Several years ago, I took a group of thirty teenagers and adults on a mission trip to Trinidad. On one of our R and R days (Rest and Relaxation), we went to Maracas Beach. As we were swimming in the bay, we came upon hundreds and hundreds of sand dollars about six feet below the surf. Several of the members of our group began to dive for the sand dollars and pretty soon the game evolved—becoming more competitive and possessive. As teenager after teenager continued to dive, they would resurface with as many sand dollars as they could hold, swim back to shore, and lay them out on beach towels to dry.
As the collections grew, it became apparent that greed was fueling their fun and they had no thought as to the consequences of these living organisms, depleting their numbers in such significant ways, much less what they would do with them. I started to ask what the purpose of collecting so many sand dollars or what they would do with them as they had no means of carrying so many on the plane back to the states. Before I could get very far with this line of conversation, the lifeguard—who had been watching this frenzied excitement—had finally had enough and demanded that they stop collecting the sand dollars.
Later that night, after we had returned to our hotel and were preparing for Compline, I decided to try the conversation regarding the sand dollars again. I began by telling them a parable about a rich guy who had an overly abundant harvest and decided to build bigger store-houses for himself so that he could store his grain and wouldn’t have to worry about what he would eat for years to come. (Think Daffy Duck whenever he takes something he thinks is valuable from Bugs Bunny and begins to cry, “Mine! Mine! Mine!”) To which God calls the rich fellow a fool and the guy ends up dying that very night.
The teens’ first response was that they thought it was crazy that God didn’t like wealthy people. I responded that God does like wealthy people, what God doesn’t like is greediness. So we had a lively discussion about the differences between being wealthy and being greedy. We decided that being wealthy was about living into the faith of the abundance of God—you didn’t necessarily have to have a lot of money to be wealthy, but even if you did you didn’t approach your wealth or money through the fear that you would lose it. Being greedy seemed to be more about living into the fear of limitation—the fear that there wouldn’t be enough of whatever you desired and so you needed to try and acquire as much of it as you possibly could and hold on to as much of it as possible. It was a good discussion and as the conversation began to wane, I asked the more pointed question regarding the episode with the sand dollars earlier that day, “How many sand dollars were enough? At what point had the wealth of abundance become the greed of possession?”
And that’s the fundamental question—when does the wealth of our abundance turn into possessive greed? The greed in which we can never satiate our desires? The greed that misplaces our trust onto something other than God? That kind of greed is idolatry. It not only skews our relationship with God, it causes us to cast blame and doubt instead of searching for light and hope.
In W. H. Auden’s poem, The Sea and the Mirror, he offers this reflection on the harm we do when we begin to overvalue a thing:
Where I go, words carry no weight: it is best,
Then, I surrender their fascinating counsel
To the silent dissolution of the sea
Which misuses nothing because it values nothing;
Whereas man overvalues everything
Yet, when he learns the price is pegged to his valuation,
Complains bitterly he is being ruined which, of course, he is.
Our bitter complaints (or maybe just our fear) of ruin are not only the result of our greed but the motivation for it as well.
Of course the sea values nothing. It is the sea. Our attempts to personify it will never equate to its having a soul or an intentionally directed purpose. Instead it syncs its life and energy, swell upon swell, to the creative rhythms of moon and star, gravitational pull, wind, and the earth’s rotation. Its beingness is simply in the creative existence of God’s beingness. Its power and purpose are defined by its freedom to simply be that which God created it to be. It works to acquire no more and no less than that which God intended and thus the sea misuses nothing because it values nothing and the soul of the sea remains pure.
Man, on the other hand, is a very different sort of created being. Created in the image of God, man is given rational thought and creative abilities to define power and purpose in the partnership that God is always calling us too. When we begin to define the world through the first person singular “I”, we drift away from the freedom we find in living into that which God has created us to be—God’s partner—and instead find ourselves alone, weighted down by our possessions, and drowning in a sea of greed and the fear that we will not have enough.
That is what this parable is about. That is what Paul means when he calls greed idolatry. That is the vanity of vanities. Its not that wealth or abundance are sinful, it is the value we place on personal possessiveness—our need for more, our insatiable appetite to acquire and gain to glorify ourselves and rely only on ourselves. When we use what we have—be it our wealth or our poverty, our abundance or our limitations—to partner with God instead of focusing on ourselves and to invite others in, we discover that we can live into the creative rhythm of God’s beingness. But if we being to overvalue the things around us we discover the price we pay is too costly.
When I asked the question to our youth mission team about how many sand dollars were enough? There was a long awkward pause, the silence stretching for almost a minute before one of the teenage girls finally said, “One. One sand dollar is all I would have needed to remember the joy of this day, the wonder of God’s creation, and the friends I will have for a lifetime.” One. She had collected fifty.
11 Pentecost Proper 13: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
Sunday, August 4, 2019
Church of the Ascension – Montgomery, AL
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer