Money and the Good Life

Money and the Good Life

Creator God, we are grateful for your love, grateful for this life, and grateful for the daily opportunities we have to share your love and serve our neighbors, near and far.  May our hearts be open to your presence and your call to us this day.  Amen.

Today we continue our stewardship sermon series on Reframing The Good Life in which we are taking a different look, through the lens of faith, at those things that our culture often lifts up as markers of the “good life.”  Last week, Pastor Dave asked us to consider what we’d put in our frame, what a “good life” looks like to us.  He also called on us to work on cultivating a sense of gratitude in our daily life.

And then he skipped town and left me to talk about money. 🙂

In all seriousness, I know that some people don’t like to talk about money, especially our personal finances (what we make, how we spend it, etc.)  It’s sometimes treated as a taboo subject.  And yet, money is a big part of our lives.  It’s unavoidable.  So, as people of faith, we should consider it from a faith perspective.

Money isn’t inherently good or bad, after all.  It is a tool, a resource, and any moral or spiritual value it might have is determined by how it is used.  And, as we know from human history, money has been used both for good and for ill.  And how economic power has or has not been distributed among people is part of that history and we ought to regularly consider that from a faith perspective.

But today, instead of focusing on the big topics of economics and justice at a societal level, I want to focus in on the level of our personal relationship with money.

One day someone in the crowd he was teaching told Jesus, “teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  We don’t know for sure, but it’s likely that this person was a younger brother who would have typically been the recipient of half the amount of his older brother’s inheritance (or less if he had other brothers who received a share too).  Whether he is asking for his rightful portion that his brother hadn’t yet given to him or he was asking for more than that is unclear.

And Jesus doesn’t ask him.  Instead, he responds by saying “who am I, a judge?”  I can’t blame Jesus for not wanting to get in the middle of that family conflict!  And then he offers a direct warning, “be on guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

Clearly, these two brothers are not the only ones who need to think about this.  So, Jesus uses this opportunity to teach.  And so he tells this now familiar parable about a rich man whose land produced a bumper crop.  And the man thought, “wow, this is awesome, I don’t have room to store all this.  I better tear down my barns and build bigger ones.”  “And now, I can retire.  No more farming for me.  It’s time to eat, drink, and be merry.”  And that’s when God enters into the picture and tells him directly, “sorry dude; you’re going to die tonight.  And you can’t take all of this with you.  Whose will it be then?  Are you just going to let all these good crops rot in the barn?”

And Jesus then tells the crowd that though this man stored up material treasures for himself on earth, he was not “rich toward God.”

Jesus’ parable clearly serves as a warning against material greed.  It is also a warning against self-centeredness and self-indulgence (a warning about that unexamined hedonistic lifestyle that Dave mentioned last week).  And it is a warning against placing our faith in material things rather than in God.

Part of this man’s foolishness is that he was actually afraid of future famine.  His first instinct is that he better build a bigger barn to store away all of his crops for his own future use.  On one level, this is just self-centeredness.  He wants to party day and night and not work anymore.  But on another level, I think it also tells us that he fears that this kind of abundant blessing won’t come his way again.  He better hold on to what’s his because he might not get so lucky in the future.  He was operating out of fear rather than faith.

And I think this is part of what Jesus meant when he said this man wasn’t “rich toward God.”  He put more faith in himself and in his material goods than in God.  Perhaps he viewed this abundant crop as only a product of his own hard work or simply a fluke.  Either way, he doesn’t seem to be inclined to thank God for this blessing – God, the creator of the earth – the creator of the soil, the seed, the sun, and the rain – some key elements that went into producing this bumper crop.

I suspect Jesus’ original audience would have noted this problem right away.  They were farmers too.  They knew how dependent they were on the earth’s resources.  They knew that all the earth and all its inhabitants belonged to God.  Their Jewish faith would have compelled them to thank their creator.

But the guy in Jesus’ story seems to have forgotten that.  Sometimes it is easy to take things for granted.  Sometimes we forget to say thank you.  But what if he hadn’t?  What might he have done with his bumper crop if he had instead viewed it through the lens of gratitude as a blessing from God for the beloved people of God?

Maybe he would have hosted a community meal.  He wanted to eat, drink, and be merry, after all.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Jesus liked to eat, drink, and be merry too – he shared a lot of meals with a lot of people.  It’s all in how it’s done.  This guy could have thrown a generous party.  He could have invited the whole village, fed everyone well, had a grand evening, and sent them all home with leftovers and care packages to feed their families for days or even weeks.

