1/25/2015 Sermon: Being Rich (in what matters most) #4 – “Rich Toward God”

Winter sunset - PAFor the month of January, we’ve been talking about “*Being Rich (in what matters most)”.  There is a lot of scripture that we could be using to talk about wealth and how God wants believing people to live, both as individuals and as people who are gathered together to be the church of Jesus Christ.

For typical American Christians, it all means that there is good news and bad news.  The good news is that we are rich, compared to more than 99% of the rest of the world.  The bad news is that we are rich.  The strange effect that this has on us is that most of us think we don’t have enough, and the more we have, the more we are likely to hold back, and the less we contribute to the good of others.

In the kingdom of God, being rich has more to do with what you give away, more than it has to do with what you earn, or have, or save up.  Being rich in God’s eyes means first, sharing your faith with others – all of us creating a community where faith is shared (God is glorified) – and then making sure everyone is okay, that everyone has what they need to live without worry.  When God first sent the Spirit to create the church (Acts 2), their first impulse was to give, to share their wealth.  God was being glorified through the love they were showing to each other.

There was a young man named Timothy who was pastoring a church in the wealthy city of Ephesus.  We heard Paul say to him…

1 Timothy 6:17-19.  17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be [arrogant], or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Command those who are rich.  Who is rich?  We are.  Command them…

“…to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” (v. 18) 

We are not saved by good works (as if we could earn God’s love); we are saved for good works, because we have God’s love living in us and it needs to find a way out!  Faith finds its fulfillment in giving, in making a difference for others.

God wants us to be rich – in the right way.  If we’re not careful, we can become rich in the wrong way, like the guy Jesus talks about in this story….

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. [remember – when Jesus talks about rich folks, he’s talking about us] 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 towards God.

barnDo you remember where Jesus was born?  In a stable, right?  And that stable was most likely a cave under the inn where there was no room for them.  Some people in villages had an area for animals and storage on the “first floor” of their houses and they lived above.  So, having a free-standing barn for storing crops would have been a pretty big deal.  Storage buildings were made mostly of stone and only the very wealthy had them. The stone barns that we have around PA – like the one above – would have been a sign of incredible wealth. This farmer already has barns; he tears them down to build bigger ones.  It’s a ridiculous image.  In a time and place where many people need what he’s producing – mainly food, he’s keeping it for himself.  He isn’t even trying to sell it.  He thinks that he’s supposed to keep all the blessings God has given him.  Save for that rainy day, right?

What would have made him rich toward God?  To let go.  To get his hand off the cookie in the jar.  To be looking around to see who needs what he’s got and finding a way to be share, to be rich in good works done for others.  It’s pretty simple.  Protecting his wealth is only hurting him.

There is another story in scripture about someone who did it the right way.  Remember Joseph?  Technicolor dreamcoat?  The beginning of the story is not a happy one.  Joseph is a pretty arrogant, selfish young guy.  He is kidnapped by his own brothers and sold off as a slave, but eventually becomes the right hand man of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. (Genesis 47)  He stores up food for a time of famine – which God helped him see coming – and then made sure everyone had enough.  Because he found a way to share, God brought him back together with his estranged family.  The sharing of savings became part of our own salvation story.  You can say that we are here because of the sharing that’s happened over many centuries.  And now it’s our turn.

God’s kingdom is all about relationships, between each of us and God, between each other.  Loving God and loving the neighbor, especially if the neighbor is not like you, especially if the neighbor has needs, that is the investment plan in God’s kingdom.  Find ways to do those things and you are well on your way toward untold wealth.  When we do what we are called to do, God richly provides.

For us, Jesus has something to say about our lifestyles and our lifestyle together.  What are you keeping in your barn?  As a church, what are we keeping in our barn?  What are we storing up for ourselves?  What do we have that everybody needs? Let’s be rich toward God.

Prayer

O God, clear our minds and our hearts of the clutter and the junk that keeps us from seeing you and seeing each other.  Teach us about possessions and wealth.  Help us love you with a deeper love, and through your Spirit, help us understand who and what is important to you.

