Perilous Prudence

greedy fool

Luke 12:13-21 NRSV

In his book entitled, Contending for the Faith: The Church’s Engagement with Culture, Ralph Wood, criticized so-called “seeker-sensitive” or “user-friendly” churches that started springing up all over at the turn of this century. These are churches that try to attract people in today’s culture by adapting to, or even mimicking the culture. The goal is to have people walk into these churches and feel as comfortable as they do walking into a shopping mall, to create an atmosphere that doesn’t feel like church.  The primary goal is to make worshippers feel at home, at ease, as comfortable as they can be.

Wood believes this is the opposite of how we should feel when we come to worship. He contends that there should be a necessary friction between the ways of the church and the ways of the world.

Church historian Robert Wilken agrees.  He says that when a person comes into a Christian church for the first time, he or she should feel “out of place.” Every Sunday morning, at least for one hour, we all ought to be a little uncomfortable.

Why?

Because the way of Jesus is usually not our way.

The truth is that when we read the gospels we discover that Jesus, more often than not, looks at things very differently than we look at things. To our dismay, we open our Bibles on Sunday mornings to learn that Jesus is not a white, conservative, English-speaking, American capitalist who values the things we Americans all hold so dear to our hearts: prudence, productivity, prosperity, not even freedom.

We open our Bibles and hear Jesus say things like, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his or her soul.”

This is disconcerting as most of us honor those who “gain the whole world,” or at least a big slice of it.  We honor these people every year in our celebrity magazines with our yearly lists “the most successful” and “the most famous.”

Yet, Jesus calls these successful people, these Forbes 500-type-people, these “winners” in the game of life, well, he calls them “losers.”

Which brings us this morning to the little story of Jesus and the rich farmer.

Here is a prudent, productive, and prosperous man whom we might call a tremendous success.  He is not only a success at farming, but he is also a wise manager of his success. He very astutely builds great, secure barns to hold his grand harvest. We might give him the “Farmer of the Year” award.

And because we don’t like to acknowledge that Jesus’ ways are not our ways, we would like to think that Jesus might praise the man. We would like to read words form Jesus admiring the man for being so capable, resourceful, and prudent.

However, Jesus says to the man, “You fool!”

Nothing “seeker sensitive” or “user-friendly” about that!

That was going to be the title of this sermon this week: “You Greedy Fool!”  But after sleeping on it Monday night, I thought to myself, “I can’t put that in the newsletter. That’s just ugly. That’s going to surely offend someone!  Let me see if I can call this sermon something else, something a little nicer—I got it, “Perilous Prudence.”  There, that sounds better.

But that’s not what Jesus said to this businessman, this capitalist that we might want to praise and even imitate.  He didn’t say, “You know, I like what you did with these barns. I am proud of your ingenuity.  But just make sure you don’t place your entire sense of security in those barns. Your prudence is apt to be a perilous thing.”

No, he didn’t say anything of the sort. In essence, Jesus says to this successful business owener: “You greedy fool.”

Twenty years ago, I attended a Christian ethics meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. During one session of the conference, we had a discussion on marriage equality.  A number of speakers, most of them pastors, defended their opposition to same-sex marriage on the basis of protecting the American family.  “Marriage equality,” they said, “was a grave threat to the American family.” A chorus of “Amens” resounded around the room.

I will never forget an older pastor (had to be in his 90’s), who stood up and said: “I was a pastor for over sixty years, and you know something, I’ve never had a family in any of my congregations destroyed by a gay couple. But I have seen dozens of marriages ruined, and numerous families devastated by nothing more than simple greed—working too many hours, overspending, buying too much, getting too deep in debt.  If we want to save the American family, must must something about our greed.”

You could hear a pin drop.

The farmer was a fool, because as Jesus implies, he thought he could secure his life with stuff.  Perhaps his thinking was that if he just got stuff piled high enough, deep enough, it would somehow be a barrier of protection against any misfortune that might come his way.  The more he accumulated, the more safe and secure he would be from all alarms.

The Apostle Paul calls such thinking in Romans, “serving the creature rather than the creator.”  In Ephesians, he calls it “idolatry.”  And for such thinking (thinking we might call prudent, productive, prosperous), Jesus calls the man a “fool.”

Preacher and author, James Howell, once preached this text in the Chapel of Duke University. In the sermon he said, “This university has all sorts of awards that honor successful alumni who have had success in business, medicine, law, and even the ministry. These are people who have taken what they have learned here and worked that into a successful life. But what I want to see is this university establish an award, not for the person who has achieved success because of his or her Duke education, but for the person who has suffered the most, lost the most, because of what he or she learned here.”

Sounds like a rather foolish suggestion, doesn’t it?

But what do you think Jesus would have called his suggestion?

No, the ways of Jesus are certainly not our ways.

Selfishness, greed and materialism are perhaps the greatest sins of our culture. And according the Bible, greed is not only the biggest danger we face as individuals, it the biggest hindrance to the advancement of the Kingdom of God on this earth.  In fact, one could say that the way most Americans live, the accumulation of goods beyond one’s needs, is a lifestyle in direct contradiction to the word of God. It is a clear violation of the law of Moses, and it is condemned by the prophets.  And Jesus has more to say about this sin than any other sin.

But here we are—embracing and living the American dream.  The reality is that most of us have much more than we need.  And we still want more.  It is our nature as Americans.  We are capitalists.  We are consumers.  The bad news is that Jesus calls us fools.

How did I start this sermon?

If you came here to feel comfortable, at ease, at home, you’ve come to the wrong place. For his ways are not our ways.

His way loves peace. Our way loves guns.

His way welcomes the foreigner. Our way fears them.

His way liberates the oppressed. Our way is apathy.

His way speaks truth to power. Our way is silence.

Our way saves, accumulates, and conserves. His way gives it all away.

Our way disparages the poor. His way blesses them.

Our way honors those who achieve great wealth. His way sends them away empty.

Our way holds grudges and judges. His way forgives and accepts.

Our way values freedom, self-sufficiency and independence above just about anything. His way values total dependence on God over everything.

Our way is one of self-preservation. His way is one that picks up and carries a cross.

But, here’s the irony of the gospel.  The bad news that the ways of Jesus are not our ways is actually very good news.  Let me explain with a story.

An old, holy man once saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the water of the Nile River.  Knowing that the scorpion would surely drown, the old man leaned out over the water, hanging onto some roots, and tried to rescue the scorpion.  As soon as he touched it, the scorpion stung him. Instinctively he withdrew his hand. A few seconds later, having regained his balance, he stretched himself out again.  This time the scorpion stung him so badly that his hand became swollen and bloody. The old man’s face contorted with pain.

Just then, a passerby saw the man stretched out over the river struggling with the scorpion.  He said: “What are you doing? Only a fool would risk his life for the sake of an ugly, evil creature!  Don’t you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful scorpion?”

The old man turned to the stranger and said calmly, “My friend, just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, that does not change my nature to save.”

In the light of our selfishness, greed and pride, thank God, that Jesus’ ways, are not our ways.

Let us pray.

Lord, Jesus. Thank you that it is in your nature to save us. Come and save us.  Come and turn us from our foolish ways and foolhardy lives and draw us into your wisdom. Help us to see all our accumulations as your gracious gifts, given, not to be hoarded, but to be shared with others. Enable us to see our lives as dependent upon you for their significance and sustenance.  Lord Jesus, make us wise.  Amen.

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