An ad promoting a trip to Glacier National Park

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on March 4, 2012.

Mark 8:31-38; Luke 12:13-21

I’ve attended several Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in my life as a guest.  And I’m always impressed with the unvarnished honesty displayed in the meetings. Sometimes I think we in the church could learn a lot from our friends in AA.

In fact, I want to take a page out of their playbook in my sermon this morning.  So here goes:  “Hi, my name is David.  And I am an addict to things like books and clothes and high definition TVs.  I struggle mightily with the power that stuff has over me.  Dealing with it is a lifelong battle.” 

I may be a pastor.  But I’m also an American male who is breathes the same intoxicating air of American consumerism you do.  When I walked into the Borders’ bookstore last year during their liquidation sale, I could feel the adrenalin pumping through my veins. I like the feel of a new book in my hands and a new suit on my body.  Just recently my car lease ran out and I found a good deal on a new car.  And I liked breathing in that “new car fragrance”…even if it only lasts a few days!

It gets even worse.  Several years ago I learned about a tool for self-assessment, similar to the Myers-Briggs inventory called the “Enneagram”.  The Enneagram has been around for centuries, and it describes the good, the bad, and the ugly tendencies of nine different types of personalities.  Imagine my embarrassment when I learned that my type of personality was often guilty of greed, and prone to hoard things, experiences, and even privacy. 

I was confident this was Enneagram type was way off base where I was concerned.  But the more I sat with this possibility, the more I could see the truth of it.  Walk into my office and you’ll see books bulging out of bookshelves.  And the bag I have with me this morning contains stuff that’s been hanging or shelved in my clothes closet for months if not years, even though I don’t wear it!   (I plan to give this stuff in to Goodwill tomorrow, God-willing!)

Apparently, I am not alone in my addiction to things.  Did you know that the amount of space occupied by self-storage containers in America is the equivalent of more than three times the land mass of Manhattan Island!  Yes, we Americans love our things.  We earn as much as we can, buy as much as we can, and hold on to it as long as we can—even when we don’t need it. 

Here’s another, very embarrassing piece of evidence for just how addicted Christians are to money and things.  According to the book, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give More Money written by Christian Smith and Michael Emerson, at least in of five American Christians gives nothing to church, parachurch, or nonreligious charities. 

The remaining 80% of us give on average about 3% of our pre-tax income as annual donations to all religious and charitable causes.   In case you are wondering, non-religious Americans average giving less than 1% of their income to charitable causes. 

What’s interesting to me is that all the fancy-dancy stewardship campaigns that churches have tried over the years have hardly made a dent in our “thing” addiction.  When adjusted for inflation, our giving has actually decreased as our per capita income has increased.  Needless to say, churches have suffered financially as a consequence.  In fact, I’ve never seen as much stress over money in most churches as I have during our recession of the last three years. 

But honestly, the cost of our addiction behavior to churches pales in comparison to hidden other costs involved.  Because our obsession with things has put us with odds at our Lord and our own souls!   

Jesus is quite clear about the dark side of greed in our scripture readings for today.  In Mark 8, Jesus acknowledges he is the Messiah, and then proceeds to tell his disciples truths they don’t want to hear.  When Jesus says being the Messiah means he will undergo great suffering, and rejected by religious leaders, and be killed, and will rise again, Peter pulls Jesus aside and begins to chastise him like he was an errant schoolboy. Only a moment ago Jesus was praising Peter for recognizing him as the Messiah.  Now Jesus reams Peter out, even comparing him to Satan.  Why?  “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  Friends, that’s just another way of saying—“Peter, your problem is you are so addicted to the things of this world you can’t see what God has in mind for me or you.” 

Then just to drive the point home Jesus defines the essence of what it means to follow him.  Jesus’ disciples must deny their false selves and choose to live out of their truest selves, selves utterly committed to God.  True disciples know better than to try to secure their own lives—instead they find their security in God.  “For,” Jesus says, “what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life (also translated as “souls”)?”    

If by making a killing through the stock exchange we somehow exchange our souls for things, we will have made a very bad deal, a most unprofitable exchange. 

