Sermon: Desiring the Rich Inheritance
Texts: Genesis 11:1-6a; Ephesians 1:11-19; Luke 19:1-11
Date: October 30, 2016
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
The first part of the book of Genesis answers a number of “Why?” questions. The myth of the tower of Babel seems to address the question of why we have so many languages on Earth.
It’s also a story about desire. Desire that seems insatiable.
The human beings, replenishing the human species after the great Flood, reached a new technological achievement: they learned how to make bricks and stick them together with tar. It’s a giant leap forward from building houses of stone stuck together with mud. Zoning laws hadn’t yet been invented, so they hit on the idea of building a tower clear up to the heavens. By so doing they would make a name for themselves, and stand together against any force that would scatter them. They might have thought, given their cosmology, that they would be able to reach the realm of the gods. They may still have wanted to become like God; their ancestors’ experience in the Garden of Eden hadn’t cured them of that desire.
The Message translation of this story voices God’s assessment of the human beings: “They’ll stop at nothing.” Truer words were never spoken about our beloved species. We are an insatiable breed, even when we can sense self-destruction up ahead.
In the myth God confuses human language so they will continue their migrations and blossom into a beautiful diversity. But this tactic didn’t cure human insatiability; it just spread it around the face of the earth and resulted in many different ways to say one of our very favorite words: “Mine.”
I was thinking about this anchor word, “Mine,” at the same time we were planning to use the symbol of birds in flight in the sanctuary to symbolize our remembrance of those who have died, since All Saints Day is just around the corner. The image of birds in flight has long been a symbol of the spirit soaring to other realms after death, across many cultures. (We’ll get to that ritual of remembrance a little later in the hour.) While I recognize it’s a risky move to take a single symbol and suggest two different meanings in one worship service, I can’t resist bringing some seagulls into the sermon. Seagulls with a one word vocabulary: “Mine.”
Pixar fans will recognize these seagulls from the movie “Finding Nemo.” I think it’s a wonderful depiction of single-minded greed and insatiable hunger. Here’s another seagull scene a few moments on:
The seagulls in this story are not evil, wicked creatures. They’re just doing what seagulls do. They will gobble up others in their hunger, and their avid pursuit of what they want gets them into trouble. It’s quite telling that they keep yelling “Mine” even when they are stuck fast in the sail they’ve crashed into, arresting their flight.
Our house looks over the water on a high bluff, and that means that we see and hear seagulls practically every day. It’s true that they’re often in pursuit of food; a bird’s gotta eat. I really love watching them, though, on a breezy day when they are out playing on the wind. It seems as though they have this capacity for sheer joy on such days, reveling in flight. Watching them soar is inspiring. Doesn’t it seem like these birds have both the insatiable hunger and the will to rise–to soar–in them?
I may be projecting too much onto seagulls. But I do know humans, being one, and I know we have within us both a desire to consume and a desire to soar–to transcend earthly bounds and rise to heavenly realms. I see both aspects of humanity in the story of building a tower in Genesis. The tower-builders may have been trying to consolidate their power and become famous, flaunt their achievements and their dominance. But let’s acknowledge also this grand urge to ascend to the heavenly realm, to have fellowship with God; to rise above who they have been, to get a higher perspective. The urge to ascend is not in itself corrupt.
The other day I dipped into a book by Vincent J. Miller titled Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. In it Miller suggests that the concern about the cultivation of desire is something that capitalism shares with Christianity. Both capitalism and Christianity know endless, insatiable longing. Miller quotes Saint Gregory of Nyssa: “Never to reach satiety of desiring is truly to see God.” He also recalls Augustine’s insight that human hearts are always restless—restlessly seeking God.
The point Miller is trying to make (as I understand it) is that you can’t try to cut off desire in and of itself in human beings. If you did, you’d kill Christianity right along with consumer culture. The desire for union with God, the desire for transcendence, for doing better, being better, ascending out of the muddy cellar of daily existence are all essential to Christian faith. It’s not desire that’s the problem. It’s what you desire that can become problematic.
Miller uses this helpful metaphor. Picture railroad tracks. The track of Christianity and consumer culture are different. But the conflict “lacks the definitiveness of a head-on collision; rather it has about as much drama as a train switching tracks and going in a slightly different direction. This deflection is of a piece with consumer culture’s capacity to exploit any narrative, belief, or value. Just as it can turn any culture into content to be marketed, it can yoke just about any desire to the task of furthering consumption. Although any number of reprehensible values are exploited by marketers to hawk merchandise, these will always be intermixed with laudable ones as well. Thus, easy contrasts between the object or telos of consumer and Christian desires will fail us.”
