August 1, 2010

Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Yesterday I was conducting a funeral for the mother of one of our church members. I didn’t know Eileen personally, but after listening to her family’s stories and recollections, this is one of the things that I said in my sermon: “I am told that Eileen never had a lot of money in her life, but I get the impression that her life was very, very rich.” You see, she was the kind of person who, when she had some money, spread it around. And when she needed money, she didn’t hesitate to ask her family for help.

As I reflected on Eileen’s life, the rich man from Jesus’ story came to mind. Not that the two were alike. They were nearly opposites! But I thought about the richness of Eileen’s life (a richness that had nothing to do with possessions or wealth) and I wondered about how much the rich man must have missed out on in life.

Yes, he seems to have acquired a lot of stuff and he’s stored it up in big barns, but there’s no mention of him having a family, or any friends, or belonging to a community. I kind of wonder who he was going to “eat, drink, and be merry” with… just his own self and all his stuff?! It doesn’t sound like much of a party to me.

The simple message of today’s Gospel is the warning not to let our lives become like that of the rich man in Jesus’ story. “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 towards God.”

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul encouraged the same kind of focus for the lives of those who seek to follow Jesus. He said, “Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth… Put to death whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming…” In other words, God wants us to live another way.

This message about money and possessions is a major topic in the Gospels and throughout the Bible. I think of God’s frustration with the Israelites as they built and worshipped their golden calves in the wilderness. I remember that famous (though often misquoted) line “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

How about the fact that Jesus himself did not accumulate any money or things in his 30 years or so of life? He didn’t need a moving truck as he went from town to town, but he relied on the kindness of strangers along the way.

Remember how Jesus invited his followers to leave everything behind as well? Fishing nets and families, homes and livelihoods. Though some jumped at the chance to try out this radical and risky way of being in the world, others just couldn’t let go of their stuff.

Jesus once encouraged a rich man to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. I wish I could say that he did it and enjoyed a new life full of joy and peace and purpose along the road with Jesus. But it was just too hard, and he went away sad.

I read a blog the other day called “The Working Preacher.” It’s written from the perspective of a person in the pew giving advice to the minister on what to preach on Sunday. And I’d like to share part of this week’s letter from David to the preacher:

“Dear Working Preacher,
I need your help. You see, I’ve got a problem. I don’t think I’m the only one, but sometimes it’s hard to tell because we don’t often talk about this. My problem is money. It’s not that I don’t have enough. It’s just that I often think, and believe, and act like I don’t have enough – enough money, enough time, enough stuff.

More than that, I live in a culture that regularly tells me that I don’t have enough. Television commercials, billboards, and the internet all not only tell me that I’m insufficient, incomplete, and not quite right on my own, but they also promise me that if I only buy the product they’re pushing – be it a tube of toothpaste, new laptop, or better car – then I’ll be complete. Our culture unequivocally equates consumption with satisfaction, possessions with happiness, and material wealth with the good life.

And here’s my problem: all too often I believe it. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s not true. More than that, I know it’s a downright lie. And I take as evidence not only the multiple biblical prescriptions warning about greed, but also the studies that measure national happiness where the United States, the wealthiest country in the world, ranks in the bottom ten percent with regard to reported happiness.”

As an aside, you may know that people today (at least in the western world) have more stuff than we’ve ever had before, but happiness is actually declining. Maybe that’s because we have less time and less energy left over after work to enjoy the things that really matter.

Anyway, the blog letter continues:
“So I know that as a rule stuff doesn’t make a person happy, yet deep down I still secretly believe that I’ll be the exception to that rule.

It’s kind of like I have two sound tracks running in my head. My stated beliefs are represented by the Beatles’ song “Can’t buy me love.” You remember:
I’ll buy you a diamond ring, my friend, if it makes you feel alright
I’ll get you anything, my friend, if it makes you feel alright
‘Cause I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.

At the same time, Pink Floyd’s song “Money” probably catches the spirit of my actual life more than I’d like to admit:
Money, get away / Get a good job with more pay / And you’re O.K.
Money, it’s a gas / Grab that cash with both hands / And make a stash

Which is what scares me about this Sunday’s parable about the rich fool… What’s scary, of course, is that I identify a little too closely with the rich guy. After all, he’s not a cheat, or a thief, or even particularly greedy. He’s just worked hard and made a lot of money, kind of like most of us dream about. His mistake, in the end, doesn’t have to do with the wealth; rather, he goes astray by believing that his wealth can secure his future, can make him independent – from others, from need, from God. And I catch myself dreaming that too: “If I just had a little more in the bank, or if the mortgage were paid off, or if the cash for the kids’ college education was already saved… everything would be okay.” The allure of money is that it creates the illusion of independence. It promises us that we can transcend the everyday vulnerabilities and needs that remind us that we’re mortal, created beings, ultimately and always dependent on others and, most especially, on God.”

Annie Leonard, in her short film, “The Story of Stuff,” describes our societal system today as centered around “the golden arrow of consumption.” She explains that we have become a society made up of “consumers” not “people.” The average person today consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago, and the system encourages us to keep on buying and buying and buying.

Annie gives the example of the United States after 911, when the country was in shock. Then president, George Bush, could have suggested any number of appropriate things… to grieve, to pray, to hope… but instead he advised the American people to shop. He suggested that in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, everyone should go shopping. I suppose he didn’t want the economy to tank. I suppose he thought that it would make people feel better. I suppose… but really? Go shopping?

I have to admit that shopping does kind of make me feel better sometimes… at least for a while, maybe even a few days when I buy something really neat! But when I think about the system that I am caught up in, I am appalled at my own weakness… at the way I am so easily taken in and fooled by the empty promises of the advertisers.

Annie Leonard shares a quote in “The Story of Stuff” that I find rather shocking. These are the words of Victor Lebow, an American economist in the 1950’s: “Our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption… we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

Did you catch that? “Our economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek spiritual satisfaction… in consumption.”

Annie points out that, in this system, if you don’t own or buy a lot of stuff, you don’t have value. Your worth is based on how much money you have, how much stuff you buy, and how much you contribute to the economic system. I don’t think I need to tell any of you that Jesus measures value differently. Well, maybe I do need to tell you. I know I need to remind myself anyway.

Jesus doesn’t measure our value based on the money in our bank accounts and investments, or based on the stuff cluttering up our closets and storage rooms. Jesus doesn’t measure our value based on our economic success. But he looks at the richness of our lives in relationship to God and to our neighbours.

I suppose that’s why Jesus wasn’t too interested in becoming the arbitrator between two brothers as they argued over the division of their family inheritance. Instead of helping them to sort out their conflict, he encouraged them to focus on things that are more important. And as much as the advertising might try to convince us otherwise, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

As much as we might know this already (at least in our heads) it continues to be a struggle, even for committed Christians, to resist the false promises – the false gospel – that our culture proclaims about money. We want to be faithful stewards rather than rich fools, but it’s not easy to ignore the tempting messages all around us and to hear the voice of Jesus calling us to a different way.

David’s blog puts it this way: “In the end, the Beatles were right: money can’t buy us love… or dignity, self-worth, hope, or acceptance.” We can’t buy those things, and neither can we earn them through our good deeds, our generous gifts, or our pious lives. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that we have all these things as a gift from God. We are loved and valued and accepted and blessed by God simply because we are God’s beloved children.

May the truth of that good news penetrate our hearts and sink into the depths of our beings, so that with God’s help, we may put to death all that is earthly, and set our minds on the things that are above. Let us clothe ourselves, not with brand new outfits from the mall, but with a new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. Amen.