November 6, 2022 Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "Rich Toward God"

Nov 6th  |  The Reverend John Vanderzee |  Luke 12:13-21

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   There were several passages of Scripture from which I could make my appeal to you during this stewardship season leading up to Harvest Home Sunday in two weeks. For reasons perhaps only the Holy Spirit knows, I was pulled to this passage from Luke 12 - the Parable of the Rich Fool. In choosing this passage I am not implying that any of you are rich, at least by today’s corporate standards; and I certainly would not suggest that you are fools - well, maybe “fools for Christ” as the Apostle Paul wrote. But I do feel that the parable has some important lessons to teach us about what it means to be spiritually wealthy, or as Jesus characterized it, to be “rich toward God.”

   The passage starts out with a person in the crowd that is following Jesus, asking him to use his authority to solve a family dispute. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” A risky request, to be sure, but not a totally unreasonable one at the time. Sensing that the man’s plea was based less on fairness and justice, and more on avarice, Jesus warns everyone to “be on guard against all sorts of greed.” And he tells a parable. 

   But hold on. Let’s stick with this statement for a moment.  What does Jesus mean by “all sorts of greed?” He’s talking mainly about money and possessions and the human tendency to hoard it, isn’t he? The parable seems to imply that. But there is more to greed than that. Greed can take many forms: the greed for fame and glory, the greed for control, the greed for attention, the greed for power. It seems that greed is a rather universal concept, not necessarily limited to financial wealth. It seeks to describe a universal problem - what someone once called “a sickness to have something.” It is the root of all our addictions. 

   Greed is the intensive desire to possess more than you need, whatever that may be. For the rich farmer in Jesus’ parable, it is the greed for more barns to store grain, presumably so that he can sell them to buy more possessions.

   The man is amazingly self-absorbed:

“What should I do, for I have no more places to store my crops. . . .? 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. I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat drink and be merry.’”

   It’s I, I, I. The farmer’s problem is not only that he has a lot of stuff; it’s that everything he sees starts and ends with himself. But he is about to get his due.

   There’s an app you can download on your phone called WeCroak. It’ been around for awhile. Each day they send you five invitations to stop and think about your mortality. It’s supposed to help you live a truer life. This rich guy got his reminder straight from God:

But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you, and all those things you have accumulated, whose will they be now?

   “And so it is”, Jesus said, “with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

   That powerful statement seems to summarize and pull together everything that Jesus ever said - and he said a lot - about wealth and accumulating stuff. But what is Jesus really saying here?

   Sure, we know it’s not a particularly good idea to accumulate money and stuff without thought about tomorrow. That’s pretty clear. You can’t take it with you. But what does it mean to be “rich toward God?”

   First, let’s talk about what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that money and possessions, of themselves, are necessarily bad. Money can do lots of good things: it can provide for you and your family; it can make possible a reasonably comfortable retirement; it can be given to others in need; it can be used to promote the general welfare. It can be given to the church. More on that later. 

   Many of us, including myself, are occasionally seduced by the same message that captured the soul of the rich farmer. You don’t have to look very far for evidence of that. Watch any amount of television or browse the internet and you find yourself bombarded by advertising designed to exploit our innate sense of security or self-assurance or lack thereof. 

   David Lose writes that media marketing entices us in a deadly two-step waltz. First it identifies and exaggerates something that we are insecure about - our clothes, our bodies, our sense of personhood, our social status. Then it offers us something to buy to satisfy that insecurity and make us acceptable again. But what can’t it do?

   It can’t produce the kind of full and abundant life that Jesus promises and that we seek in our spiritual quest as Christians. It just can’t! So, abundance is not about money or stuff or what it can do for us personally or professionally or socially. This kind of abundance cannot make us “rich toward God.” 

   Okay, I’ve said it twice now, but we still don’t know exactly what it means - to be rich toward God. What does the good life consist of as a follower of Jesus Christ? 

   We don’t have to investigate the Gospels very far to conclude that it is about giving of oneself in relationship to God and our neighbor, isn’t it?  The whole crux of Hebrew and Christian Scripture leads us to the realization that these two - love of God and love for neighbor - cannot be separated. Jesus tells parables like the Good Samaritan to remind us to think more broadly about who our neighbor is. It’s not just our family and friends, or members of this congregation, but according to Matthew 25, it is the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned, and yes, even our enemies.  

