You Can’t Take It With You

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, August 4, 2019

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

My grandfather did not approve of my mother’s choices, especially her financial ones.  So he tried to use his money to control her while he was alive, and even after death, tried to use the terms of his will to control her financial choices.  For reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, I’m now the trustee for my mother’s inheritance, which meant that when the well pump on my parent’s property gave out this week, I had to call the financial planner guy to authorize him to give my Mom money to replace it.  My granddad was not a Christian, so he probably never read anything from Ecclesiastes, but if he had met somebody complaining that their children will use their inheritance in ways they don’t approve of, my Granddad would probably have nodded in sympathy and offered the name of his lawyers and financial planners.  My grandfather was always one of those people who think that everything good in their life is because of their own hard work and good choices, and so in the last few years of his life when no amount of clean living or hard work or money would fix his health, it was hard for him.  He’d always judged anybody who had problems, whether those problems were physical or financial or anything else, because surely if they were strong enough, smart enough, good enough, hardworking enough, if they ate right and exercised enough, surely everything would be fine.  And then he came to a point in his own life where he was old and infirm, and money could buy good care, but it couldn’t buy health.  Nothing he could do would change the fact that his body was wearing out.  And that was really hard for him to deal with.  The emptiness and the loss that Ecclesiastes talks about, I think he felt in the last few years of life.  I found myself thinking about Granddad a lot this week.  Partly because I had to make a decision as a trustee for the money he left my mother, and partly because … I see echoes of him in all the readings.  Not just Ecclesiastes.

But these readings stir up other memories besides my grandfather, about how people use and abuse money.  I once sat through a sermon on this Gospel reading, for example, which argued that Jesus didn’t really mean to condemn the rich fool, because the rich guy was smart and a good planner and we should all be like him (my Granddad would have agreed with that one).  Then there’s my first internship, at a rich church with a large endowment.  They had a large congregation, but they took in very little in offering, because everybody knew that the endowment would cover all the church expenses, so why bother giving.  They didn’t need to be generous, or practice good stewardship; they had enough money to last indefinitely.  I got there just in time for the 2008 stock market crash.  When I started my internship, their endowment was worth $11 million dollars.  When I left, it had dropped to $8 million dollars and they were panicking, because how could they survive on only $8 million dollars?  I told this story to another pastor this week, who shared his own experience on the board of a Christian school.  They were given a large donation, which they invested wisely.  And after that, every month at their meetings, they would spend more time worried about what the stock market was doing with their money than they did focusing on the ministry they were doing.

Then there’s Notre Dame cathedral.  You probably know that it suffered a major fire recently, and that many billionaires pledged money to restore it.  What you probably haven’t heard is that most of them have refused to actually give the money they promised without control over how it’s used.  Some of them went so far as to say that they would give the money as reimbursement after the work was completed, once they could inspect it to their liking.  And mostly what they wanted the money to go for was the restoration of interior windows or beautiful art, not the structure of the roof.  They wanted public credit for generosity, and they wanted control; the actual needs of the cathedral restoration were irrelevant.

Money is not bad or evil in and of itself.  Money can be used to make living spaces safe and good.  Money can be used to feed people.  Money can be used to pay for healthcare.  Money can be used to help people in abusive relationships escape and build a new and independent life.  Money can do a lot of good, both for individuals and communities.  It can’t buy happiness, but it can fix a lot of the problems that cause unhappiness.

But there’s a dark side, too.  Money can become an obsession.  Money can become more important to us than people.  Money can be used to hurt, to abuse, to cover up for crimes.  Money can be used to control people.  Money can facilitate sin, or as an excuse to treat people badly.  The problem in all of these cases is not the money itself, the problem is us.

In our reading from Colossians, St. Paul says that greed is idolatry.  If you’re wondering how that works, well, Martin Luther explained it this way in the Large Catechism: your god is the thing in which you put your trust.  Do you rely on Jesus more than anything else in the world?  That’s what you should be doing.  But if you rely on anything else—on your money, on your politics, on your health, on your family—that thing becomes your god.  It’s not that money or politics or healthy living or family are bad in and of themselves, but when you make them the bedrock on which you stand, the cornerstone on which you rely, that’s idolatry.  When we are greedy, we put our love for money higher than our love for God or for our neighbor.  We put our fear of losing money or wasting it or not having enough as more important than our love for God and our neighbor.  And that is idolatry.

