What’s the most dangerous word you know? Growing up, it was “hate,” an ugly, ugly word that said much more about me than it did the focus of my judgment.
What’s the most dangerous word you know? Listen to one political party describe members or agendas of the opposing party. They have some words they use with fiery precision.
Or consider someone with an overdeveloped sense of superiority. Those who feel in some way exceptional have plenty of dangerous words they use to describe those they deem racially, intellectually, or physically inferior.
Taking my cue from Jesus’s parable this morning, I would suggest that one of the most dangerous words we use is “mine.” My accomplishment. My land. My abundant harvest. My need for new buildings to store my grain and goods.
On Jesus’ mind, this morning is the treacherous spiritual territory we get into when—out of ignorance or ego—we imagine that we alone are free to take the credit for our good fortune.
Living as we do in a nation of bootstraps and self-made men and women, living as we do in a country that says anyone who wants can indeed become the President or, now perhaps, the richest person in the world, we Americans have a hard time seeing how concerning this “me, mine” way of thinking is. How toxic even.
During my years living in the Navajo Nation, I learned plenty about who owns what and why. Nothing was solely mine. Anything I possessed, any talent I had, any time I had free was a resource held in trust by those around me.
My little grey truck? It belonged to everyone. If I was tooling toward Flagstaff or Farmington and someone was walking along the dusty shoulder of the road with a thumb held out, then my pickup wasn’t just my ride to town; it was now public transportation. To speed past someone who was on foot and not pull over was a special kind of abomination.
On the reservation, “mine” was a loosely-held descriptor. Like a sugar cube dropped in a glass of iced tea, it dissolved quickly.
When my Navajo boyfriend went to town and found buyers for his handcrafted jewelry, the cash that lined his pockets was not entirely his. When we returned home, it was understood by everyone in Eddie’s circle that his plenty was a resource that required sharing. When uncle came by needing gas money, it was provided. When sister was out of flour for fry bread, a fresh 50-pound bag of Bluebird Flour quietly appeared on her doorstep.
Seeing how quickly Eddie’s hard-earned profits dissipated, this well-meaning Anglo suggested that before Eddie came home, he should take a portion of his earnings and bank it. Ten percent, I suggested. That way, he could share with his relatives but still be able to tend to his own needs. The look I received was a mix of disdain and disgust. My “helpful” idea was revolting, culturally speaking.
Last Sunday in worship, we thought together about the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, the one we Christians are still reciting thousands of years after Jesus walked the earth.
It’s a simple prayer, more haiku than dissertation, I suggested.
It’s also a little sneaky, in the best sense of that word. The prayer’s sneakiness is this: week in and week out, the pray quietly stresses that we are a God-formed community, not merely a collection of individuals who come together because we have a hankering to.
“Our Father,” Jesus tells us to begin. What we go on to pray for emphasizes our common needs, our common experience, our common hopes, our common humanity. Our common vulnerabilities and foibles, too.
You’ll find no “me” or “mine” in the prayer Jesus taught. Just “us.” Just “our.” Just a foundational assumption, a core belief, that we are inextricably bound one to the other. And to God, of course.
By teaching us to use “we” language, Jesus helps us understand that in God’s realm, no one is excluded. No one falls outside the bounds of community because they’re doing just fine on their own, thank you very much, or because poor choices or challenging circumstances qualify them for social exile.
If “me” and “mine” are dangerous words, dangerous concepts, then Jesus implies, “we,” “our,” and “together” are helpful, necessary words that tip us toward the kingdom; they point us toward God’s dream for the human family.
It’s not just the Navajo who embrace this “all for one and one for all” ethos. Many cultures have and do. Throughout the ages and across the globe, many cultures have understood that we aren’t each left to our own devices in life. We belong to one another, even when we aren’t related.
Take the Senegalese soccer star, Sadio Mané, who makes millions annually playing for Liverpool. Rather than hoard his wealth, Mané gives substantial amounts away to people in his country. “Why would I want ten Ferraris, 20 diamond watches, or two planes? What will these objects do for me and for the world?”
