In 1931, the phrase was coined by James Truslow Adams in his book, The Epic of America. Here’s how Adams describes it: "The American Dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement..It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."
That sounds right. If you were to ask the Founding Fathers what it meant, they would likely have given you a definition similar—a dream where are men are created equal and have certain inalienable rights – life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.
Problem is that somewhere along the line, the dream became less about opportunity and more about acquisition. Instead of a dream of achievement, it became a dream of a large home. Instead of a dream of recognition of who we are, it became a dream of being recognized by what kind of car we drive or the things we own. It’s a dream that has driven many people into a prison of debt, contributed to lost jobs, gotten people evicted from their homes. It’s a dream that, to borrow George Carlin’s line, you have to asleep to still believe.
We’ve seen in recent years how that distorted dream has become has led to a nightmare reality. The recent recession has been a wake-up call for many business and government leaders and a lot of regular people, too. We’re still reeling from it and probably will be for quite awhile.
In times of crisis, however, there always seems to be an opportunity. The upside the recent crash of the distorted American dream is that it gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate our relationship with money and possessions and, perhaps, find a new way forward. That’s what this sermon series is about. Rather than continue the mantra of “more,” the title of this series is “Enough—discovering joy through simplicity and generosity.” We’re going to be looking at an alternative way of thinking about money and possessions and, in doing so, we’re going to be talking about a very different dream for our future—a future that God wants to lead us toward.
How we deal with money and possessions is a big deal to God. In fact, the use of money and possessions is a topic that appears more than 2,000 times in Scripture – more than prayer and sex combined. It’s a big deal to God, so it should be an important topic for us.
Today we begin by looking at one of Jesus’ parables about how dreams become nightmares when we don’t include God in them. The parable of the rich fool, as it has come to be known, is a cautionary tale and one that I think is a good one for us to start with because it diagnoses our current reality while showing us the way forward. I want to invite you to have your Bible open as we study this important parable and its context together.
Jesus tells this parable in response to two brothers who are squabbling over an inheritance (an age old problem!). The one wants Jesus to act as a judge so that he can get what’s coming to him, but Jesus sees the motives behind the request. Whereas the Wall Street movie character Gordon Gecko once said, “Greed is good,” Jesus says that we should be on guard against greed for, unlike the American Dream has come to represent, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
You heard the parable read. Let’s look at some of its implications for us.
One of the things you might notice when you read this parable is that it’s centered on the man’s relationship with his stuff. Until God speaks to him at the end, there is nothing in the story but the man and his possessions. He defines himself by his stuff, and more is better. His success is bound up in what he has accumulated. It seems to be all that he thinks about.
Our culture is similarly preoccupied with stuff. We are bombarded with advertising that tells us that we don’t yet have everything we need. We need more, we need better, we need upgraded. And, of course, if we’re going to acquire more, we’re going to need bigger “barns” to store it in. Interestingly, between 1950 and 2000, the average home size doubled. In 1970, for example, the average home size was 1400 square feet, while in 2004 it was 2330 square feet according to the Home Builders Association. Even then, our homes don’t seem to be big enough. Americans now occupy 1.875 billion square feet of space outside the home in self-storage units, which is 75% increase in space since 1995.
Meanwhile, while our homes have gotten larger, our families have gotten smaller. In 1950, the average number of people living in a household was 3.37. Today it’s 2.57.
It’s this preoccupation with the bigger and better that contributed to the recent economic crisis. Banks lent money to people to buy the larger houses they couldn’t afford. Credit cards enable people to buy things they want but can’t afford, charging huge interest rates in the process. When people can’t pay back their loans, the banks crash, markets crash, businesses can’t sustain themselves, jobs are lost—you know how this works. When our only dream is about obtaining more at any cost, even a cost we can’t afford, we set ourselves up for a nightmare.
Notice, also, that the man’s focus is on his own security through self-sufficiency. What should I do, I will do this, I will build bigger barns, I will store MY grain and MY goods, I will relax, eat, drink, and be merry. This is a man who really believes that he doesn’t need anyone else. He can provide for himself and he thinks his provisions will take care of him for many years. He doesn’t need family or friends, nor does he need a community of people around him.
Greed does this to us—it narrows our focus inward.. Instead of thinking, “I have a lot of extra, I wonder who I could help?”, the man is only concerned about his own leisure, pleasure, and security. Greed trumps generosity. The greatest good the man can imagine is a life of maximizing his own pleasure. He believes his future to be secure, and too bad for others who didn’t get theirs. He’s rich…that’s all that matters.
What the man fails to realize is that the “harvest” he enjoys doesn’t come from his own efforts. Only God makes the crops grow! The man is so focused on his own greed that he can’t see that God is the one who blessed him in the first place.
We might call this a “practical atheism.” The rich fool might protest that he believes in God, but he acts like there is no God, no recognition that God might have some claim on his life and that God is the one who provided the abundance to him for God’s own purposes. God calls him a fool, echoing Psalm 14:1 – “A fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” When we believe in our deepest hearts that there really is no God—or at least no God that has claim on all the aspects of our lives, including our wallets—we’re prone to living only for ourselves.
Jesus’ point here is that it is God who brings the harvest and that this fool has completely ignored that fact. The “harvest” is always a symbol of God’s kingdom, God’s reign and rule, God’s abundant grace given for all of God’s people. Notice back in chapter ten of Luke that when Jesus sends out the seventy he tells them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.” Harvest meant that God was doing something great for and through God’s people.
