Thursday, October 18, 2012

Money: Is This Enough?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 12:13-21:

One of the comedian George Carlin’s most famous routines was about stuff.  He said, “If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house.  You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it,” he said.  “and when you go out you have to lock it up.  Why? Someone might come and take our stuff.”  We all like stuff, and our culture and our economy is driven on this very fact. Although our current sermon series is about money, it’s also really about stuff, not only because money allows us to buy more stuff, but also because both can get in the way of our relationship with God.

In last week’s passage, a man comes and asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and, after Jesus tells him to follow the law, which the man says he does, Jesus says go sell everything you have, give the money to the poor and then come follow me, and we are told that the man goes away sad because he has many possessions, possessions with which he in unwilling to part and therefore they interfere with his ability to be a disciple.  And then we have today’s passage which has a similar theme.
If you do a search for how many times fool appears in the bible, you will find that it, along with derivatives like foolish, fools, etc, appears 173 times.  103 of those are found in the psalms, proverbs or Ecclesiastes, which you might expect since they are part of the wisdom literature.  The word appears only 38 times in the New Testament, 10 of those in the gospels, with six in Matthew and 4 in Luke.  But of all of the 173 times it is found, only once does God say it.  Jesus calls people fools several times, including calling the Pharisees fools just previous to today’s reading, but what seems striking to me, is that when God comes a calling, God is the one who calls the man a fool.

No judgment is made about this man’s possessions per say, but instead about how he views the possessions and what he does with them.  This parable is also not against saving for a rainy day, in fact scripture supports that, we need look no further than Joseph telling the pharaoh to put away grain for the coming seven year drought.  You should be saving for your retirement, you should be saving for purchases and you should be saving for emergencies.  This is part of what it means to be a good steward, but this is very different than what the man in today’s parable is doing.  The man is not stockpiling for a rainy day, or to help out those in need, he is gaining more and more simply for the sake of gaining more and more so that he can enjoy himself.

But the key portion of this passage is what the man says and to whom he speaks, because he speaks to his soul, “Soul, you have ample good laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry.”  Of course, he missed out on the final portion of that statement, found most famously in Isaiah, which is that tomorrow you die, and of course that is exactly what happens.  That is why God calls him a fool.  The man is making assumptions and acting and living as if there is not a God, and as if he controls the length of his life, as if he controls his own soul.  Notice how many times  the word I is used in the story, the man says “I will” do something four times, and it is also “my barn, my grain, my goods.”  Everything is entirely about the man.  He talks to no one else, and no one else is even mentioned in the story until the one who can actually control things, God, comes in and demands the man’s life.

The real problem with possessions we are told is that they cause us to believe that we are self-sufficient that we don’t need anything or anyone else, we can do it all ourselves.  Even those who helped him are never mentioned.  Certainly he was not planting, harvesting or putting his crops away himself, nor was he building his own barns, but those who were assisting him are never mentioned because he believes that he is doing everything himself.  He doesn’t believe that he owes anything to anyone else, because he foolishly believes he is the one in control, that he has provided himself with everything he needs, so much so that he can tell himself what he is going to do not only with his property but even with the rest of his life.  You can live as if God does not exist, but that does not change the reality that we can be called to meet God at any time.  The man makes his possessions the entirety of who he is.  But what he finds out is that he is not in control of his life, and that the things that he has built up make no difference at the end of his life.

Now in our culture, keeping up with the Joneses is not only a saying it is a reality, and what studies have also found is that this is worse in economically diverse communities.  If you routinely have exposure to people who have bigger and more stuff than you do, then we want to move up to what they have so that we can feel good about ourselves.  But with the pervasiveness of television in our lives, it’s becoming harder and harder not to judge ourselves against others, and to be pushed to think that we need more things.  Juliet Schor, who studies consumerism, has found that for every added hour of television we watch, we increase our spending by roughly $200 a year.  So watching an average of 15 hours a week increases our spending by $3000 a year.

I once had a couple tell me that they didn’t watch any television exactly because of this reality, which sounds great, except for the fact that they drove a Jaguar, so clearly they had bought into at least one advertising idea.  It’s like the old Janis Joplin song:  “O Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porches I must make amends, worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, O lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.”  Why does she need a Mercedes?  Because her friends all drive Porches.  But is there another way to live?  Are we as Christians called to walk a different path and to live a different life?

