Rich Toward God
A Sermon on Luke 12:13-21
What is your money story?
When I was growing up, my parents managed to get all of us children up, dressed and out the door - not just for school, but on Sunday mornings. Most of the time they stopped and picked up my godparents, so that they could go with us to church. It took us an hour or so to drive from the suburbs of Cincinnati to the Cathedral downtown, all eight of us packed tight into that big, old Mercury station wagon. After church, we would make the trip back home, stopping at my godparents' house. As we dropped them off and said goodbye, we children held our breaths. If we had been REALLY good that day, my three sisters and I would get something very special as we said goodbye: MONEY! My siblings each received a coin - a dime, perhaps a quarter. But I - the oldest child, the only son at the time and their godchild - I, the Chosen One, got a whole dollar. Do you know what I said? Yes, I said "thank you" to my godparents. But after they closed the doors to the car and while my dad was backing it down the driveway, I remember singing a little song: "NA-na / NA-na / NA-na! I got a DOLLAR!!"
Just what did I do with those dollars? I really don't remember. I'm sure I didn't save them, so I must have spent them. Every once in a while I did get change for one of those dollars and put a dime or two in my church envelope -because my Mom made me. Other than that, I don't remember giving any of my money away to people who had less than I did. I do know this: I felt entitled to those dollars. I deserved them, I told myself. That was my money, and I could spend it any way I wanted. I could even take some of that money that was given to me, sneak down to a store and buy a comic book, every now and then.
That sense of entitlement, in one way or another, stayed with me for quite a long time. Not until I met the woman who is now my wife . . . Not until we began to examine and discuss our finances, both present and future . . . Not until I talked with another woman who is now our financial advisor . . . Not until I began to read a book that showed me how to remember, how to think about and to write down my money story . . . Not until all those things happened did I begin to see how one of the earliest chapters of my money story is about how rich and entitled I felt toward my money. Kind of like the brother in our Gospel story today who wanted Jesus to help him feel rich and entitled.
When I received my quarterly All Saints' giving statement in the mail this week, I stopped and I thought about my money story. Our money stories are the stories of how we learned about money and from whom, how we use money, how we have come to understand our relationship with money. Our money stories are like the one about the man who wanted to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Stories like all the ones Jesus tells throughout the Gospels about money. It's those money stories that help me connect my faith and my life, to see how the financial and the spiritual parts of my journey are inextricably linked. For example, I don't tear down barns and build bigger ones, but I do love to find bigger bookcases, for all the books I want and think I need to have.
Our money stories usually take some time to develop. We live them, but we may be resistant to remember them, to reflect on them, to begin to understand what they might mean to us. Sitting down and writing them out helps. Sometimes we need to write them in installments or chapters. Our Gospel story today is actually a chapter from each of the stories of two men - one who talks to Jesus about the inheritance he can't get his hands on, another whom Jesus describes as having an abundance of crops, overflowing his barns.
Jesus tells nothing else in this money story about the man with the abundant crops. So we can use our imaginations. I wonder: was it August in that story? Were there were fresh peaches and plums and berries that you had to eat before you had to throw them away? And I wonder how that man became so wealthy? We do know a bit more about the other man, the one with the inheritance. He was unable to work things out with his brother. What's THAT about, I wonder? Some kind of family feud? We can guess that the brother with whom he has an argument is older and therefore entitled by Jewish custom to receive 2/3 of their father's inheritance. But why did this brother demand that Jesus arbitrate this dispute? To what, exactly, did he think he was entitled?
This week I rented a movie about entitlement. It was made from a book by Tom Wolfe called "The Bonfire of the Vanities," a title probably taken at least in part from today's first reading from Ecclesiastes. The setting for this melodrama about ambition, racism, classism, politics and greed is New York City in the decade of the 1980s. The plot centers on four main characters: a WASP bond trader, a Jewish assistant district attorney, a British expatriate journalist and a Black activist preacher. Tom Hanks plays the Wall Street bond trader for whom everything in life is going more than great. Then, one night, he takes a wrong turn at the wrong place with the wrong woman. Hardly anything ever seems to go right for him, ever again. While he is still on top of the world, he says, "I am a Master of the Universe . . . and I deserve more." But the "more" he gets is not exactly the "more" to which he thinks he's entitled.