“I was hungry, and I had to work in the field; I survived hard times, played [soccer] barefooted, I did not have an education and many other things, but today with what I earn thanks to [soccer], I can help my people. I built schools, a stadium; we provide clothes, shoes, food for people who are in extreme poverty.”
“In addition, I give 70 euros per month to all the people in a very poor region in Senegal, which contributes to their family economy. I do not need to display luxury cars, luxury homes, trips, and even planes. I prefer that my people receive a little of what life has given me.”
You and I might be inclined to call this charity. Mané and those like him call this being part of being human, part of belonging to the whole.
Whatever our net worth might be, whatever our worldly accomplishments, there is no getting around the fact that we have what we have and are who we are because of the genetic inheritances we have received, the investments others have made in us, and the invitations to participate in life which have come our way.
It’s an affront to God and everyone else to step out onto the porches of our lives, fling out our arms, and say what the man in Jesus’ parable said, “Look at what I did. Look at what I possess.”
Bless his heart, this is the deep wisdom in what Senator Bernie Sanders has tried to help our bootstrap-believing nation grasp. Those blessed with great wealth have created that wealth not simply because they are clever and connected, not simply because they have been determined and strategic. The rich have what they have because the rest of us have enabled them to succeed, Bernie keeps reminding us. In one way or another, we have all helped underwrite the prosperity of the wealthiest Americans.
For instance, the Walton family of Walmart would not be where they are today were it not for the roads and bridges our taxes have funded. The same with Jeff Bezos of Amazon.
We would not have so many millionaires and billionaires were there not so many backs to build empires on. And we would not have the significant inequities we have if we were not also prone to behaving as the man in Jesus’ parable, who imagines that it is his labors alone, his ingenuity alone, that have been duly rewarded.
Let’s be careful. Jesus doesn’t tell his story today so that we can say in protest, “eat the rich.” Jesus is not giving us license this morning to judge the wealthy for their self-congratulatory poses and the myopia that has them see only themselves in the big picture.
Jesus isn’t highlighting worldly wealth so much as he is spotlighting spiritual poverty. And we are all subject to this affliction. It’s just that some cases are more obvious than others.
We are all capable of spiritual amnesia, that is, forgetting how so much of what we have and are is the direct result of forces and flows beyond ourselves.
The man in Jesus’ story has been blinded to the good gifts of sun and rain, rich soil and fertile seed, the bent backs, and sacrifices of those whose work it was to tend the man’s crops. Rich beyond worldly measure, the man in Jesus’ parable is as poor as the man with nothing to his name.
If “me” is a dangerous word, so is “not me.” Spiritual poverty afflicts more than the wealthy. Even those of us with relatively little has more than we realize, more reason than we realize to praise the God from whom all blessings flow, and more ways than we imagine to share with those who hunger and thirst.
Last Sunday, we challenged ourselves to investigate the “why” behind our participation in this expression of God’s church. And more importantly, we challenged ourselves to explore and identify God’s why. That is God’s core reason for calling us into being and sustaining us all these years.
Spiritually speaking, we are a community of faith that is incredibly wealthy. We don’t want a building, we don’t want to erect a bigger barn.
Even so, we may forget (or doubt) how famished some in our community are, and how eager they are to feast on the harvest that is here.
As a church, we aren’t self-absorbed hoarders by any stretch, we aren’t the rich man in the story, but neither do we belong to ourselves. Simply put: we are not our own.
If we were together at the Ute, this would be the moment when we would open our hymnals and sing a familiar Brian Wren hymn. Instead, I will read the words Brian has penned and trust that the music will find us:
We are not our own. Earth forms us,
human leaves on nature’s growing vine,
fruit of many generations,
seeds of life divine.
We are not alone. Earth names us:
past and present, peoples near and far,
family and friends and strangers
show us who we are.
Through a human life God finds us;
dying, living, love is fully known,
and in bread and wine reminds us:
we are not our own.
Therefore let us make thanksgiving,
and with justice, willing and aware,
give to earth, and all things living,
liturgies of care.
And if love’s encounters lead us
on a way uncertain and unknown,
all the saints with prayer surround us:
We are not alone.
Let us be a house of welcome,
living stone upholding living stone,
gladly showing all our neighbors
we are not our own!