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The sermon for week July 31, 2016

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Life Lesson

Luke 12:13-21

13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘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. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

One of the number of gifts of serving as an ordained minister, is that we get let into people’s lives in such a way that we often get to know their inner most thoughts. We get to know what makes people tick, what is important to them. It did not take me long in my first church to appreciate the front row seat that I had been given to seeing people’s lives up close. It also did not take me long to realize that this front row seat also gave me a chance to learn some very valuable life lessons.

For instance, when it came to death and dying, I observed that some people did it well and some did it very poorly. Those that did it well did it with grace while those that did it poorly I might say were literally scared to death. It did not take me long to decide that I wanted to one of those that did it with grace. The difference between the two ways of dying had everything to do with whether one trusted in a loving God or not. Those that had a faith and had lived a life that trusted in a loving God were far more likely to die with grace and peace. Those that had no faith or believed in a god who was not first and foremost a loving god, often were more and more anxious and fearful the closer death came. I much preferred visiting the one dying with grace. Having observed this, I realized that I was learning a life lesson that not all people get to learn or observe. This lesson taught me that when my time to die comes, that I much prefer to die with grace. Therefore it behooves me to truly practice this faith and to truly trust this God of love.

Another lesson that I learned early on, was it truly does matter what we decide to treasure in life. As a new minister, I had just finished 4 years of seminary (3 in the classroom and 1 as an intern) after having spent four years in undergraduate studies. Needless to say I valued education. Early in my ministry, in a very small rural town here in Ohio, I got to know this very interesting elderly woman. She was living in a nursing home. Her body was failing her but her mind certainly was not. She was very well educated. She was a scholar of Leo Tolstoy. At that time, she very well may have been the preeminent scholar of Tolstoy in the state of Ohio. She also liked to stay current with what was going on in the world, so she subscribed to the Christian Science Monitor. Over the years, she had downsized to the point that all of her treasures could be contained in the space of one half of a nursing home room, no smaller than that, the space of a book shelf that contained her favorite books by Tolstoy or those on Tolstoy and her current copy of the Christian Science Monitor. But life for her was becoming more and more difficult. Because of her physical ailments, she could not leave the nursing home. There was no one at the nursing home, residents or staff that had any interest in talking with her about Tolstoy. Virtually the same could be said for her interest in current events. None of the residents had any interest in current events, and those staff members that did had little interest in what the Christian Science Monitor writers had to say or the topics they wrote about. As a result, her world was very small. Sadly it got smaller with each passing year that I knew her. First her eye sight began to fail her. Before long she had to give up her books and her newspaper. But because of her life time of studies, she was still very interesting to visit with if I could get past her complaining about her loss of eyesight and what that has cost her regarding Tolstoy and current events. But then her hearing started to go. When this happened, that delightful person that I had known disappeared and in its place was one of the most negative persons I had ever visited. As her negativity increased, her friends and family no longer enjoyed spending time with her. Visits became a chore. As I reflected on this change that I had observed, although she had been a church member all of her life, it appeared to me that the trust and energy she had placed in her love of Tolstoy and in discussions of current events had been more valuable to her then had been her trust in God. They had become her treasure. She had never imagined life without those two treasures. When those treasures were gone, she was lost and miserable. She taught me a very valuable life lesson about treasures and trust.

In Luke we encounter a similar story unfolding, another life lesson. In this story, Jesus who clearly has become known for a ministry of loving the poor and challenging those with wealth to way of life of sharing that wealth with the poor is challenged by a man who wants Jesus to speak to the man’s older brother to get him to share his inheritance with this man. Jesus hears something in the question that gives him insight into the younger man’s motive for asking the question. So he tells this parable.
“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘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. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

Now in that time, having wealth was not an evil thing, but was a sign of being blessed by God. Clearly the rich man was blessed by God, so blessed, that his crops produced far more that he anticipated. But the problem arose when he had the conversation about what to do with the abundance. The conversation does not involve those who labored in his fields, the ones who planted the seeds or harvested the grain. It does not involve any from the community. And, it does not involve God. He has the conversation with himself. His treasure is his own ability to manage his resources, to manage his wealth. Because what he treasures most is his own ability to manage his affairs, he misses out on the greater treasure which is that all that he has is a gift from God. As a result, he hoards what has been a gift given to him rather than sharing from his abundance.

Florence Ferrier tells a wonderful story that gets at sharing from ones abundance. It’s about the experience of a social worker in poverty-stricken Appalachia. It's called "We Ain't Poor!

The Sheldons were a large family in severe financial distress after a series of misfortunes. The help they received was not adequate, yet they managed their meager income with ingenuity -- and without complaint.

One fall day I visited the Sheldons in the ramshackle rented house they lived in at the edge of the woods. Despite a painful physical handicap, Mr. Sheldon had shot and butchered a bear which strayed into their yard once too often. The meat had been processed into all the big canning jars they could find or swap for. There would be meat in their diet even during the worst of the winter when their fuel costs were high.

Mr. Sheldon offered me a jar of bear meat. I hesitated to accept it, but the giver met my unspoken resistance firmly. "Now you just have to take this. We want you to have it. We don't have much, that's a fact; but we ain't poor!"

I couldn't resist asking, "What's the difference?" His answer proved unforgettable.

"When you can give something away, even when you don't have much, then you ain't poor. When you don't feel easy giving something away even if you got more'n you need, then you're poor, whether you know it or not."

I accepted and enjoyed their gift and treasured that lesson in living. In time, I saw it as a spiritual lesson, too. Knowing that all we have is provided by the Father, it seems ungracious to doubt that our needs will be met without our clinging to every morsel.

When I feel myself resisting an urge to share what's mine -- or when I see someone sharing freely from the little he has -- I remember Mr. Sheldon saying, "We ain't poor!"1

My friends, “We ain’t poor.” God has blessed us with an abundance far beyond our deserving. But may that abundance not cause us to lose sight of what is our greatest treasure. That is faith in this loving and most generous God. This is a life lesson worth its value.

Footnotes:
1-As shared by Brian P. Stoffregen in Exegetical Notes

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