Just in case we missed it the first time, Jesus makes the same point through a different story.  Jesus is among the crowds teaching one day when a man interrupts him and asks him to intervene in a family dispute over inheritance. 

Imagine that!  A family fighting over their inheritance!  Someone has said you don’t really know people until you’ve had to divide an inheritance with them. 

Dividing a family inheritance is a ready-made moment for our addiction to things to rear its ugly head.    Jesus senses that this seemingly innocent request for his intervention is not driven so much by a desire for fairness as unbridled greed.  So he refuses to take the man’s bait, and instead uses his request as another teachable moment about our addiction to things.  “Take care!” Jesus says.  “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.”

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’  Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’  But 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?’  So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” 

So why does God call this man a fool?  Because he produced a bumper crop?  No, there’s nothing wrong with good production.  Because he wants to relax in his retirement? Not necessarily.

The problem is the man has set his mind so completely on human things that he ignores God and loses his soul.  Notice as the man discusses what he should do with his surplus he talks only to himself.  He may be a faithful Jew who attends the synagogue regularly.  But when it comes to dealing with his possessions, God is left out of the conversation.  Notice the rich man uses the pronoun “my” five times in the story.  Greed has so blinded this man to God and others that he can only think of himself.  And his blindness not only costs him all his worldly goods. 

            It costs him his soul.

            I’m reminded of the lyrics of a song written by Justin Tubb:

            Lost in the trap of selfish greed,

            I ignore my friends who are in need.

            I’m building my kingdom brick by brick,

            But all my treasures

            Are making me sick.

Today is the kickoff of our 2012 stewardship emphasis, “I Commit….”   I want to commend Ray Owen and Mike Sperry for putting this emphasis together.  Most of us who have grown up in church automatically turn our thoughts to money and church budgets when we hear the word, “stewardship”, and for good reason.  For many years our “stewardship campaigns” were thinly disguised efforts to raise enough money to fund our annual budgets.  We didn’t call them fund-raising campaigns, but that’s what they were.

That’s not the case with our “I Commit…” emphasis, not even close.  For one thing our 2012 budget is already in place.  Yes, on Commitment Sunday (March 25) you will have an opportunity to commit resources to help us accomplish our goal.  But that’s not the ultimate point of this effort.

Here’s what I appreciate about our “I Commit…” approach.  It understands the fact that far greater stakes are involved than in our stewardship funding our church budget.  What’s at stake is nothing less than the souls of our individual members, and the corporate soul of our church. 

See, if I remain stuck in my addiction to things and hoard my time and talents for myself, my soul pays the price.  I may be successful on the outside, but I’m dying on the inside.  And here’s the irony —rarely do the people who have the most ever feel like they have enough.  Once greed takes hold, we’re like people dying of thirst while marooned at sea, thinking they can survive by drinking sea water.  Of course the sea water never satisfies their thirst.  Instead, it ultimately kills them …just as greed gradually kills our relationships with God and others and deadens our souls in the process.

The good news of the gospel is that there is an antidote to our addition to things, a cure for our greed-sick souls.  That antidote is the spiritual discipline of generous giving.  What Jesus knows is that nothing in this world undercuts our addiction to things like generous giving. It turns out being rich toward God is very good medicine for our souls. 

Today I ask you to commit to generous giving not just so you can help us fund our budget but so you can give God the opportunity to heal and grow your soul.  If you currently give nothing to the Lord’s work through our church, then I challenge you to give something—even if it’s just 1 percent of your income.  If you give the national average of 3%, I challenge you to give 5.  If you give 5 I challenge you to give 10, or a tithe.  Wherever you stand on the giving scale, expand your giving and you will expand your soul.

Don’t take my word for it.  Try it.  And you will see. 

By the way, this same principle works on a corporate level, too.  When we gave so generously last Christmas to an unplanned offering for a school back pack food program, I could feel the corporate soul of our church expand.  That’s why I wasn’t totally surprised we finished our year financially in the black.  When our giving expands, our souls expand.  And vice-versa.

And if that’s not a profitable exchange, I don’t know what is!

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