Generosity from Abundance


This sermon was preached on September 24, 2016.

Luke 16:19-31

Wealth is not a sin.

Can I just say this at the outset?  I mean, we’ve just heard a parable about a very rich man and a very poor man, polar opposites on the socioeconomic spectrum.

One feasts sumptuously every day; the other sits outside the gates and waits in hopes of a few scraps to stave off his pangs for a few minutes.  One walks around his estate in fine linen, a different outfit for every day of the week, enjoying what he has been able to build up for himself; the other is clothed in the same old rags he’s worn since who knows when, and also in wounds that stray dogs come and lick—though he probably doesn’t mind so much because, hey, at least here’s a modicum of companionship.  One lives in a gated community; the other is homeless.

Then the tables turn.  Both men die.  One—the poor man, Lazarus—finds himself at Abraham’s side, enjoying all the blissfulness that that brings.  The other—the unnamed rich man—finds himself in torment—in Hades, the Greek understanding of the underworld, far from the blessed Jewish understanding of eternity he surely thought would be his.

In the afterlife, fixed between them is a great chasm; in real life, fixed between them was just as great a socioeconomic chasm.  And we hearers of this parable are left with the distinct impression that, surely, wealth must be a bad thing.

For this rich man hadn’t done anything wrong; not that we can tell from the parable anyway!  He didn’t persecute Lazarus in any way: we don’t hear about him marching down to City Hall and lobbying for a ban on panhandling at his gates.

In fact, he might even have been doing good.  The text tells us that Lazarus lay at his gates because he longed for the scraps that fell from his table: Lazarus was probably receiving scraps regularly, which is why he was there in the first place.  It’s possible, then, that the rich man was even delivering food scraps to Lazarus, that after every meal he’d pull aside one of his slaves and say, “Hey, Agricolus, I want you to wheel these leftovers down to the poor man who sits outside my gates, you know, that guy with the dogs.”

But in the afterlife the tables are turned.  And we’re left with the question, “Is Jesus suggesting that wealth is inherently evil?”

But here’s the thing. From the very beginning, abundance is seen as a blessing.  And what is wealth, but abundance?

Consider creation.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The heavens shone with the sun and moon and vast abundance of stars, far too numerous to count.  And the Bible says it was good.

When God created the fauna and flora, God didn’t just create a few plants, just the bare necessities to give us a healthy diet—tomatoes and avocadoes and apples and onions, and (of course) grapes for wine and grain for bread; but a vast array, so vast that even in our day we have not yet catalogued them all.  God created an abundance of fauna and flora, and it was good.

More than once the creation account speaks of the oceans filled with “swarms of living creatures.”  And it was good.

God did the same with the land and sky—an abundance of animals and birds—insects, mammals, reptiles—and it was good.

And God said to them all, “Be fruitful.  Multiply.”  Abundance!  Abundance!  Abundance!

And, finally, after all this abundant outpouring of creative energy and generosity, after creating Adam and Eve as stewards to manage faithfully all this abundance, what does God do but take a day off?

It’s as if God says, “Whew!  I’ve poured myself out over and above what I needed to—exceedingly abundantly!  I need a rest!”

And at last—the scriptures say—all this abundance was very good.

Is it any different with God’s people Israel?  All those people—scholars estimate it was more than a million!—were wandering in the wilderness with Moses.  And, logically enough, they were hungry.  So what does God do but pour out an abundance of manna from heaven for a million people?

The life of Jesus demonstrates this theme too.  Do you remember his first miracle?  He turned water into wine—about a hundred fifty gallons of it!—and probably the best vintage in the history of the world!

And do you remember the woman who poured out the expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet—when Judas asked, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  Three hundred denarii!  That’s the modern-day American-dollar equivalent of something like $50,000.  Poured out on Jesus’ feet!  Talk about abundance!

Throughout the scriptures, abundance is connected to blessing.

So, to return to my opening statement: Wealth is not a sin.

So what’s the problem? Why does Jesus make such a negative example out of the rich man in this parable?

Just this: Somewhere along the line, someone decided to extract generosity from abundance.  And whenever you extract one thing from another, like squeezing the juice from an orange, you’re left with a fairly mangled original product.

God created an abundance; and it was good.  God blessed Abraham with an abundance; and it was good.  God gave to Moses and the Israelites an abundance of manna; and it was good.  Jesus turned an abundant amount of water into wine; and it was very good.

