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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
July 31 2022
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Sermon Title: “God’s Arithmetic: Poverty and Richness”
I was about 9 years old. My mother took me to the doctor for a procedure that I don’t recall. But I have not forgotten what happened at the end of the visit. The doctor reached up to the ceiling, pulled down a sucker like magic, gave it to me, and I was so amazed that I asked him, “How much money do you make?” In an instant, my mother interrupted, pulled me aside, apologized to the doctor, and with passion reprimanded me: “Timmy, you don’t ask those questions!” In that moment, I realized the power of money. I have no idea why I asked that question, but I was being introduced to the sensitive world that awaited me.
Our Gospel lesson today from Luke will take us much deeper into the turbulent world of money and possessions. Arlo Guthrie once said, “Money just doesn’t talk; it screams.” Luther in the 16th century once observed, “There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the mind, and the purse.” Of these three, the conversion of the purse may be the most difficult. Money is necessary for living, but money is not a neutral medium of exchange—it creates a whirlwind of feelings and has power to steal our soul as we shall see.
Listen to some headlines, simple soundbites about money: Headline: Each year globally, people spend about $500 billion on legal gambling. Headline: For a family of four in the US, the poverty line is $26,000 a year. About 14% of the US population lives below the poverty line. Headline: In 2019, the US spent about $252 billion on alcohol. Headline: The median annual household income worldwide is $9,700. Headline: Jack Whittaker, a lucky lotto guy in 2002, won $315 million in Powerball. Instant celebrity, basking in the light. In just four years, his life and family fell apart in so many tragic ways, leading Jack to conclude: “Since I won the lottery, I think there is no control for greed. I think if you have something, there’s always someone else that wants it. I wish I’d torn that ticket up.” Headline: One of the world’s top golfers, Scottie Scheffler, recently won the Augusta Master’s and collected $2.7 million for his drives and putts over four days. Headline: 10% of the world lives on less than $2 a day. Headline: Aaron Rogers of the Green Bay Packers signed a new contract for more than $50 million per year. Headline: The average teacher’s salary in the US is $50,000. Headline: The average tech salary in the US is $105,000. Headline: According to the USDA, the cost of raising a child in the US to age 17 is $233,000. Headline: If you are a parent, stay at home, according to the USDA, your services, if paid, would come to $178,201 for the many hats you need to wear—tutor, negotiator, nurse, party planner, chef..for starters. End of headlines.
What do you feel after hearing just a small sample of these soundbites? Envy, anxiety, anger, shame, guilt, energy, indifference, sorrow, surprise, embarrassment? The power of money stokes the flames of many feelings as it does in our Gospel lesson for today from Luke which starts off with a money problem. A man has an older brother, who according to custom, has rights to the family inheritance. But the younger brother doesn’t agree and comes to Jesus not with a request, but a demand—money can fuel passions like nothing else. He demands Jesus becomes his attorney so that he can get his chunk of the family inheritance. Many families are stained for decades with the blood from money fights and disputes over prized possessions. In response, Jesus issues a warning to this brother: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed!” Jesus knows how money can grow sharp claws in the hands of human flesh, leaving twisted paths of destruction and tears. Apparently, we still believe in human sacrifice as we burn our relationships on the altars of ego and greed.
“What did Jesus have to say about money?” It turns out that he had a lot to say about money. Jesus had more to say about money than anything else except the Kingdom of God. He spoke about money more often than prayer and faith combined. Eleven of his 40 parables spoke about money, and we have one of those today. At first glance, you might think Jesus thought of money as bad or something that must be given away or redistributed. Not true. Jesus didn’t condemn the possession of money the earning of money, the saving of money, the spending of money, or the giving of money. But Jesus did attack the powerful love of money in the hands of human flesh. In I Timothy 6, we read “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some people eager for money have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” Jesus knew how money and our hunger for having and owning can command our attention, consume our time, feed our passions, and direct our dreams. We underestimate this power of money, and we overestimate our ability to withstand this seduction. We are much more vulnerable than we would admit. And we are skilled at rationalizing everything. Jesus affirmed the necessity of money and money as a resource for lifting up others. Jesus’ ethic about money simply stated: Lower your fences and increase the size of your table. The community is God’s congregation, and God is the only one who supplies your table.
But here the Christian church often makes a subtle, but dangerous mistake. It seems that the Gospel is watered down to seeing Jesus as a model of love and loving as Jesus loved. That’s it. Certainly, this is the light of the Gospel, but it’s not the heart and power of the Gospel. You can’t garnish a cow pie (us)with parsley (love) and call it the Gospel. Role models of love are plenty. You don’t need Jesus if loving is the core agenda. But the Gospel drills before it fills. It drills down more than we want, and it fills us with abundance more than we can imagine. Jesus drills down and uncovers our broken, hidden selves: our basic inadequacy, our incapacity to love, our defiance and disloyalty. But we resist. Our core delusion is that we easily see failure outside us, and resist seeing the darkness inside us. Jesus did not come to make us good, but to raise us from the dead. We need a Savior, not a pep talk on love. We could try to solve the problem of money by simply saying “Give more”, but Jesus doesn’t settle for simple solutions. Jesus knows the superficiality of putting parsley on a cow pie and calling it the Gospel.
Notice Jesus makes the young man’s life worse, not better. Jesus says it’s worse than you think. Your life is at risk because of your appetite for more and more. JD Rockefeller, one of the richest magnates of the early 1900s was once asked, “How much is enough?” He replied, “Just a little bit more.” We humans are highly skilled at justifying our appetite for more. In I John, chapter 1, we read– “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Our self deception is thick. Jesus’ drill is sharp and it gets sharper.
