Maybe you heard about the lay preacher that often traveled to little churches around the countryside and preached. He always gave his regular offering to his home church, but it was also his custom to put a little something in the offering plate where he preached. There was no offering taken that morning but he noticed an offering box in the back, so as he and his young son who accompanied him that Sunday left the church after the service he dropped a five dollar bill in the offering box. As they made their way to the car one of the deacons came running after him. “Wait a minutes preacher,” he said, “it’s our custom to give the preacher what is received in the offering box” and he handed him a five dollar bill. As they drove off, his young son said, “Dad, if you would have given more, you would have gotten more, wouldn’t you?”
Is that true? If you give more, you will get more? The prosperity preachers who are getting rich off the gifts of their perishioners would like to convince us it’s true. Of course, they don’t preach, “Give your money away to those in legitimate need. They preach, “Give your money to me and the good work we are doing here and you will be blessed.” What he means is, “Then I will be blessed.”
Now, I have to tell you that Jesus says some things that I really struggle with, and that’s never more true than what he says about money and possessions. (Now I haven’t forgotten to read the text, I will get around to the Gospel reading in a minute. And there is no need to worry, because my introduction is half the sermon.)
Recently, Baptist historian Bill Leonard wrote a really good piece in Baptist News Global titled, “Christian, Baptist, Evengelical – two out of three ain’t bad.” Leonard points out how in contemporary society the word evangelical has diverse meanings and with over 75 percent of self-identified evangelicals today voting for Donald Trump the term has completely lost its historical significance. So Leonard sheds the term evangelical and prefers to simply be known as a Christian and a Baptist.
In my monthly column for BNG which will appear this Tuesday I refer to Leonard’s post. The title I have given them for my post is a take-off on Leonard’s (of course, they sometimes change the titles the authors submit): Christian, Baptist, evangelical? Just call me a Jesus follower (then again, maybe not). In my piece I ask, “What does the term Christian and Baptist mean?” And I conclude that all these terms – Christian, Baptist, evangelical – have such diverse meaning in contemporary society they hardly mean anything at all. So then, just call me a Jesus follower, but then again, maybe not. Why do I add, “maybe not.” The reason I say, “maybe not” is because Jesus says some pretty radical things that I really struggle with.
Here’s how I end my piece (I have included this as a meditation piece in your worship bulletin): If one is honest about what Jesus says about loving others (including one’s enemies) and about sharing one’s possessions with others one has to admit that Jesus wasn’t very practical at all. Indeed, he was over-the-top radical. He was far more radical than I like or even aspire toward at this stage in my spiritual journey. I don’t care to admit that I’m not anywhere close to being as loving as Jesus, nor am I detached as Jesus was from other things and obligations. I do not reflect his simplicity of life, nor his exclusive devotion to God’s restorative justice and will on earth.
Like so many of my friends, I’m more of a “moderate,” certainly not close to being as radical as Jesus. I’m a would-be disciple who struggles with the hard sayings of a radical prophet, mystic, teacher, healer, and reformer, who I call my Lord. Is he my Lord? Sometimes I’m not sure. And what I mean when I say “I’m not sure” is that there are times when I struggle with Jesus’ over-the-top radical teachings.
We are not the only ones. If you read Paul’s letters it’s fairly clear that Jesus’ early followers had as much trouble as you and me living out his teachings. However, there is at least one instance of a church in the book of Acts that attempts to seriously apply Jesus’ teachings on giving away possessions.
Listen to how Luke describes the first church of Jerusalem in Acts 4:32-35: Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. [I remember my dad saying to me one time right after I was married when I went to borrow some tools, “What is mine is yours.” I have said that to my own kids. But I wouldn’t say that to just anyone, nor would you.] With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Well now, what do you make of that? I love to quote this passage to Christians who think that somehow capitalism is God ordained and socialism is of the Devil. The text says that everything they owned was held in common. Who lives like this? I don’t. You don’t. We don’t even aspire to live like this do we? We want our own stuff. I am not about to give my super duty Lews wide spool reel and heavy, fact action 7, 11’ Shamano swimbait rod to some common pool. I will let you borrow it, but you better give it back, okay.
By the way, some systems, some economic systems are more equitable and fair than others, but no system is God-ordained as the right system. For example, there’s no doubt that universal health care would be a much better system for the poor and disadvantaged and most vulnerable among us, than our current system of insurance driven health care. Maybe not for you and me, but for the less fortunate yes – it would be much better. Would there still be some who manipulate the system? Of course. Because greed pops us in all systems. You can’t eliminate greed. Only the love of God can do that.
So, I have said all of that to say this: There are some teachings of Jesus I really struggle with and that’s particularly true of what he says about giving away possessions. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Luke tells us that Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again” (6:30). Who does that? I don’t do that. You don’t do that. That’s not practical – it’s radical. I don’t even try to live out that teaching and you don’t either. So, let me ask you. Are we Jesus followers? And the answer is, “Yes and No.”