   Not once does Jesus talk about how to properly set up a retirement account or secure a good paying job. Not that these things are bad. It’s just that they are not a fundamental part of what it means to be rich toward God. Augustine once said that “God gave us people to love and things to use. Sin is the confusion of these two things.” 

   Being rich toward God means being willing, for the sake of the Gospel and our love of God and neighbor, to share what we have - our money, our time, our talents - without expectation of return and for the furthering of Christ’s realm here on earth. How is this church furthering Christ’s realm?

   The Transitional Pastor Search Committee in its Ministry Information Form (MIF) describes our church’s mission this way:

First Presbyterian Church of Evansville Indiana is called to embody God’s love, made known in Jesus Christ, in life giving ways, and to engage with God in transforming lives, communities, and institutions to reflect God’s goodness. As a community of open-hearted disciples, we covenant to support and encourage one another as we explore God’s grace on our journey of faith.

   The Congregation’s concrete vision for furthering this mission is

to carry out and live daily the mission of this church. Specifically, the members of the congregation, staff and pastor live out this vision of the church as an inclusive and affirming place in our community; a place open to everyone through outreach programs which positively impact those on a churchwide as well as local, national, and international levels.

   So whatever God gave us in abundance, whether it be money or creativity or mechanical skill or engineering capabilities, or the compassion to be with the poor, the sick, the bereaved - they are not to be kept for ourselves within the church community. They are meant to be shared out there with anyone who needs them.

   Long ago, you made the decision to continue as a downtown church serving in this historic neighborhood. For the church to accomplish its mission and vision, you decided that what’s needed is a physical presence in this building that is safe and sustainable. That includes many tasks that need doing: painting the upstairs offices, making the basement stairs safe and accessible, internet and office equipment upgrades, stained-glass window preservation, a permanent backup generator, AED’s and other equipment for safety and security. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

   The church has many program needs that require volunteers: Sunday nursery care for our youngest children so that their parents can worship with us, Christian education opportunities for primary children, youth and adults, help with the tasks of building improvement I described previously, our church councils - session and deacons, committee work, and so much more. Some of these have been outlined in the time and talents survey.

   Nelson Mandela became a spiritual icon and a national hero during and following his 27 years of imprisonment at the hands of the white minority government in South Africa. While in prison, he encouraged the black community there to hold on, just as he was holding on. When he had absolutely nothing, he found he had the abundance of something - the only thing - he could give back, and that was hope. He had the abundance of hope and the courage to give it away.

   Wendy and I see a church with an abundance of hope. We have been privileged to be co-bridge pastors for over seven months now, and it has been enough time for us to observe the potential for First Presbyterian Church, Evansville to be a vital progressive Christian witness in Evansville and Vanderburgh County. We see a community of faith not only full of hope and commitment, but also filled with the Spirit of God. We perceive a people that have a passion for serving Christ in the world. We see a church that is spiritually alive in its worship and its passion for social justice.

   We recognize a people who are ready to pursue a vision - not for the good old days - but for a future that includes fuller pews, an active Christian education program, a continuing commitment to social justice.

   We believe there is a budding mission to evangelize the surrounding community. Yes, I used the “e” word! That means reaching out to the unchurched looking for a faith community that diligently follows the teachings of Jesus, that welcomes and includes all people, together with our LGBTQ sisters, brothers, and the gender neutral.

   It means bringing back those who were once an active part of this congregation but because of COVID and the passing of Pastor Kevin Fleming are waiting to see this church come alive again.

   We, Wendy and I, envision a faith community that looks to a future that entails giving back to God by means of Christian service, now, and for decades yet to come. We imagine a people that want this to be the church of their children and grandchildren and generations following.

   What’s it going to take to achieve these goals? It would be simple and easy to say that it’s going to take money, time, and talent. And that is true. But before the pledges of money, time, and talent that is being asked of you, it is going to take the commitment to live our lives, privately and publicly, in such a way that people will know that we are rich toward God. Is that what you want? Is this the church that you want to grow into now and in the years ahead?  Then, with God helping us, let’s make it happen!

   To God be all honor and praise and glory.