Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, 20 September 2015. Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37.
In the early days of Facebook, founder Mark Zuckerberg received many offers from people who wanted to buy the company. An anonymous financier from New York offered $10 million. When he moved to Palo Alto, Google wanted to buy. In 2005, Viacom offered $75 million. Every time, he said no. In the summer of 2006, Yahoo offered an astonishing $1 billion. Zuckerberg walked into the board meeting, and announced, “Okay, guys, this is just a formality. It shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. We’re obviously not going to sell here.”
At every turn Zuckerberg rejected offers because he trusted that the company was even more valuable than everybody else thought. “We built this to last,” he told one of his partners. “These guys don’t have a clue.”
Patrick Daniel, a writer who follows Zuckerberg’s career, wrote an article in which he speculated about what made Zuckerberg resist all of these offers. He pointed to an interest listed on Zuckerberg’s Facebook page – Eliminating Desire. Someone asked Zuckerberg about the phrase in an interview. Zuckerberg explained, “I just want to focus on what we’re doing. It would be very easy to get distracted and get caught up in short-term things or material things that don’t matter. The phrase is actually ‘Eliminating desire for all that doesn’t really matter.'”
Patrick Daniel attributed the idea to Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha, was on a quest for peace and contentment. He was born into a life of excess and pleasure, but that did not bring him peace. He then tried a life of deprivation and extreme self-denial, but that did not bring him peace. Finally he sat under a Bodhi tree and meditated for a long time. He came to the conclusion that life is suffering and suffering is caused by desire. If you eliminate desire, then you lessen suffering for yourself and for others. He envisioned an 8 fold path for eliminating desire – right vision, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right concentration, right mindfulness. These four ideas are often called the four noble truths of Buddhism. Many forms of Buddhism help people follow the 8 fold path and eliminate desire for things that don’t really matter. I don’t know if Zuckerberg is a practicing Buddhist, but he apparently admires this particular teaching.
But this idea was around long before Buddhism. It also present in the teachings of Jesus, the wisdom of Judaism, and the book of James.
For the past several weeks we have talked about lessons from the book of James. James is attributed to James the brother of Jesus who was the first leader of the church in Jerusalem. Though in the form of a letter, it reads like wisdom literature, like Proverbs. It deals extensively with how to speak and how to treat others. In today’s passage the writer seems to be aware of some tension or conflict in the early church. And the writer attributes that tension to cravings at war within us. Like the disciples on the road with Jesus, the early church was still arguing about who was the greatest.
James wrote – For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. Those conflicts and disputes 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 cannot attain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. James goes on to call people to the wisdom from above.
What did James mean by cravings that are at war within us? Are they like the good angel and bad angel on our shoulders, whispering different paths to take? Absolutely not. They do not simply sit on our shoulders and whisper in our ears. They fight it out within us all the time. We want to give to help others or help causes we care about, but we see what our neighbors have and want more for ourselves. We want to invest time in things that really matter – building relationships, making a difference, growing spiritually and intellectually – but we also want to impress others. We know what matters most to us – the gospel, our families, the overflowing love of God showered on us – but we are also ambitious for praise and professional success and recognition. We know in our heart of hearts that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, beloved and valued by God who created us, but we still give space in our heads to voices that tell us we are not as good as someone else, and we unconsciously feed our egos with emptiness. The cravings are at war within us. They lead to conflict with others and within ourselves. So James calls us to eliminate the cravings for things that don’t really matter.
Mark Zuckerberg is a multi-billionaire. His basic needs are clearly met. He does not need anything, but many of us do. Jesus taught us to pray for daily bread. It is right and good and godly to seek fair income and adequate food and safe shelter and freedom from debt and reliable health care. We are not talking about eliminating desire for the things we all need to survive.
But beyond daily bread, our world wires all us of to want more and more and more and never be satisfied. We covet what others have. To get it, we are asked, like Zuckerberg, to sell ourselves to the highest bidder. The only way to avoid that is to do what Zuckerberg did – realize we are far more valuable than anyone knows.
