Sunday, August 5, 2007

How to Get Rich Quick (or, Making a Living vs. Having Life)

Texts: Colossians 3:1-4, 12-17; Luke 12:13-21

I MAY HAVE MENTIONED WHEN I was here before that I did my theological training at an Anglican seminary.

It was an excellent education. But one thing was deficient about it: We never learned how to come up with sermon titles. Anglicans and Episcopalians don’t bother with sermon titles. I wish I didn’t have to bother with them, either.

I really wish I didn’t have to bother with them because of events like this past week’s.

The sermon title in the bulletin is "How to Get Rich Quick." That made a lot of sense when I was planning worship two or three weeks ago. But things have changed. If you like sermon titles, allow me to make a substitution. This message should better be called, "Making a Living vs. Having Life."

Our reading from Luke deals with both those basics of the human condition: Making a living and having life. Or, looking at it from the other side, not being able to make a living and not having life--that is, death. The events of this past week brought those realities home to us in a gut-wrenching way.

Last Wednesday in Minneapolis, there were maybe 150 cars on the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River. Most of those people were returning home after working hard all day making their livings. Some of them, truckers and delivery men and the bridge construction workers, were hard at work even then. They were doing what they needed to do to keep body and soul together, to have something left over to be comfortable, and maybe end up wealthy besides. They were taking the road they thought they needed do to accomplish that. And for them at 6:04 PM on August 1st, that road literally meant the I-35W bridge.

But for some of them, that course in life, that bridge, led them to death. They just wanted to make a living! But they ended up dying instead.

It doesn’t take a bridge collapse for that to happen. In fact, it happens all the time. We see it in our passage from St. Luke.

Luke 12:13 begins with someone in the crowd yelling out to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!" There it is: death and the need to make a living. This man’s father has died. And he can’t make a living, because his brother won’t divide the inheritance.

The longstanding rule in ancient Israel was that the eldest son inherited a double portion of his dead father’s property, and the rest of it was divided equally between any younger sons. The land itself couldn’t be sold outside the family; that was against the law of Moses. In extreme circumstances, as in the case of the Prodigal Son, land and livestock could be sold off, ideally to a relative, and the younger brother would get the cash proceeds of his share. But ordinarily, the eldest son was supposed to partition off part of the family farm for his younger brothers and give them their share of the sheep, cattle, and so on, so they and their families could live.

But in this case, the eldest son hasn’t done his duty by his younger brother. He’s hogging all the land and livestock to himself and won’t give his brother the wherewithal to make his living.

Don’t know about you, but before I studied this passage, my reaction was, "You silly man, what are you bothering Jesus about that for? Hasn’t He just been talking about how you can trust the Holy Spirit to keep you and preserve you when you’re being persecuted for following Him? Didn’t He just say you can rely on Him even through death and the end of the world?"

That’s my first impulse. It might even be a right impulse. But it’d be a hypocritical one. I’m unemployed myself just now, and if anyone should be able to sympathize with this man’s predicament, it’s I. This man has effectively been fired by his brother. With no land and no livestock, he has no work to do. There’s a good chance his brother has tossed him off the family homestead altogether. Or has told him he can stay-- if he’s willing to work for slave wages. Maybe he’s got a wife and children to feed. What are they going to do? This man in the crowd is worried. He’s distressed. He’s afraid.

Humanly-speaking, he’s got a right to be afraid. Lack of material sustenance, the lack of a living, is the next worse thing to lack of life itself. Lack of material sustenance is a little death. Lack of material sustenance can lead to actual death.

Looking at it that way, I now want to say, "Jesus, how could You be so insensitive! You say you refuse to be a judge or arbiter between this man and his brother, but then you go on and make this judgmental statement about him being greedy! I heard you! You said, ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his material possessions’! Lord, that man didn’t want anything extra, he just wants what he needs to make a living! He just doesn’t want to starve and die!"

But if I say that, I haven’t heard my Lord Jesus. I haven’t heard Him at all. I-- you-- all of us had better listen to Him more closely, listen carefully to the parable He now tells.

He tells of a rich man who does very well out of his land. He’s got so much yield he can sell it for cash money and put it away in his treasury. He can buy goods and merchandise far over what he needs for survival and decency. He’s got so much, he can build two miles of grain elevators and put his excess grain in them and live off the proceeds for the rest of his earthly life. And by gad, he plans that that life shall be easy, well-fed, and fun.

This rich man has made a fatal error. He has confused his living with his life. He has confused life on this earth with Life itself.

And you know what, God almighty agrees with him about him having everything he’ll need for the rest of his life. God’s Spirit speaks to his heart and says, "You fool! You equated material goods with life, did you? You thought you’d have enough to last you till you died, did you? Well, you were right. You’re going to die tonight, and never need any material goods again. Tonight I will demand your earthly life from you, and you will discover just how frightfully poor and lifeless and dead you are."