He could have gone from home to home and delivered crops to his neighbors, like Meals on Wheels, especially to those who had very little of their own, and those who couldn’t physically work, and those who couldn’t easily leave home, and those who were begging on the street.

He probably could have done both of these things and more and still had enough to last him through the winter.

But instead, he wants to build a bigger barn and keep it all for himself.  It’s sad, really, because self-indulgence and hedonism can actually get tiresome and boring.  It can also bring about isolation instead of community.  And life can begin to feel devoid of a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.

But generosity is so much more fun!  Isn’t it great to share?  Isn’t it great to help others out?  Isn’t it great to see our resources used to make a positive difference in the lives of others?  Generosity brings so many blessings not only to those who receive, but also to those who give.

This guy might be blessed by an abundance of material goods, but he misses out on all of the spiritual blessings he’d receive by sharing his resources to bless others.  He misses out on meaningful connections with people.  He misses out on seeing how his generosity is making the world a better place.  He misses out on the experience of loving God through loving his neighbors (because the two go hand in hand, of course).

Jesus’ story leaves us in an uncomfortable place as we realize that it may be too late for this man to change course before his death.

But it’s not too late for us.  And it wasn’t too late for Jesus’ original audience.  I wonder if anything changed for those two brothers whose inheritance struggle started this whole lesson.  Did the younger brother just get irritated that Jesus wouldn’t solve his problem for him?  Or did his greed melt away, did his heart soften, and did this story move him to try to work things out with his brother?  Did the older brother experience the underlying call to generosity in Jesus’ story and give his brother what was owed him or maybe even more?  Did either of them give any of their inheritance away to others?

Who knows what happened with those two.  But we can certainly ask ourselves what this parable has to say to us today.  This story asks some hard questions of all who hear it:

  • Do we put too much faith in our material things and too little faith in God?
  • Are we as generous as we could be?
  • Have we ever let greed get the better of us?
  • Have we ever let material stuff get in the way of the most meaningful life we could be living? It is possible to become owned by our possessions.
  • And, of course, how do we use our resources to bless and serve others and make a positive difference? How do we use what we have to help build the Kingdom of God on earth?  To whom do we give?  How do we share?

These are ongoing questions, I think; ones we ought to come back to periodically in our own lives.  And we can always make changes when we need to.

One way to do this is to intentionally view your personal monthly or annual budget through a spiritual lens.  It’s an interesting thing to do if you never have.  What does your budget say about your priorities?  How does the way you use your money reflect the important and meaningful things in your life, the people (and animals) you love, and the communities you hold dear?  There are the necessary expenses, of course.  But, in addition, who and what are you investing in on a regular basis?

And, remember, I said a spiritual lens, not a judgmental, hyper-self-critical lens.  Let prayerful reflection and grateful faith be your guide, not obligation or guilt.  If this practice leads you to want to make a change, make a change.  If not, that’s ok.  Either way, perhaps you might conclude by offering a prayer of thanksgiving and dedication that God would use your resources for good.

Our money and our other material resources are tools to be used.  And for those of us who are privileged enough to be in a position where we don’t have to worry about making ends meet, our money can be a resource we use to bless others – we who have enough to cover our basic living expenses; we who aren’t saddled by overwhelming debt; we who have some extra left over to eat, drink, and be merry now and then, are lucky enough to have some money to share.  Maybe it’s a lot or maybe it’s a little, but we have enough to give some away.

And giving is a spiritual practice.  Intentionally choosing to share some of what we have is a practice of faith.  And it’s an act of love.  It is a symbolic and practical act of gratitude to God for the blessing of this very life itself.  It is an act of recognition that there are needs in the world that we can help meet; that we can make a difference.  It is an act of willingness to share some of what we have to bring about all kinds of blessings in our local communities and in our world.

Giving really is an act of joy.  It is a joy to live with a spirit of generosity and share our blessings to bless others.

This is why I give to various organizations and why I make an annual pledge to our church.  It’s also why I increase my pledge each year.  I pledge to our church because I believe in our mission and ministry.  I delight in watching our kids as they learn and grow in faith.  I am moved by the beautiful music and worship and love seeing how it moves and blesses you.  I am inspired and challenged by the gospel of Jesus Christ and want to invest in a community of faith that is striving to live out God’s call to love, service, peacemaking, and justice-seeking.  I want to invest my time, talent, and treasure in this community that welcomes all people and cares for one another with compassion and kindness.

I have been so blessed by Bay Shore Church, as I know you have, and I believe that our church exists to bless all who call it their spiritual home, along with our neighbors both near and far.

Thank you for blessing me.  Let’s keep blessing the world together.