Ecclesiastes 2:9-11; Luke 12:13-21
Money. It's an uncomfortable thing to talk about, and yet so many of us spend our lives talking and thinking about it. It can be a rather large part of our story because when we have none we wish we had more and when we have some or a lot than we have to figure out how to manage it. The only people I know who are completely comfortable talking about it are people who have learned the place they want it to have in their lives. Perhaps that's why Jesus felt he could talk about it fairly consistently. For a man with seemingly no money, Jesus was a master at talking about it. He talked about it with the rich; he talked about it with the poor; he talked about it with the religious leaders; he talked about it with his own disciples. And yet we shy away from talking about money and religion as if by talking about one within the other we will taint one or the other. Jesus didn't seem to mind-- nor did all of the prophets, the law, and Moses before him. Money is a key conversation piece in the Bible. The conversation-- the story-- that happens in the Bible around money is all about what place it is has in our lives and how to make sure we do not waste our freedom as children of God by being enslaved to money.
Let's look at the Gospel. In Luke Jesus tells this parable about the man who has a great bumper crop of a year. He's feeling good-- as he should. The rain fell when it was supposed to, the sun shone when it was needed, and his fields flourished. This guy had an enormous crop-- bigger than he could fit inside of his barns. So what does he do? I dare say he does what probably any of us would do. He decides he's had enough of those old barns. It doesn't matter that they still hold enough for what he needs for the winter. It doesn't matter that they still do the job of holding the crop so it's dry and cool and ready for winter. He decides that what he really wants is the ability to store all of his crop. So he tears down the current barns and builds bigger ones. Most of us would say he was lucky; smart; taking care of what he has-- a good steward even. But Jesus doesn't view it that way. Jesus calls the man foolish; says he wasted all of that time building bigger barns just so that when he dies someone else will get the grain.
The writer of Ecclesiastes comes to the same conclusion some 300 hundred years earlier. Only he's lived it. If you you think Jesus is being too radical, than perhaps the testimony of the writer of Ecclesiastes will make more sense to you. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that he has been down that road-- he built the bigger barns; he lived the high life; he says that he enjoyed the fruits of his labor. After all, he worked very hard. Everything he had he had because of his hard work. But when he surveyed all that he had created and what he had worked so hard to achieve, he realized it was all pointless-- it was all in vain. None of it brought meaning to his life.
Of course most of us would like to have it all before we decide it's not worth it. Many of us have a love/hate kind of relationship with money. We love it when we have it to spend, and we hate it when we spend our time worrying about getting more. And in our culture today, we spend a lot of time worrying about losing it or getting more of it because one of the biggest stories in our society is that our worth comes from our ability to consume. Day in and day out through commercials, through politicians, through the drive of the market, through subtle things like our friends who have nicer stuff, we receive the message that our most important role as a person is in being a consumer. And this isn't just an American thing-- if it was, we wouldn't have these same stories from 2300 years ago and two thousand years ago. Probably ever since people began to barter goods there's been a motive to encourage one another to think of ourselves as consumers of goods. But Jesus says that's not where our worth comes from. And to believe the story that our worth is caught up in our consumption-- is to constantly be disappointed, worried, and frustrated because there's no end to it.
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus have a blog called The Minimalists. Joshua's story is actually not so different from the farmer in our story or the writer of Ecclesiastes. He came from a relatively poor family and he had decided from when he was small that he was going to go out in the world and make money. And he did. The problem is when he was making $35,000 a year he was spending $45,000. And when he began making $45,000 he was spending $55,000. And the more money he made, the more he spent. And he was incredibly unhappy. And then one day he began to look at money differently. He began to see that what he was really trading, was his freedom. So every time he wanted to spend money on buying something, consuming something, he began to ask himself, "Is this cup of coffee worth $2 of my freedom?" "Is this tshirt worth $30 of my freedom? "Is this new car worth $20,000 of my freedom?" And he began to change his spending habits and base them instead on his goals of living a much more simple life in which he was a lot happier, a lot less stressed, and was able to fulfill what he understood that he wanted his life to be about-- to be able to attain his goals and be generous and save for his future in a helpful way. "Now," he says, "I know that every dollar I spend adds immense value to my life."
