Proper 13C Sermon (2016)

Proper 13 (July 31-August 6)
Texts: Luke 12:13-21;
Col. 3:1-11; Ecc. 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23


Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). – Colossians 3:5

And Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” – Luke 12:15

The word common to both our Second Reading and Gospel Reading is “greed.” Perhaps we should talk about that today. Both Jesus and St. Paul warn us about the dangers of greed. Paul even calls it idolatry. Greed involves making a false god our of money and wealth.

Do you think we have a problem with greed in this country? It’s takes a back seat right now to the problem with have with violence. But what if they’re related? What if the resentment many people have right now over the wide disparity in income is part of what is boiling over into violent anger? Or to ask it the other way around: Do you think we might experience a decrease in violence if the share of incomes was more equal and people were more happy, in general?

If you don’t think that we have a problem with income inequality in this country, it’s very easy to find out. A quick Google search on the Internet yields lots of results. I found a whole website devoted to it.2 Here’s some of the facts:

Proper 13C 2016 Slide2

Income disparities have become so pronounced that America’s top 10 percent now average nearly nine times as much income as the bottom 90 percent. Americans in the top 1 percent tower stunningly higher. They average over 38 times more income than the bottom 90 percent. But that gap pales in comparison to the divide between the nation’s top 0.1 percent and everyone else. Americans at this lofty level are taking in over 184 times the income of the bottom 90 percent.

Proper 13C 2016 Slide3And a second slide. Notice when the income disparity for the top 1% was at its highest before now. What else was happening in the late 1920’s? It was leading up to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. But there’s also something else the 1920’s were famous for: gangsters, machine guns, and mass murders, like the Valentines Day Massacre (Feb. 14, 1929). Again, a link between times of greed and violence?

I’d like to help us understand this link between greed and violence by sharing with you another part of my life. I retired from full-time parish ministry partly to take up another ministry, a new seminar ministry. I teach other pastors and church leaders the theory that’s changed my whole perspective on the life for the past 25 years. It’s called Mimetic Theory, and it’s basically an understanding of who we are as human beings — one that fits very well with what I think the Bible is trying to teach us about ourselves. “Mimetic” is an unusual word. It’s related to the words “mime” and “imitation.” But the crafter of this theory (René Girard) didn’t want to use those more familiar words, because the imitative element that he was describing was largely subconscious — something we aren’t aware of. In fact, we most often try to deny it to ourselves.

Proper 13C 2016 Slide4Here’s a helpful metaphor. This is a grove of Aspen trees. Does anyone know what distinguishes these trees? They do not propagate by seed but through the root system. In other words, a grove of Aspen trees are basically all one tree interconnected beneath the ground by the roots. There’s a forest in Utah, called the Pando Forest, which is considered to be the largest living single organism in the world.
Above the ground they all appear to be thousands of trees. But below ground it is all one gigantic tree.

Mimetic Theory says that a similar thing is true of human beings. We appear to be all discrete individuals, but on the subconscious — what we might call the spiritual — level we are very much interconnected. In the past 20 years, neuroscience has been corroborating this truth by showing us how are brains are hard-wire for us to be interconnected on the level of mind or spirit. The human brain features what are being called “mirror neurons,” which help account for this interconnectedness.

Just this last fall, there was an excellent series on Public TV called “The Brain,” hosted by neuroscientist Dr. Eagleman, in which he made this dramatic claim [next slide]:

There’s no avoiding the truth that’s etched into our neural circuitry: we need each other. Relationships are rooted in trillions of electro-chemical signals. We’re something like a single, vast superorganism. [Think of the Aspen trees!] Our future, our survival, is intimately bound up with that of the people around us.

I think this also corroborates the biblical message. From the beginning of the Bible, we are told that were not meant to be alone. The message of the prophets to the kings of Israel featured a call to care for the most vulnerable. Jesus took up that same call and brought it to fruition in a life lived in loving service to others. From beginning to end, a main message of the Bible is that our survival is bound up with that of the people around us. Human beings are created to care for each other and for the earth. The myth of modern Individualism is just that, a myth. We aren’t individuals who ‘pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.’ We are made to survive together, to work on enhancing one another’s lives, helping each other to flourish.

