"The Allure of Needing More"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 5, 2007
Hosea 11:1-11; Luke 12:31-21
Out of nowhere, a very distant nephew hired an attorney to contest the will. The nephew’s attorney made a strong case in court and successfully overturned the great uncle’s plan to distribute his assets among his friends. The attorney took his share and the nephew received the rest. The butchers at the Safeway store received nothing.
Sometimes these stories make us unhappy particularly at how justice is frequently defined in our country. One does not have to have a law degree to understand the ethics of what happened in this case. The nephew had no relationship with his grand uncle. He waited with his strategy in place for news of his great uncle’s death. Do we honestly believe that the nephew got away with anything? Who we are is on trial every day of our lives.
It never ceases to amaze us how the allure of wealth can evoke attitudes and behavior in people, many of whom have no need to kneel at the altar of greed. Some years ago, Enron, World Com and Global Crossings were all in the news because of how the management of those companies wandered somewhat from the path of sound accounting practices. Martha Stewart broke some rules and then deceived authorities over an amount of money that was very close to the butcher’s estate. For this she paid a steep price and experienced a jail sentence.
Perhaps the one person who can best epitomize the theme of greed was one of the winners of a lottery last year. He was standing in front of cameras with lottery officials holding his large check and he said, “My only regret is that I have to share this large pot of money with two others winners.” Of course, everyone laughed. The allure of needing more was still there.
A family squabble over an inheritance brought a particular man to Jesus. He demanded, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide with me the property our father left us.” Jesus refused. He used the occasion to teach. “Watch out and guard yourselves from every kind of greed,” Jesus said, “because your true life is not made up of the things you own, no matter how rich you are.” Jesus told the parable about the rich man who tore down his barns to build bigger ones.
Jesus concluded his lesson by verbally drawing a sharp line of distinction between the things of this world and the things of spirit. In Peterson’s translation Jesus said, “Just then God showed up and said, ‘Tonight you will die. And your barn full of goods – who gets it?’ This is what happens when you fill your barn with self and not with God.”
What is interesting is that many of us struggle with this issue even though we may know better. Jesus said, “Guard yourselves against every kind of greed.” Further he said, “Your true life is not made up of the things you own.”
The people who have a firm grasp on this practice are senior citizens. If we live long enough, we arrive at a time when material things do not matter anymore. Antiques, sets of dishes that cost a fortune when they were new and that complete set of Waterford crystal glasses, while once prized treasures, no longer hold the significance they once did.
In Desiderata there is a line that says, “Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.” One of our life-issues is that we find this difficult to do. Not only do our earthly treasures mean something to us, they often inspire feelings that more is better.
Who among us does not want a financially secure retirement? Believe me, this was not Jesus’ emphasis. In fact, if Jesus were here, I’m sure he would counsel young people to begin saving and investing even during the years when they feel they can least afford it. This was the message in his parable of the talents. Invest and double your assets. Do not wait until you believe the time is right to do it.
Jesus was warning people about greed. His parable concerned a rich man who already owned barns loaded with grain. He was going to tear them down in order to build even bigger barns. In many Eastern Religions there is a teaching that says, “The wealthiest person is the one with the fewest desires.”
We have all known people who act as though, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” Smart executives, for example, still use their Blackberries. When some ill-advised college students insist that they must have the new I-phone, they are sending the wrong message to their future spending habits.
There are many disguised forms of greed. None of them has anything to do with our true self. God shares everything with us and allows us to develop the same desire only when we are ready. Wanting the newest and best is a form of greed.
There is a story of a person standing at the pearly gates of Heaven patiently waiting his turn to enter. Suddenly someone approached and acted as though he was going to go in ahead of him. The man who had been waiting said, “Just a minute, sir! I was here first.” When the new arrival turned around, it was Jesus. What would we say at a time like that after our words betrayed the contents of our heart?
We cannot hide who we are from God. Also, we cannot hide anything from ourselves. When we are generous with material things that matter to us, we will also be generous with our smiles, our affection, our gratitude, our happiness and peace. As St. Paul once wrote, “There is no law against such as these.” These are the fruits of the spirit because we freely give them away. The allure of needing more coming to us cannot be found among them.
A poet once wrote, “Never let the tendrils of your heart ever become so entwined around anything that you could not surrender it in a moments notice and remain at peace.” When we can do this, greed’s allure will no longer have its attractiveness. We will have achieved balance with the symbols of our physical and spiritual world by choosing to remain faithful to our true selves. Jesus did this on the cross as though giving us a final illustration of a truth that we can make our own when we follow him. Amen.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, thank you for giving us such a remarkable world. We are surrounded by many experiences that challenge us to refine our character. We have learned that kindness is not mere goodness, it is a power; that forgiveness is not a weakness, it is a skill; and that peace is not withdrawal, it is a choice. We have learned that our earthly treasures have their place as tools for living. We have learned that forming our identities around them is a mistake. Teach us to define ourselves by what we give away rather than what we keep. We ask these things so that your kingdom will come on earth sooner rather than later. Encourage us to live in that kingdom now by allowing our lives to give form to your will, guidance and design. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Always loving God, each time we collectively gather with your spirit in our church, the opportunity presents itself for us to become transformed. Hymns often carry us back to memories of another day. Coming to the chancel helps us to recall how Jesus wanted to be remembered through our breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. The spoken word helps us to revisit the attitudes we use, the goals we set for ourselves and some of the unwise places where we choose to invest our energy.
Each of us is well aware that we are a work in progress. We have experienced events that call on skills we fear we do not have. We recognize that it does not take much stimulation for angry and hostile thoughts to enter our minds demanding that we respond. We know how easy it is to turn our heads to small compromises, to wink at what we call white lies and to bury our helping hands because we do not choose to make time for obvious opportunities to lighten someone else’s load.
How freeing it is, O God, to know that we can let go of people, attitudes and offending experiences when we understand who we are and who it is Jesus called us to serve. Help us to be the sponge that absorbs hurts, tears, frustrations and disappointments that other people share with us. You have been our teacher because we cannot count the number of times you have done the same for us. With grateful hearts for your patient presence in our lives, we pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to say . . . .