We thank you for your care for us, especially for the riches that come from our faith in you – a church family that cares, and a growing sense of purpose in following you, in following Jesus.  Help us live out our prayers in real ways; make us living expressions of your love on Main Street and in our world.  Amen.

[*Note – This series, “Being Rich (in what matters most)”, is based on sermons given by Craig Groeschel, the Pastor of LifeChurch, Edmund, OK (http://www.lifechurch.tv/okc/)  When I quote him, or use words that may be close to his, they will be in blue.]

1/18/2015 Sermon: Being Rich (in what matters most) #3 – “Rich in Good Deeds”

Money 2We’ve called this series for January, “*Being Rich (in what matters most)” and right at the beginning, we acknowledged that most of us believe that there are rich people, and those people are not us.  It doesn’t matter how much money you earn (or receive in retirement).  We think that in order for us to be in a place don’t have to worry about money, if we were rich, it would take more money.  Most of have gone through times when money was a problem, maybe because of an illness or a job loss, but statistics also show that most of us think we don’t have enough even when times are good.  The richer you are, the more you hold back and the more you think you don’t have enough.

Scripture has lots to say about wealth, about being rich, and about getting to that place where you know you are rich.  This series started with a few words that the Apostle Paul had to say to a young pastor friend of his named Timothy:

1 Timothy 6:17-19 (p. 1083).  17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be [arrogant], or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Let’s get a little bit of a picture of whom Paul was talking about when he said this to Timothy, who was pastoring the church in Ephesus.  If Athens, Greece, was a kind of Philadelphia of its time, then Ephesus was a distant, rich suburb on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.  I don’t have a good handle on what might be considered a “rich suburb” in eastern PA, but if we were in Cleveland, where I’m from, I’d say that were talking about the Shaker Heights of the ancient world.  And Paul started this ministry, this church there.

ParthenonAthens had a big, famous Temple of Athena.  You know it as the Parthenon – a massive, beautiful building (101 x 228 ft.).

Ephesus had the Temple of Artemis.  Completely gone now, it was twice the size of the Parthenon (225 x 450 ft.)  It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Whatever they did, they spared no expense!

Ruins along the main street of ancient Ephesus.
Ruins along the main street of ancient Ephesus.

A lot of money flowed through Ephesus.  The richest of the rich lived here.  Elegant houses with mosaics on the floors and fancy wall paintings.  Running water  (which maybe you thought was an American invention!).  When Kathy and I visited in 2000, we almost tripped over some pipes on the surface of the path to the old city.  Turns out, these pipes were about 2,000 years old and provided running water to the ruined neighborhood we were walking through.

On a global scale today, we are these people.  We not only live much better than the richest people of the ancient world, the average person in Pennsylvania earns more than 99.5% of the people in the rest of the modern world. ($43,000 entered into www.globalrichlist.com)

“Command those who are rich” — now, who would that be talking about?  That would also be talking about us?  Right?  So this verse is for us — “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in the uncertainty of riches, but to put their hope” where?  “To put their hope in God” — and this is so powerful — “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

God blesses us.  And one of the reasons is he wants us to enjoy these blessings.  Verse 19, he says, “Command them to” what?  Let’s all say it aloud.  Command these rich people…

to do good, to be rich…”

…how?

“…in good works , to be generous and ready to share.” 

We talked about this last week. God’s Word tells us to be rich “in good works.”  To do good and to be rich in good works.

Have you ever wondered what you would do with a windfall?  You get a certified letter in the mail saying that you just inherited a big pile of money that made you rich.  Unbeknownst to you, you are related to European royalty.  What’s the first thing you do?  Celebrate with family?  Or would that be a problem if people knew you have that all that money?  What’s the second thing you do?  The third thing?

Some people might update their wardrobe.  Somebody else might replace that clunker in the driveway. Others might want to travel.  Go to Disneyworld.  Our first instinct is to take care of ourselves.

But if you’ve been listening, you know that God would like us and like the church to move beyond that.

So now, I want to challenge you to imagine what it would look like for each of us – and all of us – to be “rich in good works.”  You are wealthy.  God has given you huge opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s life. Picture that.  In that mental image that’s on the screen of your mind, what are you doing?  What’s happening?

