A sermon preached on August 1st, 2010, based upon Luke 12:13 – 21.
Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 15And he 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.’ 16Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
There are two characters we encounter through Jesus in this morning’s Gospel lesson. Neither of them are what we typically think of as a bad guy. No mention is made of their lying or cheating or stealing. They are simply people consumed with issues pertaining to money.
One is a character Jesus created, a rich farmer who has filled his barns with grain, and having done so, is now confronted with the question of what it is he will devote himself to moving forward. He decides: building bigger barns and the storage of even more grain, with the thought that somewhere down the road he will really be able to enjoy life.
Jesus calls this man a fool, declaring that he has no assurance that his life will last beyond today.
The other character is the actual man Jesus met, who seems to have inspired Jesus to tell the story about the man with his bigger barns. This man comes to Jesus asking for him to resolve a dispute with his brother over the inheritance. In all likelihood, the situation that he was dealing with was one with which most of us would empathize; he could be left destitute. He’s being cut out of the inheritance. Perhaps this is an illusion to the laws of the day which gave the lion’s share of the inheritance to the eldest son.
The man, however, gets rebuked by Jesus, who refuses to play the role of arbiter. He precedes to lecture everybody present about the dangers of greed: “Be on guard against every kind of greed.”
One of the unintended consequences of this passage and others like it is that we have come to feel real shy in church about talking about money. Money seems a shameful topic to discuss. So we end up in the church with a situation that resembles the Emperor’s New Clothes. Most everybody is worrying about money, but everybody’s pretending it isn’t so.
So in the hope of achieving something akin to what the little boy accomplished when he declared, “The emperor has no clothes!” I have a confession to make: I spend a great deal of time worrying about money; more so than I used to. My wife and I have accumulated significant debts, primarily around our kids’ education. There are times when I fantasize about what it would be like to have the money we’re paying off educational loans with to spend on luxury cars (in contrast to the piece of junk I do in fact drive) or better, faster computers (with reliable printers), or on exotic vacations.
I know its possible to second guess the choices we’ve made, to argue, say that children need work to pay their own way through college to appreciate what they have, and that may be a valid point. But for the most part we’re comfortable with the decisions we’ve made about investing in our children’s education.
Nonetheless, I spend a great deal of time thinking about money. I check my online banking account a couple of times a day. I worry about having enough money to pay our debts, and about the inordinate interest rates we’re paying. I worry about having enough money to pay the taxes without having to go into our retirement savings.
I worry, even though I realize there are a whole lot of people worse off than me; people without jobs, people in fear of losing their homes, people with medical bills they can’t pay, people without retirement savings.
I realize I’m not alone in these kinds of worries. The impression I have is that most people worry about money, even those of us who would seem to have enough, like the man in in Jesus’ story focused on the bigger barns.
There is something weird about money whereby it can take possession of us, consuming our mental energy, demanding a kind of devotion, and becoming a kind of god in our lives.
So my object in this sermon is a rather modest one, to simply bring this subject out into the open, to recognize the hold money has on us, and to see if together we can begin to find a way out from the death grip we often find ourselves in. I know that generally speaking the only time you hear money discussed in church is when you the implicit message is that you are a failure because you haven’t given enough money to the church. But that’s not the conversation I’m looking to initiate this morning.
A starting point is to recognize the lies that our culture promotes about happiness and the meaning of life. As an example, take the whole Lebron James spectacle earlier this summer. The bottom line for Lebron, and in the eyes of most commentators, seem to come down to two things: How much money could Lebron make, and where would he have the best chance of winning championships.
In the end, on the mockery that was the TV show in which he announced his decision, Lebron described how he’d had to ignore all the voices that were telling him what to do, and base his decision on what was best for himself (and of course, the obligatory nod to his “family”, though how his decision had anything to do with the needs of his family wasn’t apparent.)
For the most part, the criteria Lebron put forth on which to make his decision wasn’t challenged. But it should have been done.
What about the whole business of “In which situation can I do the most good?” (to which it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that remaining in his hometown of economically-depressed Cleveland would have been the answer.)
I got to spend some time with Bart this week, who recently was discharged fromteh Navy following four and a half years of service in various places, including Afghansitan. The impression Bart gave me was that the two best things he experienced in the Navy was this:
1) The profound sense of a family he developed with the fellow soldiers with whom he served; that they were like brothers and sisters for whom he would be willing to sacrifice for, even die for.
2) The opportunities he had to do some good in this world, which happened primarily when he was deployed in Ghana and Liberia, building medical clinics that truly benefited the people living there.
What would it mean to shape lives around those two things: building truly caring communities where people are devoted to one another, and doing something that really made a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate?
In contrast, too often our lives are shaped by an American obsession with independence and self-reliance, where a good neighbor is one who doesn’t bother you, and by the notion that happiness is found in the accumulation of wealth and possessions.
Jesus said, “Be on guard against all kinds of greed.” Now I know that I wouldn’t generally be categorized as a greedy person in the usual sense of the word. But I suspect that the amount of time and energy I devote to worrying over money would be one of the more subtle kinds of greed to which Jesus was alluding. It’s a kind of bondage.
During the children’s sermon, I had the kids give out five dollar bills of my money to all the adults present. (Fortunately, it being a mid-summer Sunday, there were less of you present than might have been. That’ll teach you for missing church!) I enjoyed giving the money away; I hope you will too.
Your assignment is to pray over the money, and to ask God who you should give it to this coming week. I intend it to be a little spiritual experiment. Do you trust God to lead you to someone who needs the money, or specifically, who needs what the gesture of giving this small amount of money would mean to them? How does it feel to give away in contrast to what might feel like the habitual posture of clutching tightly to what you have?
Let me know how it goes.