The image of harvest as God’s provision and promise is based in the Old Testament. There, the harvest is always God’s provision at God’s initiative, thus God commanded the Israelites to give a tenth of it back as a tithe. God’s people were to manage the harvest thankfully and humbly, sharing it with those who were in need. A bumper crop was good news for everyone, not just the farmer whose fields were ripe.
It’s interesting that the recent financial crisis happened in a country where, according to a poll by the Pew Forum, 92% of Americans believe in God or a higher power. And yet, it was in this country of supposed God-fearers that self-focused greed got the ball rolling on a worldwide economic meltdown. People love to claim that we are a “Christian nation,” but the reality is that while we might cognitively believe in God, our financial practices don’t reflect that belief. We consume more and more of the world’s resources and give less and less of our abundance to people and issues that matter to God. Instead of the biblical standard of tithing, 10% of income, the percentage of income that people in US churches give is 2.56% on average.
We’re striving to become richer, but do we believe first that we should be rich toward God? Do we believe that God has claim over all of money and our possessions? Do we believe that they belong to him in the first place?
The parable ends with a powerful reality check. The man who had it all was about to find out that “He who dies with the most toys, wins” is a great lie. “This very night your life is being demanded of you,” says God to the fat, dumb, and happy fool. “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
When I was a kid, I used to play Monopoly with my cousins on rainy days. My cousins were all bigger than me, and it was there at my grandma’s house that I learned about capitalism, extortion, bank robberies, bribes, etc. But I also learned this—no matter who wins, no matter who controls the board, no matter who has all the money and hotels and properties, when the game is over, everything goes back in the box. Everything gets put away, slid under the bed until, sometime later, someone else will pull out that box and play with everything that was once your stuff. The point of the parable? When we go in the box, we can’t take it with us, though some will try.
It’s like the rich lawyer who was going to prove that he could take it with him, so he told his wife to fill two pillow cases with cash and put them in the attic just above the ceiling of their bedroom.He figured that when his soul was on the way to heaven, he could grab the bags on his way up. After he died, his wife was clearing out some of his things when she came upon the bags there in the attic. “Dang that old fool”, she said, “I knew he should have me put those bags down in the basement.”
We’re dreaming if we think we can take it with us!
Tom Sine, Christian writer and futurist, once said that what most American Christians seem to want is “the American Dream with a little Jesus overlay.” If the recent crisis has taught us anything, it’s that we need a different dream of who we are and who we are becoming. We need a dream that goes farther than even the best expression of the American Dream. We need to dream God’s dream—a dream called the Kingdom of God.
Notice how Jesus follows up this parable by talking about anxiety. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or your body, what you will wear.” Anxiety about the future causes us to be like the rich fool and hoard things for ourselves. It causes people to hunker down in large houses and gated communities like fortresses. Anxiety gets medicated in a lot of ways, not the least of which is more consumption—be it food, or alcohol, or shopping for more stuff. Anxiety causes us to live a life filled with “if onlys”—if only I had that thing, if only I had that job, if only I could afford that, if only I could have what my neighbor has. It’s that “if only” thinking that drives people to the point of despair because there’s never enough for them. I’ve done funerals for people who have committed suicide because of depression heightened by the fact that they had it all and found that it still wasn’t enough. Anxiety leads to nightmares of worry, uncertainty, and fear. Anxiety is what makes people nervous when we talk about money in church!
Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink…it’s the nations of the world that strive for these things. God already knows what you need. It’s God who makes the lilies beautiful even if they’re temporary, it’s God who keeps the life of every sparrow, it’s God who knows you so well that even the hairs on your head are numbered. It’s God who provides the harvest. It’s God who provides you with everything. So quit dreaming about stuff and instead get a new dream.
“Strive for God’s Kingdom,” says Jesus, “and these things will be given to you as well.”
While our present lives are temporary, God’s Kingdom is eternal. We trust in the hope of resurrection, that we will live with God in his Kingdom forever. The things, the possessions that seem to matter so much now will not matter then, therefore, we are to be living in the present with that future in mind. We are to invest our treasure, God’s treasure in that dream of a future. Look at verse 32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. (So) sell your possessions, hold them loosely, and be generous. Make purses that don’t wear out—invest your life in this kingdom, invest in the things and the people that matter to God. No one can take that away from you. For where you put your treasure, your heart will follow.”
Jesus doesn’t give us a dream of more, but a dream of enough. God is the one who has more, and when we trust God for our welfare and identity more than a pile of stuff we’ll begin to see the kingdom at work.
If we dream God’s Kingdom dream—a dream of justice and peace, a dream of freedom from anxiety, a dream of God’s reign and rule on the earth and in our lives—it will radically alter our priorities. We’ll know longer see our money and possessions as ours, but as belonging to God. We will recognize that we are not really owners but stewards, caretakers of what God has entrusted us with. If we dream that dream we’ll not be thinking so much about what we acquire as we will about what we can give away. If we dream that dream, we’ll begin to see that we are not alone but part of a community. We’ll begin dreaming about how God will use our lives for eternal purposes. It’s a dream of freedom!
How do we adopt that dream for our lives? We’ll be talking about that over the next several weeks, and we’ll talk about some ways you can participate in God’s dream for our church as we strive to be people of the Kingdom in this community.