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The Cloak

Sermon
Sermons On The Second Reading
Series I, Cycle A
If you can't refute the argument, then you can attack the person, and the best way to attack a person is to question the motives. So Paul is responding to attacks upon the Good News of Jesus Christ by those who have attacked him and questioned his motives for coming to Thessalonica. He rejoices that when he came to preach, people heard the message joyfully. Paul says he preaches because he has to. He preaches to please God. But, of course, there were some who suggested that Paul was really preaching from some other reason. He was preaching in order to enhance his own self-interest.

We have become pretty cynical about public people. Why is that person being so nice to me? Better hold on to my wallet. No sooner does the president get through a speech than somebody on some television talk show begins to tell you the real reasons behind the speech. It is not that the president believes what he is saying. He has more selfish motives. This speech on Medicare in Florida is because he needs the senior-citizen vote in the November election. His visits to North Carolina are self-serving because he wants a Republican majority in the Senate.

The critics were suggesting that Paul had a lot of selfish interests in his preaching at Thessalonica. Behind his efforts to build up the Body of Christ was his own desire to make himself rich by the collections. His preaching of God's grace was a mask behind which he hid his greed. His preaching was a cloak behind which he plotted his economic advances. He was going to ask for a big offering for the church at Jerusalem and keep the purse for himself. He was being kind to the widows so that he could ask them for big gifts. Certainly there have been preachers who have done it that way. Jim and Tammy Bakker seemed to make a pretty good haul with the PTL Club, where they cloaked their greed behind their gospel.

But the larger question now is: Why would anybody bother with trying to hide their greed with a cloak? More and more it seems like there is little embarrassment about greed in the culture. It hardly seems worth the effort to try to hide the motivation of greed. In so many places and in lots of different ways it almost appears as if greed is becoming a virtue.

In the movie Wall Street, the leading character gives a speech and he finally declares that greed is good. Greed is motivation for productivity. Greed is the source of great dreams. Greed is the emotion that drives the engines of capitalism. "Individual autonomy is expressed most fully through acquisition and protection of private property. Those who own and consume the most are the most valued human beings." The desire for more, the lust for the new, the artificially created needs make us more aggressive consumers. Human beings have become defined simply as consumers, and that is good because economic growth requires ever-increasing consumption. George Bush blessed greed by declaring an annual "national day of the consumer." Who would want to cloak that? Why try to cover up a national day of celebration for consumers?

Ah, yes, naturally you have a few bad eggs in the equation. Top executives at Tyco, Enron, and AOL let their aggressive consumerism get out of hand, but we try to pretend they are the exception. But the truth is that in the last decade from l990 to 2000 the average pay for corporation officers rose 463 percent while the profits in those companies only rose 88 percent and the average worker's pay rose only 42 percent in the same length of time. Inflation rose in the decade 36 percent. The current CEO to worker pay ratio of 411 to 1 is nearly ten times as large as the 42 to 1 ratio in place in 1982. If the minimum wage had grown like corporation executive salaries had grown, the minimum wage now would be $21.41 per hour instead of the $5.15 an hour it is now. And nobody tries to cover that up or put a cloak over it and to keep it hidden.1

We haven't even begun to talk about how that never-ending desire for more, for bigger, for the highest has affected professional sports and changed the entertainment world, or affected the way we shop and the way we eat, the way we accumulate more and more stuff, to get and to move on to the next thing to get. More and more catalogues for more and more stuff keep coming into our houses, and, afflicted by the same culture that we all live in, we look at them to see if there is "anything I need." There is a new tool. We don't need another tool, but we don't have that tool. We put the catalogue down, but a day or two later we come back to the catalogue. We look at the tool. We can imagine all kinds of projects and pieces of furniture we could make with that tool. We would be so much more efficient. We would be so much better as a craftsman with that tool. We would be so impressed with ourselves as the skilled craftsman we could become with that tool. So we order the tool. The tool comes. We open the box. We plug it in, and the machine makes its wonderful sound. We have all the tools we need for our current projects. So we put the tool back in the box. We put it on the shelf. We come back to the house. We pick up the catalogue and look for the next tool. Why? It is the hunger of greed in us that wants more and more, that encourages us to super-size my meals when we do not need all the calories in the regular serving. But we get more with the super-size.