When we believe the story that we are consumers, we will never have enough. Because there's no end to consumption. We will continue to trade our time and our freedom and a hundred other things that we say are important to us, just to have the next shiny thing that people say is sure to make our lives easier and happier. Jesus, however, offers us a different story. Jesus offers us a story that says our worth is found not in how much we can consume, but rather in whose image we reflect-- in being children of God, created in God's image. Jesus reminds us that we have been created not to consume, but to love. Just feel for a moment how different those two words are-- to consume or to love. Jesus says we have been created not to differentiate ourselves by what we own, but to be part of community-- to let our resources bring us together instead of driving us apart. Jesus says we have been created not to take and take and take, but instead to be co-creators with God. What is God's one defining characteristic in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible? God creates goodness. We are created in God's image. We too, are creators-- givers of life-- that's who we are. What a different story that is-- to find our worth in knowing we are loved; we are part of a community; we are co-creators with God. That is our story as people of faith.
So how do we make our lives reflect who we are? Like any spiritual discipline, it doesn't happen overnight. We don't become super prayer warriors by saying a few prayers. We don't become experts at biblical interpretation by reading the Bible once. We don't become wonderfully forgiving people by practicing forgiveness for a few hours one day. The same is true with our financial life. It takes practice and it takes baby steps. Which is why the back of your bulletin has a way for you to begin.
You'll notice that the first question on the back isn't about money at all. And that's because this isn't really about money. It's about framing your life-- telling your story-- and making sure that your resources, your money, is getting you to the place you want to be in your story. So instead the question on the back begins with defining your life purpose. Why are you here? What is God calling you to? Who do you want to be next year, in five years, in twenty years? And then make some financial goals around how to get there. And then, at the bottom of the sheet, are Six Financial Principles that are pretty basic and very helpful. These six financial principles will help keep you on track so that you can keep centered in who you are and who you want to be -- the person created in God's image -- so that you can be freed up to follow your dreams.
I find that they are also helpful reminders about when we have enough. Without a budget an a sense of how we are spending money, we just spend more when we have more. But when we take the time to budget it out, to give our offering straight off the top as a gift to God, to keep our lifestyle simple, than it is much easier to be grateful for what we have rather than always thinking we're behind and stressing about getting more. We have all kinds of ways to monitor other parts of our lives. Weight watchers has made a lot of money out of helping people monitor the food we intake so we know when we've over eaten. Fitbit is a common feature these days as we measure our steps to make sure we've gotten enough exercise and enough sleep. These simple financial practices work in the same way-- they help us monitor when we're spending too much or when we want to trim a little bit over here to make room over there. They help us curb our impulse buying or our eating out or many of the other ways we end up being tempted into buying things that do not fit the goals of our life purpose. And then they also create a bit of space for when things go wrong-- creating an emergency fund, making sure we're always paying off our credit cards so that the interest stays in our pocket rather than making the credit card company rich, and setting aside money for the future so that we can retire and pass on some resources to others.
When I was in high school I nannied for five kids. I remember when I went for the interview being shocked as I walked in their house because it was immaculately clean. They had wall to wall white carpeting, a chandelier in the entryway, grand piano in the foyer, and five bedrooms upstairs. Their parents worked as lawyers and so they were gone from 6am to 6pm every day. I nannied for that family for two summers and for one spring break when their parents took a European vacation. A few years later when I went back to visit on a college break, I found out that they had moved. I drove up to their new home and I was a bit surprised. In front of me was a 1970's rambler. I walked in to a split level home that looked like people lived there. The seven of them were living in a space about a 1/3 of the size of the last house. I asked how they were enjoying their new home, and everyone was so enthusiastic about it. The parents told me how they had decided to downsize so they could go on mission trips as a family. They told me that they were tired of working so hard just so they could pretend to have some kind of perfect life they realized they didn't even want. And the kids were thrilled. They admitted that they had been worried at first about not having the same amount of Christmas presents and having their own rooms and all of the things that their old life had been filled with, but you could see on their faces that they were happier. A simpler lifestyle had freed them all up to enjoy one another and to be generous in ways that gave them life. You can imagine that my admiration for them went up a hundredfold as I walked out of that 1970's rambler from my admiration that I always had had for them when they lived in their fancy five-bedroom house.
Which do you find more admirable in a person? Someone who is intentionally living out their life purpose with meaning and generosity? Or someone who's living at the edge of their means, strapped from being able to do the things that really matter? So you admire the one who lives extravagantly? Or the one who gives extravagantly? Which story do you want to be your story? (Adam Hamilton, Enough, page 48).