So how did we get so off-track? Mimetic theory helps us understand the Bible’s picture of that, by showing us how our desire gets so off-track. Desire is so basic to who we are as living creatures. If we have no desire, it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. And it’s our desire which is the basis of the spiritual connections that makes us into something more akin to “a single, vast superorganism.” Mimetic Theory helps us to understand how, above all else, desire is mimetic. We catch our desires from each other. Advertisers sure understand this. They don’t just show us the products they want to sell us. They show us someone else desiring their products, so we catch that desire. If Michael Jordan thinks a certain shoe is great, then, hey, “Be like Mike!” When desire becomes contagious, we can even be sold Pet Rocks! Remember that brief fad?

But the Bible also understands mimetic desire and how it goes wrong. Let me give you just a brief tour before we close:

Proper 13C 2016 Slide6

  • Genesis 2 is the story of how “It is not good that the human being should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). God made us to live as partners together.
  • But then the very next story in Genesis 3 shows us how it all goes wrong. Paradise is living close to God’s desire. The man and the woman live in a garden close to God such that they can mimetically catch God’s desire. But what happens? They begin to feed off each other’s desires. The serpent convinces the woman that God is holding out on them, and that they should desire the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The desire doesn’t just pop up in them by individual choice. The woman catches it from the serpent, and the man catches it from the woman.
  • And what happens? We fall into rivalry and conflict. You see, when we live close and in God’s desire, which is a perfectly loving desire to see all people and all things flourish, then we, too, live with that desire centered on serving others. But when we start catching our desires from each other, then we start reaching for the same objects of desire. We become competitors, rivals. In today’s world, we sometimes refer to it simply as, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” In Genesis 3-4, the man and woman become rivals with God, with each other, and everything becomes more complicated, hard work. And their two sons inherit these rivalries, and before you know it, murder. Cain kills Abel. From mimetic desire of each other to rivalry, to greed, to violence. There’s the connection we’ve pondered today: greed and violence.
  • One other quick note: I believe that God truly understands how the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is bad for us. Because what happens when we are sure that something is bad or evil? We begin to seek punishing, or banishing, or even exterminating . . . killing. How much violence do we do in the name of eradicating the evil in our midst? God knows that we don’t need to know Good and Evil in that way. As Jesus tried to help us see, the only law we need to know is to love God, who loves everything and everyone, so loving God leads to loving our neighbors as ourselves. (We’ve seen this in our readings from St. Paul this summer, too, who not only reduces the law to love like Jesus but also criticizes our human use of the law as leading to “wrath.” When we follow the law of love only, then we find ourselves in unity, like the conclusion of today’s reading.)
  • The opposite is desiring what our neighbor has and desires. The good biblical word for that is covet. Don’t covet the things of your neighbor. If we truly loved God, the First Commandment, we wouldn’t fall into coveting our neighbors stuff, the Tenth Commandment. And if we didn’t covet our neighbors stuff, then we wouldn’t start breaking all those commandments in between — slandering, stealing, adultery, murder. Jesus was right to boil the whole thing down to loving God, which is about mimetically catching God’s desire of love.

So let’s finish on the lighter side with a cartoon [next four slides, briefly pausing to let folks read]:


Proper 13C 2016 Slide11How do we know what we want? By following Jesus and learning to catch his loving desire. The rich fool in today’s parable talked only to himself, creating a feedback loop on his own desire. He operated on that human self-deception of being a loner individual taking care of only himself first. When we follow Jesus in to a life of prayerfully catching God’s desire, we more and more find ourselves living in God’s love, moving and resting in God’s desire. Do you think this world of greed and violence could use a few more disciples of Jesus?


Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, July 31-Aug. 1, 2016


  1. This sermon title borrow’s the title of a new book by Girardian friend Abbot Andrew Marr, OSB, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: A Spirituality of Peace. It combines a fine introduction to Mimetic Theory with a spirituality of peace, a “contemplative spirituality,” that resonates with and partly derives from Mimetic Theory.
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