So how do we resist this temptation to sell ourselves short? Mark Zuckerberg phrased it in the negative on his Facebook profile – eliminating desire for all that doesn’t really matter. Let’s put it in the positive – cultivate contentment. Maybe that is what Jesus meant when he put a little child in the midst of disciples who were arguing about greatness. Cultivate the contentment of a child at rest. Cease the striving and calm our souls like a baby who has fallen asleep eating and does not want any more.
So here are two ideas for how to do that. The first comes from a lovely book I’m reading with our rector’s study group. We meet the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays each month at 1 in the library. We meet again this week. The book is Mudhouse Sabbath, by Lauren Winner. The author grew up nominally Jewish, embraced Orthodox Judaism in college, and later converted to Christianity and joined the Episcopal Church. She is now a priest, teaching at Duke and serving in the Diocese of North Carolina. Her book describes spiritual practices of Judaism that she still admires and seeks to practice in some way as a Christian.
One is the practice of Sabbath. Sabbath, at its heart, is about not exhausting time. For a 24 hour period each week, time stops. You do not work. You do not try to be productive. It is not a day off so you can be more productive later. Sabbath comes in the middle of things, when you still have so much you need to do, and yet you recognize that life and work and time will all go on. Sabbath creates a space that says, “I did enough this week. I don’t need to do anymore.” It imposes a limit on the cravings at war within us.
Sabbath is the first chapter in her book, but in many ways the practice of Sabbath underlies some of the practices she describes later. Keeping Kosher is not just about avoiding shellfish. It puts limits on what we eat and teaches respect and gratitude for the source of our food. It places a limit on the cravings at war within us. Likewise, Jews in mourning set aside time to pray the mourner’s Kaddish every day, pausing in the midst of the busyness of life to honor a loss. It puts a limit on the cravings at war within us. All of these practices say that life is more than work and possessions. They stop that endless cycle of craving and desiring and arguing about greatness. One way to cultivate contentment is to set some limits and open up space in our lives and hearts.
And a second way to cultivate contentment is to give from that space. In the study guide, Winner explained that the book was originally supposed to have a chapter on what Christians can learn from Judaism about tithing, but she got behind and never wrote that chapter. However, she did write this –
I still believe Christians have a lot to learn from Judaism about tithing – not just that we “should” give away ten percent of our income, but that we are doing so only secondarily to keep the lights on in the church. We give away money because doing so can transform our relationship with God and with the created world.
Giving transforms us the same way Sabbath transforms us. It puts a limit on the cravings at war within us. It cultivates contentment. If we are busy every minute of every day, if we eat everything set before us, if we spend every penny God gives us on ourselves, we will always want more. Setting aside time, setting aside food, and setting aside money, lead to contentment.
The biblical model was a tenth of your harvest for religious work plus other offerings and setting aside part of your field so the poor could glean from it. In other words, be as generous as we can be. The amount will vary at different times in our lives, but we can always set aside a regular, intentional, thoughtful part of what God gives us. This kind of giving is not like writing a check to some other non-profit, though many do good work. It does not come from guilty obligation that says, “Well, I take part so I ought to give.” And it does not compare our gifts to what others are giving. It is a spiritual discipline, in which we joyfully set aside a particular portion of what God gives us for God’s work through the church and in the world. Giving in this way transforms us. It imposes a limit on the cravings at work within us. It cultivates contentment by saying, “I have enough.”
There is wisdom in this way of life. Profound contentment comes from saying – I’ve done enough work. I have enough things. I trust God to provide. The world invites me to do and want more and more, but I will stop, and be grateful, and live this one holy life that is God’s glorious gift.
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Amen.
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Patrick Daniels article about Mark Zuckerberg is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-daniel/eliminating-desire_b_6890532.html
Photo by Maxo. [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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© 2015 The Rev’d Grace Burton-Edwards
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
2100 Hilton Ave.
Columbus, GA 31906