Now, let’s look at this somewhat radical text today in Luke 12:13-34 . . .
Verses 13-14: Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”
Maybe this brother has a legitimate complaint. Even so, Jesus dismisses the question and launches into some teaching on possessions
Verse 15: And he (Jesus) 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.
Like I said, greed pops up everywhere. Yes, some economic systems are more equitable and fair than others, but greed finds its way into all.
Verses 16-21: Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do for I have no place to store my crops? Then 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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But 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? So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
If I read another commentator tearing into this poor guy in our parable I might just tear those pages out. Commentators love to point out how selfish this guy is. Perhaps we should heed what Jesus says about trying to pluck out a spec in someone else’s eye while not seeing the log in our own. This guy in the story is you and me. We are the fools. Jesus is calling you and me a fool. Do you realize this? We are the fools. The only difference between us and the guy in the parable is that we don’t tear down barns and build bigger ones, we just switch out our 401k’s so we get more return on our investment. We are all fools. All of us. The only reason I feel sorry for this poor guy is that he didn’t get to enjoy his retirement.
I have to ask though, “What does it mean to be rich toward God?” It can only really mean one thing sisters and brothers. To be rich toward God is to be filled with God’s love. And I can tell you this: The more we are filled with God’s love, the more we are rich in love, then the more joy and happiness we find in giving stuff away. And that’s what it means to be rich toward God.
Verse 22-31: He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do no worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin? Yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”
Well, that sounds really good doesn’t it? But the problem is my sisters and brothers: It doesn’t always work that way! Don’t worry about food or clothing. Don’t worry about what you need to live, just strive after the kingdom, love others with the love of God, and all your needs will be met as well. Sounds great, but it doesn’t always work! Think about all of God’s children whose needs have not been met. Many of them have more love and generosity and goodness in their hearts than I do or you do. They are better kingdom of God persons than I am or you are. And yet all their needs are not met. If you or I were to give all our stuff away in the interests of loving others there is no guarantee that we would have adequate supplies to live. No guarantee. And you know that’s true.
Verse 32: Do not be afraid, little flock, says Jesus, for it is your Fathers good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
Jesus is not talking about heaven here; he is talking about giving and receiving divine love and grace which is what the kingdom of God is about.
Verse 33a: Sell your possessions, and give alms.
You want us to do what Jesus? You want us to sell our possessions and give the money away to those in need. The first question many of us want to ask is: How much do we have to give away? And the moment we ask that question we should realize how much we lack the love of God.
If all Jesus followers actually did this we would wreck our economy. We would send the country back into recession. By the way, this is just one of many things that show we are not a Christian nation. Never were and never will be. And of course, when we call ourselves a Christian nation it shows how loosely we toss around the word Christian. The word Christian can mean just about anything today.
Verse 33b: Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart is also.
Now, we should know by now that when Jesus talks about an unfailing treasure in heaven he is not talking about some sort of material reward or benefit we earn for being good. Surely we understand that. In fact, in this very passage Jesus has already said that the kingdom is God’s gift to us. And that is what this unfailing treasure is. It’s God’s kingdom, God’s presence in our lives and the power to love. And it’s the joy, gratitude, and generosity that overflows in our lives when we are filled with God’s love.
This is the only thing that doesn’t end. Paul confirms this in his great ode to love in 1 Cor. 13. It’s the only thing that lasts. Faith and hope have their limitations, but not love. Love transcends and outlasts them all. Love is the unfailing treasure.
It’s time for me to wrap this up, so . . . What do we make of this radical Jesus telling us to live in the moment, not worry about the future, give away our stuff, and strive to love everyone with the love of God who gives everything he has away? That’s what God does. God is the great Giver. God gives everything away. God exists for the creation.
Can we all just be honest and admit that none of us are ever going to be that radical. Jesus was radical about who we should love, who we should care for, and how generous we should be. And we are never going to be that radical. Let’s just admit it. We are always going to come up short trying to live out the teachings of Jesus and reflect his radical life. We are just not that radical. We are moderate Baptists, not radical ones.
Let me just tell you what I take from my struggle with this text and maybe it’s something you can take away too or at least think about. I believe this: I believe that the more we are filled with divine love and the more we can take pleasure in loving others, then the more joy we will experience, the more spontaneous and alive in the moment we become, and the more happiness we feel in giving stuff away. That’s what I believe, sisters and brothers, that aliveness, joy, and generosity are the natural consequences of experiencing and expressing, practicing and demonstrating love for others.
I don’t come close the to the over-the-top radicalness of Jesus, but I do believe (and I have learned this from Jesus) that the more I am able to receive and give love, then the more generous I will become, the more alive I will become, and the more joy I will experience. I hope you will find that to be true as well.
Gracious God, may we be reminded of how much you love each of us and that everything in life is a gift. It’s all grace. Fill us with your grace so that we will be gracious and generous to others the way you are all the time. Amen.