But, we read, sometimes abundance becomes too much for us.  What then?  Will we give it away?  Can we give it away?  Or do we simply (selfishly) hold on to it?

Abraham and Lot parted ways because their abundance had become too great: the resources at hand could not sustain both of them.

Later, in the time of Joseph, Pharaoh hoarded grain and stored it away so that when a drought came upon the land he would sell it for great profit to those who most needed it.

Great profit at the expense of the needy!

This is the fundamental principle of economics: supply and demand.

And, by the way, this is in fact how the people of Israel became slaves: from Pharaoh capitalizing on this fundamental economic principle; or, to say it another way, from an abundance devoid of generosity.

When I was a boy one of my favorite pranks to play on my friends involved a stick of gum.  I’d take one stick out of a pack of 25 or whatever it was.  Then, very carefully, I’d unwrap the wrapper and foil and pop the stick of gum into my mouth.  Next, while chewing, I’d very carefully put the foil and wrapper back together and slip it back into the pack.  Finally, still chewing, I’d make sure to be around when the unsuspecting victim grabbed that false stick of gum—and I’d laugh and giggle and gloat and otherwise congratulate myself on my awesome display of cleverness.

I tell you about this prank to illustrate abundance devoid of generosity: it’s no more than a disguised gift, an empty piece of trash.

Abundance devoid of generosity amasses wealth only for itself.  Abundance devoid of generosity hoards.  Abundance devoid of generosity turns a blind eye to others, especially those in need, those who cannot benefit me.  Abundance devoid of generosity is the rich man of this parable.

My thinking is that we are much more like him than Lazarus.

Sure, we don’t all live in gated communities; or wear fine linen clothing, purple or any other color; or feast sumptuously every day—though, I dare say, most of us in this room are able to eat as much food as we want.

But we do hoard.  We do store up things for ourselves, probably motivated by a fear of scarcity, like Pharaoh.  We do turn a blind eye to the poor people sitting, begging at our very gates, even when we tell ourselves we’re doing good to offer them our leftovers.  For this is the American way.

From the abundance God has given us, we have extracted generosity.  We enjoy a tall, cold glass of orange juice by and for ourselves leaving only a heap of fibrous rinds to those in need.  Or we take out that stick of gum and enjoy it alone while we carefully fold up the wrapper and give only trash to someone else, giggling under our breath at our own cleverness.  In our abundance, we are generous actually only to ourselves.

Which leaves us with a challenge: How do we recover the generosity we have extracted from our abundance?

Well, first, why not share the orange juice we’ve already extracted?  I mean, we can’t put the juice back into the orange now that it’s been separated.  But we can share from the abundant store already in our possession.

There’s a term for this, by the way; a term we throw out every year during the pledging season: faithful stewardship.

But there’s also a second way to recover the generosity missing from our abundance—and this is a more important way: Why not share the whole orange in the first place?  Why not share what God has given us as is, without fashioning it into the orange juice we think we want?

And here, yes, I’m talking about church.  We are in God’s house.  God has given us an abundance.  As a church, shouldn’t we then lavish this abundance on the world around us, on the community of Yuma?

So: why don’t we hire a musician, and pay him what he’s worth, to build our music program—one of the most important forms of outreach for any church in any place at any time?

Or, why don’t we do something with our baptismal font?  We’re a people oriented around our baptismal vows, after all.  Why then do we have a little, roll-away baptismal font tucked away in the corner over there in front of the lectern?  Instead, let’s hire a local artist to sculpt an original font and place it smack dab in the middle of the narthex, permanently.  That way, any time a baptized person passes it by, every time she enters this sanctuary, she is reminded visibly, physically, and concretely of her vows.

These are just a couple ideas.  Of course, to realize them would take resources—an abundance of resources.  But isn’t this where faith comes in?

Listen.  Vestry, listen.  I get it.  We, as a corporation, have a budget.  And, for good reason, we plan and try to make our budget every year.

But we, as a church, have a much nobler and greater purpose than simply to make our budget.  As a church, we should be transforming lives in Jesus Christ.  And sometimes this purpose of transformation requires us to step out in faith, to be a little risky, to trust in God’s abundance even when we can’t see where it will come from in the budget.

Otherwise, how will we ever share God’s abundance with the world around us?


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