Luke 12.13-21
July 31, 2016
“Money matters”
Cary G. Speaker, D.Min.

One way to begin a sermon based on this story of the “rich fool” is with Luke’s theological perspective on riches. To understate the case, Luke is not neutral. In Luke’s perspective, people who have accumulated wealth have done so by exploiting the poor. People use their riches to enhance their own status. This story illustrates the life-threatening nature of riches. Please do not allow yourself to be sidetracked by the difference in the cost of living between First Century Palestine and Twenty-First Century America.

Have you ever wondered if this story is supposed to be foreshadowing of the Prodigal Son story. If a brother asks for his share of the inheritance, there is a very good chance that he is the younger brother. The man asks Jesus to serve as the outside arbitrator. He wants Jesus to help him get what someday may be his, and to get it for him right now.

It is not yet stewardship season and here we are with this story about money. Where do money issues intersect the life of this congregation?  Almost everywhere. Money serves as a barometer for the anxiety and the need for control in every congregation. As the pastor of the Mountain Brook Presbyterian Church, I was puzzled why that church was anxious about money. That church is in the wealthiest community in Alabama, possibly the southeast. I know from experience that the longest session meeting of the year will be the one when we discuss the budget. Why would this congregation, First Presbyterian Huntsville, be anxious about money? The answer is because anxiety about money is always about more than money. Our spending and saving, our general attitude toward material wealth is invested with emotions and memories. Our capacity to trust God can deepen only as other matters lessen their grip on our lives.

For those of you who come to worship expecting things to stay the same, expecting that nothing will change, you hear this story from Luke inviting you to reflect on the intersection of faith and money. The state of the economy has pinched all of us. Not only has the church changed, the world has changed.

One of my colleagues in ministry told me about going to visit her financial advisor. In 2005 she was called as the pastor of a church. It was a financial promotion. She felt, for the first time in her life, that she could invest some of her income. The advisor asked, “How long do you expect to live?”  An obvious question to ask when planning for retirement. My friend replied, “I am in excellent health. Both parents lived active lives into their nineties. I expect to live a long time.”  The advisor said, “You have wisely put your trust in me. My job is to be sure that we make wise choices so that your retirement will be secure.”  With that the advisor pulled out a dazzling display of charts and graphs and began to talk about diversification, stocks and bonds, and developing markets. At the end of the meeting my colleague was leaving the advisor’s office. The advisor patted my friend on the shoulder and said, “You have nothing to worry about. Your future is secure.” 

A few months after the Great Panic of 2008, my colleague went to visit her financial advisor. Her investment portfolio had lost 25%. It could have been worse; many were. She asked, “What about my future?”  He said, “Hey wait a minute. All I can do is make some predictions based on performance history. They are only educated guesses.”  “But you said my future was secure.”  The advisor lowered his head and paused. Then he said, “Trying to figure out the market is like rolling the dice.” 

The young man tells Jesus that he wants what is coming to him right now. Jesus replies with a cautionary tale. A man is the beneficiary of a spectacularly successful business venture. He then takes decisive, prudent action. He tears down his warehouses and builds bigger ones in order to hold all of his wealth. The man sits back in his easy chair and sighs deeply. “At last I can retire to Florida.”  That night an angel of the Lord taps him on the shoulder and says, “Hello, fool.” 

Why does Jesus call the man a fool?  Not because he made a good busyness decision. Not because he was prudent. Because a “fool” was one who lived a godless life. The wise person lives life believing that God is in charge of all life. Fools, despite what we may say, live as if we believe there is no God.

The man in the story is a fool. Jesus clearly indicates that the man’s wealth is a gift from God. God is the giver of all life. The abundant harvest is a gift from God. The smug business man believes his success is his own achievement. The rich fool believed that his financial harvest was the source of his security. While enjoying the abundant harvest that is always a gift from God, the rich fool thinks he is the author of his story and that he is in control of his life. While we are busy thinking that we are in control, we discover that there is another. The true giver of life. The preserver of life. Our only hope in life and in death.

In the 1987 film Wall Street, Michael Douglas plays the wonderfully despicable character, Gordon Gekko. It is the often quoted line from that movie that returns to me often, “Greed is good.”  Gordon Gekko was wrong. Greed is not good. But when does the normal notion of providing enough for my family cross the line and become greed?  When does the normal, healthy desire to have enough to eat become gluttony?  How do we draw the line between need, want and desire?  God created us to be creative, to design and to build, to think and to explore. We understand that much of what we do has symbolic meaning. We build a beautiful church and believe that we have a responsibility to maintain it. After all, the year 2018 will be the 200th anniversary of the founding of this church. None of us were here when this building was built in 1859. Where is the line between our love for God expressed in our beautiful building and a love for ourselves through a display of our wealth?  I admit that it can be a difficult distinction to make. It is easy to cross the line between justifiable concerns and an all-consuming greed.

During the early years of the Great Depression (the one that began in 1929) the average giving to churches rose to higher than previous levels – to around 3.5%. By the end of that depression giving had fallen back to 1.5%. Data from the next six depressions show mixed effects of church giving. The trend was for church giving to be stronger in the beginning of the economic hard times. That was true until 1970. That was the first time church giving fell off the first year. It appears that our historical reaction to hard times, to give generously, has weakened.

Many of you have traveled the world and seen ancient cathedrals that have withstood wars and countless natural disasters. Even with the awareness of what air pollution is doing to these ancient structures and even with the efforts to stop the erosion, many of these cathedrals will not survive. Is that a metaphor for the church to hear?  The church has withstood countless attacks from external enemies through the centuries. Will the destruction of the church come, not from external attacks, but bit-by-bit, by the slow grimy accumulation of our countless acts of unfaithfulness?  My prayer is that we live faithful lives that reflect the faith of God that never fails. 

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