August 1, 2010, 11th Sunday after Pentecost
And 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.” Luke 12:15
When I was a child, my parents would load me into the back seat of the family sedan on Sunday afternoons to go “house hunting.” This recreational activity involved visiting open houses in neighborhoods that were one step up from our own. While my parents pondered future housing upgrades that might coincide with my father’s next promotion, I dreamed of life in a castle or at least even bigger and grander homes than the ones we toured.
Until a decade ago, I was still caught up in living the dream of the right home in the right neighborhood and how having that house would make everything perfect. I wanted the right clothes, the right cars, the right private schools for my daughters, and the right career. I pretty much had all of that at one point, but it did not make everything perfect any more so than wearing Wayfarers makes one a movie star.
While Jesus does not out and out condemn money and wealth, he has a lot to say about how we use it and its effect on those who possess it and are possessed by it. Check out Luke 12:33, Luke 14:33, Luke 18:25, Mark 10:17-31, Mark 12:41-44, and Matthew 6:19-21, 24 for starters. Let’s face it, the teachings about the use of money and possessions are pretty hard and most definitely countercultural. Our consumer culture tells us that our life is all wrapped up in what we possess. From the slogan “He who dies with the most toys wins” to the silly notion that we can cheat aging and death through plastic surgery and any number of celebrity endorsed products and plans, the truth is that our stuff isn’t going to save us. Jesus tell us “…one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Who do we choose to believe? What are we to do as Christians trying to live faithfully in this world? Will our joy come from a trip to the mall or from serving God?
This week’s text from Luke’s gospel offers some clues. Jesus answers a question with a story about a wealthy man who is blessed with abundant crop and his decision about what to do. Instead of sharing that abundance, this greedy individual builds bigger barns in which to store the surplus. Granted, there is a lot we don’t know about this story, and being the good rationalizers that most of us are when it comes to our pocketbooks, we can figure out some pretty good reasons for this person’s behavior–maybe even citing stewardship. The text, however, does not support any hopeful attempts at softening it.
In hoarding his wealth, this man experiences no joy. He died an untimely death with full barns. He doesn’t get to enjoy his wealth, and he doesn’t get the delight of seeing others benefit from his abundance. So what does this mean for us and for our congregations? How do we dare step into the pulpit and talk about this issue when the vast majority of us worry about our pension funds, investments, debt, and possessions? How do we even begin to address congregations sitting comfortably on large endowments and expansive holdings? How do we speak honestly and not alienate wealthy members? I don’t have any easy answers, but there seem to be at least three areas any preacher might do well to address.
A good starting point is to admit our own struggles with money and possessions. Do you have an abundance of possessions, more stuff than you need? I know I do. Most of us are among the world’s wealthiest people. In the past, I have been guilty of the equivalent of building bigger barns to hold more stuff just like the rich man in this week’s story. I have sought and bought a bigger house in a better location. I have coveted a cooler vehicle. Twenty years ago, I looked at labels in clothes and made judgments based upon those labels. I have wasted money on extravagant meals and consumer purchases that were absolutely ridiculous in retrospect. Yet as the author of Ecclesiastes says in this week’s first lesson, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”Stuff is stuff, plain and simple. I understand that now, and I strive daily to conform my life to that view.
I know a millionaire who gives generously to his congregation, yet he and his wife do not tithe. He told me that was too much money to give away; he just couldn’t do it. These are not extravagant people. They live in a moderate home and drive nice but not excessive vehicles. They are active church members and participate in leadership and almost every event the congregation sponsors. I can easily imagine how this text might sound to him and others with similar situations. It’s probably not the most useful practice to beat folks over the head with their less than perfect approaches to stewardship of money and possessions. Neither is it prudent to soft pedal the issue in fear of hurting our faithful givers. I still believe that Christians need to be challenged to grow in their faith walks, and we do parishioners no favors when we grind the hard teachings of Jesus into spiritual baby food.
Some of us know all too well what it is like to try to talk about stewardship and mission to congregations that have money but are wont to spend it. Fear of failure and a survival mentality are most often the issues here. This text offers a good opportunity to address this dilemma in the assembly. If a congregation does not free up some funds in faith to do ministry and mission, then one day it will be too late. We are in the business of introducing people to Jesus and helping to usher in the reign of God in tangible, neighbor-loving kind of ways. It’s mighty difficult to do that when the congregational goose is sitting on the golden ministry cash egg. Financial prudence is a good thing; hoarding funds at the expense of mission is a very bad thing. As I recall Karl Barth suggested that we preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other; he didn’t say anything about clutching the church budget. Somehow we need to help our congregations capture a larger vision for ministry and mission than what’s printed on an Excel spreadsheet at the Annual Meeting.
My prayer for you, for me, and for all of us who will preach the RCL gospel text this week is that we will not shrink from any nudging of the Spirit to embrace a prophetic voice. Pray over these texts, spend time with them, and discuss them with colleagues, congregational Bible study groups, friends, and family. Let us confess our own sins surrounding money, wealth, and stuff first and foremost, and then let love lead the way. After all, it is love that enables us to let go of fear, and free from fear we can move in new directions, open the barn doors, and clear out the “stuff” that prevents us from enjoying our relationship with Jesus and each other. Open doors, open hands, open minds, and open hearts–free to be all that Jesus calls us to be in this present moment; it really isn’t an impossible dream. Blessings on your bold proclamation!