(The following is a sermon I preached to kick off our stewardship season here at the American Church.)
A few weeks ago the Times ran this headline: ‘We’re too rich to be happy, say the Tories, and only radical taxes will save us.’
Now for those of us whose ears are still tuned to American political thinking, can you imagine a candidate saying that in the States?
There were the usual protests from MPs who argued that jobs would be lost in their constituencies, but no one made the valid point that having too much wasn’t the core problem—that the real issue was what people do with what they have—what they do to share their stuff.
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Jesus replied, "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" Then he said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."
And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'
"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."
"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."
Now there’s a text for the first day of a stewardship campaign, don’t you think? It’s not an accident that we’re reading this parable today. I’m not trying to be sneaky here—the point of this parable for us today is that it’s important to look at what we have, how we manage it and depend on it, and also to decide how much of that we will invest in the vision and ministry of this church.
Before we dive into what this means for us in this church, let’s look at the story behind the story.
Even though Jesus doesn’t mention it specifically, this parable is about building our lives according to the values of the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom isn’t a realm or a place with boundaries and limits. It’s God’s reign over his creation and his power over all things, even death.
This parable opens with a question from someone in the crowd. A guy asks Jesus to mediate in a family dispute between two brothers. I love Jesus’ response here: Man, who made me the solver of your family problems? Jesus saw that at the heart of the question was a problem with greed, and reminds us that our lives aren’t measured by how much stuff we accumulate. And so he tells the crowd a story about a successful guy.
The main character is a good man by the standards of his day: he works, he plans, he saves, he protects his belongings. He expects to enjoy the future he created and protected. We admire people like this! In the detail of the story this is a good farmer—a prudent businessman—a pillar of his community.
But then he had an unusually good year and found himself with a strange problem: he didn’t have anyplace to put his extra stuff. He had barns filled with the crops he’d already grown, and the wealth he’d already accumulated, but now he had to make decision about what to do with the extra. That’s where he gets himself into trouble.
Notice how many personal pronouns he uses in this section. OK, I know that’s the kind of nerdy observation you’ve come to expect from the son of an English teacher, but just count them. The guy makes 11 references to himself in just 3 verses. It has to be some kind of record. But it illustrates the point of what happens when greed overtakes us—when it takes over our sense of balance, our sense of responsibility to our neighbor.
The man decides to tear his old storage facility down and build a bigger one. He decides to take it easy—to eat, drink and be merry—he allows himself to rely fully on his wealth instead of on God.
But then God enters the story and says: ‘You fool, your life is over—who will get what you planned to give yourself?’ Now at this point it’s important to say that the rich man didn’t die because he hoarded everything for himself. As nice as it might be for our stewardship plans to hold that one over all of us, it’s just not the point of the story. The point is that the guy didn’t know when his life would end, which made hoarding his extra stuff the focus of the story.
It’s also important here to say that there was nothing wrong with the way this man had been managing his finances up to that point. There’s a justness, a practicality in this parable, especially to people who enjoy a generous portion of God’s provision (that’s a nice way of referring to people who make a comfortable living). Nothing wrong with providing for yourself and your family. In this parable it’s what we do with the extra that matters. It’s what we do with the extra that marks our commitment to God and his Kingdom. The guy in the parable forgot all that and built bigger barns so he could keep it for himself.
That ends up being the kicker in the story. Jesus is critical at the end of the parable toward those who store up things for themselves without ‘rich toward God’. There are two problems this parable identifies for us.
First, the problem here is with someone who is so consumed by possessions and money that they become the source of his meaning and value.
Second, being so committed—or enslaved—to one’s possessions makes us deaf to the call of God on our lives, and also to the needs of our neighbors.
This parable is spoken to people who have extra—to people who have provided for themselves and their families, and are deciding what to do with the rest of God’s generosity.
So what should we know and do about it?
First: The life of discipleship includes supporting the vision of our faith community, our church. The life of faith makes all kinds of demands on our lives. One of them is to participate in the support of God’s work through the church. Giving is as much about the giver as it is about the recipient—it’s one of the marks of mature discipleship.
Second: The collective vision of this place is what we support when we give. Take another look at the list of announcements in the bulletin. There’s a lot going on here that is designed to help each one of us experience and enjoy the foundations of a healthy church: fellowship, worship, discipleship and service. You won’t hear much about need over the next few weeks, but you’ll hear a lot about what this church offers as a way of meeting the spiritual and physical and emotional needs of the people who come into this place, and how we can do that more effectively and faithfully.
Finally: the parable we read translates into a faithful consideration of Pledging—making a commitment to give at least a fixed amount for the coming year—pledging allows the leadership of this church to implement a vision, to make plans and dream big about how we’re going to serve each other and this community.
In that article I mentioned from the Times, the political solution to helping people handle their extra money went like this: ‘The main proposals include new taxes on domestic flights, varying rates of vehicle excise duty to punish those most polluting in each class of car, and limits on expanding airports and motorways. Private, non-residential parking should be taxed to discourage car use, and out-of-town supermarkets should be required to charge customers to park.’
I have a better idea.
Over the next few weeks you’re going to hear about the great things going on here at ACL. Take some time to think and pray about how you want to be involved. Your time, your talent and your financial support will play a role in the ways this church can live and share the message of Jesus Christ with each other, with this community, and with the rest of the world.