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Pentecost 9, August 1, 2004
A Sermon on Luke 12:13-21 (RCL) by Samuel Zumwalt

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The Lord Jesus doesn’t say that it’s wrong to have wealth or to be wealthy. He doesn’t say that you can’t be his disciple if you have wealth. In fact, Jesus doesn’t propose a target income that is acceptable and then beyond that we’re in trouble. Rather he says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” So…let’s be clear. Jesus doesn’t say it’s wrong to have wealth. He constantly warns that obsession with wealth can become an idol.

Now I know plenty of Christians that think that Jesus is very opposed to wealth. Most of them live by a scarcity notion of things in which there are a limited amount of resources in the world. Because there are only a limited amount of resources in the world, they say, a Christian ought not to acquire wealth. The goal, then, is to take only what you need and leave the rest to others. Don’t buy a new car. Don’t buy nice clothes. Don’t live in a nice house. Don’t eat out in fancy restaurants. Live a simple life so that others can have some of the world’s limited resources, too.

I also know some Christians that think that God has blessed them with wealth because they have been more faithful disciples than others. In a sense, they see wealth as a divine kickback for having been good. Just so long as they go to church, keep their nose clean, and give away 10% to the church, then God is pleased to bless them even more. For these folks, wealth is a sign of divine favor – regardless how they made it.

I also know quite a few Christians that live very compartmentalized lives when it comes to money. They don’t think seriously about God and wealth at the same time. As an old Baptist friend says, “The reason your Lutheran churches are always short of money is that you only baptize people’s heads. Since those Lutheran wallets didn’t get wet, your people think the money belongs to them and not to the Lord.”

Well…Jesus doesn’t say there are limited resources in the world. And Jesus doesn’t say that if you give God 10% the rest is yours as a reward. And Jesus absolutely doesn’t say that you can live as if God and money were separated from one another. Rather the Lord Jesus says that greed is bad and being consumed with possessions is worse. If you become obsessed with having more and more, your possessions will possess you. And you will forget that God is the maker and owner of all things including everything you have and all that you are!

His parable is one of his starker warnings to those obsessed with building wealth. Of course, Jesus’ parable isn’t new teaching. It’s a colorful restatement of the kind of wisdom contained in the book of Ecclesiastes. If you are devoted to building wealth above all else how foolish you are, because you’re going to lose it all anyway when you die. On top of that, those that inherit your money may indeed be as frivolous with it as you were frugal. So don’t be so stupid chasing the Golden Fleece, says Jesus.

Just when you think Jesus is negative on having wealth, you hear him tell stories lauding those that are clever with money and those that are excellent stewards. That’s when you realize Jesus is not against wealth – he’s against greed and against hoarding what you have as if it were yours. Jesus is reminding us that His heavenly Abba (Daddy) is the maker and owner of everything. We’re just managers of God’s things.

So how do you get rich – if it’s not wrong to have wealth? A wealthy Christian once explained to me the secret. It was so commonsensical I almost laughed. He said, “You save more than you spend.” That’s it. He went on to say, “Most of the wealthy people I know acquired their wealth through a lifetime of frugality. They had a job that paid their living expenses and then had a sideline that made money. They didn’t spend more than they made on the living expenses side of things, and they made money on the sideline business.” He went on to say that he had known many people that made huge salaries that could never acquire any wealth precisely because they were always spending more than they made.

For years I gave every engaged couple a copy of a book from Lutheran Brotherhood on managing money. In the book, Pastor Merv Thompson said that many Christians had been wonderful stewards of God’s money by giving God the first 10% of their pay check, then saving the next 10%, and then living off the other 80%. Pastor Thompson taught many parishioners over the years that tithing was returning to the Lord the first 10 cents of every dollar that they made.

When you couple Pr. Thompson’s advice with my wealthy Christian friend’s advice, you see how Christians can faithfully manage God’s things while accumulating wealth over a lifetime. If you remember that you are going to face God some day and give an account of your management of His things, then you will have an eye constantly on using God’s things on behalf of the Kingdom of God.

If you are an older Christian and have accumulated a lot of assets through a lifetime of frugality, you will want to have some fun investing that money on God’s behalf. Working with a financial planner, you can have a lot of fun investing God’s money in the mission and ministry of the Church. You can make challenge grants to the congregation to help pay off the building loan. You can invest in the young people of the congregation by making special gifts for confirmation or other youth ministries. You can invest in the adults of this congregation by investing in Bible study programs.

If you have accumulated assets, you can invest in the unchurched by investing your money in more advertising for our congregation. You can invest in the future by investing your money in an Endowment Fund. And the Lord has many more ministries that you will want to consider. Along the way you can have a lot of fun investing in God’s work – investing in changing lives through education, through community outreach, and in so many other ways!
The key thing to remember is that everything belongs to God. Being rich is all a matter of perspective. If you compare yourself to Bill Gates of Microsoft Corporation, then you’re dirt poor. But if you compare yourself to most of the people in the world, then you are fabulously wealthy. It’s all a matter of perspective.

One of my friends has been a recovering alcoholic for many years. When she went with me on a mission trip to Honduras, her whole worldview shifted. She said to me, “I’ve always felt poor since I lost my big four room house in a divorce. Then I came to Honduras and saw how the victims of Hurricane Mitch were thrilled to have these two-room houses that we were building there.” She said, “I came to my 600 square foot condominium and saw that I live in a palace compared to them.” She said, “I’m rich, and I never knew it until I went to Honduras.”

She didn’t get rich by frugality. She didn’t get rich by having a sideline job. She didn’t get rich by winning the lottery. She got rich by visiting the Third World and seeing her life through new eyes. She was already grateful for her sobriety. Now she had new reasons to be grateful for being wealthy all along.

In Holy Baptism, we were claimed as beloved daughters and sons of God through no effort or merit of our own. We were baptized into the death and resurrection of the Lord of the Universe, who though He was in the form of God emptied Himself for our sake. He became poor in order to save us from sin, death, and evil. He died that we might have life and have it abundantly.

The baptized life is a daily renunciation of all our idols including the greedy chase after the Golden Fleece. As we grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, we become like my friend who had to go 1300 miles from home in order to see her life through totally different eyes.

Some people almost have to die before they realize that their whole life has been obsessed with acquiring wealth that they will eventually lose anyway when they die. Some people have to lose their health, their jobs, and even their families before they realize that they have become as deaf and dumb as any idol made of silver or gold (see Psalm 135).

Today the Lord of the Universe is calling us again to the waters of Baptism to lose our old selfish lives and be reborn as grateful children of God. It’s possible to get rich today by seeing our lives through God’s eyes. We have the greatest treasure of all. We are loved and cherished by the God who gave His life for us on Calvary’s cross. We have an inheritance in heaven that can’t be bought with silver or gold. We have the certainty that nothing can separate us from God’s love. And that blessed assurance changes how we look at who we are, what we have, and where we are going.

It’s not wrong to be wealthy. It’s not wrong to accumulate wealth through wise and honest management of God’s things. It’s wrong to think that being wealthy is the answer to your greatest needs and yearnings. For in an eye blink you can be dead and your assets can be taken away from you and given to someone else!

Knowing that you are God’s beloved child changes everything! It changes how you look at your life, how you look at your calendar, and how you use what’s in your wallet and investment accounts. When you remember that everything belongs to God, then it’s fun not only to use money wisely. It’s fun to invest God’s money in His mission and ministry.

You are rich compared to most of the people in the world simply because you live in the United States of America. But as a child of God, you remember that you are rich because God has given you everything you have and everything you are – especially His own life on the cross that you may be His child forever!

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Zumwalt
St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina

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