With that in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel reading.  It starts off with a man demanding that Jesus tell his brother what to do.  Now, Jesus wasn’t just walking or hanging out; Jesus was in the middle of teaching a crowd, and this guy yells at him to bring the guy’s brother into line.  Now, inheritance could be just as complicated then as it is now, and sometimes even more so; notice that the guy isn’t asking for Jesus to help untangle a difficult case, or mediate between two brothers whose relationship has turned sour.  All he asks is that Jesus force his brother to pay what he thinks his brother owes him.  He wants to use Jesus as a club he can use to force his brother to comply with his demands.  We know nothing about the family or relationships involved, nothing about the money, nothing about who was in the right and who was in the wrong.  We don’t know if there was anything specific the guy needed the money for.  All we know is that he put more importance on getting that money than on reconciling with his brother or learning from Jesus.

Then there’s the rich guy in the parable Jesus tells.  A fool.  Not for his financial acumen, but for his understanding of the world.  He is blessed with a great harvest, and look at how he reacts.  He doesn’t thank God for the sun and rain and soil; he doesn’t thank his workers for doing the work of planting and harvesting; he doesn’t consider that when God blesses us, God usually wants us to use that blessing to bless others in turn.  He just wants to store up that wealth so he never has to worry again.  The problem is not that he’s planning to manage his wealth, but how that wealth shapes his whole identity and all his relationships.  He’s forgotten everyone else around him, the community God might want him to use his wealth to benefit.  He’s put his trust in his new, bigger barns and the crops stored in them.  That’s his god.  That’s what he looks to for comfort.  That’s what he looks to for meaning and identity, that’s what he judges himself by, that’s the most important relationship in his life.  And then he dies.  And none of that wealth matters any more.  It’s going to be someone else’s now; one of those people he didn’t care about when he was deciding what to do with his great harvest is going to get the benefits of it.  The work he put in, the mental and emotional energy, all his worrying and all his greed and all his gloating and all his satisfaction … they’re useless.  Vain.  Empty.  No longer relevant.

Just like Ecclesiastes said, if you put your trust in your hard work or your money or your control and influence over other people, you’re going to be disappointed.  If that’s what gives your life meaning, it can only work for a little while.  Eventually, inevitably, even if it takes decades, we learn the truth: none of the things in this life that we put our trust in can truly sustain us through good times and bad, in this life and in the next.  They all fail.  They may be good things, or things that we can use for good purposes, like money, but they will not bear the weight of life and death.  And to build our lives on them is idolatry.

But we were united with Christ in our baptisms, we have died with him and been raised with him.  We are being transformed by God’s grace, and it is that grace that we should put our trust and hope in.  It is that grace that gives life meaning.  It is that grace that can bear the weight of everything in our lives, good and bad.  May we always work to live according to that grace, and to put our trust in the One who created us, who redeems us, and who inspires us.

Amen.

Where do you put your trust?

Third Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 10C, June 5th, 2016

1 Kings 17:1-24, Psalm 30, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

We have a very different idea of what a prophet is, today, than people did in Bible times.  We tend to think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future.  Which confuses us when we come to a passage like today’s Gospel, where Jesus heals someone and everyone responds that a prophet has come.  But you see, in those days predicting the future was only a small part of what a prophet did.  A prophet spoke God’s Word, in both speech and action.  A prophet told people what God wanted and put it into action.  A prophet used actions to show people what God said, not just tell them.  On those rare occasions when a prophet predicted the future, it was mostly designed as a way to confirm that the prophet did come from God—you’ll know that he really does speak for God when his words come true.

The two greatest prophets were Moses, who led God’s people out of slavery into freedom in Israel, and Elijah, who did great deeds of power to call people back to God at a time when most people had forgotten about God.  You see, in those days, one of the so-called gods people worshipped was named Ba’al, and Ba’al was the god of the storm.  The Holy Land depends on rain completely for its moisture—there are no great rivers to use for irrigation.  If it rains, they could grow food.  If it didn’t, they starved.  So you can see how attractive it would be to worship a god who claimed to be able to send rain on cue.  “Trust Ba’al,” his priests said, “and you’ll never have to worry about having enough water or food again.  Worship Ba’al, and you’ll have everything you want and need.  That thing that keeps you awake at night?  Ba’al can save you from it.  Those problems you have?  Ba’al can solve them for you.  All you have to do is put your trust in him.”  It was like a protection racket.  Sacrifice to Ba’al, and he would keep you safe.  Don’t sacrifice to him, and, well.  You don’t want to find out what happens when you do that

Of course, there are two problems with that.  First, is that Ba’al isn’t really a god; he can’t really do anything.  There is only one God, lord of heaven and earth, and he can’t be bribed or bought.  No sacrifice to Ba’al, no matter how great, is actually going to accomplish diddly squat, because he was just something a bunch of people dreamed up to make themselves feel like they could control the world around them.  And the second problem is even worse.  Because Ba’al was a bloodthirsty god.  He didn’t just want the occasional calf of goat or dove.  No.  According to his devotees, Ba’al wanted children.  If you wanted Ba’al’s favor, and it was really important, you would kill your own child and burn the body on Ba’al’s altar.

