Sermon by Andrew Pakula
…as we [as a society] grow more and more wealthy, money is becoming a kind of narcotic for us. We hardly notice our own prosperity or the poverty of so many others. The great contradiction is that we have more and more money and less and less generosity […]
[…] Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism. We have a love affair with "more" -- and we will never have enough. Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us […]
[…] We never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. […] we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to […] God's abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity -- a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly. We spend our lives trying to sort out that ambiguity.
The conflict between the narratives of abundance and of scarcity is the defining problem confronting us at the turn of the millennium. […]
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." […] And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, […] and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat." But he answered them, "You give them something to eat." They said to him, "Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?" And he said to them, "How many loaves have you? Go and see." When they had found out, they said, "Five, and two fish." […] Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; […] Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
In our first reading this morning, we heard from Walter Brueggemann – a noted Old Testament scholar. Brueggemann says that we in the developed world tend to live with a belief in the reality of scarcity. He describes a feeling of never having enough – that we feel a need to have more and more, and that this insatiable desire makes us mean, selfish and neighbourly. To Brueggemann, this sense of scarcity stands in stark contrast to the biblical stories of earth’s great generosity and abundance.
‘[the Genesis story] declares that God blesses -- that is, endows with
vitality -- the plants and the animals and the fish and the birds and
humankind. And it pictures the creator as saying, "Be fruitful and multiply."
In an orgy of fruitfulness, everything in its kind is to multiply the
overflowing goodness that pours from God's creator spirit.’
The pervasive notion of scarcity is particularly insidious at a time when the contrasts between rich and poor grow increasingly stark. So many in our world are hungry while so many others enjoy enormous wealth. The reality is that our world could readily support all of its current inhabitants adequately if resources were distributed more equitably. But the desperate grasping of the nations and individuals that have the most makes this impossible.
We may tend to think of the wealthy as drunk with greed and their own success – that this grasping is motivated by a sort of selfish desire for pleasure, but, at least in my experience with people of means, it is not usually pure greed that drives people to want more and more, but a kind of desperation – a fear – a pervasive anxiety that there is not and will never be enough!
Contrast the culture of scarcity and hoarding with the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes as told in Mark’s Gospel. In this miraculous vision – which is told in what seems to be a rather matter of fact way – Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus is portrayed very much as human, and I get the sense in this story – not of a superhuman act., a miracle performed by a supernatural being – but of an extraordinary man tapping into an abundance – a sacredness – that is always available.
We are faced with two very different ways of looking at the world, and as Brueggemann says, the conflict between these two narratives may well be the defining problem confronting us at this time in human history.
One narrative is the vision of scarcity. It tells us there is not enough – there will never be enough – and that we must grab as much as we can when we can. Scarcity tells us to give only sparingly. It tells us to assume the worst of other people – that they are greedy and rapacious – that they will steal from us given the slightest opportunity. This is a vision that portrays our time, our money, and our energy as gravely limited. There is never enough of anything and so it must be measured out by the thimble-full, lest we run out.
The alternative is a vision of abundance. Lao Tzu, Taoism’s founder, described this way of seeing and of being in the world two and a half thousand years ago:
The sage never tries to store things up.
The more he does for others, the more he has.
The more he gives to others, the greater his abundance.
Abundance thinking leads us to give generously knowing that our gifts are amplified and benefit all – including ourselves. A vision of abundance suggests that time, energy and even money are not finite limited resources. Instead, they are created and expanded through our action. Held by a vision of abundance, we trust more openly and believe that giving will bring about not more greed, but more gratitude and more giving.
Consider Denise Levertov’s poem, ‘Bearing the Light’ as a view of the world seen through eyes tuned to abundance:
Rain-diamonds, this winter morning, embellish the tangle of unpruned
pear-tree twigs; each solitaire, placed, it appears, with considered
judgment, bears the light beneath the rifted clouds -- the indivisible
shared out in endless abundance.’
Most of us fall somewhere between an attitude of abundance and one ofscarcity, but you have probably known people who are inclined to one or the other of these ways of seeing the world.
People who act from scarcity tend to be filled with fear and are slow to trust. They may be quick to criticise, and slow to offer praise. To them, resources are meant to be accumulated for some nebulous future need – although the rainy day for which they are ostensibly saving never arrives, they just keep saving. When they give, it is usually to those that can help them in some way or in a way in which they carefully retain control. To them, the world is cold and harsh. We survive only by battling that darkness. They imagine that the only way to improve the world is by restricting the greedy actions of others. They call themselves realistic and cautious. You may call them pessimistic or negative. You probably don’t enjoy being around them all that much.
