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Seven Unholy Habits: Avarice & Gluttony

(Full worship service)

Matthew 6.25–34

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A man in Tennessee anticipated a rush on hand sanitizer in the first days of the COVID crisis, so being an enterprising capitalist, he went out and bought all that he could. Close to 18,000 bottles. He and his brother went store to store and cleaned out the shelves. Dollar General. Walmart. Staples. Anywhere they could find hand sanitizer. And then, with a stockpile of product in high demand, he sold them online, for much more than he paid for them, as much as $70 a bottle. In the initial interview with the media, he admitted to making “crazy money,” but also argued that he was providing a “public service.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. In Tennessee, and Kentucky, and Missouri, and Kansas, and really throughout the country, grocery store shelves have been emptied. There has been a rush to stores by families and individuals to make sure that they have enough food for the crisis. Canned goods. Non-perishables. But also food that is probably going bad right now. There has been an incredible rush to buy and hoard food, so much that now government officials have had to tell people to stop hoarding. And yet, many shelves remain empty.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A group of weary and fearful citizens followed a man up a mountain to hear him preach. They were victims of a government that didn’t care about their needs. They were hurting and afraid and spent their time worrying about what they were going to eat, and what they were going to wear, and whether or not they had enough money. They trudged up the side of the mountain with him, hoping to hear something that would calm their fearful souls. And that is when the man sat down, and began to speak.

We are in the home stretch now in our series of the seven capital vices. We skipped a week in there, but it’s all well and good, because today we are going to cover two vices at once. Avarice (or greed). And gluttony. I think greed and gluttony go hand in hand with each other, so treating them together actually works pretty well. Avarice or greed is the vice of excessive love of money and possessions. And gluttony is excessive love of food and eating. It is not a coincidence that both of these seem to be popular fare in the United States. They go hand in hand because both of them are vices of consumption.

Consumption is the norm for Americans. We are consumers. Our market is based on supply and demand of products and services consumed. In general, consumption is not a bad thing. Consuming food is good…it is what we need to do to live. Using money is good…it is the way that we buy the things that we need for ourselves and our families. Scripture does not tell us that food or money are bad. In fact, in the passage today, Jesus says this: “your Father in heaven knows you need these things.” The problem, according to Jesus, and to the ancients who have written about these vices, is when our consumption becomes disordered. Disordered consumption is a problem, and it leads to all kinds of problems in our lives.

To demonstrate this, I want to read a couple of passages from one of my favorite C.S. Lewis books: The Screwtape Letters. The narrator of The Screwtape Letters is a demon, writing to his nephew, a demon in training named Screwtape. The book is a series of lessons to this demon in training about how he should tempt the human that he has been assigned to. What tools he should use. How he should go about it. Of course, for Lewis, this is a brilliant and creative way to share some profound lessons about human nature. About the ways that we sin and the problems that sin causes in our lives. You won’t be surprised, then, that Screwtape receives lessons on using both the vices of greed and gluttony.

First, he speaks to Wormwood of gluttony, describing a woman caught in that vice:

She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered to her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile “Oh please, please…all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.” You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others…The real value of the quiet, unobtrusive work which [the devil] has been doing for years on this old woman can be gauged by the way in which her belly now dominates her whole life. The woman is in what may be called the ‘all I want’ state of mind.

 And listen to what Screwtape has to say about the vice of greed:

The sense of ownership [in human beings] is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims to ownership that sound equally funny in Heaven and Hell and we must keep them doing so….We [the demons] produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun—the finely graded differeneces that run from “my boots” through “my dog,” “my servant,” “my wife,” “my father,” “my master” and “my country,” to “my God.” They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of “my boots,” the “my” of ownership….

You see in both cases how the demons conspire to create a disordered consumption in the human experience. Again, this is not to suggest that money is evil, or that food is evil. But as Screwtape learns, it is easy to get upside down in the ways that we relate to either of these things. When we fall prey to these vices, we believe that we are the ones in charge. And all of a sudden, it becomes absolutely normal to charge $70 for a bottle of hand-sanitizer, or hoard seven loaves of bread that we will clearly not be able to eat before it goes bad.

