This was the first sermon I preached at First UMC New Ulm, on August 4, 2013, as I began my first appointment to full-time ministry. To find an updated (and possibly improved) version of this message for August 4, 2019, click here.
In today’s passage from the gospel of Luke, we find Jesus in the middle of a long journey. The trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem only takes about three days to walk, but Luke spends nearly ten chapters getting Jesus and his disciples from point A to point B, as they travel to the place where Jesus will ultimately die for the sins of the world.
This has not been a speedy trip, by any means. Jesus has been stopping along the way to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God. Because the locals also gathered to hear what Jesus had to say, many of his teachings have taken the form of parables. These short stories featured familiar, everyday characters and common events that cut right to the heart of what Jesus wanted his disciples to learn. Over and over again, throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus told stories like these to point out that the Kingdom of God is not what we humans might expect.
The Kingdom of God flips our understanding of power upside down, and our values right side up. You heard this reversal a couple of weeks ago, in the story of Martha and her sister Mary. You even heard it last week, when the theme of worship was “change.” Now, Jesus is about to challenge some commonly accepted ideas concerning wealth and greed. But this lesson is not a “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s” kind of lesson. Jesus is more concerned with attitudes of the heart than the difference between tithes and taxes.
Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us through the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, beginning in verse 13.
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 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?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” – Luke 12:13-21
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
A wise pastor once told me, “Interruptions are where true ministry begins.” He went on to explain that it is in the interruptions to our daily routine that God breaks in with reminders that we are here to do the work of the Kingdom, and that work is far more important than ticking things of our “to do” lists.
So here is Jesus, in the middle of his daily routine of teaching, interrupted by someone who has apparently not even been listening to what Jesus has been saying. Jesus has been instructing his disciples on the need for faithfulness in situations of persecution when he is abruptly interrupted by this person from the crowd, who demands assistance.
How rude, right?
To be fair, it would not have been unusual for someone who needed to resolve a legal matter to appeal to a local rabbi for help. Law and religion were so closely intertwined, that there was barely any distinction between a judge and a teacher. If this was a young man whose older brother had refused to share the father’s inheritance, he might have seen Jesus as one who would have the legal authority to resolve the dispute. On the other hand, it may be that this young man was behaving selfishly, rebelling against an older brother who was trying to keep the family together by keeping the property together. We don’t know. But Jesus saw straight into this young man’s heart, and knew immediately that the man’s legal concern was not the real problem. The real problem was greed.
I’m sure the young man was surprised when Jesus refused to help him. Wasn’t this the same guy who had worked miracles everywhere he went? If he could make blind people see and crippled people walk, didn’t he have the authority to do a simple thing like force an older brother to do what the law said he should do with their father’s property? And what did all this talk about greed have to do with fairness? Instead of helping, Jesus was giving this young man the brush off! How rude, right?
The misuse of wealth was actually a major topic of discussion in first century Palestine, and almost every chapter of Luke’s Gospel has some reference to money and material resources. The tenth Commandment – thou shalt not covet – was familiar to everyone. Greed is nothing more than a desire to have more than we actually have, and Jesus used this “teachable moment” to explain why greed has no place in the Kingdom of God. Instead of an interruption, Jesus treated the man’s demand as an opportunity to upset the apple cart of expectations one more time, teaching that the ways of God are nothing like our ways.
So Jesus tells a story, a story with a twist. We’ve heard it often enough that it doesn’t hold much surprise for us, so let me tell it again, to show you where the surprise came for these people who heard it the very first time.
There was this rich farmer, who had a really good year. The ratio of sunshine to rain had been perfect, and the timing of the weather couldn’t have been better. Without any more labor than he usually put into his farm, the land had produced a bumper crop, and harvest was going to be great. In first century Palestine, this would have been evidence of God’s blessing on a good man. Good fortune meant you’d been doing what you were supposed to do, and God was smiling on you.
“What shall I do with all this good fortune?” the farmer asks himself. Wait a minute, the crowd is thinking. We know what a guy talking to himself means in story language – and it isn’t good. People who talk to themselves are usually the bad guy in the story – but this must be a good guy, right? I mean, look at all these abundant crops? So the crowd leans in to listen to Jesus more closely, wondering which way the punch line is going to fall.
“I know!” says the farmer. “I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, to store all my wealth! Then I can relax, eat, drink, and be merry!” Okay, this just doesn’t make sense, some in the crowd start to grumble. You don’t tear down your barns right before harvest! And why is he storing his wealth? … Unless he’s planning to manipulate the corn futures. No, no, others argue. He’s just being a good agri-businessman! He knows how to play the market! You’re not listening, a third group chimes in. Apparently, he plans to hoard it all for himself!
