Lifestyle Creep | Sermon from 3/17/19

On Ag day last year during Leadership Dodge, I stood out in the middle of the Watkins farm, looking at soon-to-be harvested cucumbers. Brian Watkins took a cucumber off the plant and snapped it in two, showing the inside to be rotting. He noted that the farm has about a 72 hour window to harvest all the ripe cucumbers before they turn to mush on the inside, like the one he showed us. 72 hours! I looked across the expanse of the Watkins land, knowing that even as much as I could see, I still couldn’t see all their land. It seemed like a huge job to harvest all these cucumbers.

I grew up around some agriculture. But ever since moving here, I’ve been fascinated by the agriculture of this area. It’s different, more robust. I have learned much about agriculture in the last two years. And the more I learn, the less I feel like I know. The financing side of the enterprise alone is complicated enough. Add to that the unpredictability of the weather, recent losses because of storms and torrential rains, and the level of complication only grows.

This morning’s parable is about farming. Knowing how challenging farming can be, we might think it would be complicated. And yet, this parable seems pretty straight forward. You don’t need to know all the ins and outs of agriculture to understand it. It’s common sense that if you have a year with a good harvest, and you don’t have enough room to store it all, you build bigger barns. That just makes sense. It doesn’t take a degree from ABAC or being raised on a farm to understand that building bigger barns means you’re prepared for the years of low yield. But Jesus disagrees.

In fact, upon reading the parable, we might ask what Jesus’s point is. The farmer’s actions make so much sense, it’s Jesus who doesn’t seem to make sense.

Let’s hear today’s parable, the second in the series on the parables of Jesus, in Luke 12:13-21.

Scripture

Build bigger barns. This just makes sense. The farmer is having a good year. Apparently a very good year. His crop has returned a larger harvest than usual. Farming, back in this day, was even more unpredictable than it is today. That was especially true because of lack of knowledge about soil. Farmers would plant the same crops over and over again on the same land, depleting the soil. But, sometimes, they’d plant something different on that land and suddenly find that crop to do very well! However it happened, this farmer has found himself with a crop that has done surprisingly well.

So he will build bigger barns to hold his larger yield. He will then relax because he knows bigger barns will mean greater financial security for himself. The greater the yield, the greater the money made. And so he says to himself, “soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry!” And understandably so.

It’s Jesus who seems odd, as is so often the case across the gospels. Jesus doesn’t make sense. He reveals that the farmer’s life will not last. The wealth will not save his life. But he couldn’t have known that when he decided to build bigger barns! He was just doing what any financially responsible person does: make the most of the resources entrusted to him.

And let’s remember, this parable is Jesus’s response to the brothers who ask Jesus for arbitration. They’re fighting over an inheritance. It appears that, as was custom, the property has gone to the oldest brother. The younger brother is demanding a fair share of the inheritance. Jesus, rather than arbitrate the dispute, gives them their answer in a form that feels like a riddle. He says to be on guard against greed, for “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then, he launches into this parable, concluding by saying, “so it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” How, exactly, does this resolve the dispute between the brothers?

This is a head scratcher. The farmer is being responsible by building bigger barns to store the increased crop yield, which will secure his future. The younger brother just wants what’s fair and what will secure his future. But Jesus infers that the younger brother is greedy and calls the farmer a fool for his actions.

But are we fools when we build bigger barns by storing up money in savings accounts?

Are we fools when we build bigger barns by investing our money wisely?

Are we fools when we build bigger barns by improving the value of our property?

Are we fools when we build bigger barns by expanding our businesses?

Are we fools when we build bigger barns by doing anything financially responsible?

And certainly, we can relate to the brothers fighting over an inheritance. If that hasn’t happened in our own family, we’re aware of other families where it has happened. Are we greedy if we demand a fair share of the inheritance? Are we greedy if we’re simply looking for things to be handled properly, correctly, in a fair way toward all concerned parties? Are we greedy for wanting any share of the inheritance at all? Does wanting a share mean that we think our life “consist[s] in the abundance of possessions” as Jesus says in verse 15?

We would certainly answer no to all these questions. Which is what makes this a head scratcher. What, exactly, is Jesus saying here?

The younger brother, asking for his share of the inheritance, might be justly due some of it. But Jesus seems to sense that what the brother is really after is the wealth itself. It’s the money, not fairness, that’s driving the dispute. Jesus tells him that life does not consist “in the abundance of possessions” and that he should be rich toward God. In the end, when life is over, whether or not he got his fair share of the inheritance won’t matter.

Very often, that’s how this parable is interpreted: you can’t take your wealth with you when you’re gone. And that’s true. God calls on us to utilize the wealth given to us for God’s purposes. It’s a gift. We are stewards of it. It’s not ours. Anything good, any blessing we have, is a gift of God. And because it’s a gift, it’s meant to be shared with the world. How are you sharing your wealth with others?

But this parable is more than that. The brother, the farmer, each want to secure their future. The farmer especially notes this when he says “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” The farmer finds his security for his future in the fact that he is now abundantly wealthy.

