Tuesday, August 7, 2007

How to Tell if You are Rich

This is the sermon for Aug. 5.
The text is Luke 12:13-21

Let me ask you a personal question:
Are you rich? Or are you poor?
What about this church? Are we rich? Or are we poor?
Or aren’t you sure?

Because Jesus told this very interesting story about the rich man, a rich agribusiness man, actually. The land which the man owned brought forth an abundant crop. There was so much grain that it didn’t fit in the grain bins and barns.
Now the farmer could have given his workers a bonus. That’s how most farmers in Jesus’ time handled crop surpluses. They shared them with their harvesters and workers. But the rich man didn’t do that. I can imagine that he’d reached a very fair deal with his workers. And they’d agreed to work so long and so hard for so much money. Just because they produced more than expected, well . . . that wasn’t the agribusinessman’s problem.
The problem of the surplus grain wouldn’t be solved that way! Now, another solution would have been to sell the grain at market. Because of the law of supply and demand, the price for grain would not have been as high as usual if the farmer did that. People in the village would likely stock up a little on the cheaper grain – kinda like I try to fill up when gas at the country store is 2.63 instead of 2.89. The farmer would have probably made about as much money, selling more grain at lower prices, and his customers, residents of his village and surrounding countryside, would have had slightly fuller larders that year, an extra loaf of bread on the table, perhaps, or a slightly fatter fatted calf to share at feast time. But selling the grain at lower prices wouldn’t have maximized the farmer’s income. So he didn’t do that.
The problem of the surplus grain was a tricky one! It would be best to hold it off the market until prices went up, He could have left the grain on the ground. But some of it would certainly rot and be stolen by birds and by rodents. He’d lose money on that one. To keep his record breaking harvest until more favorable prices came along, the man could have built more barns. But . . . if he built more barns, that would mean paving over perfectly good farmland that might be planted the next year. And the rich agribusinessman didn’t want to do anything that would reduce his crop in years to come. Accept less in the future? Not our smart guy!
So the smart agribusiness man lay awake, wondering and worrying about what to do with his excess crops. How could he solve the tricky problem of storing his abundant crop until prices went up and he could maximize his profit?

Does worrying and wondering about possessions ever keep you up at night? Then maybe you are rich!

A Lutheran pastor said that a friend of his bought a boat and he said he’d purchased it with a Lay Awake Plan – first you buy the boat, then you lay awake at night wondering how you’re going to pay for it.

This last week, when the stock market plunged by 2 or 5% in value, a financial commentator said that there were likely to be lots of sleepless investors, trying to figure out what to do with their portfolios.

Money isn’t the only thing an abundance of which will cause sleepless nights. There’s also the abundance of just plain stuff. No other country in the world spends as much on consumer goods. As Morgan Stanley notes, in just one telling index, "Over the 1996 to 2004 period, annual growth in US personal consumption expenditures averaged 3.9% — nearly double the 2.2% pace recorded elsewhere in the so-called advanced world." The real prices of many consumer goods are as much as 50 percent less than they were a century ago. It's never been so easy for so many to amass so many consumer products.
And if you are at all like me, sometimes you lie awake at night wondering . . . where in heaven’s name you have put something.

Lying awake, we can worry about our houses. Will the roof need replacing this year? Is that sound the refridgerator makes a sign that it’s on it’s last leg? Can I get it clean enough to entertain by next weekend? Houses are a bigger worry than they used to be, because houses are bigger than they used to be. The National Association of Homebuilders reports that the average American house went from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to 2,400 square feet in 2004.
But they still aren’t big enough for all our stuff. According to the Self Storage Association, a trade group charged with monitoring such things, the country now possesses some 1.875 billion square feet of personal storage. That’s four square feet person living in the US of A. All this space is contained in nearly 40,000 facilities owned and operated by more than 2,000 entrepreneurs, an industry that now exceeds the revenues of Hollywood (and doesn't have to deal with Tom Cruise).
So, to make this perfectly clear —houses got bigger, average family sizes got smaller, and yet we still need to tack on a billion-plus square feet to store our stuff? Things we can’t live with and can’t live without? Hmmmm.
Maybe we are rich.

The rich man in Jesus story thought and thought to himself about how he could maximize his yield, maximize his profit, maximize his wealth and his goods. And he came up with a great idea: He’d tear down his existing barns and build bigger ones, right on the old barn’s footprint. So he wouldn’t lose any cropland, he wouldn’t lose his grain to weather or vermin, and he wouldn’t lose his potential profit in a less than optimal market. Brilliant!

Now, notice, the man consults no one. He doesn’t pray about it, seek advice from his stewards, or even bounce the idea off his wife. He’s a decider – like George W. Bush likes to say. He’s the one who makes the decision and his interest is the only one that really matters.

AAAHHH. The relief of having a problem solved! Of course, there’s no one he can tell, but the man talks to himself in a self-satisfied sort of soliloquy: “All, Self, you are set for life! You’ll have enough for many, many years! What is it the Epicureans say? “Eat, drink and be merry!”

Have you ever known such total, complete security? Are you set for life? Then maybe you aren’t rich. Maybe you are poor.

I have another story to tell you. About a man who didn’t have the rich man’s problems, or the rich man’s sense of security.

This story was first told by Florence Ferrier, a social worker in poverty-striken Appalachia.
The Sheldons were a large family in severe financial distress after a series of misfortunes. The help they received was not adequate, yet they managed their meager income with ingenuity and without complaint.
One fall day I visited the Sheldons in a ramshackle rented house they lived in at the edge of the woods. Despite a painful physical handicap, Mr. Sheldon had shot and butchered a bear which strayed into their yard once too often. The meat had been processed into all the big canning jars they could find or swap for. There would be meat in their diet even during the worst of the winter when their fuel costs were high.
Mr. Sheldon offered ma jar of bear meat. I hesitated to accept it, but the giver met my unspoken resistance firmly. “Now, you just have to take this. We want you to have it. We don’t have much, that’s a fact; but we ain’t poor!”
I couldn’t resist asking, “What’s the difference?” His answer proved unforgettable.
“When you can give something away, even when you don’t have much, then you ain’t poor. When you don’t feel easy giving something away even if you got more’n you need, then you’re poor, whether you know it or not.”
So let me ask you again: Are you poor? Or are you rich?
Jesus had lots to say about poverty and riches. And there is no doubt that Jesus wanted us all to live rich, full lives. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” But he also said, “Don’t be fooled: Life isn’t defined by an abundance of possessions.”
What about your life? What about this church’s life?
Are we rich? Or are we poor?
If we aren’t sure, then this week will certainly provide us with several opportunities to find out.

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