Friday, August 9, 2013

A Meaningful Life: Not How Much, How Well

Sermon preached August 4, 2013
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

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

Play “Money, That’s What I Want.” Barrett Strong
That’s a song most of us could sing with a great deal of feeling, don’t you think? My first job was as a golf caddy at Northland Country Club, and I enjoyed earning the money I made, and felt some disappointment when the tip was small or non-existent. I enjoy many of the things I own.
I’ve got some good news for all of us this morning. God wants us to be rich. That’s right, God wants us to be rich.
Having said that, I don’t think I mean the same thing that some others who say that mean. Pastor Joel Osteen has said: When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed in abundance. He is a preacher who preaches a form of what some have called the Prosperity Gospel, or Prosperity Theology. In a 2006 Time poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31%--a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America--agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money. (,9171,1533448,00.html#ixzz2apdYagZR)
It can be easy to dismiss such thinking, especially from a pastor who received a reported $13 million advance for one of his books. If God really wanted everyone to be financially rich, wouldn’t churches be the places where money was never a problem? That’s not true for most churches I know.
But I don’t want to merely dismiss the link between faith and our economic lives, our everyday financial concerns. I believe God cares about our economic and financial well-being, but I think the testimony of the Bible is not that God wants everyone to be financially rich, but that it is God’s desire that everyone have enough. We would have a difficult time reading the Bible and not encountering numerous references to the hungry, the poor, the widow, the orphan. In building up to his powerful words “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream,” the prophet Amos decries his society’s treatment of the poor. Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses hewn of stone, but you shall not live in them…. I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, who push aside the needy in the gate. (Amos 5) The New Testament letter of James echoes these thoughts. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (1:27) In this I hear a desire of God that everyone have enough.
Yet I think God, in love, desires more than for us just to get by in life. Yet the rich life God desires for us is of a different order. Jesus tells a story. 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 will I will store all my grain and 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?” Jesus ends the story and continues with these words: So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.
God’s desire is that we have enough, and that call of God to the human community to so structure its life that people have enough should ring in our ears and echo in our hearts, God’s desire is that we have enough, but also that we are rich – rich toward God.
What does that look like? “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” the author of Colossians tells us. To be rich toward God is to see our lives as more than the outward trappings of success, more than a balance sheet. I don’t mean by this that one’s economic well-being or successfulness are unimportant, only that it does not define us completely. Just like I like some of my stuff, I like to succeed. When I was in school I did well. I have a Ph.D. that I worked hard for. The other night at softball, I took a called final strike, and my lack of success bothered me for a good two or three hours. How can you strike out in slow pitch softball for goodness sake?
Being rich toward God has more to do with our inner lives, what is often hidden, and then how we live out the character of Christ that is being formed inside of us. The writer of Colossians goes on to say a lot about what being rich toward God shouldn’t be – fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, lying. Some of the terms are vague and need discussion, but the sense one gets is that as human beings we have inclinations, desires, that can be good, but can be poorly used. Sexuality is a good gift – misused it creates great harm. Passion is a good thing – but needs to be well-directed. Anger may have a place in the work of justice and love, but to be angry all the time about the way the world is typically isn’t as helpful in changing the world. Hatred and malice have little to no place in the “new self” – the person “being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” For a more positive look at what being rich toward God might be like, we need to read on in Colossians 3. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other…. Above all, clothe yourselves with love.
The problem with the farmer in the story Jesus tells is not that he was prosperous, it is that he began to define himself by his economic well-being. “Soul, you have ample goods.” Does having a lot mean having a rich soul? Does it mean being rich toward God? The tragic tales of troubled rich people suggests otherwise – think Aaron Hernandez, Alex Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan. The farmer focuses only on how much he has, not how well he is living his life, how well it is with his soul. While he can be commended for thinking ahead, he can be faulted for not thinking of others. He lacks generosity. He has become, it seems, completely caught up in his wealth and possessions. In a sense they possess him as much as he possesses them.
I still love the story about the novelists Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, both now dead. One time they attended a party on Shelter Island at the home of a wealthy man. Vonnegut told Heller, perhaps to get his goat a bit or perhaps to bemoan their common fate as authors, that their host, a hedge fund manager had made more money in a single day than Heller had made entirely from the sale of his best-selling book, Catch-22. Heller replied, “Yes, but I have something that this man will never have… enough” (Bogle, Enough, 1). In writing about the parable Jesus tells in Luke 12, the New Testament scholar Dan Via says, “Such seeking for security is death, for in it one becomes the slave of the very realities which he hopes will give him security” (The Parables, 120).
Holding too tightly to our goods, we can become trapped by them. Holding them more loosely, we feel richer. I don’t know about you, but there is a joy I experience when giving some money for others and to good causes. But the generosity which makes us rich toward God is not just financial generosity, it is a generosity of spirit - compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, bearing with one another, forgiveness and, above all, love. When we are rich on the inside, in those hidden places, such riches cannot be easily taken away.
God wants us to be rich, to be rich toward God. God wants us to have enough, but also to know “enough” – not getting too caught up in money and success. God desires that we be rich in generosity, which means holding our stuff more loosely, including giving generously, and also means nurturing a generosity of spirit.
I want to end this morning by reminding us just how rich we are here at First UMC. At one time we were a rich church, that is, we had some very wealthy families that helped build this building and sustain a large staff. While we have a variety of incomes here in the church today, we are not as rich a church as we once were in that sense.
Yet I celebrate just how rich a church we are. Tim Robinson and Gary Lundstrom have been a part of our congregation for many years now. They have been a couple since before they came here. On Thursday morning, 7 am in the Rose Garden, on the shores of Lake Superior, Tim and Gary legally married. Mayor Don Ness officiated as a friend of Gary and Tim. I participated in the service to the extent that I could given our denominational policies. Looking out at those gathered, I was completely amazed by the number of people there from this church. It was incredible. Many of you thanked me for being a part of the service, and hoped that I was not getting into trouble. Thank you. Your generosity of spirit toward me over these past eight plus years helped me be there Thursday morning. Now interestingly I had a meeting scheduled with our United Methodist District Superintendent Pam Serdar later that morning. I debated what to say to her about the morning, but decided I rather she hear it from me than from the news, so I told her I participated in the wedding service. My intent was not to violate church rules, and I don’t believe I did because while I prayed and preached, I did not “officiate.” I think it’s going to be o.k. But one other thing I did that morning was brag a little bit on you all to Pam. This was my annual review, and among the things that I said was going well was the wonderful generosity of spirit that I sense, and feel, and experience here. We have been through a lot together this past couple of years – some change in prominent staff, church merger, experimenting with worship time. Such things can be mine fields, but you have been gracious and generous of spirit. I celebrate that.
Let’s continue our journey toward being rich together, rich toward God. Life is not about how much, but about how well. Amen.

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