Both those books, Ecclesiastes and The Bonfire of the Vanities, have a similar theme. We have no control over our lives, they say, regardless of intelligence, wealth or success. But God does. Years before the novel or the movie came out, Tom Wolfe wrote, "For of all I have ever seen or learned, this book [Ecclesiastes] seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of (our) life upon this earth - and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one, I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound" (Brian Ragen, Tom Wolfe: A Critical Companion, cited in Wikipedia).
Wisdom. Wisdom ranks right up there with the Law and the Prophets. The books of Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and Job and a few others represent this third, oft-forgotten literary strain - the Wisdom books of Jewish biblical tradition. Wisdom literature like Ecclesiastes came from ancient sages and poets, wise ones who wrote about the world and about life, as they saw it, as it really was. "My mouth shall speak of wisdom," we just prayed in our Psalm (49:2). And here is some of the wisdom of which we spoke, while praying that Psalm: "The wise die also...and leave their wealth to those who come after them" (49:9).
Wisdom is more than mere information or knowledge, important as that is to us. Financial information is about things like an investment's rate of return. Knowledge helps us understand, for example, how the stock market works. But wisdom is about those deeper spiritual questions: What gives my life meaning? Where are the connections in my life between money and soul? And how can we, in Jesus' words, become "rich toward God?"
Jesus calls the brother in our Gospel story to be rich toward God. Jesus also calls us to examine our own story. He invites us to see our greed for more than we need, our sense of entitlement for what it really is - sin. St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians says to put greed "to death." He calls greed "idolatry" (3:5). And if we dare examine the Ten Commandments, we see three of them speak to the need, as Jesus warned the brother, "to guard against all kinds of greed". No idolatry. No stealing. No coveting or wanting something someone else has - including our perceived entitlements, including an inheritance.
Our money stories aren't just about us as individuals. Families, communities - even countries have money stories. For example: As a nation, how is part of our money story our rich foolishness? What chapter of our money story are we writing right now - another decade of greed? Where are the family feuds over money going on this very minute - on Wall Street, on Main Street, on Church Street? What chapters of our money stories do we carry around as baggage, from our childhoods, weighing us down, damaging our adult relationships? How is money always about more than money?
But we can't address those larger narratives if we do not consider our own personal ones. So I ask again: What is your money story? And how are you and I - how are we all being invited by Jesus to be rich toward God? Summertime is a good season to do this kind of thinking and reflecting. Summer is a season of relative abundance. Here is what one spiritual writer says about abundance:
In the human world, abundance does not happen automatically. It is created when we have the sense to create community, to come together to celebrate and share our common store. Whether the scarce resource is money or love or power or words, the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around. Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them - and receive them from others when we are in need (Parker Palmer, from "There Is a Season," in Let Your Life Speak, pp. 107-108).
Today, in this season of summer, I am grateful for God's abundance in my life. I give thanks that I think about money differently than I did as a child. I thank God that I have had sages and poets, wise teachers in my life to help me grow up financially and to make connections between money and God. I don't know about you, but I still have more growing up to do on this, my journey of becoming rich toward God. I still need wisdom, in addition to information, knowledge and understanding. I still need a wise community of abundance.
My prayer is that we here at All Saints' Episcopal Church might truly be known around town as a place, a people, a community of abundance that seeks to live into the wise ways in which we can become rich toward God. I pray we take more steps toward growing wiser and richer in God by knowing and telling our money stories. Because our money stories are also stories of how God's Spirit is at work, in the world and in the church - and even in the likes of us.