Now, when we talk about being rich in good works, or good deeds,  we  need to agree upon one basic principal.  If you miss this point, you’re really going to miss an important part of what I’m saying.

Paul speaks straight to the church in Ephesus and says this:

Ephesians 2:8-10 (p. 1064). 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Many times, when I’ve done a funeral service for someone, I will hear that person described as having a special place in heaven because of the wonderful things they did for other people.  Joe would “give the shirt off their back.”  And that’s awesome.  We are blessed by having great examples of loving, giving people in our lives.  We all know someone like this in our families.  That’s not usually the time I can talk about this…

God has not reached out to save us because we have done great things and deserve it.  We are not saved by good works; we are saved for good works.  We are saved by Christ, in whom we believe, so that we can make a difference through the power of his love.

This is one of the truly amazing things about our relationship with God.  We are not saved and made right before God because we do religious things or we try harder or we stop doing bad things and start doing good things.  We are not made right with God by those good works, but we are transformed by God to do good works.  When we believe in the living Jesus, God moves into us through the Holy Spirit, and we start becoming the hands and feet of God.  To do good works!  Works “which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  That blows me away.  There is something that God prepared for us to do that has the effect of determining our lifestyle going forward.

And it’s a gift!  Why? “So that no one may boast.” God sees us all equally.  It’s not a competition to see who can be the best believer or even the best performer of good deeds.  And we are certainly not called to be bystanders in an empty, suffering world.There is something that God has called us to do in the places where we live and work and go to school, and there are things God is calling this church to do in the community where it lives, in the world where it lives.  Often, the thing you may be called to do is a response to a need for justice – work among the poor, or others who are disadvantaged in some way.  On the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, we should all be prompted to give that some thought.

DR 4I think that we’re all agreed now that we are rich in our ability to good things and make a positive difference for others.  God has prepared us for these good deeds.  God has made us rich with opportunities to serve.  Now, we need to act.

The best summary of what I’m talking about comes from Jesus:

Matthew 5:14-16 (p. 880).  14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Why do we do the good works?  So that people see and God gets the glory.  Our aim is to help as many people as we can love God with their heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Then they will help us love more neighbors.  When that happens, when God is living in people and they are loving others in ways they didn’t or couldn’t before, the community and the world begins to change.  You begin to change as you realize what a difference you can make.

Have you ever tried to identify St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Manheim?  You meet someone and they don’t know anything about the church.  What do you say?  There are a lot of churches in Manheim (compared to other places where we’ve lived).  I get asked – where is St. Paul’s?  And I start describing where we are on Main Street, the oldest church building in town. Sometimes I would hear, “Oh, the one across from Bickel’s (a potato chip company).  Lately, I’ve hear people say, “Oh, the church that does the breakfast.”

Maybe you have conversations like that. I was talking about geography, they were talking about a ministry we are doing that has a presence in the community.  That’s God influencing the neighborhood because some of us are giving food away to strangers (and are being very blessed as they serve those eggs!).  I believe we are just at the edge of the kind of generosity we are capable of.  God is working in all of it and I’m wondering, what other kinds of ministry can we give away?

You see, this building only has value to God as it provides a launching pad for ministry in the community, which is our light shining.  Or, we could be like so many congregations with beautiful structures – the ministry is dwindling, slowly dying; the light is flickering.

But we are rich in ability and opportunity.  There is some way in which all of us help light shine in this place.  The building is not the light; you are.  That is, the work of God the Holy Spirit shines through you as you have faith and find that thing God wants you to do.  Together, we are rich people being “…commanded to do good and be rich in good works, generous and ready to share.” 

Prayer

O God, give us the faith of children.  Simple trust, with our lives in your hands.  This morning each of us, in a moment of silent prayer, responds to the message we have just heard, that you reach out to us through Jesus.  He is risen; he is God.  Our arms are open to you, Lord.  Our hearts are open; we surrender to you.  We believe; help our unbelief.

Now give us places to go, people to see.  Help us shine in our dark world with the light of Christ, in whose name we pray.

[*Note – This series, “Being Rich (in what matters most)”, is based on sermons given by Craig Groeschel, the Pastor of LifeChurch, Edmund, OK (http://www.lifechurch.tv/okc/)  When I quote him, or use words that may be close to his, they will be in blue.]