From his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says in Matthew 6: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money/mammon.” Jesus declares war between the power of money and the love of God. And between these two masters, we live out our lives. Jesus elevates mammon to a rival god because he believes we underestimate the power of money and possessions over our lives.
Eberhard Arnold, a German theologian in the early 1900s who had a significant influence on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, expands on Jesus’ declaration of war between God and Mammon: “Mammon is the rule of money over people. Because we ourselves are dominated by the money spirit, we lack the strength to rebel. Dependency on material influence and financial security—that is mammon…we are not in a position to apply the lever that lifts the slave rule of mammon off its hinges…many relationships are founded on finances and people give up heart-to-heart relationships and let money transactions take their place…in the end money can destroy all true fellowship.”
We smell the smoke of this destruction as money matters sever the arteries of true intimacy—our friendships, our business agreements, our marriages, our families as they fight over how money is distributed, inheritance squabbles, claims to possessions, who gets more and who gets less. The list is long. The ashes of so many relationships are scattered over the fields of money wars. But the deepest sadness in all this is our grieving God, whose good will for the world is trampled by our appetite for more sparkles and glitter. This is true poverty.
Two other Biblical premises about money are critical. First, Psalm 24 “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” –“all that is in it..all means all, everything we have, all who we are and will become—all is the Lord’s. This is a radical proclamation in a world where we concentrate on building up our accounts, protecting what we own, upgrading once again to something better. Then there is the “golden rule”–whoever has the gold, makes the rules. We come to the point where what we own really owns us triggering our toil, our time, our tears, granting periodic pleasure. Sometimes a crisis shatters our world and the truth leaps out and grabs us—we own nothing, we are nothing, we have nothing. All is gifted, all is given, all is granted, everything! God’s word called us into existence and it is only by God’s mercy that our life is sustained. What does it take for us to get this? We are nothing and we are gifted everything. David Brooks puts it crisply: “We are deeply broken and gloriously made.” And you can add—“remade” and “remade” and “remade.”
Secondly, grounded in God’s world, our only valid vocation, whatever our occupation, is being a steward of God’s creation. Good stewardship is at the heart of the Christian life. This is more than money. Stewardship is about being a caretaker of all God’s creation and a servant of all that God desires. Stewardship is about having the desire to desire the desires of God, as Merton put it. This is our core vocation from cradle to grave, regardless of our biographies and bank accounts. As stewards of God’s creation, we own nothing, all is loaned to us by the owner, our gracious, gifting God. From Matthew 6—“Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.” The road to poverty is locating our treasure in who we are and what we have. The road to richness is locating our treasure in whose we are and what we have been gifted.
Jesus’ parable which follows his admonition to the young man is called the Parable of the Rich Fool. In this parable, the rich farmer seems to be a good guy and savy businessman– honest, hard working, diligent, not impulsive, saver, and increases his profits. These are admirable traits. Nothing wrong with earning, saving, spending. The real problem lies deeper in the soil of his soul as it does for us. The soul is about what matters most. And what matters most to him is revealed. He only talks to himself, self with self, and only about having more and more. He looks in the mirror with admiration and exclaims “What should I do for I have no place to store my crops?…..I will do this….I will pull down my barns and build larger ones (ever need more space for your stuff?) and there I will store all my grain and my goods….and I will say to my Soul (his essence), Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” If your goal in life is to be satisfied and secure and happy, then this guy is your model. Who doesn’t want to be satisfied and secure and happy? But we are so easily seduced by the worries of the world so that these nice desires just need “a little bit more” and turn into masters of our lives because there is never enough. We become slaves to the god of “never enough” and the goddess of self satisfaction, and the castle of happiness. And to make it worse, Jesus concludes the story with this punch line: “God said to this man, You fool! This very night your soul is required.” Translated? Poof! Suddenly as he was making his plans, he’s dead..probably long before his time. And Jesus finishes it with a twister—“All this stuff, who will get it?” Our years are brief, our days fade fast, the night cometh soon, and we exit with nothing. This is not depressing, it’s revealing. Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days and apply our hearts unto wisdom.” How do we so easily become unwise? So quickly, it’s gone. But the real sorrow is that this good man sold his soul to the Lord of Mammon and was dead long before he died. The world is full of the living, walking dead.
But there is another story today. The baptisms today of Luke and Tyler bring into living color the richness of God as we are also summoned to remember our own baptisms. We dilute baptism when we see it as life insurance or some magical moment that helps us become good people. Baptism is not like sun tan lotion protecting us against the burns of life. Baptism is a surgical procedure—it is that serious, that critical, that penetrating, Infants, like Luke and Tyler, are the perfect candidates for baptism. They bring nothing into this world born only weeks ago. They poop, they pee, they eat, they burp..and they have simple smiles. Their resumes are thin. They have little to offer other than themselves. They are us—weak as we are with our assortment of liabilities and fragilities, sins and sorrows. And in spite of our littleness and emptiness, we are invited into a life giving surgical process—named “child of God,” joining the life of Christ, dying to the world, rising anew with Christ, blessed with abundance, filled with bright love brimming over, more than enough to share glowing with the peace of God. Baptism is not an antibiotic in the ER. It is life and death surgery in the OR. Baptism is not simply about repair. Baptism is about replacement. St. Paul proclaims in Galatians 2..”It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Baptism is the major transplant for all life, and the anesthesia is God’s love.
Last question: How are Judo and baptism alike? In Judo, you would think the first lesson would be how to fight, be tough, assert yourself. Not true. Judo’s first lesson is how to fall safely. So with baptism—the first lesson of the Christian life in baptism is how to fall safely, lifelong, day after day, from cradle to grave into the wide open arms of Jesus and to be caught by the deepest love of God in every circumstance. May Tyler and Luke and all of us find joy in the richness, the miracles, the mystery and the love of God that is abundantly ours day by day and forever and ever. Amen.