And that’s just what Ahab, the king of Israel, did.  Sure, he worshipped the Lord God Almighty, but he decided to hedge his bets and worship Ba’al, too.  Just in case.  And, after all, his wife Queen Jezebel was a princess of Sidon, which worshipped Ba’al, and Sidon was a powerful country, so their god must be powerful, too, right?  So he set up temples to Ba’al and prayed for Ba’al to send rain, and even sacrificed his own son to Ba’al.  And in response, God stopped sending rain.  To prove that worshipping Ba’al would not bring rain, God sent a three-year drought, instead, and he used the prophet Elijah to do it, and to tell everyone why Ba’al had failed.

Three years of drought.  Three years of scarcity and hunger.  Three years of futility, as they prayed and prayed to Ba’al to save them.  And in those three years, the prophet Elijah lived with a widow in Zarephath, and her food never ran out.  Now, the important thing to remember here is that Zarephath is not in Israel.  It’s not a Jewish town.  Zarephath is in Sidon, Queen Jezebel’s home country, where they ALL worshipped Ba’al and the true God was unknown.  Now, this widow was poor.  Of all the people in Zarephath, she had the fewest resources to make it through the time of famine.  As it didn’t rain, and didn’t rain, and crops withered, food would have become ever more expensive.  And as a poor widow, she had no money to buy it with.  But God sent Elijah to her, and God gave her food to sustain her and her son and their household and Elijah, too.  Abundance, in the middle of scarcity.

And then her son died.  This poor widow, kept alive by the grace of a god she didn’t really believe in, with nothing in the world but her son.  And he died.  She blamed God—of course she did.  She was used to Ba’al who demanded children’s lives in payment.  Why wouldn’t she think God had taken her son?  And so Elijah prayed to God, and God gave her back her son, raised him from the dead.  Ba’al was a god of death, a god who promised abundance but only in return for the things they held most dear, and even after sucking them dry could not truly deliver on his promises.  But our God is a God of life, who brings life even in the midst of death and abundance even in the midst of famine.  Our God is a God whose promises are always true and reliable.

Nobody worships Ba’al anymore, but we do worship a lot of other things we shouldn’t.  Martin Luther defined a god as the thing in which you put your trust, the thing you look to in times of trouble, the thing you think will save you.  And there are a lot of things out there in our modern world that we look to for protection and salvation from the problems of the world.  Careers, political parties, money, health, the list goes on.  A lot of things that promise to fix our problems for us … if only we’ll put our trust in them.  A lot of things that promise they’ll keep us safe from all the things we fear … if only we’ll sacrifice for them.  We put our trust in all these other things, and then, just like the Widow of Zarephath, we blame God when things go wrong, even though God is working to provide for us and save us.

This is particularly obvious every election season.  When Barack Obama was elected for the first time in 2008, I was working at a church in Pennsylvania, and spent the day after the election visiting shut-ins and the sick.  The Democrats were sure that the country had been saved, and the Republicans were sure that the country had been doomed, and to both groups I had to say the same thing: Jesus Christ is lord of all, and he was Lord of All before the election, and he was Lord of All the day of the election, and he will still be Lord of All millennia after the United States of America has been forgotten.  No human being—especially no human politician, good or bad—can save or doom the world, any more than Ba’al could send rain or raise the widow’s son from the dead.  No matter what we think, no matter what or who we put our trust in, there is only on Lord God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three in one and one in three.

In good times and in bad, in scarcity and abundance, life comes from God.  It doesn’t come from politicians, or economic systems, or jobs, or money, or physical health.  Don’t get me wrong, these things can all have a big impact on our lives, but there is something bigger and deeper still.  And none of these things are bad on their own; but when we put our ultimate trust in them, they will inevitably fail us.  When we put our ultimate trust in them, they will demand sacrifices from us that we should not give.  Sacrifices of time, attention, of relationships.  Sacrifices of people forgotten or shoved aside.  Because politicians fail and fall short; economic systems do as well.  Empires crumble and fall.  Businesses fail, health falls short.  Money can buy houses and food and cell phones, but it can’t buy love or life.  If we turn to all of these things and put our trust in them, our world and our lives will always be built on a foundation that crumbles and falls apart around us.

There is only one true foundation, and that is God.  There is only one who gives life, and that is God, who brings rain and sun, who raises people from the dead, who sent our Lord Jesus Christ that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  So whenever anything or anyone asks you to put your trust in them, whenever they claim to be able to save or protect you from all the problems in the world, be wary. And look for what they want you to sacrifice.

May God keep us safe from harm, and may we always trust in God, even when other things try to claim our faith and trust.

Amen.