All of this desire for more, this hunger of the human heart for more, this passion for accumulation never seems to be satisfied. The restless gnawing at the human for that which we do not have is always for more. It is as if we all had hollow legs into which we keep pouring more and more stuff and it is never full. Not long ago one of the state's banks had a series of commercials that would show money in some activity of leisure while it showed the human in some hard-working capacity, and the refrain of these commercials was "I think my money should be working harder." We want more interest. We want more profit. We want more because nothing we ever get satisfies us.

The old preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes went from fame to knowledge to power to wealth, and each time, he concluded that it was emptiness, vanity, vanity, all is vanity, and he was not talking about pride; he was saying it was smoke and mirrors, all mist and clouds; mirage, which offered a promise of satisfaction, but when you grabbed it, it all disappeared. Getting the new tool does not satisfy the hunger that wanted the new tool. Signing the big contract with an NFL team does not answer the insecurity in the heart of the player who signed the contract. Perhaps that is why Walter Brueggeman has written that "consumerism is not simply a market strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us" -- the demonic myth that the spiritual hunger in each of us can be satisfied with the things of this world.

Poet Francis Thompson's long poem "Hound of Heaven" traces the journey of Ecclesiastes again as the writer flees from the presence and grace of God because the poet is afraid that in serving God, all the beauties and blessings of earth will be taken from him. In order to serve God, the poet fears that he will have to abstain from all the good things of the earth. But God continues to pursue. God, the Hound Dog of Heaven, keeps stirring up the hunger of the heart. That hunger that is not satisfied with anything the earth offers. "Naught shelters thee," God tells the poet, "Nothing will shelter thee, who will not shelter Me." So that in the end the poet discovers that God is the one for whom he has been looking and hungering all along. God says, "Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, I am He Who thou seekest, Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me." You drive love away from yourself when you drive God away from yourself. As long as we seek to satisfy our itch with more of the stuff around us, the less chance we have to welcome into that space the grace and mercy of God that will begin to quiet that hunger and reduce that drive for acquisition of more and more.

Paul says, "I did not use the gospel as a cloak for greed because I have discovered in the grace of God how to be at peace in the world whether I have lots or have little. I know both how to be abased and I know how to abound every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need." The love of God speaks to the insecurity and the need that is at the center of our greed and as we focus on the gift of grace in Jesus Christ, as we rejoice and affirm over and over again that in Jesus Christ we have been given life and life more abundant, there becomes less and less we have to have, less and less we want. We begin to look around and discover that we have too much stuff. We have cluttered our lives with piles and piles and we now begin to wonder what in the world we are going to do with all this stuff.

It is a hunger for God that agitates our souls and is exploited by the world for economic growth. It is the emptiness of the soul for the love of God that sends us to the market place looking for something to fill the hole. It is the love and mercy of God that feeds that hunger with a sense of who we are, with giving us a calling to be faithful people, gives us a work to do in sharing the resources of the world with all people, and brings us into the community of the faithful so that we are a part of a community and not isolated individuals. We need some food. We need some clothing. We need some stuff, but we need the presence and grace of God to touch the deepest hunger in our heart, and in the joy of God's dwelling in us we discover what Paul discovered about contentment. "Everything depends on knowing how much. Good is knowing when to stop."


____________

1. Scott Kling and Chris Hartman, "Executive Excess 2002: CEO's Cook the Books, Skewer the Rest of Us," Ninth Annual CEO Compensation Survey (Boston: Institute for Policy Studies, United for a Fair Economy, 2002), p. 15.
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