Luke 12:13-21, 32-34
Whole-Life Stewardship: Treasure
We’ve had a small group of folks participating in a book study using Adam Hamilton’s book Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. Hamilton’s study first came out nearly ten years ago, but it’s been updated and re-released. Last Sunday night, as we watched the video for the session, which includes segments of Hamilton’s original sermons that created the book, we were surprised at the way things unfold: Hamilton was talking about wildfires that were ravaging California. It certainly made our ears perk up to listen with extra attention to his message. Hamilton said,
“Large areas of California were ravaged by wildfires. Dozens of people were killed, and tens of thousands were evacuated from their homes. As I watched the tragedy unfold via television news coverage, it struck me that this was a moment in which so many people were being forced to think about their relationship to material possessions. So many people had very little notice that the fires were coming their direction. Thousands had just minutes to grab everything they could take from their homes and flee. Time magazine's online edition asked people who had been moved to emergency shelters: “What did you save from the fire?” Andrew saved his pillow. Shervi saved her family pictures and books. Angel saved the saxophone he had been learning to play. Karen saved her two cats and important documents. Michelle saved her Bible, purse, shoes, diploma, and cell phone. What would you save? Imagine a wildfire is headed toward your home and you have 10 minutes to grab what you can and flee. What will you take with you? Natural disasters remind us that everything in this world is temporary. If our stuff is taken away by bankruptcy or plundered by thieves or blown away by a tornado or burned in a wildfire, we must remember that material things are only temporary. When I'm gone, most of my stuff will be outdated, worn-out, or simply of no value to anyone else - either hawked in a garage sale or thrown in the trash. This is why I can say with Jesus, “[My] life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” I believe that ... But there is a problem. Everywhere I turn, the world is telling me that it's not true. The world continually tells me that my life does consist in the abundance of my possessions. I am bombarded with messages such as, If you had a little bit more, you'd be happier. If you had this thing that you currently do not have, you'd find more satisfaction in life. If you had a bigger house or a nicer car or more fashionable clothes, you'd be happy - at least happier than you are right now.” (64-65) You may have heard me share before that I read somewhere of a study that revealed that people are convinced they would be happy with just a little more. Not tons more - we’re not greedy, right? But if we could have just 20% more than we do now, we’re sure we’d be quite happy. Then we’d really have enough. The trouble is, it’s always 20% more. When we get 20% more, we start feeling like we just need 20% more than that. We always want just a little more. What we have is never enough. Just a little more, and we’re sure we’ll finally be happy.
I shared with the study group that when I don’t feel like journaling, but I still want to journal, want to have done some journaling, I used a little checklist of one-word prompts. There are about a dozen categories. “Today I’m... Watching, Reading, Thinking, Feeling” and so on, and then I just have to fill in the blank - either with a lot of detail, or a few words, depending on my mood. Two categories on this list are “Wanting” and “Needing.” What did I want? What did I need? I found that while I often had things to list under the “want” category, I often would just write, “Nothing, really,” in the “need” category. I could think of lots of things I wanted. But I didn’t usually need any of them. Writing this down in my journal regularly has helped me, both in realizing how often I am caught up in the rhetoric of more, of consuming, of being discontented with what I have, and how truly I have everything I really need. Hamilton calls our propensity to always want, and always want more “Restless Heart Syndrome.” He says, “Perhaps you've heard of Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), a condition in which one has twitches and contractions in the legs. A condition I called Restless Heart Syndrome (RHS) works in a similar way, but in the heart - or soul. Its primary symptom is discontent. We find that we are never satisfied with anything. The moment we acquire something, we scarcely take time to enjoy it before we want something else. We are perennially discontent. This is the nature of RHS, and it is a syndrome that, if left unchecked, can destroy us.” (66) Do you have Restless Heart Syndrome?
