On March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his first inaugural address as President. Within the first several sentences of this address, he stated: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. This simple statement is one of those “burned on your brain” statements. You’ve probably heard it dozens of times, even if you didn’t know who said it or why they said it. Roosevelt was speaking to a nation that was paralyzed by the fear of the great depression and war. He was speaking to a people who had lost hope. He was speaking to a people who were afraid. His words have spanned the generations.
In Luke, Jesus also repeatedly tells people do not be afraid. They are a people who have been economically and spiritually depressed by Roman occupation. They had lost hope and were afraid. Jesus’ words have spanned the centuries.
As I was reading this passage in preparation for today, I thought about the fear that we live in. We too have experienced (and many still experience) economic hardship, we are engaged in an incredibly long war, and many of us have lost hope. We have been told by the media to be afraid…we see damage, destruction and death on tv, in the news and on the internet. The impacts of climate change, globalization, rising health care costs, war, poverty, hunger, violence…they have damaged our spirits as well. It’s hard to see, hear or experience the Good News of Christ when we’re afraid, anxious and fearful.
And yet, Jesus speaks to us in the midst of this chaos and says “do not be afraid”.
What is the Good News? According to Jesus, the Good News is that “it is God’s good pleasure to give to you the kingdom”.
I’ve read this dozens of times over the years, and yet somehow this time I struck me differently.
It is God’s good pleasure to give to you the kingdom.
As I was reading the gospel and preparing my notes for today, Matt was watching a documentary about an American banjo player, Bela Fleck, who went to Africa to learn from and record an album with traditional musicians and singers. Many of these people had lived in fear for a long time…fear of poverty, hunger, HIV/AIDS, malaria, war, violence…and yet, in their music and songs, they laughed and rejoiced for the love of God they had experienced in their lives. Even in the midst of struggle, they could experience God’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom. For them, the kingdom was community, love, respect and kindness. There was a sharing of resources and a sharing of life.
It is God’s good pleasure to give to you the kingdom.
Last Sunday the Gospel challenged us to ask how we can be rich toward God. This Sunday, Jesus picks up right where he left off; he challenges us to re-examine what we value and what we fear. Do we value those things that we have stored up for ourselves? Do we give in to the fear that has been created for us by the world? Or do we value the blessings we have been given? Can we recognize the kingdom in our midst?
Theologian Audrey West wrote about this section of Luke and said that God’s blessings are known most fully by those who are not afraid. When have you been at peace enough to fully experience God’s blessing in your life? Was it that moment when your child or grandchild was born? Or when you were diagnosed as cancer-free? Or the day that you got married?
By not being distracted by our fears, and instead attending to the riches of the kingdom…our blessings, then we can be rich toward God and unafraid. Theologian David Schlafer said:
“Being ‘rich toward God’ involves a ‘generosity of spirit’ that opens our perceptions toward manifestations of God’s generosity that are always present, but often at the edges of awareness.”
It is God’s good pleasure to give to you the kingdom.
The nerd in me just had to look it up…“good pleasure” can also be translated “divine desire”. It is a Greek verb that indicates that the action is already complete. God has already freely given of God’s good pleasure, God’s divine desire. God has already given us all that we need. But when we live in fear, we cannot experience this pleasure and desire. Jesus reminds us that it is up to us to respond…to be ready…to be attentive to God’s gifts of love and grace that are all around us.
Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.
For years the church has used this line as a catch-phrase for stewardship. There’s nothing wrong with that. Last week we heard Jesus tell his followers to be rich toward God, and we talked about how we feed because we have been fed, how we care because we have been cared for, and how we give because we have received. But if we’re afraid, then we can’t be rich toward God because we believe that giving will make us destitute and desperate. So we store up our treasures; we put that crust around our heart. And the result is that we stay in that place of fear and are unable to experience God’s good pleasure.
But Jesus promises that in giving, we become mindful of God’s goodness and we become ready to receive God’s gifts.
God’s treasure is the kingdom…not the kingdom that is “out there” somewhere, but the kingdom that is right here and now. And we are that treasure…the recipients of God’s good pleasure…God’s love and grace. We live on the brink of a blessing. God’s divine desire is for us not be afraid. God has freely given to us the kingdom. How will we respond?
On Thursday, I met with Bettie and Ruth to plan music for August and September. When we meet, we gather our hymnals, our resources, and a Bible so that we can try to understand the Good News of God in both word and song. As we were planning the music, I discovered there was a running theme almost entirely through the next two months…stewardship of God’s gifts as thanksgiving for God’s abundant love, blessings, and gifts. After the fourth Sunday of this theme and music planning, I said “wow…God is really pushing me to talk about stewardship”.