1/11/2015 Sermon: Being Rich (in what matters most) #2 – “Rich Giving”

*One of the most satisfying things a believer in Jesus can do is give.  I honestly believe that this is what God has set us apart to do.  God wants us to be rich.  In God’s kingdom, the kingdom of faith – and relationship with God – that we are a part of, people become rich by giving.

SPUCC front door windowThis church is named for the Apostle Paul.  There are a lot of churches in the area named for him.  I don’t know what the motivation for that might be, but after Jesus, he could be considered the father of Christian movement around the world.

You remember what happened to believers in Jesus on the day of Pentecost, right?  The Holy Spirit came to them in a powerful way and changed them, individually and together.  They began to share freely with each other in all ways.  It was truly remarkable…

Acts 244  All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 

Everybody was saying, it’s an act of God – look at what these people are doing!  They love each other more than their stuff!  They’re taking care of each other!

Now, Paul was not in that group.  Christ came to him a little later in a miraculous, powerful way and changed him from a persecutor of Christians into the most important spreader of the faith who ever lived.  Then Paul took the idea of Christian sharing to whole new level.  After Paul had started a church in Corinth, in Greece, he wrote to them a few years later and said…

2 Corinthians 9:7-11.  7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9As it is written, ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;    his righteousness endures for ever.’  10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us… 

Compared to the Christian Jews in Jerusalem, the Christians in Corinth were a world away.  In that part of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is encouraging the church to fulfill a commitment they had previously made.  They were collecting money for other Christians in, of all places, Jerusalem.

Believers look for the needs that are closest at hand, then look beyond. The gifts that those first believers made were coming back to them.  They gave their faith away, they shared possessions.  There’s a verse from the Old Testament that goes…

Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back. (Ecclesiastes 10:1) 

I used to think that was about feeding throwing bread in a creek to feed the fish and turtles, but it’s telling followers of God to share their sustenance, their living, with those who don’t live close by.  It’s not mentioned anywhere that Paul quoted that verse, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.  Always be ready to share.

Paul started the church in Corinth and he was well-versed in answering the question: “What must I do to be a Christian?”

His answer, essentially, was to grasp the truth of Christ in your heart for yourself, and then tell somebody else.  Give in.  Believe.  Then let someone else know how God is working in you.  It’s a prescription for a living faith and it hasn’t changed in almost two thousand years.  And in essence, Paul says the same thing to Romans when he writes to them: “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).  A relationship with God has to do with believing and speaking.  Believing what?  Simple: that Jesus rose from the dead for you and me.

The first kind of sharing Christians do is the sharing of faith.  That’s the most important sharing.  Do you believe in the living Jesus? Does he make a difference in your life?  Just say so when the opportunities present themselves.  That plants a seed in others and your own faith grows. This faith begins to affect the things we do as the Holy Spirit nudges us toward helping here, forgiving there, saying this instead of that.  And the Spirit helps us recognize when we have abundance that can be shared.  In Paul’s mind, it was about the imbalance he saw as he traveled from place to place.

He believed that in the larger Christian community, those who have wealth are obligated to assist those who are in need.

What I want to say next is something that may be a bit uncomfortable for some.  But I believe, with the right heart, you can become very excited, and incredibly passionate about being what I call a “rich giver.”

How many of you would love to be below average?  Raise up your hands.  You want to be below average?  On the low end, on the bottom half?  How many of you love to settle for mediocrity??  None of us would say we want to be below average, but I need to tell you, honestly, that when it comes to giving, chances are pretty good, you are a below-average giver.  Harsh, right?  Yeah, welcome to St. Paul’s UCC where we’re here to make you feel good about yourself.

But the reality is, that chances are, you are actually a below-average giver.  And the reason I say this is because you are very, very blessed.  And studies show, as hard as this is to believe, that the more blessed you are, typically, the smaller percentage of what you have, you actually give.  And the less that you have, the more in percentage that you generally give to church or other charity.  There are obviously many, many exceptions.