Our gospel lesson today comes from Luke 12. Remember, two weeks ago we talked about how we use our gift of time and we heard Jesus talking about worry, striving for God’s reign on earth, and being ready for God to be at work in the world. Our text for today takes place just before Jesus’ words about worry, and we conclude again today with words we shared then: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. In today’s passage - which I think I’ve told you holds a special place in my heart since it was the first I ever preached on - someone in the crowd asks Jesus to tell this person’s brother to divide the family inheritance with him. We don’t know any more details - was the person a rightful heir? Were they asking for a bigger cut, or just their fair share? Most of all, we don’t get the answer to this question: Why on earth would someone think this was the question they most wanted to ask Jesus? What had they seen of Jesus that would make them think he would answer such a dispute? Indeed, Jesus seems to agree, as he says, “Friend, who set me as a judge or arbitrator over you?” Instead, Jesus tells a parable, and perhaps the questioner gets more than they bargained for. Jesus says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” He then tells a parable. A rich man has lands that are producing an abundance of grain, such that he doesn’t know where to store all that he’s accumulating. So, he decides to build bigger barns. And he reflects to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But then God says to the man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus wraps up his parable saying, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”
I got to hear theologian Walter Brueggemann preach on this text when I went to the Festival of Homiletics, the preaching conference, in May. His name probably sounds familiar to you as someone I frequently quote, and I soaked up every minute of hearing him preaching in person. Brueggemann said, “The man had extra grain. He could have shared it. Let the land lie fallow. But instead he stores it up. He wants more. He doesn't have enough yet. He congratulates himself. And then he died. He was about to do good. About to share. About to be generous. But he died. He could not fend off the holy reckoning in the night." Neither can we, friends. What are you about to do, when you get enough? Brueggemann says that Jesus tells us: "Get out of the anxiety system [Brueggemann’s label for our culture of never enough], because it will kill you. You will pursue the goal of more until you die because more is an illusion. It is a system meant to keep us frightened that someone will get yours. It keeps us dissatisfied, keeps us busy, because if you are busy, you won’t think any dangerous thoughts."
Thoughts like: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions … these things you have prepared, whose will they be?” These words have been ringing in my ears and tugging at my heart over the last year as I have served as the executor for my Aunt Joyce’s estate, and as I have continued to sort through her things. As I make an accounting of every cent that she had, and every possession that she owned, as I find myself in the role of determining what is treasure and what will be thrown away, I’m mindful that someday someone will make an accounting of the things of my life too. What does my life consist of? What are “the things I have prepared” that make up my life? Jesus warns us against “all kinds of greed” - a phrase that stuck with me in this passage. It’s easy to dismiss this parable as not about of us if we’re sure we’re not greedy for bigger barns. But I think Jesus asks us to look deeper, to question places of discontent in our lives, any areas where we just want more of whatever it is, any areas that are keeping our hearts restless, somehow dissatisfied with our lots in life.
In the scriptures, we find an example of contentment, of a heart settled in Christ in the apostle Paul. He wrote the letter to the Philippians during one of his many imprisonments. And while there in prison, he shared these words: “For I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.”
Have we learned that secret - of being content with whatever we have? Adam Hamilton suggests some strategies, practical and spiritual, that we can use to actively, intentionally cultivate contentment. For example, when we’re collecting more of something - more money, more stuff, bigger barns, ask yourself, “how long will this make me happy?” (72) “So often,” Hamilton writes, “we buy something, thinking it will make us happy, only to find that the happiness lasts about as long as it takes to open the box.” We can develop a grateful heart. (74) Remember the journaling list I told you about? One of the categories is “thanking,” and each day I complete the prompt I make sure I can list at least five things for which I’m thankful. When we feel discontent, we can ask ourselves what we can do to serve someone else. This is something I’ve tried to start focusing on on Thanksgiving and Christmas, when all the pressure to have a perfect holiday, and all the focus on consuming, whether food or things, can leave us feeling empty. What acts of kindness can I do? Maybe I can write a note. Or maybe I can be one to clear the plates off the table. Or I can pick up the wrapping paper. Or call someone I know is feeling down and alone and let them know they have a friend in me. I can cultivate that behavior until it is my default. We can ask ourselves: “Where do our souls find true satisfaction?” (75) Deep contentment comes from deep trust in God, which in turn we experience when we commit our lives and our hearts, our time, our talent, and our treasure to God as servants of Jesus Christ.
I’m really thankful for the folks who shared their testimonies this morning, sharing their wisdom and insights about generosity and giving, using their treasure to serve God. They’ve helped us to reflect and prepare, as next week we have opportunity to offer an estimate of our giving to the church for the year ahead. It’s one way we express our gratitude and thanksgiving among many, one expression of generosity, among many ways that you demonstrate that you are a thankful people. I had the advantage of hearing Annetje’s words ahead of time, as I transcribed them for her. One part particularly touched me, when she said, “We overthink our [estimate of giving] and there are things that might happen [in the future] and before we know it we have so many negatives on our “might happen” list that [we’re convinced] there is nothing we can spare, we give so little.” But “everything we have belongs to God” and “generous people are willing to look with brutal honesty at what they have to spare … They will not hold back” but be “joyfully generous.” Deep contentment comes when we say “we will not hold back” from God and one another - we will not hold back our hearts, our gifts, our generosity, our love, or our joy, but instead offer it all to God.
Jesus said that it is where our treasure is that our hearts dwell. We have to make sure then, that what we’re accumulating on earth, what we’re storing up, what we’re spending our lives gathering is eternal, not temporary. That’s what we want to spend our lives on - treasures that last, not things we can’t take with us anyway. Your life consists of so much more than we keep building bigger barns to store. We do want to be rich - rich towards God. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Amen.