Sermon preached July 31, 2016
Texts: Luke 12:13-21
The Byrds, “Eight Miles High” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J74ttSR8lEg
Given the sermon title, I wanted to find a song about flight, but I did not want to play “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” So there you go.
When you fly, every time you fly, the flight attendants, or on some larger planes a video of a flight attendant, offers some instructions. You are told how to fasten your seat belts. You are told that your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device in case of an emergency landing in water. You are instructed to find the nearest emergency exit, remembering that this may be behind you. If the lights go out, there will be aisle lighting to guide your way to the exit. Then there is the instruction about the oxygen mask. In case of a loss of cabin pressure an oxygen mask will drop down. You are given instructions about how to place the mask on, and told that oxygen will be flowing even if the little bag does not inflate. Lastly you are told to put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting other passengers. Apparently there are times when it is important to take care of yourself first, when self-care becomes an absolute priority.
Jesus is confronted by a disgruntled person. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” It may seem like an odd request to be made of a spiritual teacher, but if my own experience is any guide, these questions come. Jesus’ response is interesting. “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” We are never told how the questioner felt about the response. Jesus goes on to tell a story about a man whose fields produced and abundant harvest. What should he do with his abundance? He decides to tear down his old barns and storehouses and build larger ones. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods, laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. The man dies that night. Jesus ends by encouraging his listeners to be “rich toward God.”
So let’s explore for a few moments what this story isn’t about. It isn’t Jesus being a scold about abundance or enjoyment. The Scriptures of his faith invite enjoyment of the good gifts of life. Ecclesiastes encourages a person to “eat and drink, and enjoy himself” (8:15) as does the intertestamental book Tobit (7:10). Nor does the story seem to be a criticism of abundance or wealth in itself.
The focus of Jesus’s criticism of the wealthy man in the story is that he becomes too self-focused, too self-involved. He does not ask what good might come out of his abundance for others. He does not think about wider connections, only about building more storehouses.
The story reminds me a bit about John Wesley’s sermon, “The Use of Money.” In that sermon, Wesley makes the case that Christians, followers of Jesus, should consider how they might use money well. Wesley then delineates three principles for the wise use of money. He says that we should earn all we can, or gain all you can, though he does put moral limits on what can be done to gain wealth. He says that we should not gain wealth in ways that impair ourselves or harm our neighbors. Rather we should gain all we can by “honest wisdom.” Wesley’s second principle was that we should save all we can. Wesley did not think frivolous spending was befitting disciples of Jesus. Thirdly, Wesley argued that we should give all we can. I have long appreciated this sermon of John Wesley for its helpfulness.
What if, however, these principles are not just about how we might use money and wealth well? What if these same principles have something to say about our life together in the Jesus community called the church? Might we think about gaining all we can as growing in richness toward God? Could saving all we can have something to do with enjoying a robust community life together? Giving all we can as a congregation is our call from God to reach out in love and concern and service to the world.
Taking Jesus’s story, and filtering it through John Wesley’s sermon, we get a picture of a healthy church community – a community that is concerned for generating richness in love and then giving it away.
One year when I was a district superintendent, I preached a sermon at all the church conferences I led in which I said that I thought every church could be a growing church. It was an audacious statement, but I elaborated by saying that there are different ways churches grow. Churches can grow numerically. They can grow as they help people grow spiritually – grow in faith, hope and love, grow in being joyous, genuine, gentle, generous and concerned for justice. Churches can grow as they grow in their capacity as a community – grow in our capacity to be a community of love and forgiveness. Churches can grow in outreach, in ministry and mission to the community and the world. It was a way for those churches to think about what it meant to be healthy and vibrant.
In my time here, together we have grown within as a church. We have experienced some numerical growth, not astonishing, but encouraging, and we are on the verge of even more such growth. In listening to each other, I think we have discovered that we have grown in faith – grown in love of God and each other, grown in joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and concern for justice. Together we have grown as a community of love and forgiveness. I remember a few years ago I preached a sermon on working with conflict as a church community. Afterward someone asked me if there was something going on that he didn’t know about. I said, “No” but went on to say that I thought the best time to discuss conflict was when we are not embroiled in it. We are not, and not because we don’t risk making difficult decisions but because we have grown in our capacity to make such decisions together.
This is a wonderful faith community, rich in love toward God. We also know that if all we do is keep on with this kind of growth – gaining and saving, building better storehouses for ourselves alone, there would come a time when that becomes unhealthy – the balloon bursts, inwardness becomes a kind of blindness.
So we reach out. That is just who we are in Jesus Christ, and I encourage us to continue as a Jesus community to give all we can.
One way we give all we can is share this community of love with others. There is always room for more people. I know that this can sound solely like another inner concern, just growing our own storehouses, but while we benefit from more people being part of our community, people who become part of the community also benefit. One of the things that breaks my heart as a pastor is when someone comes to my office in need, and it is clear to me that they have no community of support around them. A couple of years ago, when sociologist Robert Putnam was in Duluth, he shared with the Duluth-Superior Community Foundation that he was troubled by the fact that participation in faith communities was declining among those on the socio-economic margins of society. He was not speaking about a concern for the religious well-being, but of a concern for their social well-being. People need others when they are struggling. We offer that. People need friends, companions along the way. We offer that. People need a place where they can ask deep questions about their lives. We offer that. People need a connection to God. We offer that. To open our doors to others, to invite others in, is not simply a concern for ourselves, it is love for others. We are taking good care to get our spiritual oxygen, we need to be helping others with their spiritual oxygen.
The other dimension to giving all we can is to also give our love away in the community. We do a lot of that. Just since I returned from Jurisdictional Conference on July 17, our church has fed over 120 youth and adults who were here in town for the Wildfire Mission event sponsored by Faith UMC in Superior. We engaged in roadside clean-up along Maple Grove Road. We held Ruby’s Pantry, on the day after the terrific storm hit Duluth. Today we are going to bless backpacks, and after church put together more – your generosity providing for kids who need a little help. That’s what we have done and do. That’s who we are.
State Senator Roger Reinert, a member at Asbury UMC was very kind to write an endorsement for my candidacy as a bishop. In what he offered Senator Reinert wrote these words: First United Methodist Church in Duluth is one of THE places where we go as a community to organize, recognize and serve. The doors are always open. That’s what we do, as this Jesus community. That’s just who we are. In the weeks to come, as you enter a time of transition, ask “What’s next?” How is God calling us to reach out in concern and service to the world in new ways? We keep growing in love and we need to keep giving it away. We are taking good care to get our spiritual oxygen, we need to see that it is flowing out to others.
As First United Methodist Church moves into the future, continue to grow rich toward God, grow rich in love. Continue to help people become joyous, genuine, gentle, generous and concerned for justice. Continue to grow as a community of love and forgiveness. Take care to get your oxygen, but then share it with others. Fill the storehouses with love and grace, enjoy, and give it away. Reach out in concern and service to the world. In the name of Jesus. Amen.