But look at what Jesus does with this idea of disordered consumption. Open again his words on the Sermon on the Mount, and you’ll see that he re-orders our consumption. Again, it isn’t that we don’t need to consume, but look at how we consume when God’s grace is at the forefront: “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you.” Instead of consuming in ways that possess, or ways that demand…instead of consuming in ways that presume that it is up to us…Jesus reorders our consumption so that we understand who is really in possession of all consumable goods.

The ancients called this the way of Providence.

Instead of a disordered consumption, Jesus invites us to see God’s provision.

 What this reordered consumption does is reorder all of our relationships, changing the way that we trust:

  • Of course, it changes the way that we trust God. When we see the world in the context of God’s provision, and not our possession, then it changes the way that we eat, the way that we spend, the way that we own.
  • From there, it changes the way that we trust one another. Instead of suspecting the other, thinking that they might steal our stuff, or hoarding food so that others cannot have, we share openly with others. We trust one another as equal recipients of God’s provision.
  • Finally, it changes the way that we trust ourselves. There are, of course, dangers of too much and too little consumption, but the middle ground is the place that we call health. Trusting the God of provision leads us to financial health, physical health, and spiritual health. Out of this right relationship, we understand that we are God’s image, the Imago Dei.

A reordered consumption shows us what it means to live life based on God’s provision and not ours!

This is what the church has tried to teach, as we seek to live out the life of trust in God’s providence. Look again at the guy in Tennessee who hoarded all this hand sanitizer. Before long, people realized what he was doing and leveled charges of price fixing against him. Eventually, he had to give all 17,700 bottles away. So what did they do with them? Gave them to the churches in his area…because they know how to care for people. The same with food. Who is giving away food in the midst of this crisis? The churches! Including ours, which has found safe ways to give away food at our weekly and our monthly Mobile food pantries. Of course, sometimes churches need to be reminded of our own disordered consumption as well. But more often than not, we get it right. Why? Because we know the One who does the ordering. We know how to trust in the One who provides. We try our best to seek first the Kingdom, and see what happens next.

One final word from Screwtape along these lines, a reminder that even the demons have this figured out:

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.

So, how do we practice this trust? How do we live by seeking the Kingdom first? Again, it is the history of the ancients who have taught us this from the beginning. When it comes to food, what practice does the church offer? The discipline of fasting. Of setting aside food for a time, or the decadence of food, or a certain type of food. Of course, we must do it in a healthy way, but when we do, we are able to reorder our consumption, remind ourselves who created the food and how it is meant to bring health to our bodies. And the same thing for money. What is the practice of how to reorder our spending? The tithe. It is a way that ancient Christians—and Hebrews before them—knew to set aside the first fruits, the first 10% of their income, to support the ministries of the Kingdom through the Church. Again, it reorders the idea of possession, reminding us that God gives us back 90% in order to pay for our needs. Both of these practices help remind us, reorder for us, the practice of healthy consumption.

 One final demonstration.

I want you to set a book in front of you. And then clinch your fists as tightly as you can. Then, with fists still clinched, I want you to open the book and read the first few words of page seven. Tough, isn’t it? So is living life clinching and grabbing and possessing all that we can. Now, open your hands and try again. Turn to page seven and read the first few words. How much easier is it with hands open? In the same way, how much easier is it to receive with palms open the goodness of God’s love and providence?

Today, may we learn to live with palms wide open, hearts wide open, eyes wide open to God’s love and grace and care. Today, may we learn to live and give in trust, knowing that God cares for even the sparrows. Thus I know he watches me.

 


A bulletin with the order of worship is available at https://bit.ly/2QOCyXK.

During the Moment for Mission and Stewardship time in the video, you’re invited to contribute/continue your pledge giving using SimpleGive on FBC’s website at https://bit.ly/3byVwd0. To contribute to the America for Christ offering, choose “ABC Seasonal Offering” from the “Fund” drop-down menu. For pledge giving, choose “Operating Fund.” We understand some may need to reduce their giving during this time. If there are those who are able to increase their giving to compensate, it’s much appreciated.

Licensing:

Although “In the Garden” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness” were identified in YouTube’s copyright summary, the versions of these songs in this video are in the public domain.

“When Jesus Walked in Galilee,”
words by Warren Charles Klein, music by Clara Edwards. Musical score, published by G. Schirmer Inc., New York, 1928
CCLI License #20126570

 

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