And God rightly calls him a fool. There is no future security in wealth. Illness, death, calamity, or, as insurance policies are fond of saying, an “act of God,” could wipe out savings and wealth in a hurry. Some have known that reality through bad investments, court battles, and economic downturns. There is no security for our future in wealth because the future isn’t ours to secure.

Wealth can give a false sense of security about the future. We build up our retirement savings, something Dana and I certainly do, but it can’t save us from a tragic car accident that would render our retirement moot. We have plans to purchase property to secure our future so that we do not end up like so many methodist pastors having to purchase a house when they retire. But some terrible illness could quickly eviscerate our savings.

We can’t control the future, as much as we might like to. There’s prudence in preparing for it the best we can. There’s definitely value in saving our money, in seeking to be fiscally responsible. But when we think of our future, when we consider the future, where is our trust? Or, put like the farmer, where does our soul find its rest? When we say to ourselves, “Soul…relax; eat, drink, be merry,” do we say that because of our fiscal responsibility? Or do we say that because we know that God holds our lives in the palm of his hand?

That’s the difference here in this parable. That’s the teaching. If we’re putting our hope for our future in our wealth, in our fiscal prudence, we’re putting our hope for our future in the wrong place. We’re placing our trust that our future will be okay in “the abundance of possessions,” which will ultimately fail. We can store up treasures for ourselves, but life events or “an act of God” can quickly undo our savings.

Our hope for the future can come only from Jesus himself. Only he has power over the future. And in the mean time, while we have wealth at our disposal, Jesus says to us, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Will we selfishly cling to them, to our wealth and possessions, believing them to be ours? Or will we recognize that whatever we have, God has gifted us. And like any good gift, what we have received is meant to be shared.

That’s what the farmer misses. God gave him an abundance to share with others, to make sure the poor and needy were fed. Security comes from God, not from having ample goods, or money, saved up. How are you sharing the gifts you have received?

This week, I read a great example of just this principle. John Wesley, early in his career as a professor at Oxford University, made thirty pounds a year. It was a nice salary and Wesley found he could live off of twenty-eight pounds a year. The remaining two pounds he gave away. By the end of his life, Wesley was earning one hundred twenty pounds a year from Oxford, a four-fold increase. And at the end of his life, just as he had throughout his life, Wesley lived off of twenty-eight pounds a year. He had started out giving away just two pounds a year. By the end of his life, by maintaining simplicity of living, he was giving away ninety-two pounds a year, living off just 23% of what he earned a year. Twenty-three percent. The rest went to charity.

Wesley didn’t build bigger barns for his wealth. He resisted what financial analysts call lifestyle creep: the gradual growing of our expenses to keep up with the lifestyle we think we deserve. He was prudent with his twenty-eight pounds, for part of that income went to savings. But he found ways to not increase his spending. He didn’t buy the larger house, he didn’t purchase the fancy new horse and carriage, he didn’t buy all the nice books, and his hobbies didn’t require ever more stuff. He found a way to keep his expenses low so that he could share with others the gift God had given him.

For us today, Wesley serves as not only an example but a challenge as we consider our wealth. All of us are wealthy. By the standards of most people in the world, we are fabulously rich. If your household income is more than $118,000 a year, you are in the top ten percent of households in this country. By the standards of the average person of Jesus’s day, we are fabulously rich. Are we finding our security for our future in that wealth? Or is the lack of the wealth we desire a consistent source of insecurity?

If your answer to either or both questions is yes, here’s the best thing you can do. It’s what Jesus asks of us this morning. It’s what Jesus demanded of the farmer. Don’t build bigger barns. Share.

There’s no better way to overcome putting our security for our future in our wealth than to share our wealth more so than we do now. We can’t become like John Wesley overnight. But we can gradually work our way that direction.

So, if you currently are giving nothing to charity on a regular basis, start with something and then seek to grow the amount. And if you currently give something, seek to grow that amount. When Dana and I first felt convicted about not giving anything away, of selfishly clinging to our money believing we’d find security there, we started out by giving $10 per month to the church. That was all we felt like we could afford. In the last decade, we’ve continually sought to grow the amount, now giving away much more. But rather than the amount mattering, it was that habit that transformed how we view our finances. The act of giving has meant that we cling to our finances for security much less often.

This is the phenomenon that Dave Ramsey has noted. Sharing breaks our emotional tie that links money to security. Rather than finding in it security, or finding insecurity from not having enough, rather than building bigger barns as we gain, we continue to live off the same amount, sharing as much as we can with those in need. I confess to you this morning that such is a source of joy, peace, and security. I say that not just because Jesus said it, but because Dana and I live it.

A little bit of sharing creates a habit that will transform our emotions around money. The way to let go of clinging to wealth as our security for the future is to share our wealth.

We need not fear for our future, for it is God who holds it. Whatever wealth we have is a gift from God, one that is meant to be shared.

Where do you find your security? In wealth? In the abundance of possessions? In getting your fair share? We cannot purchase future security. No amount of wealth will save us. Nor will it save our families. And beyond that, God calls on us to share our wealth, for it is a gift from God to be shared with others.

How are you sharing your wealth today?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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