Text: Luke 12:13-21
It is possible that I have shared this story with you before. If so, it bears repeating as I attempt to speak to my sermon topic today—that of stewardship and how we think about balancing what we have with what we need. The story takes place within my first six months of being Pullen’s Minister of Christian Education. In those first months, I determined that it was my job to assess the Christian education programs of the church and, in all my wisdom, tell the church what it needed to do educationally. Each month, I would meet with Mahan Siler, Pullen’s pastor at the time, and give my most current thinking about what I thought needed to happen in order to have the best educational programs for children, youth, and adults. Each month, Mahan would listen with patience and interest. At about six months into the job I declared emphatically, “Ok, Mahan, *here’s the plan,” and I laid out a comprehensive framework for putting Pullen on the road to success to having the best Christian education program of any church. After I finished rolling out my plan Mahan’s only response was that of uncontrollable laughter. Humiliated and feeling sick to my stomach, I did what any wet-behind-the-ears and insecure minister would do, I cried. At the sight of my tears, he recoiled and tried to explain his laughter. He said, “Nancy, ministry is not something that you fit neatly into a box and place a pretty bow on top and call it done.” It was an important lesson at that stage of my ministry.
The same can be said when talking about stewardship, specifically stewardship of money. The questions of “How much is enough?” and “What do I keep for myself and what do I share with others?” are not questions that have answers you can neatly fit into a box and top off with a pretty ribbon. They are complex and complicated questions. They require individual reflection and communal conversation. At various stages of our lives they take on different meanings and elicit different responses. But one thing is for sure: these questions have unique implications for people who want to follow the way of Jesus. And so I come to you this morning not to give you a neatly wrapped box full of easy answers that looks pretty. Rather, my intent this morning is to raise several questions that may provide some structure for our community as we begin, in the next several months, to talk about money in relation to our 2011 budget needs.
Our gospel reading this morning sets the stage for the first question. Jesus tells the parable about the rich man whose land produced abundantly, providing him with more grain than his barns could hold. To solve his problem, he decides to pull down the perfectly good barns he has and build newer and bigger barns where he can store all his grain and goods. Satisfied with his decision, he says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” It is a seductive way of thinking—this notion that if I have enough for me, if I save enough for me, life will be good and happy. But within that thinking lurks a significant question: “How much is enough?” One barn full of grain? Two barns full of grain? Or three barns full of grain? A house that has 300 square feet per person; 500 square feet per person; or 1000 square feet per person? In 1950, the average American home shared by 3.6 people was 1000 square feet. By 2004 the average American home, now housing only 2.7 people, was 2400 square feet. In 2006, one of the NY Times bestsellers was a book entitled, The Number. The purpose of the book was to get people thinking about the Number that would represent the amount of money and resources they would need to enjoy the active life they desired. Lee Eisenberg, the author, urged the reader to assume control and responsibility for their standard of living based on their aspirations for years to come. Again, it was a best seller on the NY Times list. In sharing this information with you, my intent is not to place judgment on how big our homes are or how much we have in our 401Ks. It is simply to ask the question: how much is enough?
One of the most significant challenges we have as people of faith is to hold in tension what I call the “American Ethic” with that of the “Jesus Ethic.” We live in a world that sets for us certain values and priorities by asking questions like: how much money do I need to make to live comfortably, how much do I need to save for my future, and what material things do I need in order to be happy. But Jesus comes along with a different ethic, raising a different set of questions. He says things like: “sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor and come follow me,” and “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” and “…do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing…Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
So, the second question I raise this morning is this: “What is the Jesus’ ethic when it comes to money and possessions?” I do not think Jesus is telling us all not to make money or not to save money or not to acquire certain possessions. I do not think Jesus’ ethic is to not plan financially for our future. And I do not think, in this world that we live in, Jesus expects us to sell all we have, give the money to the poor, and set out on foot with nothing to follow him. So, you ask then, why did he say that? I don’t know, but I do know this: as long as we hold to that kind of ideal and perfection and see it as a choice of “all or nothing” we give ourselves permission, in fact, to do nothing, and to not ask the hard questions of our faith. We can choose to read the Jesus story as an unattainable way of life, thus dismissing it; or we can engage it on an honest level and allow it to challenge us to be as faithful as we can. So, with that in mind, I come back to the question of: “What is the Jesus ethic when it comes to money and possessions?” I believe it is this: to live in the present moment, to make loving God and neighbor our first priority, and to share our resources extravagantly with others. This, I believe, is what it means to be rich toward God. Is it easy? Can you wrap it up neatly in a box and put a pretty bow on top and call it done? No. But Jesus never said that following him would be easy.
A regular member of the Wednesday lectionary group is a professor of political economy at one of our local universities. As we discussed the parable of the rich man this week, he shared that he begins each semester asking his students, “What is the purpose of the American economy?” Almost without fail, he said, his students respond, “The point of our economy is to grow—to generate more.” But Mark reminds his students that our economy is about the production and distribution of goods and services in any given community—not necessarily about growing or generating more.
If I understand God’s economy, it too is about how we prioritize the distribution of goods and services in our communities and in our world. Jesus teaches us that God’s desire is that every human being will have enough, and that those of us who have abundance will find ways to share what we have with others. Maybe the final question for us to consider is this: Are we simply building more barns to store up more than we need or are we being faithful in sharing our abundance with others?
I don’t have a neat box with a pretty bow to hand you this morning. I simply offer these questions for reflection as we prepare to enter into a time of individual and communal discernment about the distribution of our own resources: How much is enough? Will we follow the American ethic or the Jesus ethic? And will we define our budget priorities for 2011 simply by what we need or by what we have to share with others?