Last week I told you a story that has dominated my own financial life in being a child who couldn’t buy a shirt because I didn’t have the money to spend on it, and so as an adult in order to overcome that memory, I didn’t stop on buying things that I wanted.  Well my family ended up in tough financial times because my father lost his job, and as he remained unemployed for longer and longer, he, as so many people do, but men in particular, he didn’t know who he was without his job.  That was who he was, and so as his life spiraled out of control, he tried to gain any control that he could, and he thought that he could do that through his things, and this is a story that I have never told to anyone else, other than Linda, before, but he became a hoarder.  He couldn’t through anything away, he began buying things because through buying things he thought he had a sense of control over his life, he would pick things up off the street, his identity became entirely wrapped up, not in who he might be, but in his possessions.

By controlling the items that surrounded him he thought that he could control his life while at the same time giving himself a sense of worth, a sense of purpose a sense of being something more than he thought of himself.  His identity was in the things in his life, and he, like most of those Jesus dealt with, could not get rid of them because he mistakenly has come to believe that they are who he is.  He is inundated by his stuff, but really we are all inundated by stuff, and more stuff than we can keep but we can’t get rid of it either.  Our houses have become so full that we need storage units in order to keep it all.

In the US, we currently have 2.3 billion square foot of storage unit space, which is three times the size of Manhattan, and that’s with the square footage of the average home having more than doubled in the last thirty years.   Do you know what it would cost to provide clean water to every person in the world?  $10 billion.  We spend $22 billion dollars annually on storage units, and yes that is a capital B billion, and storage usage has increased 65% in the last 15 years and is still growing.  In fact it is one of the fastest growing sectors of the real estate market.  1 in 10 people now have things stored in public storage units.

We can live our lives in one of either two realities.  We can either live lives of contentment, or we can live lives of discontentment.  Those are the two realities.  Discontentment leaves us uncertain, questioning and hungering for something, anything to make us content.  That is what advertising is all about, making you feel that you cannot be content in your life without this widget in your life, and you know you have to have it because everyone else has it as well.  As the saying goes, we end up buying things we don’t need, with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.  It also gets us stuck in the happiness trap, and we say “I’ll be happy, when….”  But when our happiness is dependent upon the accumulation of things, or dependent upon other people’s actions, then it is a happiness that will never be achieved, it will always be just out of our reach and it will keep us forever seeking a true contentment that we can never attain.  But we don’t have to live that life.

In Philippians, Paul says “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it it to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” And then he concludes with one of his most famous phrases, Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”   We can live lives of discontentment or we can live lives of contentment, that is our choice.  To help us to remember to live lives of contentment, or to at least move us in that direction, I am going to be passing out these little key tags.  On one side they say contentment, and on the second side they have a prayer.  The prayer says “Lord, help me to be grateful for what I have, to remember that I don’t need most of what I want, and that joy is found in simplicity and generosity.”  We have plenty, so take one for each key ring you want it to be on, put it right next to all the key tags you get for discounts at other places like the grocery store, or place it in your wallet, glue it to the credit card you use the most, put it wherever you think you need it the most.  If you want to take some to give out to friends, relatives, neighbors, please do, but don’t take them if all they are going to do is be added to your collection of stuff.  The purpose is to help us eliminate the stuff and clutter or our lives, not to increase it.  Whenever you are feeling discontentment and thinking that you need to buy something in order make yourself feel better, pull it out and say the prayer.  When you are at the grocery store and you pull out your keys to give to the cashier look at it, say the prayer and ask if you really need everything you are buying, or do you just want it.  Don’t bury this in the middle of all of your other key tags, make sure it is the first thing you see.

Today’s parable is not about being rich or poor, having lots of things or few things, it is about where our allegiance is and where our focus lies. Do we put our allegiance in things or in God?  Do we worship our stuff, or do we worship God?  Do we believe that we are self-sufficient and independent, and live as if there is no God, or do we believe that we are connected to each other and to God?  Or, ultimately, does our faith in God have any impact on the practical matters of life?  When you look for things to fill your life, then there can never be enough, you will always need more, but when you look instead to God your blessings will overflow and you will never be lacking.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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