Listen to our service and sermon below:
Joseph Heller was an American novelist, most famous for his book, Catch-22. After his death, his friend Kurt Vonnegut wrote a poem about him. Here it is:
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace. 1
Isn’t that wonderful?—to say of a billionaire: “I’ve got something he can never have.” “What on earth could that be, Joe?” “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.” Part of what’s right about the poem is that it ends with Vonnegut saying to his friend, “Rest in peace,” because the man who knew he had enough was also at peace.
The flipside is also true. People who can never get enough but want more and more have no peace, only restlessness, agitation, envy, and rancor. On that point the New Testament book called James could not be more adamant: “The conflicts and disputes among you [literally, the wars and the battles among you], where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder; and you covet something and can’t have it; so you engage in disputes and conflict—battles and wars.”
What a claim: that the root of the conflicts among us is our wanting what we do not have. Surely this is an exaggeration. Surely to say, “you covet and so you murder,” is hyperbole, and surely not all our arguing and bitterness is rooted in somebody’s greed. Still, look at the endless succession of wars in human history, so often claimed to be waged over competing ideologies, values, and religion, when mostly it was somebody wanting somebody’s land and resources or to seize control of what they craved to control.
As for the ugly divisions and conflicts within our own country now, do you think we’d have come to this, apart from people wanting what wasn’t theirs and taking it, or trying to? The whole engine of our culture works by the aggravation of desire—take all you can, or steal it. From the start, steal the land and the lives of native people; and steal the bodies and the lives of African people, and enslave them. And men taking the bodies and dignity and rights of women, and still doing it. And the rich get more and more, though apparently never enough, so greed rigs the system. Society at large is churning with appetite and envy and resentment and short-term self-interest. We are a culture of me and mine and us and ours. Do you think we’d have gotten to the political/societal crisis we’re in—that we’d be the culture of so much physical, relational, and ideological violence—had we not been a people so enflamed with wanting what should not be ours?
And here were these words all along, written to little church twenty centuries ago like a time capsule with our names on it: “The conflicts and disputes among you… they come from… your cravings that are at war within you… you covet something and can’t have it; so you engage in your battles and wars.”
Could it be true of us? Are my conflicts rooted in envy and craving? It don’t think it sounds much like me; does it sound like you? But maybe we should start at the other end. Is there conflict in my life, in yours? Are we out of sorts, put out with others, critical, impatient, judgmental? If the answer is yes—and it is—the text invites us to ask: could agitated wanting lie behind it? Often enough, the deep answer is yes.
For some, it’s bound to be in part about possessions. We see what others have that we don’t, and it gnaws at us. We wish we had more money, wish our future were more secure, wish we didn’t have to worry about paying what has to be paid, wish we had nicer things; I want that, I want that!—man, I want that! That’s a jagged and frustrated heart. Such a heart may be unable to engage the world fully and freely with self-giving love..
But it’s not just craving material possessions that is poison. You don’t have to crave money or things to be possessed of destructive wanting. Maybe what we’ve got is a craving for other people’s approval, the desire to impress, a need to be in charge, a lust for admiration and praise. You’d think there’s no harm in it, but the problem is that there will never, ever be enough, and the wound of our own unsatisfied need will always be a restless agitation, making deep peace within us and among us impossible. The problem with your wanting, says James, is that “you want what you cannot have.”
But my list of frustrated wants is a good deal longer than money and things and physical pleasures and status and the approval of others. In the end, in the dark, there are other cravings, desperate from my fearful heart.
I want certainty!—and the answer comes—No.
I want security, assurances, guarantees!—No.
I want no pain, no terror, no loneliness, no grief!—Sorry.
I want control!—Never.
I want peace of mind!—No. But you may have the peace of Christ, which is not always the same as peace of mind.
You’ve wanted the wrong things, says James; and you don’t have what you need, because you have not asked. And with that, he lays his finger on the very heart of the human situation. We are given to wanting what isn’t ours to have. We want what belongs to others, or we want what we can get but will never be satisfied by, or we want is not possible or even real. And the madness of so much frustrated desire leaves us flailing, too restless to be at peace with ourselves or with each other. So the question becomes: What should I want? Beneath all legitimate desires and phony destructive and deluded desires, what is right to want, and with all my heart to ask for?
Among the many true and worthy answers to that question—answers that will pertain to love and to trust and to faithfulness and to God—the answer I make for myself is this: I want my eyes opened to the blessings of God’s love, and to be thankful.
Twice in today’s text James refers to our problem as envy. I had forgotten till this week that our word envy comes from the Latin, invidia, which means, “not seeing.” I am envious, I desire falsely, because I am not seeing the truth about my life: not seeing how drenched I am in blessing, how surrounded and upheld by the riches of love, how much I’ve been forgiven, how much joy and beauty and kindness and high purpose and tender mercy is laid upon my world, our world. To see this is to be swept into gratefulness, and gratefulness makes what we have enough, more than enough. It also makes us kind to each other, and forgiving, and generous. Fred Craddock said, “I have never known a person grateful who was at the same time small or mean or bitter or greedy, selfish, or took any pleasure in anybody else’s pain. Never.”
That’s what ends the war that comes from all our wanting: the opening of our eyes to the truth of God’s gifts, and saying Yes. What a waste of the truth to do otherwise. Hear these words from pastor/theologian Stephen Shoemaker: “There are many sad things in this world—here are some of the saddest: to try to buy what can only be given, to try to earn what is yours already, to search the world over for a treasure buried in your own back yard, to live forever trying to earn God’s love and never discover that it is a gift as free as the rain that falls from the skies.”
It’s all there—the blessing, the superabundance of love and grace are already given. And the task we have of bringing peace to each other and helping to bring peace to the world begins in the knowledge that we have enough—far, far more than enough.
1 Kurt Vonnegut, “Joe Heller,” The New Yorker (May 16, 2005), 38.