August 4, 2013 Sermon

Sermon

“The Triple A Credit Rating You Don’t Want”

 

August 4, 2013

The Reverend Dr. Joanne M. Swenson

 

Philippians 4:6-7

6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

 

Luke 12:15-26

15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

22He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?

 

Do you remember where you were this August, two years ago?  Oh, it was a miserable month!  Congress was consumed by vitriol and brinksmanship, battling over the budget.  And then the United States lost its Triple-A credit rating.  The comedian Jimmy Fallon noticed the similarity between a Triple-A credit rating and the automobile club Triple-A, remarking, “America’s credit rating took a real hit this weekend.  On Friday night, the U.S. actually lost its Triple-A status, or, as Joe Biden put it: ‘What happens now if I get a flat tire?’

Well, things are looking better for flat tires and the economy.  And the farmer of today’s Gospel Lesson also gets a Triple A.  He has strong financial reserves – he’s put up massive, new storehouses to guard his bumper crop.  He’s earned a Credit Rating of Triple A.

But what about his Credo Rating?  That’s the rating we get from God for our faith.  Our Credo Rating.  In Latin, “credo” means “I believe,” and “credo” is the first word of the Apostles’ Creed:  “Credo in Deum Patrem” — I believe in God the Father…

Jesus tells this story of a foolish, rich farmer.  And Jesus rates him:  A for Agnostic; A for Anxious; and A for Alone.  Jesus gives the farmer a triple A Credo rating.  And this is a rating we don’t want.

So let’s work through those three “A’s” and think about our own Credo rating.  Let’s pray first.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to You, O God, You our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

 

First off, we must say, the Christian religion is not anti-money.  Not by any means.  Just this past week, on Tuesday, in our “Read Through the Bible” program, we read in First Timothy:

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because (then) it is consecrated by the word of Godand prayer.

Paul, in this passage, is affirming that the goods and pleasures of life are a blessing!  Good food, love and marriage, homes, celebrations, and money – all can be a blessing, if we use them for God’s purposes.

Historically, Christianity has depended on generous donors, wealthy benefactors, who, behind the scenes, provided the houses, the transportation, the network of funds and contacts that supported the disciples of the early church:  We see evidence of these generous donors throughout the New Testament, including women such as…Mary Magdalene[1], Mary mother of James and Joseph[2], Joanna[3], Susanna[4], The mother of the sons of Zebedee[5], Phoebe[6], Tabitha[7], Lydia[8], the woman with the alabaster jar, Mary the mother of John-Mark[9], and Nympha[10].  Among men we hear of Barnabas[11], Gaius Titius[12], Aquila[13], Crispus[14], Jason[15], Epaenetus[16], Theophilus[17], Publius[18], and Joseph of Arimathea[19].

Did you notice that the women’s list goes longer – 11 women to nine men?  In the New Testament, woman benefactors outnumber men, which is quite striking when you think of women’s social position in the ancient world.  The reasons for this are worth speculating about – why women so smart about their money? – but we’ll leave that for another sermon.

The Christian movement has always relied on wealthy benefactors and invisible underwriters to spread the gospel and advance the humanitarian mission of the church.  So, what is wrong with this farmer?  It isn’t that he is rich?  Not at all.  It’s not his Triple-A Credit Rating.

What’s wrong with the farmer is that he’s got a Triple-A Credo Rating.  So, let’s look at his three A’s.

The first A stands for Agnostic.

This farmer is agnostic, indifferent to the reality of God.  Perhaps there is nothing more “wrong” about this farmer than his indifference to God.

Farmers are among the most religious people I know.  They have to rely on their faith.  Zig-zagging commodity markets, uncontrollable weather and unpredictable incomes humble them.  Farm accidents are tragically common, with 120,000 injuries occurring yearly, and 1300 deaths, including 300 children.  Farming is a beautiful but dangerous way of life.  Every farmer I’ve known from North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa has a tested faith in God.

But this New Testament farmer is agnostic.  The farmer doesn’t give a thought about God.  The famer gains a bumper crop through no action of his own, but, does he think to credit God?  Not a word.  The famer busies himself with planning and construction to store up his crop.  Does he think to pray for God’s guidance first?  No evidence of that.  This farmer may have been a member of a religious community, but what we see is that he is a functional agnostic.  His day-to-day functioning bear no trace of believing in God.

So, God pays a visit to the farmer.  Jesus tells the story to emphasize that God surprises the farmer.  “You fool!” pronounces God, “tonight your very life will be demanded of you.”  You can almost imagine the Farmer, startled, saying.  “Huh?”  “Who are you?”  “Who let you in?”

But for the believer, God shows up every day, and every day calls us to give Him our very lives.  For the believer, God doesn’t just show up “one day,” but God shows up every day – in our thanksgiving, our decision-making and our sense of who we are.  And, just as God asked the farmer on his last day of life, “Are you rich toward me?”  We believers hear God ask that question every day of our lives.

If you are agnostic, you can’t hear that question.  So the farmer earns his first A – for his Agnosticism.

The second A is for anxiety: the farmer is anxious.  We know Jesus is critical of the farmer for his anxiety, because he tells this parable in a larger teaching about anxiety.  Immediately after this parable, Jesus offers this teaching:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life. … Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!  And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 

Jesus is teaching us, don’t be anxious.  And Jesus isn’t merely suggesting this, He commands us, “Therefore I tell you, don’t be anxious!”  Paul says exactly the same thing, in Philippians 4, a verse that has been memorized and relied on by millions:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

I once heard a sermon preached on Philippians 4 by a television newscaster, who told of being demoted and promoted and moved around every time his TV station changed ownership or management.  He was an expert at his craft, an authority in his field, but he couldn’t control his future.  So he relied on and memorized this command: “do not be anxious about anything!”

