Sermon Text: Luke 12:13-21
I know we were stunned and horrified by the news out of Texas last week: On the Ft. Hood Army base, a man committed the most lethal shooting ever on a military base, killing 13 people so far, 12 of whom were fellow soldiers. Events like this have a way of vividly reminding us of how dangerous this world is; how fragile life is; how we could lose our life at any moment. Certainly, if we are tempted to feel invulnerable and secure and in control, this sort of event has a way of shaking us out of our complacency. We want guarantees about our life in this world, and the truth is that, at least apart from God, nothing is guaranteed.
In today’s scripture, a man comes to Jesus asking him to arbitrate a dispute between him and his brother. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide up the family inheritance with me.” It’s an ironic choice of words because this dispute over money and possessions was actually dividing him from his brother. This division was a far worse problem than not getting paid, which the man fails to grasp. “What’s more important,” Jesus implies, “love or money, people or possessions? In your pursuit of money, you’re failing to love; you’re failing to focus on what’s most important.” How easy is it for us to do that?
There’s a song by a rock singer and songwriter named Liz Phair in which she describes the problem quite well: “It’s nice to be liked/ But it’s better by far to get paid/ I know that most of the friends that I have/ Don’t really see it that way/ But if you could give them each one wish/ How much do you want to bet/ That they’d wish success for themselves and their friends/ And that would include lots of money?” Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”—meaning the point of life, the main reason for living is not about accumulating wealth.
And he tells a story to illustrate the point: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” Stop right there. That verse says a great deal. Jesus says, “The land… produced.” Notice the emphasis is not on what the rich man did, but on something that is beyond his ability to do: produce a harvest. He can certainly facilitate the process by tilling, aerating, fertilizing, sowing, watering—using resources that God has given him—but he can’t do the most important thing: make stuff grow. That is, as someone said one time, beyond his pay grade. The man’s first mistake, then, was failing to recognize who is responsible for what he has.
I would argue that it’s much easier for us to make that mistake—living in our post-agrarian and now post-industrial age—than for the rich man in the parable. We still need farming, of course, but it’s done by other people on factory farms, and its produce is imported to our communities from far away places. We are incredibly disconnected from the land. We mostly don’t grow our own food or livestock; we mostly don’t have farmers in our families; we mostly don’t know where the food we eat comes from or how it got here. A couple of weeks ago, I ate a navel orange. Because of course I can eat navel oranges any time of the year, in season or out, I looked at the label. The orange said it was from South Africa. Eating an orange from South Africa? Can you imagine? You would think I was royalty! “Oh, Jeeves, would you please fetch me a navel orange?” “Oh, I’m sorry, sir. Navel oranges aren’t in season.” “Nonsense! I’ll tell my people in Johannesburg to send some up!”
I went on a mission trip with a group of clergy last August to a retreat center called the Hinton Rural Life Center in North Carolina. One of the most eye-opening experiences was an afternoon after we finished doing the actual mission work for which we were there. We spent a couple hours digging up and gathering potatoes in the retreat center’s garden. That was some hot and sweaty work. I hate to tell you this, but I had never seen how potatoes are grown. I always let Idaho worry about that. Potatoes were always just there, in a bag in the supermarket. If you told me that through technology they even knew how to grow them into those “crinkle” shapes for French fries, I’d probably believe you. Anyway, we gathered up these potatoes in baskets and stored them in a cellar. The retreat center then used these potatoes in the meals they prepared. You better believe that that week, as I ate my French fries or potato salad or potatoes au gratin, I thought about this good earth. I thought about how amazing potatoes are, and the miraculous way in which they grow. I thought about this retired man who donates so much of his time farming at the retreat center. I thought about the gift of rain and sunshine. I thought of all the hard work that went into harvesting them. I honestly prayed a prayer to myself that I had never prayed before: “Thank you, Jesus, for this humble potato, which is an amazing gift from you.” If I could only live my life that way all the time; not taking what I have granted; not always simply wanting more; remembering to be thankful; remembering that everything is a precious gift from a loving God!
