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Friday, July 30, 2004

My sermon for August 1st: No, I'm not going to endorse John Kerry. I've got a tax exemption to worry about, for one thing. For another, I'd rather avoid having my head handed back to me on a platter. Jen hates politics in church, and she's not the only one.

Well, in any case. Warning: even a short sermon is rather long on the Web. Just saying.

The text is Luke 12:13-21:

Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" 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." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?'

Then 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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But 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?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

I want to throw a couple of economic concepts at you this morning. That is to say, a couple of ideas from the study of economics. They may sound complicated at first, but really, they're not as difficult to get a hold of as they might seem at first.

The first of these concepts is what's known as the "crisis of rising expectations." You may not have heard of the idea, but I'm pretty sure most of you have lived the reality. It works like this: today's luxury is tomorrow's necessity, and eventually, you reach a point where rising expectations exceed our ability to pay for that "necessity."

Believe it or not, air conditioning--of all things--is the best example. Some of you are old enough to remember when air conditioning was something you found only in movie theaters, perhaps office buildings or a hospital. Well, next came wall units for home use, and in cars, then there was central air, and by today, we're all sweltering in church and crabbing because we don't have this "necessity." There aren't many people my age who would go without air conditioning at home if we could possibly afford it, and we certainly wouldn't think of buying a car without it.

There are any number of consumer goods this works with. Owning a car used to be a luxury, then it was owning two cars. By now, there are more cars than people in the United States. Same thing with television, radio, microwave ovens, cell phones. Do we need all this stuff? Strictly speaking, no. But we think we do, and the result is that Americans are working harder than ever to get the things they think they need. We are prisoners of a rat race we have made for ourselves.

Which is perfectly natural. One of the reasons we're attracted to fatty foods in our diet, after all, is a biological urge to store up some reserves for leaner times. So it is with other material surpluses, I think. We want to enjoy them while we can, because who knows what may come tomorrow?

When the nameless man in the crowd calls out to Jesus: "Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me," he's not making an unreasonable request. As a teacher, Jesus could be expected to interpret the laws concerning inheritance, for one thing. For another, we're probably not talking about a great deal of money here. More than likely, what this person wants is a plot of land with which to support himself and his family.

But Jesus, sharp-eyed as ever, quickly spots the underlying issues. First of all, his mission is to bring people closer to God, not to divide from one another. He has no interest in intervening in a financial dispute.

Second--and more important--he doesn't want to encourage greed. Now, when you and I think of greed, we tend to think of avarice or cupidity: the desire to have more than our fair share in life, or the desire for wealth at the expense of others. This is a problem in our world, no doubt about it.

But the kind of greed Jesus is talking about here is a more subtle kind, one that nearly all of us are guilty of. It's not the desire to have "more," but the desire to have "enough." Look at the story Jesus tells the crowd. Do you see any indication that the rich fool has hurt anyone to get his wealth? Any indication that he wants more than what is rightfully his? Well, no. He has been blessed with enough and more than enough, through no fault of his own.

It's here that our second economic concept comes in. Some economists have made a distinction between "material wealth" and "social wealth." Basically, it's the difference between measuring how rich you are by what you have in the bank versus how many people you can help. You may have heard the story about the king with an empty treasury? A visiting prince questions him about it, and the king in response declares himself the richest man in the world. He has loaned or given away everything he had, he says, but if he called in all his favors, he'd get back five times what he'd given, so eager would his friends be to repay his generosity.

This is almost--but not quite--the standard Jesus proposes to the crowd. The fool's mistake is not to be rich, but to be rich without regard for God and neighbor. He ought to be thanking God for his success, not congratulating himself on his self-sufficiency. And he ought to be spreading his wealth around, not squirreling it away in his barns. "Where your treasure is, there also your heart will be."

Now, doesn't that sound like you or me? It's so easy to get caught up in material rewards that we sometimes forget how fortunate we are to have what we do. That's what tithing is all about: a way to say "Thank you, God."

I said that Jesus' idea is "almost" the same as social wealth, but not quite. Here's why. Wealth, in most of worldviews, is a finite resource. But Jesus calls us into a world where God's resources are without end. We are free to live without "enough," because God provides plenty for all. In turn, we are free to use our souls to love God and one another as much as we can, which is to say as much as Christ gave of himself to us. We need not worry.

Or, as Robert F. Morneau writes:

Jesus give his [disciples] a simple, clear example of what discipleship is all about: service. Washing one another's feet, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked--here is the core of the Eucharist, our great miracle of love. God's table is large, as large as creation. All are invited, all are to have access to the necessity of food and the miracle of love. Both are essential to the fullness of life. Without food, the body languishes and dies; without love, our souls wither and are filled with despair. The leftovers in our lives? What are they and who will get them? So many people can live off our leavings, if we would only share. This is hardly sufficient. Disciples of Christ give abundantly in imitation of the Master who gave his very self.

As we come to the table this morning, then, let us give God our thanks and praise for what Jesus has given us and what he continues to give us. And let us pray for the strength to move beyond the desire to have "more," the desire to have even "enough," to the recognition of the "plenty" God has given us to share among all our brothers and sisters. And let us pray to God for the strength he bestows upon us to be wise and generous givers of our very souls. To God be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

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