansion burning, even when it housed only one resident. Enough light for a village. How overwhelming it is to come back to this part of the world after time in a much more basic culture—shelves in stores all full, money flowing, machines for everything.
“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And are my possessions, however abundant or meager they are, getting in the way of my life? Is Canada just the right size, the Goldilocks level of prosperity: not too rich, not too poor, but just right? Or are we kidding ourselves about our nation because we happen to live right beside the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of the planet? By comparison with them, we look modest. But perhaps that’s not the real comparator. We are far from the most generous people, and far from the most generous nation.
It turns out we have these vast national storage bins of things, metals, oil, gas, trees that we didn’t plant or grow or do anything to deserve. We’re rich. In things, anyway. Let’s dig them up or cut them down and get them to market as soon as possible. Let’s make a few people, owners, incredibly wealthy, and then spend a couple of generations cleaning up the mess they leave behind. Does this sound like a nation being rich toward God?
Greed is corrosive, and it gets carried away with success, like a runaway train. We could take cues from Mennonites. They think and talk about money as congregations. They encourage thrift, saving, modesty, a sense of enough. They don’t want their young people to get in over their heads, to become slaves of the bank, or the dollar. They teach financial literacy and encourage budgeting. We tend to think of the whole topic as off limits. They have realized that in this day and age, a person has to pay attention, not because the mould or the mice have eaten up the winter supply of wheat, but because we can fool ourselves about what’s enough for a long time, spend as if there’s no tomorrow. Suddenly everything changes because we’re maxxed out.
Well, enough already. Here’s a quote from Stanley Weiser, an American screenwriter, “A fool and his money are lucky enough to get together in the first place.” Spike Milligan, the comedian, said, “All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” And finally this, Woody Allen: “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” There are no easy answers. What we pray for is enough—enough money, enough generosity, and enough faith, hope and love to be rich towards God.