It’s easy for me to talk about the stewardship of time and talent. Admittedly, here at St. Mark’s, those are areas that I can brag about…we have Mark’s delicious cooking which has fed us many times in the last year, Beth’s preparing of soup, salad and sandwiches to feed the folks of the Warming Shelter and AA, the time our youth mentors give to journey alongside our amazing young adults, the time the women of the guild give to the bazaar and other activities, our time at FISH Food Bank…the list goes on and on. What’s not easy for me is to talk about the stewardship of our treasure.
In my house there were four things we never talked about…religion, sex, politics and money. These were topics that were off limits and when discussed, always discussed behind closed doors. And yet, these topics are often the ones that worry us the most and keep us up at night. Maybe in your family, it was different…
So it’s hard for me to talk about money. There, I’ve said it. And yet, Jesus had a lot to say about it. So I’m going to take my cue from him, and try it today.
In the gospel for this morning (Luke 12:13-21), a man comes to Jesus to ask him to talk to his brother about a family inheritance. Jesus not only says that he isn’t a judge in this kind of matter, but he also gives a warning against greed, and then tells the story of a rich man who stored up his treasures.
The parable is of a man who lives in the world of “I-me-mine”. The stuff he has accumulated…his wealth and his goods…are all “mine”. In this parable he does not give thanks to God for his abundance, he does not ask himself how he can contribute to the welfare of the poor, needy, hungry, widowed or orphaned, instead he’s focused on building a bigger storage facility for his “stuff”.
There are two problems with greed; one is that it is always self-centered and two there a sense that there is never enough.
For this rich man, it’s all about “him”. It’s easy to judge the rich man in the parable…of course he should share his treasure with others and thank God for the gifts he has received. But greed has made him blind. And if we really looked closely at ourselves, we can see when there have been times when we’ve been greedy too.
And when we’re greedy, we start to worry that there’s not enough. So we store up, stash away, and horde. That’s what the rich man was trying to do.
But God reminds him (and I’m paraphrasing here)…you can’t take it with you!
Let me tell you a story to help put all this in a modern-day perspective. At a church that I worked at during seminary, there was a young wife and mother in the congregation. She worked full-time while her husband went to school. He had a teaching assistant position that provided a modest stipend and they lived in university housing. They were far from being rich. And yet, they were faithful members of the church community. One year, she was invited to give a stewardship talk (like we do here), and she talked about how abundantly God had blessed them. They had a beautiful daughter, she had a job that was fulfilling, and her husband was getting his education. They had housing, food and all the stuff they needed. And for that they were grateful. So for this family, giving of their financial resources to the church was a way of both giving thanks for their abundant blessings, but also a way of “paying it forward”…she wanted to make sure that the church could provide to others who were in need. This family was the opposite of the rich man from Jesus’ parable.
So who is like the rich man in the parable? The person who invests their money and says “when I have a million dollars, that will be enough” and who, when reaching that goal says “no, really, I need to have 3 million dollars” and then it’s six million and so on…for this person, there’s never going to be enough and there is no graciousness for what they do have, and as a result there can be no generosity of spirit.
When do we know when we have enough? When can we look beyond the “I-me-mine” and see our calling to be grateful and generous stewards of our treasure? I don’t know…I think for each of us, the answer is going to be different. There is no magic number.
This summer I’ve been reading Geneen Roth’s Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations about Food and Money, and she spends a lot of time talking about when you know that you have enough. She writes:
It’s almost impossible to think about other people…when you are convinced that your survival depends on getting more. When you believe that you deserve to have whatever it is, that it’s not fair that you got so little, and that you don’t have enough of what you need, your heart develops a crust and that crust keeps you separate, isolated, and alone…Under the spell of deficiency, we can justify anything….Enough isn’t an amount; it’s a relationship to what you already have.
I don’t know what “enough” is for you, but for me, I constantly have to work at it…I have to constantly work at not developing this crust around my heart or falling under the spell of deficiency, I have to work at it to remember that everything I’ve been given has been God’s gift.
Last year, the vestry read the book The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist. And she talks about “enough” in terms of “sufficiency”:
Sufficiency isn’t two steps away from poverty or more than [you need]. Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough…There is always enough.
We live in a world where we’ve been told there isn’t enough and that we need to hang on to everything we have. But how do we resolve that with the last line of Jesus’ parable, when he says to the man, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” For me, this was a hard truth to swallow…when we are greedy we are not rich toward God. What can I do to be rich toward God?
And this brings me back to the idea of stewardship…time, talent and treasure. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. We are rich toward God when we help to bring about the Kingdom on earth…when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and love one another. We do these things not out of a place of greed, not out of a sense of “I-me-mine” but out of a place of graciousness and generosity. We feed because we have been fed, we care for one another because we have been cared for, we give because we have been given to abundantly.
In a few months when we start talking about church budgets, I hope you’ll keep this parable in mind. Will you store up your treasure in the hopes of one day having “enough”, or will you give in order to be rich towards God?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.