But one study that I read looked at the top 25 percent of people making $100,00 in Pennsylvania, and compared them to the bottom 25 percent (people making up to $25,000), and found that those on the bottom 25 percent gave almost three times the percentage of those in the top 25 percent (7.36% compared to 2.56%).  And we hear that and think, “That just doesn’t make any sense.”  And it doesn’t, but it’s accurate.  These households are not the richest of the rich; they are just average folks.  The more you have, the less you share, and this is true across our country, one of the most affluent countries in the world.   (http://philanthropy.com/article/How-America-Gives/149107/#state/42)

The only explanation I can think of comes mostly from the traveling I’ve done to places like the Dominican Republic and Africa.  When you live in a developing country, the less you have, the more you know you need to share.  And the more you share, the stronger the community is.  I have often heard these folks described as the most spiritual people you’d ever want to meet.  They are enriched in every way for their great generosity.” (v.11)

DR 1I’ll never forget tearing down the house of a Dominican family – a man, his wife, and their disabled son. Our group came to look at the house, then went to gather tools for a couple of hours.  When we returned, it took us another two hours to completely demolish that house and carry away the debris.

DR 2

That’s how badly it was held together.  Before we arrived, the family had moved everything they owned into a neighbor’s house and that’s where they stayed for 3 weeks while their new house was being constructed.

DR 3Everyone in the neighborhood came to help build that house.  It was like a large-group exercise in happiness.  The Dominican Republic, by the way, ranks near the top in global “happiness” surveys.  They are some of the richest people I think I’ve ever met.  Someone here may have noticed that this last photo is of our group building a house in a Dominican village.

St. Paul's United Church of Christ, Manheim, PA
St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Manheim, PA

Closer to home, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ has been on this spot in Manheim for 246 years, since 1769.  Eight years after the first building was built, it was used as a hospital for soldiers who were wounded in the Battle of Brandywine near Philadelphia.  It wasn’t the same building, but I wonder of you can imagine wounded men laying on cots here.  There are people walking around caring for them. Here, on this spot. It might make you a little queasy thinking about it, but it might be an appropriate image to have.  Wounded people.  Church members taking care of them. Giving physical healing in a place where spiritual healing happens.

It leads me to a couple of questions.  Is this a non-profit organization dedicated to serving the needs of its members?  Or, is this a community of believers in Jesus committed to caring for and changing the world?

This takes creative thinking.  What Paul is talking about in his letter to the Corinthians is a community of believers, so flexible and so sharing, that the church has no problem taking care of its own needs, and the needs of its members.  Then they looked outside of themselves.  This is not about welfare — it’s about balance.  Because the Jerusalem church has sent spiritual wealth to the Corinthians, Paul believes that it’s only fair for the Corinthians to respond with a gift of material wealth.

Maybe you’ve thought that I’m asking you to give more to the church.  That pastor, always talking about money!  But that is not the point of what I’m trying to say, or the point of scripture.  In real, day-to-day life, it means simply sharing what you have as a sign of love for God and love for neighbor.  When we do this, we are rich.  Share your faith, share your abundance, share your time.  Teach your kids to share by sharing with them. I’ve told you before that in our house we tithe – most of it goes to the local church, but there is also a portion that goes far away.  I have also made it a practice to know those far-away folks who are being helped and spend time with them (they will say that the relationship is more important than the check).

There are always needs around the church and around the community.  The youth group, the music ministry.  Food events.  The list goes on and on.  It may be carpentry skills with our local missions team, or child-care abilities or teaching English as a Second Language somewhere nearby.

This sharing turns into ministry when you begin to see that it is a way of achieving balance — balance between your own personal abundance and the world’s overwhelming needs.  In time, God causes you to care about other people above yourself. When we stop trying to protect what we have, God will transform us into the richest church in town!

Prayer

God, we thank you for the gift of life through Jesus Christ that makes this ministry possible.  We thank you that you continue to make all things new through him, that you are not finished with the work of creation – you continue to create in us and through us.  Now use us.  Help us use our abundance to create balance in the life of our church and in the lives of others.  Help our community know through the concern you have created in us, and the things we do, that Jesus is truly risen and truly lives.  Amen.