This command to not be anxious is at the heart of the Christian faith – this isn’t some side-teaching.  Think about this.  Early Christians expected the world would end in the immediate future.  In the face of this coming calamity, what are they instructed?  Jesus said to those who asked about the end of the world, “See to it that you are not alarmed.”[20]  Paul, in Romans, tells the Christians to wait for the Second Coming with “eager longing.”[21]

We are commanded to not worry about the future, even the most dramatic of futures.  So, it’s no surprise, then, that we are commanded to not worry about money.

Yet, all of us worry!  “I worry, therefore I am!” – right?  How can any normal person not worry?  Even the rich are anxious, as this parable reminds us.  The farmer was rich – why should he worry?  Because anxiety about losing what we possess – what economists call “loss aversion” – profoundly shapes human behavior.[22]  Loss Aversion is vastly more powerful in shaping our actions than the prospect of gaining something new and better.  Loss Aversion grows, the greater our potential losses.  The more one has, the more anxious one is.

It’s no mystery why we’re afraid of losses:  we come to depend on, to need our worldly possessions.  “Nice to have” quickly becomes, “Got to have.”  And then those “got to have’s” take over our life.  They use our precious life.

John Calvin gives us comforting words of guidance here.  Calvin wrote: “(Use) this world, (but act as though) you used it not.”[23]

This is powerful advice: use the world’s goods but don’t let them use us.  Calvin goes on to list the benefits of this form of Christian detachment:  He writes: “This destroys not only…excessive indulgence…in (eating, clothes, houses)…ambition (and) pride …but (it) also (destroys) all (worry) and inclination that…divert… (us) from thought of (heaven)…and zeal to cultivate the soul.”[24]  Calvin teaches us, detachment destroys indulgence and detachment destroys worry!  Use this world’s goods, but don’t be used by them.  Don’t let them be your master.

But for our farmer, keeping his crop has taken over his life.  He’s clinging to every grain of the harvest –, he needs it all, including the windfall he hadn’t expected.

What‘s wrong with the farmer?  Not that he’s rich, but that he’s anxious – the second A.

The third A:  the farmer is alone.

Commentators all note that this farmer mentions no workers, no family, no community.  His only dialogue is with himself, his soul.  The farmer’s only friends to help him decide how to deal with his bumper crop are, “me,” “myself” and “I.”

Indeed, the farmer’s decision to build more storage sheds – more siloes, if you will – reflects his silo’ed life.  He is a silo; he is alone.  The work of his hands have distorted his life.  As Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there also will be your soul.”  His soul is in the silo, shut up alone.

When thinking about storing bumper crops, we’re naturally drawn to think about Joseph, of the Old Testament.  And perhaps Jesus intended us to reflect on Joseph.  Joseph made a proposal to the Egyptian pharaoh, to store grain in times of abundance, in preparation for times when crops would fail.  Pharaoh agreed, so Joseph, during seven consecutive years of bumper crops, filled Egypt’s storehouses with grain, weighing and measuring it all, to ensure it was kept with integrity until the day Egypt would need it.  And that day came, as Joseph had predicted – seven years of drought and desperation.

But more than Egypt was saved.  People from surrounding nations “from all over the earth” came to Egypt for grain – including Joseph’s brothers, who had sold him into slavery and thought he was dead.  Joseph stored grain – not for himself, not to solidify his power and his position in Egypt.  He stored grain, not for “me,” “myself,” and “I.”  But he stored up grain for the world.  And, miraculously and unexpectedly, he saved his own family.

Joseph managed wealth to share it.  Its end-users, its beneficiaries were always on his mind.  He was not alone – the third A.

***

The Christian religion is anti- agnostic, anti-anxiety, and anti-aloneness.  But it is not anti-money!  Indeed, John Wesley, the great 18th century preacher and founder of the Methodists, said this about money: earn all that you can; save all that you can; and give away all that you can.[25]

And if you do that, at the end of your life, you won’t be agnostic; you’ll meet the Lord, with deep familiarity.  You won’t be anxious; you’ll be confident in God’s goodness and provision.  And, you won’t be alone; you’ll join the saints above, and you’ll be remembered below, remembered with love and honor.

In a moment, as we celebrate Holy Communion, we’ll meet God as Jesus Christ, in the elements of bread and wine.  Jesus didn’t lock up his riches of love and new life in heavenly silos, but he opened the heavenly storehouses for you and me.  He opens up those heavenly storehouses, so that, in our days of drought and desperation, we can come to this table and be fed.

So, let’s prepare our hearts to eat of the heavenly storehouse, by singing together hymn # 445.  Amen.

 



[9]  Acts 12:12

[10] Col 4:15

[11] Acts 4:36-37

[12] Acts 18:7; Rom 16:23

[13] Acts 18:2-3; 1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3

[14] Acts 18:8, 17; 1 Cor 1:1, 14

[15] Acts 17:6-9

[16] Rom 16:5

[17] Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1

[18] Acts 28:7-8

[19] Matt 27:60

[20] Mark 13:7; Matt 24: 6

[21] Romans 8:19-21:  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

[22]  See Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow (http://www.ijj100.com/uploadFile/affix/0c813c8c787d4963a69710a530a26c9e.pdf), page 275 ff.

[23] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter 10, Section 4

[24] Loc cit.

[25] John Wesley, “The Use of Money” sermon from 1744 (see http://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/gain_save_give)

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