O.K., farming and produce is one thing, but the things that I like most are technological: electronics, computers… How is a cell phone, for example, from God? Well, a cell phone was created by really smart and gifted people, whom God made, who were nurtured and loved and cared for by other people, whom God put in their lives; who used the minds and talents God gave them; who themselves learned from other smart and gifted people to take the earth’s resources and convert them into this thing we know today as a cell phone. Everything in the phone comes from the earth’s resources, which God gives us to us; and it’s powered by energy that ultimately comes from the sun, which God gives us. How does God not ultimately give us the cell phone? Yes, we can and should be grateful to God for iPhones and BlackBerries.
Do we feel gratitude in that way? Or do we just take it for granted.
A comedian, Louis CK, was on Conan O’Brien talking about how this recession might force us not to take things granted. Because, he said, “Everything’s amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.” And he talked about some of the great technological changes he’s seen in his lifetime. All these great things, he said, are “wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots… I was on an airplane and there was high speed internet. That’s the newest thing I know that exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they say, ‘Open up your laptops; you can go on the internet.’ And it’s fast, and I’m watching YouTube videos—I’m on an airplane. And then it breaks down, and they apologize that the internet’s not working. And the guy sitting next to me goes, ‘Pfft! This is B.S.!’ [Pause] Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago!”
Every good thing we have in life is a gift. Life itself is a gift. Don’t take it for granted. Love is more important than money. People are more important than possessions. Your time on earth is limited. What will you do with the time you have? Like the news of a tragic, life-shattering event; like driving by a fatal accident on the interstate; like attending a good funeral, Jesus gives us a dramatic and shocking wake-up call: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. What are your priorities? Where is your focus? Are you making the most of this present moment, this time you have now?
The Bible often speaks of death as an enemy, a consequence of sin. And through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God defeated this enemy, death, once and for all. We who have placed our faith in Jesus and have been baptized don’t have to be afraid of death; we know that we, too, will overcome it through Jesus’ victory. The meaning of death changes for us, and that changes how we live. Our lives on this earth may not be secure, but our eternal life is secure in Christ. And this parable of Jesus points to a way in which death can be our ally, at least in this sense: the prospect of death can charge our lives with a sense of urgency: we have only a limited amount of time to accomplish the things God wants us to accomplish, to live as God wants us to live. When my father had cancer, and knew it was terminal, he certainly appreciated his life as a temporary gift. During the last year of his life, I saw Dad nearly every day, and he told me every time he saw me how much he loved me. Not characteristic of him—he wasn’t terribly affectionate. He said, “I now you’re going to get tired of hearing me say this, but it’s true, and I’m going to tell you.” I really didn’t get tired of hearing him say it. The prospect of his imminent death freed him to do something he wouldn’t normally do.
You know that we are in stewardship season. The church is challenging us to actually give away money that we have to support the work of the God’s kingdom that is done through this body of believers here at Alpharetta First. Does that thought scare you a little? Make you feel insecure and uncomfortable? Listen: if, like the rich man in the parable, we believed it were simply up to us to secure our own future instead of entrusting our future to God; to make our own way in this world instead of following the way Christ; to take care of our own lives instead of placing our lives under the care of the Good Shepherd, then what the church is asking for us to do might seem unreasonable. But I believe that the key to stewardship is understanding the complete and unearned giftedness of our life, by which we respond with nothing but gratitude: Every moment is a gift that God gives us; every good thing we have is a gift that God gives us. Every heartbeat is a gift from God. Every breath we take is a gift from God. It doesn’t come from ourselves to begin with; it comes from God.
Has God taken care of you thus far? Has God proven himself trustworthy? If so, will we trust God? Giving money to the church is about the most tangible expression of this trust. How strong is our faith, after all, if we’re not willing to put it to the test in this very practical way? Maybe you’re scared about giving. Do it anyway! See if you don’t end up OK this time next year. Some of you have done this, and you know you can trust God. Some of you stepped up your giving last year; some of you tithed for the first time last year, in spite of the economically uncertain times, and guess what? You made it through. Didn’t you? My family tithes; we give 10 percent of our income to this church. We made it through. Thanks be to God! Maybe God is challenging you to do the same thing.
As an expression of this trust, will you do it? Will you give what you know God is calling you to give?
 Liz Phair, Whitechocolatespacegg (Matador/Capitol 53554), 1998. Compact disc.