[*Note – This series, “Being Rich (in what matters most)”, is based on sermons given by Craig Groeschel, the Pastor of LifeChurch, Edmund, OK (http://www.lifechurch.tv/okc/)  When I quote him, or use words that may be close to his, they will be in blue.]

1/4/2015 Sermon: Being Rich (in what matters most) #1 – “Good News and Bad News”

NYC[Note – This series, “Being Rich (in what matters most)”, is based on sermons given by Craig Groeschel, the Pastor of LifeChurch, Edmund, OK (http://www.lifechurch.tv/okc/)  When I quote him, or use words that may be close to his, they will be in blue.]

fireworksHas everybody had a good start to the new year?  Isn’t it interesting how we give so much significance to the turning of a calendar page?  I always wake up on January 1 thinking that I don’t really feel differently, except maybe a little guilt about all the holiday food I just ate.

But you and I are essentially the same people we were in 2015.  How about New Year’s resolutions?  I believe that a lot of people think about resolutions, about some kind of change in their habits or lifestyle that will make things better.  If changing the calendar page makes us think about necessary change, I say why not?  What would make you a more effective believer, a more effective follower of Jesus? How could you do a better job of loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength?  Your neighbor as yourself?

For us, gathered here as God’s church, I think that God needs us to have a reality check every now and then; we could even call it a gut-check.  So, to start the new year, I’d like to invite you think along with me about some of God’s simple priorities about faith and life.  This month, to start the new year, we’re think about…

Being Rich (in what matters most) #1: (there’s) “Good News and Bad News”

I’ve met very few people who thought they had enough money.  This is my thirtieth of full-time church ministry and I have never served in a church that thought it had enough money.

Personally, I’ve had fantasy for a long time.  I look in our checkbook and see that, miraculously, there’s about $100,000 more than I remember being there.  It just sort of appeared.  Then I start thinking about what I’d do with that windfall, stuff I’d take care of.  Or would I save it?  My fantasy feeds right into what many people are thinking.  

A few years ago, Gallup did a study and asked different people, at different wages, “How much would you need to earn to be rich?”  How much would you need to not have to worry about money?  And according to the survey, the amounts people gave were always beyond what they were currently making.  The “rich line” was always beyond where they were.

In other words, if the people making $30,000 a year were asked, “How much would you need to earn to be rich?” And the average response for those making $30,000 a year was, “If I made $74,000 a year, that would be rich.”  Some of you make $74,000 a year and you want to say, “Sit down and let me teach you a little lesson.  Okay?  I don’t feel so rich.”

It went on up the ladder.  If people made $50,000 a year, and they were asked, “how much would you need to be rich?”, the average response was $100,000 a year.  But those who have had the opportunity to make that much would say that they need more.  It’s not easy to figure out where the rich line is.

Money 3It turns out that most Americans think that $150,000 is the magic number.  To put that in a bigger context, anyone making more than $33,000 is in the top one percent of wage earners on the world.  Of course, those who make more than $200,000 say that the rich line is $5M.  And I suppose that if you asked the poor person with only $2M about being rich, they would say, “Oh no, that’s not me; no way am I rich.  I’d need a gazillion dollars to be rich.  Because the rich line continues to move.

So, let’s hear what Jesus has to say about being rich….

Luke 18:18-27.  18 A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 19Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother.” ’ 21He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ 22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money* to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 23But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. 24Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’

26 Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’

When you read around that story, you find out that  Jesus is setting out on a trip with his people – more preaching and miracles – and this where we want to be.  It’s a big crowd and everybody is tagging along to see what happens next.  There’s excitement, enthusiasm!  Sometimes it just feels good to be part of a crowd.  Everybody is there: young people, old people, rich people, poor people.  Jesus seems to be able to do just about anything!  And then…. he says the wrong thing at the wrong time.

“…Sell all that you own and distribute the money* to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  (Luke 18:22)

This man was rich, he was young, he was good, he followed all the rules.  He probably looked good, too.  He’s a good role model for my kids.  It’s not very often you find somebody in scripture who can make the cultural jump from that time and place into this one.  He’s only missing one thing: eternal life.  And from where I stand, there’s nobody who deserves it more than he does.  That is how things are supposed to work.  Isn’t this what we teach our kids?  If you’re good, if you follow the rules, if you do what people say and don’t get God angry at you, you’ll do all right.  You’ll get lots of good stuff because you deserve it.  Hard work and following the rules gets you your piece of the “American Dream.”  Now let’s talk insurance.