People who act and think from a standpoint of abundance, on the other hand, tend to be trusting and open. They are generous with their time, praise, energy and money. And their generosity is offered beyond the people and groups that may directly benefit them. They believe that the world can be made better by giving and through love and generosity and they are ready to jump in now and do their part. They may call themselves optimists. You may call them unrealistic dreamers, but even so – you may also like being around them. They make you feel hopeful.
Now, maybe the short sketches I’ve just offered don’t fit exactly with your way of thinking. Maybe there are some parts that rankle. But chances are that you recognise these two types of orientation toward life.
As I consider these two extremes, I know which one I want to lean towards. I know which one will make me happier and will bless the world. I know that I want to be someone who acts from a place of abundance. But I also know that – all too often – it is the notion of scarcity that drives me. I worry about finite resources and I am fearful of losing what I have.
After all, I think, there is only so much time in the day, and we have only so much energy, and really, no matter how much money I have, it could all come crashing down… And let’s face it, there is a lot of crime and so many people are out for nothing but themselves. How could I possibly imagine that the universe is really a place of abundance? Don’t I need to look out for myself? If I don’t, no one else will. How could I possibly have the kind of faith that says that the universe or God will provide? These questions are, of course, part of my spiritual journey…
An old story tells of a wise woman who was traveling in the mountains. As she walked by a stream, she noticed a precious stone, which she picked it up and put it in her bag. The next day, the wise woman encountered a hungry traveler. She happily offered to share with him, but as she opened her bag to give him some of her food, the traveler noticed the precious stone. He asked the woman if she would give it to him, which she did without a moment’s hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing secretly in his good fortune and in the woman’s ignorance of the stone’s value. This precious stone was worth enough money to give him security for a lifetime.
A few days later though, he again found the wise woman walking in the mountains. As soon as he saw her, he returned the stone. ‘I have been thinking,’ he said. I know how valuable this stone is but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Will you share with me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone?’
An attitude of abundance is a precious possession indeed. It allows us to live with more hope and happiness, with less anxiety, with greater connection to others. It allows us to trust, to give – not to be foolish, and put ourselves in peril – but to have faith in the generosity of the universe and therefore to be generous ourselves.
I need to draw a very important distinction here because, in recent times, the notion of the universe’s essential abundance has been misused and subverted. Instead of recognising abundance as intimately connected to generosity, many in our materialistic culture have turned this notion toward selfishness. A variety of self-styled gurus now invite us to see the universe as a vast, limitless, resource from which we can get what we want – if we follow their advice – advice that is typically offered for a hefty fee. The proponents of such notions promise a path to material success and wealth.
This is, of course, a narrow, selfish take on abundance. And I would venture to guess that it creates abundance only for those collecting the fees! Living with a sense of abundance does not mean that whatever we want will magically appear. It is not a self-centred individualistic way of being. Instead, and this is the most important point I would like to make today, living with a sense of abundance is a inextricably tied to community – to our relations with other beings.
Parker Palmer, the Quaker writer and educator, emphasises this truth when he says: ‘. . . abundance is a communal act, the joint creation of an incredibly complex ecology in which each part functions on behalf of the whole, and in return is sustained by the whole. Community doesn’t just create abundance; community is abundance.’
Abundance, contrary to the claims of some, is not about individual gain. The abundance of the universe is not a magical cash-point machine from which we can make unlimited withdrawals if only we know the code. It is a blessing that grows in community and that can be accessed through giving – through our generosity of time, energy, care, and financial resources.
Some of us have managed to become people who think and act out of abundance much of the time. How did they get there? It may have to do with their upbringing, their spiritual life, or perhaps even their genetic make-up. For the rest of us – pushing away the scarcity clouds that surround us is a constant struggle. It can be difficult to trust – in each other and in the universe. It is also essential to living joyfully and happily.
As Parker Palmer tells us, abundance is a communal act. Abundance is about how we are with one another and how we are together. This spiritual community is a place where we can practice acting from abundance. As individuals in community, we can experiment with offering just a bit more praise than we are comfortable with. A bit more love. A bit more time and energy. A bit more money. As a community too, we can think about experimenting more with generosity. What if we were to give time, energy, or money to the larger community?
The metaphor of a web or a network has become a prominent one in this time of instant communication and the internet. We recognise more and more how we are all interconnected. This metaphor may resonate with us so strongly because we know deep down that there is a greater interconnectedness between us – a fabric of being that connects us. Generosity benefits all – giver and receiver alike – because it strengthens the sacred web of connection in which we are all held. To recognise those interconnections and the strength of that fabric is to have faith – to trust in the universe and one another.
So may it be with you.