Sermon inspired by Luke 12:13-21
3rd in three-week series on stewardship
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Time, talent, and treasure, or as the genius of George Carlin would put it, time, talent, and “stuff.” Well, we’ve come to that point in our three-week exploration of stewardship, we’ve put it off long enough, we’ve explored time, we’ve explored talent, now we turn our attention to treasure, to stuff, to money. It’s a topic that many pastors avoid like the plague, and for good reason. It’s a sensitive subject in our society. And we certainly don’t want to stand up here and be just another voice, in a chorus of voices, asking for your money. At the same time, it is an absolute dereliction of duty for a pastor to not speak, teach, and preach, about money. For two reasons, one, because Jesus talked about money a lot! Some have said that Jesus taught about money more than any other topic.
That’s not exactly true, but even when he wasn’t teaching about money, he was using money and wealth as an illustration to teach about something else. Either way, money and wealth were clearly on his mind all the time! And not that we pastors have savior complexes, or at least, we shouldn’t, but if money was an important topic for Jesus, the savior of the cosmos, shouldn’t it be an important topic for us, especially the spiritual leaders that Christ has called? The answer to that is clear, yes! The other reason why pastors shouldn’t avoid this topic is because everything we do has a spiritual element. I serve on our synod’s candidacy committee, that’s the committee that approves people to become pastors and deacons. We had a meeting last week and we got to have lunch with some of our seminarians.
One of them was worried that they would not be prepared for the administrative side of the job. After assuring them that they were absolutely right about that, hey, I’m not gonna lie to them, I also gave them some advice. I told them to attend some meetings of every committee in your future church, even the most mundane, boring ones! Especially them! Like the finance and budget committees. Why? I told them, because our spirituality, our faith, our trust, is woven through everything we do, and don’t do, whether we like it or not, and money is no different. And as the spiritual leader of your congregation, you need to be there, to give a perspective on things that otherwise be overlooked. And I also told them to be prepared to invite themselves to such meetings because not every congregation is used to or comfortable with a pastor at meetings concerning money.
Hmmmm, wonder why that is? I’ll tell you why, because we often operate under the illusion that we can direct which parts of our lives that God can be a part of! Which sounds pretty stupid when we say it out loud, doesn’t it! But we do it all the time with certain topics! Our money? Oh, we got this, God, no need to worry about us! Sex? Ewwww, what does God have to do with that anyway? Politics? Heh, heh, no, we like our politics sans religion, don’t we! Or at least that’s what we’ve tried to convince ourselves. Who are we kidding? God? Let me tell you something, and you can file this one under “things my pastor warned me about.” You are walking on shaky ground when you begin to tell God where God can and cannot be in your life. And “shaky ground” is putting it lightly.
Which brings us to today’s Bible story. At this point in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ popularity has skyrocketed. People in the thousands are following him around as he travels from city to city throughout the region. On top of that, he has already made enemies of the religious leadership. Why? One guess, because he challenged them on their greed! Now apparently, he’s taking questions from the crowd, and someone asks him to intervene between him and his brother's dispute over their inheritance. Jesus says, “Who appointed me as judge or referee between you and your brother?” In other words, who are you to tell me what to do? But Jesus gets over it and decided to tell them a story. A story about a landowner who had a very good year. The crops on his land greatly overproduce!
So, what does he do, now that he has more stuff than he knows what to do with? He tears down his barns and builds bigger ones! What else would a rich landowner do? What else indeed. Some might say, well, maybe he’s just saving some for a rainy day, so that he doesn’t go hungry during a famine. But remember, he’s introduced to us as a rich landowner. He’s already saved for a rainy day. This is above and beyond that. Yet, he still wants to keep it all for himself. And he’s well within his rights to do just that! There’s nothing illegal about that! But that’s not what is concerning for Jesus here. It's deeper than that, and more troubling. And there are two clues that lead us there. The first one is kinda hidden. The Greek word that Luke uses for land here, is unusual.
It’s not the typical word that one would use to refer to farmland or property. It’s a word that refers to something much bigger than that. It literally means district or region or even country! In other words, this guy owns half the county! Meaning, the success or failure of this guy's land, affects a lot of people, from the servants and slaves to the employed and unemployed. And that’s where the other clue comes in. The rich landowner plans to build bigger barns and says confidently, “That’s where I’ll store…all my…grain!” Did you hear those two words that tell us so much about this guy? All and my. He’s operating under the illusion, that what he has is all his, in its entirety! And no matter what we are talking about, that is never, ever, true.
He may not have been violating a secular law, but there was a religious law concerning gleaning. Gleaning was a way to care for the poor that was built into the system. It worked like this, when the crops were harvested, there were lots of it that fell on the ground. Rather than having your workers go back over the land and pick it up, it was intentionally left for the poor to come and glean from the land as a way to survive. Therefore, no Godfearing landowner would ever say that it was all theirs. It never was, by law. Now, keep in mind, this guy owned half the county. This negatively affected a lot of people. All because he couldn’t realize, or refused to acknowledge, his responsibility to take care of those around him, after he was given more than he needed.
The foolish rich man dies that very night. And so all his hoarding for himself was for nothing. And who knows how many years he had done this, how many years he had caused those around him to suffer. And who knows if the next landowner will be any better! What Jesus was trying to teach those two brothers, was that this preoccupation with money and wealth and stuff, was a futile endeavor. You can’t bring any of it to heaven anyway. But their fault goes even deeper than that. Jesus says, “This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.” I had a hard time wrapping my head around what it means to be “rich toward God.” It’s an odd phrase, with questionable grammatical syntax, but I really liked the way The Message translation put it.
That version puts it this way, “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.” I love that. So, how do we put this into practice here at Bethlehem? First, we have to admit that we are the foolish rich landowner from this story. Compared with so many around us, both near and across the globe, we are rich, and we don’t give nearly enough of the excess away. Until we can admit that, nothing I say in this sermon will amount to a hill of beans. Next, is to ask yourself, if I’m not gonna keep it all for myself, then who do I want to gift it to? Now, before I die. As a pastor, I’ve seen too many families fight over money and possessions after a loved one dies. My advice, start giving some of it away, now, so that you can decide who gets it.
And as far as Bethlehem goes, ask yourself this, what has God given you in abundance here at Bethlehem, and how can you share that abundance with others so that more people can experience what you have here. That’s the difference between survival and ministry. God has not called you here to survive. Let me repeat that, God has not called you here to survive. God has called you here to be nourished for service. And if you want others to experience what you have experienced here, then you need to do what you can to ensure that happens as effectively and efficiently as possible. With your time, with your talent, and with your treasure.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, ministry is not for the faint of heart. It will ask you to take risks, to step out of your comfort zone, even with, especially with, your wallet. And as you do, know most assuredly that you do not reach into that wallet for your own benefit. Remember, God cannot love more than God already does. But you do it for the benefit of others, both here and out there, both now and for the benefit of future Bethlehemites you haven’t even met yet, ensuring that they have a place when they walk through those doors someday, hoping for the same nourishment and call to service that you have received here, in abundance. Thanks be to God. Amen.