Let’s make sure you can enjoy your lifestyle as long as possible.  And since we have God standing right here, let’s see if we can add that missing piece.  Let’s talk eternal life.  Jesus, this is not selfish.  There’s nothing wrong with our motives.  We are not bad people.

In the gospel of Mark, before Jesus says this hard thing, it says, Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

He doesn’t really mean that, does he?  This must be one of those passages that meant something else back then. Those disciples are right: if it’s hard for good, rich people to get into the kingdom of heaven, then who can be saved?  When Jesus says this, he motions toward everybody else who is following Jesus.  We are not alone here in this conversation, and that’s the point.  He is inviting you to share what you have with everybody else.  Now stick your own name in that passage.

Jesus, looking at _____, loved _____ and said,  “_____, you lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  That hurts, doesn’t it.  Can he say it to St. Paul’s UCC?

But selfishness hurts more.  Selfishness keeps us isolated. Worshipping your stuff keeps you from enjoying your relationship with God, which is a gift God is trying to give you. Worshipping your stuff keeps you from enjoying your relationship with your brother and sister Christians. So get your stuff out of the way.  Same thing goes for the church, at least in the context Luke is writing about.  The early church in Jerusalem took Jesus seriously and shared their money and things.  So if it’s security you want, not sharing what you have with those who don’t have isn’t just selfish, it’s counterproductive.  This man isn’t being invited to lose his things; he’s being invited to gain a relationship with God and his neighbor. He’s being invited to depend on God and his spiritual family more than himself.

What we have in today’s gospel lesson is one of those passages of scripture that many Americans probably have a hard time hearing.

What is it that rules our lives?  Money and things.  Property.  We really want to believe that God rewards our faith in some practical, tangible way.  And I think God does answer prayers in practical, tangible ways.  But when God answers that prayer, is it to make you happy, or bring you closer to God?  Think about it.

When Paul wrote to his young pastor friend Timothy, he put it this way:

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

Did I just hear the Holy Spirit, through the Apostle Paul, tell us to be rich?  Yes he did.  There are riches that in God’s eyes are truly riches.  There is a treasure that makes for a good foundation for the future.  There is a life that truly is life.  These things are all true.  Are we rich if we have a lot of money and material assets?

I heard a statistic the other day that went something like, nine out of ten churches in America are declining, and nine churches close their doors permanently every day.  I can’t get through a week without reading something like that.  That’s the bad news.  The churches that are growing are the ones who have a lot of rich people who have figured out how to be rich.  They love God and love neighbor. To be more specific, they love God openly in all they do and look for ways to share themselves with the community.  They pool their resources to make a difference for others.  They have learned how to be “the light on the hill.”  They are outwardly-focused.  Good news is possible.

The church leadership is preparing a budget for this year.  We can make a budget, with bottom lines on spending and income, and that’s what a responsible organization does.  But God never put a limit on what the church could do.  That’s what we do.

Who is the hero of this story? Who is going to stand up and make sure God has a presence in Manheim?  Jesus has asked each one of us to follow him by how we live, with an emphasis on how we share.  Who’s the hero?  Who isn’t afraid to change their world?  Maybe each person sitting in this room.  God’s asking us to be the hero together. 

Prayer

Oh God, it’s tempting to avoid the things you say, the things you want us to do.  Those words are so old, what could they have to do with us?  And in the meantime, we know how unsatisfied we are, how empty life is without you.  The new car gets old fast.  We clean the old Christmas presents out of the closet to make room for this year’s Christmas presents.

Break us out of our selfish habits.  Help us give ourselves to you.  Find ways to remind us that you own us, not our things.  Remind us that you are the head of this church, not our budget.  Give us a new vision of who we could be and what we could do as your family.  Give us the eyes of your Spirit, so that we can see a hurting world that needs to know you.  And help us know how to use the gifts you’ve given us to truly make a difference.