For instance: One of my colleagues was at a conference and was visiting what I think was a pop-up shop to sell books and other merchandise to the attendees. She posted a few pictures of the “pastor appreciation” section of the store. Front and center were bronze statuettes of buff, pious looking men on their knees praying. There was an array of other manly merchandise behind the figures. She was pointing out the lack of any appreciation gifts for women in ministry. But take a step back and consider the deflection of the entirely laudable desire to appreciate a minister which produced a table of bronzed merchandise. The value of expressing gratitude for service was not in conflict with Christianity—no head on collision here. Just a side track of “buy this neat stuff to say thank you.”
Miller writes about what he names “misdirection”—the association of needs and desires with commodity objects and the resultant channeling of the drive to fulfill the needs into acts of consumption. One good example is the human social need for identity and belonging. Some of the traditional markers of identity and belonging have eroded in recent years, and people sometimes turn to consuming products to fill in the vacuum. Seahawks gear in this area, for instance, is something you can buy to help you feel like you belong. I have worn the Seahawks shirt John gave me to the city a few times on “Blue Friday” and have surprised myself at how much I enjoy being considered part of the tribe. I get a kick out of seeing other people wearing their Seahawks stuff, especially on Fridays.
There’s nothing wrong with the desire to belong, to identify with something bigger than yourself. It’s easy to see, though, how such a desire can be misdirected to get you to get more stuff. Similar desires for success in romance and friendship, adventure, various political and ethical concerns and so forth can all be cannily attached to a thing and sold to us. We are not always conscious of this kind of misdirection, so we may unconsciously be “locked in an endlessly frustrating attempt to sate spiritual desires with objects and actions that can never fulfill them.”
Miller thinks one of the reasons we fall prey to consumerism is that the holy restlessness behind seeking union with God (“Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You”) is too comparable to the restlessness that consumer economies create and sustain. The two kinds of restlessness feel profoundly similar—they both make us want to ascend. In our heart of hearts, we want to soar to union with God. But we settle for building a tower of consumer goods that fulfill restlessness and answer desires for connection, identity, beauty and success momentarily—that fleeting thrill of saying “Mine.”
Our text from Ephesians uses the language of “inheritance” as a metaphor for Christian faith. There is a prayer that we would receive a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know Christ, that we might recognize “what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” Such words attempt to get believers of every age back on the right track if they have been switched to pursuing earthly goods and goals instead of pursuing their spiritual inheritance. The author affirms the community’s faith and their love. I hear in these words an affirmation of their desire to be good and do good; now just keep your eyes on the prize—the rich inheritance of relationship with Christ, marked by the seal of the Holy Spirit. It takes wisdom–it takes the eyes of the heart being enlightened–to resist being sidetracked into the pursuit of lesser riches.
Luke’s story of Zacchaeus is a wonderful tale of eyes being opened to the riches of a relationship with Christ. He climbed up the tree to catch sight of Jesus. But when he climbed down, at Jesus’ invitation, it wasn’t long before he figured out that he had been barking up the wrong tree all this time. We don’t know much about Zacchaeus; just that he was a short tax collector who had done well enough to become rich and become chief among his colleagues. Since he was a human being like us, we can presume that he had similar desires to our own. He wanted to live. Let’s suppose, in addition, that like other humans, he wanted to love and be loved. He wanted to belong. He wanted to transcend ugliness and despair. He wanted to soar; he wanted to rise.
His normal human desires got sidetracked into a profession that led him to exploit people in pursuit of wealth. It’s easy to imagine that being despised by other people for collaborating with the Romans in collecting taxes made him double down on acquiring money and stuff, seeking grudging admiration for his wealth from the populace. Having sniveling toadies isn’t the same as having friends, but the desire for having people acknowledge your worth runs in the same direction, on a parallel track. Misdirected desire.
Something about the way Jesus loved him, and recruited him for the role of gracious host, opened Zacchaeus’ eyes. He saw that the Way of Jesus with its loving fellowship, its generosity, its equality, its hospitality, its connection with a loving God was where the real riches were. That word—“Mine!”—suddenly lost its appeal. By the time dessert was served he was ready to give away half of his possessions. He abruptly left off being a social climber and started making amends with his excessive wealth. One of the Bible study questions I found on this text asks what kind of spiritual experience would make you give away half of what you possess?
I imagine that even as Zacchaeus descended from the tree to the table, as he descended from the upper crust to the grounded community, as he descended, his heart soared. As it was always meant to do. Because faith is the richest treasure of all.