The Good Life

The good life. Ahhh, yes, the good life. I happened to pick up The Kiplinger magazine for August 2004 and it has as one of its cover articles, Own a Piece of Paradise. How to find waterfront land. What you need to know to buy your second home. $22 billion unclaimed! Is any of it Yours? How to make your money work for you. (Sigh.) I'd love to know how to do that.

In fact, I received a piece of mail from Thrivent just yesterday and it had as its cover article, Who needs to be a millionaire? How to avoid the #1 retirement planning mistake: underestimating your needs. Well, the way I see it, if I need to save a million dollars before I can retire, I'll need to work at least to 200 years old.

It's difficult for me to read about folks who have done so well with their investing that they don't have to worry during their elderly years. Not that I begrudge them their success, but I look at a magazine like this with its recommendations for investment opportunities and am totally lost. I imagine it is like reading biblical Greek and Hebrew for many folks. We have to trust the advice of someone else who has had the patience and interest to learn how.

Actually, I would love to go back to my early years and make some significantly different choices with my money now that I am so much wiser - though not necessarily knowledgeable.

Now, did you happen to notice how much in agreement all the readings were for today? They all seem to talk about how futile our toil for earthly security is compared with the absolute security of God's investment in us. I'm sure most of us have heard that famous line from Ecclesiastes - Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. Or a more current phrase, "You can't take it with you." Well, maybe so, but for most of us we'd sure like to enjoy it while we are here.

As we hear Jesus tell the tale of the rich man who had an even greater crop yield than he has ever had in his life, we can't help but be excited for him. Who wouldn't want to win the lottery these days? We could pay off our credit cards, the mortgage, and live comfortably for the rest of our lives on the interest from mutual funds. But God is less than excited for this man, calling him a fool. In fact, the man dies that very night.

What is it that we need to see in this man's life choices that will help us understand the difference between success and foolishness? Alan Culpepper, Dean of the School of Theology of Mercer University has highlighted five points to be considered.

The first could be called a preoccupation with possessions. If we listen carefully, we realize this man has no other thoughts than where to store his increased wealth. His goods and his prosperity seem to have become the sole pursuit of his life. He must have bigger and bigger barns. But does his life have any other meaning beside eating, drinking and merriment? At the moment of his death, though he has material goods, he can certainly be considered an impoverished man.

2. He relies on the security of self-sufficiency. The parable paints for us a man who does not need anyone else. He has provided for himself, and his provisions will take care of him for many years. We never hear him speak of the security of the love of family or faithful friends. He does not feel the need of a community of support or the security of God's love. This is a man who can make it on his own and doesn't need anyone else.

3. Greed has him in its grasp. The thought that he might be able to do something for those in need never enters this rich man's mind. As we listen to his thoughts, we never find a sense of responsibility to use his abundance for anyone less fortunate than he. Has his greed eaten away any compassion that he might have had?

4. Hedonism. Does anyone know that word? It is the dream of a future of indulging one's whims and desires and maximizing pleasure. Leisure, recreation, freedom from the demands of work - the rich man's vision of the future sounds uncomfortably like one that most of us have for our retirement years. While there is nothing wrong with being prudent and assuring that we do not have to be a burden on anyone else, there is a problem with that being our sole goal in life. It is hollow and empty in the greater scheme of the world.

5. And the last to be considered is what has been called - practical atheism. While the rich man may protest to all around him that he has always believed in God, when it comes to managing his life, dealing with his possessions and planning for the future, he lives as though there were no God.

This parable, no not just this parable but the entire Gospel of Luke asks us to probe our basic commitments. What difference should our faith in God make in the practical matters of life? Luke frequently speaks of the effect wealth has on a person's life choices and asks us to remember: If our fields have brought forth abundantly it is a blessing from God that demands both prudence and fidelity in making provision for the whole community.

Remember the story of Joseph being sold to a caravan going down into Egypt? While there, he was able to wisely counsel the pharaoh about his dream recommending storing the crops of the years of bounty against the years of famine that would surely come. The difference was Joseph was then able to provide for all of Egypt and the surrounding countries when the famine was so great. Including his own brothers that had betrayed him.

A relatively recent Broadway production and film available at video stores is the classic novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables. Among its wonderful depiction of many, many themes it portrays how one man can take his sudden windfall and turn it into a blessing for an entire community. Jean Valjean, an escaped convict whose crime had only been to steal some bread, now steals the silver from the bishop's home after the bishop had befriended him. When the police apprehend Valjean and bring him back to the bishop's house, the bishop confirms Valjean's story that the silver was a gift to him and adds that he meant to give the silver candlesticks to him also. And he is allowed to go free.

This sheer act of grace sets up a furious struggle within the man. In the words from the novel, "Did a voice whisper in his ear that he had just passed through the decisive hour of his destiny, that there was no longer a middle course for him, that if, thereafter, he were not the best of men, he would be the worst, that he must now, so to speak, climb higher than the bishop or fall lower than the convict, that, if he wanted to become good, he must become an angel, that, if he wanted to remain evil, he must become a monster?"

Valjean is able to take advantage of this moment of grace and becomes mayor of a small town and owner of a factory. But the way he conducts his business is always for the well being and benefit of his employees and his townspeople. When his old prison guard discovers his whereabouts years later and he is forced to flee, he gives the factory to the employees making them all shareholders instead of selling it and taking the money.

For Valjean, grace both in monetary terms and in forgiveness - made a difference in his life and it benefited the people he touched.

Let me tell of one more individual and I will leave you to contemplate your own life story. There was a man who lost his home and all his possessions in a raging brush fire driven by the Santa Anna winds in California. A news reporter was talking with him about how he felt. The man told the reporter how he and his brother had just recently had a conversation about being careful not to let their possessions possess them. Now, after seeing everything he owned but the shirt on his back go up in smoke he announced to the reporter with unexpected triumph, "I am a free man now!"

As we think about these four men and their reaction to their wealth, we should think about our own lives. No matter how much or how little we have we can make choices that will benefit those around us. It's not a question of how much we have, but how responsible we are in using it. When God blesses us with abundance whether it is money, talent, joy or freedom, God expects us to bless others.

Read other sermons by Pastor Joan