While the people hearing the story start to argue among themselves, Jesus delivers the punch line: “You fool!” God says (and this is very unusual, for God to be an actual character in the drama of one of these stories, by the way). “This very night your life is required of you. So now, who’s going to get all that wealth you accumulated?” The crowd simmers down to think about this unexpected twist. Death hadn’t been part of the picture until now. And, if they were honest with themselves, God hadn’t been part of the picture, either.
That’s the point. That’s why we call this story the Parable of the Rich Fool. Jesus wasn’t saying that there is anything wrong with wealth. Jesus was saying this: instead of foolishly focusing your effort on getting rich for yourself, be rich toward God.
Almost a year ago, an article appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that was titled, “Possessed by Money.” The article described some research done by Kathleen Vohs, from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. This research explored the psychological effects of wealth, and used a number of different tests with a wide range of subjects. What she discovered to be consistent among all the findings was this: “Subjects with money on their minds are self-sufficient, self-focused, and anything but selfless.” In all of the experiments, Vohs found that “people who are reminded of money are really good at pursuing goals, but they’re not that interpersonally kind or warm. They’re kind of standoffish, keeping in their own head, not interested in being friends with anyone.” Vohs describes these people as “siloed” more than anti-social, and she is quick to say that we are not talking about wealthy people, necessarily, but those who are pursuing wealth, people who think about money a lot. Some really wealthy people don’t think about money very much at all, while some middle class and very poor people think about money all the time. It’s the thinking about money that creates the isolation Vohs describes in her work.
No wonder Jesus calls this rich farmer a fool! By focusing on his own accumulation of wealth and goods, he has isolated himself from others. Friends, this is not what the Kingdom of God is about. The Kingdom of God is about community, interconnectedness, living and working together for the glory of God.
So, how can we be rich toward God? Let me be clear here. This is not a sermon on financial stewardship. I am not talking about increasing your pledge or tithing. That would be a pretty foolish way for me to begin my ministry here with you at First United Methodist Church of New Ulm! But it is possible that, as we begin this work together, you might have some high hopes, some expectation of things changing, adding new members, balancing the budget with ease, paying 100 per cent of our apportionment this year, being able to just relax, eat, drink, and be merry on Wednesday nights.
These might all seem like really good goals. But none of them will be achieved until we, as a church, and as individuals, can honestly say that we are being rich toward God. What, exactly, does that mean?
Being rich toward God means placing value on the same things God values. It means loving the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself. It means loving mercy, acting justly, and walking humbly with your God. It means enjoying a rich spiritual life of prayer, Bible study, and fellowship with other believers as we seek to follow Jesus Christ and learn from him together. It means being honest with ourselves about our own hoarding of God’s riches, the talents and gifts he has given to each one of us to use for his glory. It means living lives of forgiveness, asking for it when we need it, and offering forgiveness to others. It means repenting of the sin of self-sufficiency, and trusting that God will provide for all our needs if we will be rich toward God in the way we live our lives.
As I have visited with some of you this past week, and observed your faith in action, I have seen many ways in which this congregation is already being rich toward God. You may not notice this. You might take for granted the many things you already do that put God at the center and bring him glory, so let me take a moment to tell you what I’ve seen.
I’ve seen the Lord’s Laborers painstakingly cutting up shopping bags, so that others can crochet them into sleeping mats for the homeless. I’ve seen children loved and fed on Wednesday nights, I’ve seen evidence that this congregation wants to participate in the mission of the whole church, by gathering school supplies for United Way, and pooling efforts and resources with neighboring churches for Vacation Bible School. I’ve seen a calendar get posted on the bulletin board, where you can sign up to provide a meal for the family of one of our members who is recovering from surgery. I’ve seen a church council bowed in prayer together, and resources shared with those who come to this church looking for help with gas or food. I’ve seen a multi-generational group of people become an inter-generational part of the body of Christ, loving our children, valuing the wisdom of our elders, working together to share Christ’s love. And that’s just in my first week among you.
In Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessolonika, he commended his co-workers there for doing all the right things in ministry. And then he wrote, “Finally, then, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.”
Do what you are already doing more and more, thinking less about possessions and money, and more and more about God at the very center of your lives. The Psalmist writes, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
As we approach this Table today, as we offer up our worship and praise and thanks to the God who saves us, may we strive to strive less. May we hope to hope more. May we love without reservation, less concerned with ourselves and more dependent on God to provide for us, to care for us, to be rich toward us in grace and mercy. May we be rich toward God. Amen.