Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sermon: "The Myth of Abundance" (Exodus 16:1, 13-21)

In common usage, the word “myth” means something that isn’t true; a false belief or idea. However, among theologians and historians, the meaning is different.
To theologians and historians, the word “myth” refers to an idea or story that helps shape who we are as a people. The story may or may not be literally true, but if it helps form the identity and shape the core values of a people, than it is considered a myth.
Wikipedia has it right: Myths are significant because “they contribute to and express a culture's systems of thought and values.” Myths are not true because they actually happened; Myths are true because they embody “beliefs, concepts and ways of questioning to make sense of the world.”
So if you ever hear a Bible scholar talk about the creation myth in Genesis, they mean that the story of creation - whether or not it actually happened - is a story that helps shape what we believe and who we are as a people. It is a mythic story. The ideas it presents are mythic ideas. They help shape who we are.
A society may have myths that compete or conflict with one another. For example, in our society today, there is the myth of scarcity, and the myth of abundance.
The myth of scarcity and the myth of abundance both shape our society. Since they compete with one another, people who are more influenced by one of these myths are often at odds with people who are more influenced by the other.
We see the myth of abundance throughout scripture, starting at the very beginning. The creation myth in Genesis is a myth of abundance. In Genesis, God created a world of plenty, a world where there is an abundance of resources. In that world, there was no hunger, no want, no need.
Myths like the Creation story in Genesis were told orally, passed down from one generation to the next as elders told stories to children and grandchildren. Thus, the details of the story varied, but the main ideas remained the same.
Sandi Eisenberg Sasso is a rabbi and author who - among other things - received a doctorate degree from Christian Theological Seminary, the same seminary I attended. She was also the first rabbi to be ordained in Reconstructionist Judaism.
In one of her books, she talks about the creation myth, mentioning that “a long time ago, when the world was new, many different kinds of fruit grew on each and every tree. Orapples, plumelons, and banangerines ripened on a single branch. The smell of pinango, limeberry, and waterloupe sweetened the air… The earth was warm and soft, and fruit trees grew in abundance.”
That is the myth of abundance. Maybe those exact kinds of fruit never existed, but the message is true: God has created everything we need, and if we take care of it all - if we take care of the earth, if we take care of each other - we will always live in abundance.
In Genesis we read that God created humans to care for creation: for all the plants, all the animals, and the earth itself. That way the earth would continue to provide for God’s household, which is all of humanity.
According to the myth of abundance, everyone wins.
At some point, though, sin entered the world; sin, in the form of greed, envy, jealousy. People began to be afraid that someday, perhaps, there might not be enough to go around. To them, life on earth seemed to be a zero-sum game, in which there were winners and losers.
So they began to hoard resources. They took more than they needed. They built walls and fences around their property to protect it from others who might want it. They considered their own needs as more important than the needs of others. They took more than their share; they even took what belonged to others. They stole from others and even killed others to ensure that they were never left without the resources they needed.
This is the myth of scarcity.
Those who live by the myth of abundance recognize that everything we have comes from God. We may work to obtain what we need, but it’s all a gift from God.
Those who live by the myth of scarcity pride themselves on what they falsely believe to be the sole result of their own efforts. “I made this, I own this… it’s mine.”
The conflict between those who live by the myth of scarcity and those who live by the myth of abundance can be seen in scripture. In Egypt, Pharaoh began hoarding resources because he feared the results of a famine. It may be wise to prepare for a famine, but Pharaoh’s fear led him to eventually embark on a program of genocide against the Hebrews, who he believed had become “too numerous.”
Killing the Hebrews would leave more resources for Pharaoh.
God led the Hebrews out of Egypt. God led them out of the land where the myth of scarcity had led to slavery and genocide. In the wilderness, the Hebrews discovered the myth of abundance. The manna that fell in the wilderness provided for all their needs. It was a gift from God, and everyone had enough; but if anyone tried to hoard the manna, and take more than their share, it would rot away.
With the manna in the wilderness, the Hebrews learned that there is enough. Just enough. They learned to rely on God for their daily bread. They learned to not gather for themselves more than their daily bread. They learned to not take their neighbor’s daily bread.
In the wilderness, they learned to work together, so that every person had enough to be satisfied.
That’s part of the myth of abundance.
The Bible is full of examples contrasting the myth of abundance and the myth of scarcity.
In Mark’s gospel, we read of a banquet Herod threw on the occasion of his birthday. Herod hoarded riches for himself - riches he obtained by oppressively taxing the people. He believed in scarcity, that goodness and blessings were in scarce supply, and that he therefore needed to acquire as much of it as possible. On his birthday, he was eager to show off his riches to his guests.
To make a long story short, the story of Herod’s banquet ends with a death that brings sadness to everyone - even to Herod himself. The story is designed to show that the myth of scarcity is built on a lie.
Mark’s gospel contrasts this banquet with a meal Jesus hosted out in the wilderness. The setting - out in the wilderness - helps stir up the memory of that previous wilderness experience, when the Hebrews gathered their manna and everyone had enough.
This time, the crowds are there, and they are hungry, and there doesn’t seem to be any food. The people are poor, they’ve brought nothing with them, and they were a good distance from any town.
You know how this story ends… There was a boy who had a basket with a few fish and a few loaves of bread. If he or anyone else had noticed that this wasn’t enough for everyone, and if they had tried to hide it or hoard it for themselves, this story would have ended with some very hungry people.
But instead, the boy offered what he had up to Jesus. For whatever reason, he wasn’t worried about his limited supply. Jesus took the bread and gave thanks to God. The disciples distributed the food to the crowd, and everyone had enough. There was even food left over.
That’s the myth of abundance. There is always enough, if we’re willing to share. Everyone can win, everyone can share in the blessings, if we work together.
Sad to say, we have turned our backs on the myth of abundance. Those who make our laws live by the myth of scarcity. They shape economic policy and tax codes to their advantage, so they can pay less taxes and receive greater benefits, while the burden of providing for their wealth increasingly falls to the poor.
And it’s not just lawmakers or the wealthy. More and more you hear people say: “Why should I pay taxes for welfare if I’m working enough to support myself?  Why should I pay taxes for schools if I don’t have children? Why should I pay taxes for the sick to have medical care if I’m healthy?”
And you hear people say “me first” and “America first.” And you hear people talk about building walls and fences to keep people out.
When President Trump announced that America would be pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, he explained why. He said that the Climate Accord “disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries….The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris Agreement. They went wild. They were so happy. For the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very very big economic disadvantage.”
Do you hear the myth of scarcity at work here? Instead of seeing protection of the environment as something that will benefit all people of all countries, in the president’s mind, if there are winners, then there have to be losers. If other countries are benefitting, then America must be losing.
But followers of the way of Jesus know that the myth of abundance is the myth that will eventually prevail. Jesus is life, and he came so that all may have life in abundance. When he was crucified, he came back to life with even greater strength and power. He gave his life away, just like he gave away the limited loaves of bread in the wilderness. He only had so much bread. He only had one life. But life, like the bread, multiplied, until there was more than enough to go around.

The myth of abundance is what shapes the identity of all who follow Christ. It leads us to be people who are generous, people who care, people who share, people who work together - knowing that we all become richer when we do.

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