Let’s understand what Jesus is saying! He's telling the radical truth when He says it’s not His job to arbitrate the dispute between the man and his brother. There were civil magistrates for that! His job on earth was to be a judge and arbiter between mankind and God. His job was to show us our sinfulness compared to God’s perfect holiness-- and to make a way for that sin to be overcome.

The man in the crowd was infected with the greed of poverty. Maybe he imagined that if he were as rich as the man in the parable, he’d be set up for life and never have to worry about making a living again. The fool in the parable was guilty of the greed of abundance. He thought life and all its goodness were forever his.

Greed is the inordinate desire to have and possess. It’s a deadly sin that separates us from our God. Have we misunderstood it? I think we have! To hear Jesus, real greed, deadly greed, is equating material goods or making a living with life. It’s confusing this earthly life with life in God. Friends, you can be rich as Bill Gates and be utterly poor towards God; you can be poor as the most destitute refugee in Darfur, and be revelling in the wealth and life of your heavenly Father.

But what does this have to do with the bridge collapse last Wednesday? Am I saying those people died because they were not rich towards God?

No, I’m calling all of us to look at ourselves because people did die unexpectedly and suddenly in that bridge collapse, people who were only trying to make their livings.

It’s inevitable at times like this to say, "God, why were those people killed? Why didn’t you save them, as You did the children on that bus? It’s so unfair!"

It was inappropriate for Jesus to be judge over that man’s inheritance. Even less should we try to be judge over God. We are ignorant and blind; He is all-knowing and all-seeing. We are sinful; He is utterly righteous. Someday all of us will die; He lives forever. God knows the lifespan He has set for every last one of us. If there is human fault in that bridge collapse, it will be discovered and perhaps punished. But whatever human agency may have been at work, God had every sovereign right to demand the souls of those people last Wednesday evening.

The real question for you and me is, "Am I rich towards God? If God should demand my soul of me tonight, will I be ready?"

There are bridges all over these three counties. A lot of them are rated "Structurally Deficient." If one of them gave way under you tomorrow, could you stand before God Almighty and claim your share in His eternal kingdom? Or for you, does making a living equal "life" and does "life" only mean what happens to your body?

Speaking from our dead, sinful souls, that’s exactly what it does mean. But that’s not what life and riches has to mean, or should mean. Hear what Christ’s apostle Paul says in his letter to the Colossians:

"Since . . . you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, . . . not on things below." Things below-- that’s the greed of poverty and the greed of riches; that’s letting worry and fear drive wedges between us and our brother and between us and our God. No, there’s nothing wrong with making an honest living! It’s our duty in this world, and can give us honest joy. But we’re not to "set our hearts" on it. We are not to confuse making a living with having a life, and we’re not to confuse this temporary life on earth with the eternal life God will give us through His Son!

No, the Holy Spirit invites us to be rich towards God! To set our hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand!

But how can we? What am I going to do if I don’t have a new job when the unemployment runs out? What are you going to do if your retirement funds aren’t enough to cover taxes and medical and all? We all fear death. And if we can’t support ourselves, we’ll die!

But it’s simple, really. You overcome the fear of death by realizing that you have already died.

Yes, that’s right. You’re dead. If you have been crucified with Christ, your old self has been put to death on His cross--that old sin nature that frets and worries about not having enough. The old sinful Me, Me, Me that thinks everything will be all right if it can just get rich enough. The old flesh that’s sure that this life is all there is and rebels when the body fails and it’s time to go.

Christians, take comfort! For you, that old sin nature is history! You’re already dead! Death cannot hurt you ever again! Your old sinful nature is dead and buried in Jesus’ tomb; at the same time, your new life in Him is risen and is sitting in heaven with Him at God’s right hand in glory! Jesus Christ Himself is your life! Jesus Christ Himself is your riches towards God!

How rich are you? This rich: You are God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved by Him. Jesus your Elder Brother will certainly divide the inheritance with you, on the great day when you appear with Him in glory.

You may go through times when your outer clothing is old and unfashionable. But inwardly you can be clothed with every rich virtue that belongs to Jesus your Lord. Your life may be plagued by trouble and grief, sickness and physical death. But the peace of Christ can rule in your heart. You may be tempted to be angry with your brother, your neighbor, your fellow-Christian. But you are a member of the one Body of Christ who sits enthroned in heaven, and you can show His heavenly peace to anyone who troubles you. You can be rich towards God and have no fear of death, because Christ your Life has claimed you as His treasure and keeps you for His own.

The table spread for us today is proof that His promise is sure. Come to this table in peace with your brother and sister. Come taste the bounty of death overcome. Come, be renewed and enriched in the life and living Jesus won for you on His cross. His body is your sustenance. His blood is your life.

Whatever happens to you, to your living, or to your life, sing with gratitude! The inheritance is yours! Your storehouse is full to bursting! You are rich towards God-- through Jesus Christ: our life, our living, and our glorious crown. To Him be all power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing, now and forever. Amen.

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