A couple of months ago, a young man asked me, “Pastor, do you have any brothers or sisters?” And I said, “Yes, I have an older brother and a younger sister.”
“Well,” he said, “which of you would you say was the most successful?”
I didn’t know how to answer that question. Now, I knew – at least I think I knew – what that young man was asking. Which of you – you or your siblings – has been the most successful, either in your career, or in the accumulation of wealth? Quite frankly, I don’t really know. If we’re measuring on a wealth scale – I really don’t know. I mean, all three of us are cheap – I mean frugal. The Milleville kids were taught to be savers. And quite frankly, I never felt that any of the three of us were ever in competition with the others on the wealth and success scale.
All three of us have enjoyed our careers. I’ve enjoyed mine. Both of them. The first one – I started my working life as a computer programmer analyst, Did that for 12 years. I enjoyed it, but was not passionate about it. But the second one – oh man! I love what I do. As your pastor – I love what I do. SO yes – if success can be described as feeling fulfilled in what you do – feeling content in who you are – in having an abundance of loving family and friends in your life – then yeah, I guess I would say I am a success. It all depends on what it is you’re measuring, wouldn’t you agree?
I’m here to tell you today that there are many ways to measure success. And I’m going to suggest that there are essentially two ways. The first way is the way of the world –the yardstick that the world uses to tell us whether or not we’re a success. Money. Wealth. Possessions. Fame.
The other is the yardstick that Jesus uses. One is temporary. One is eternal. One satisfies. One does not. One makes people become self-centered. The other does not. Can you guess which yardstick I’m going to encourage us to use today?
This is why one of my favorite movies is the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But the two ways of measuring success can be illustrated on the one hand by Mr. Potter – who, in terms of how the world measures success was wealthy. He was very wealthy – the wealthiest man in the county – but very unhappy and very lonely – never satisfied. Always wanting more. But he was never a happy man.
George Bailey, on the other hand – was not wealthy in terms of how the world measures success. His car was old and falling apart. His house was old, and drafty, and leaked when it rained. If you know the story – George despairs about the life he is living. But he is rescued by the angel Clarence – who gives him a gift – the gift of seeing what life would have been like if he had never been born. And what he discovers is that what he thought was just an ordinary life was not quite so ordinary after all. He was able to see the impact he made – the good that he had done for others – and how bad things were for his family and friends when he was not there to make a difference.
And at the end of the story – we are left with this line, “No man – no one – is a failure who has friends.” And remember the toast his brother Harry makes at the end? “To my brother George – the richest man in town!” Gets me every time. What George didn’t know – what George didn’t understand until the very end – is that the life he had always wanted – the life he really wanted – was the life he already had. And it was indeed a wonderful life.
Folks – can we talk today about your life? About the life you’ve always wanted? Can we talk about success? And dreams? And goals? And ambitions?
Listen! I’m a big believer in setting goals. Following your dreams. Some people call it, “Following your bliss.” Finding success and having ambitions – these can be a good thing.
But if you’re measuring success – pursuing your ambitions according to what the world says you should do – you know – the accumulation of more and more ….”stuff” – the accumulation of more and more money – simply for the sake of having more and more – if that’s the kind of life you’ve always wanted – let me tell you – it might not bring you the joy and happiness you want.
And that’s why Jesus tells the parable that he is telling us today. Now usually the punch line of Jesus’ parables comes at the end. But this one has it right at the beginning. And here it is: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Did you catch that? Beware of all greed.
Someone once asked oil baron John D. Rockefeller – probably the wealthiest man in the world over a hundred years ago – “Mr. Rockefeller – how much money does a person need before he’s truly happy?” Rockefeller’s response – famously – was, “Always just a little bit more that what he already has.”
If that’s the case – if that’s what the world is telling you – always try to get just a little bit more – then you and I will never be happy – because we will always need a little bit more than what we already have. Anybody else see the irony in that?
Listen! Can we be honest with ourselves? Can I be honest – can I be blunt with you? “Of course, Pastor. Aren’t you always?” I am a man who wrestles with the problem of greed. There I said it. And having said that – I can’t say that this is true for everyone here today – although I suspect that it is – don’t we all wrestle with greed – at least if not now – at one time in our lives or another? If there has ever been a time in your life when you were not satisfied – if you’re not happy now with what you have – if there has ever been a time in your life – or if that time is now – when you’ve wanted just a little bit more than what you have – then be honest with yourself – and with God – and admit that one of the things that you struggle with – is greed. Now please understand. If you struggle with greed, that does not make you a bad person. I just don’t want to see it controlling your life. Or mine either.
So – let me tell you what my remedy to greed is. I have learned that the key to overcoming greed is to practice being generous. And I am not afraid to tell you that I tithe my income at 15%. I give back to the work of the Lord here at Zion, 15% of my income. When I first started here 25 years ago – I was tithing at 10%. And when I mentioned that in a sermon on stewardship my first year here – it got back to me that an elderly woman said to someone, “If he can afford to give 10%, then we’re paying him too much.” Well – she’s no longer with us – so I can tell that story.
Now – please – this is not a sermon about tithing. Please don’t hear in this that Pastor Randy wants us to give more. No. I mean – if you want to you can. But – If you are honest with yourself – and you find yourself wrestling with greed – then I offer the practice of generosity as one way to overcome the problem of greed. Especially if you’re giving nothing – and you are not in a financial hardship situation – then I want to suggest to you today that you take an honest look at yourself – and ask yourself whether or not your life is being governed by greed – or by generosity.
Well, you heard me read to you this parable that Jesus tells. The Lord calls the man – a man whom the world would look up to and call a success – a fool. One of the reasons the Lord calls the man a fool is that he lived his life for himself. He lived his life as though God did not exist. In both Psalm 14 and Psalm 53 you’ll find these words: “The fool – says in his heart – there is no God.”
The man was a fool. He lived as though God did not exist. He allowed greed to rule his life. He allowed his greed to define who he was. He allowed his greed to make him focus in on himself and only himself. He cared nothing for others – and he was not rich towards God. Whether he believed in God or not I do not know. But this much we can say. He lived his life as though God did not exist. And so the Lord calls him a fool.
Our other reading from Colossians has this to say. Listen. “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” And a little further on it warns against being greedy – in fact it says that greed is idolatry. Greed – or perhaps the object of our greed – is an idol.
So if you find that you are accumulating wealth, and wanting more and more stuff – simply for the sake of having more and more – if that’s the kind of life you want to live – I can tell you that that is probably not the thing that is going to bring joy to your life – because you’ll never be satisfied. In fact, the Scriptures call that kind of attitude an idol – a substitute for the true God. And I would not be doing my job if I did not tell you that.
Listen! There is nothing wrong with having money – even having lots and lots of money – as long as having money does not become our god. Monetary wealth can be a good thing when used wisely on behalf of God and others. When it comes to making investments – if you understand stocks, bonds, and mutual funds – if you can tolerate the risks involved – go for it. I do. But let me tell you right here and now that the best investment that we can make is in the Kingdom of God. Earthly wealth is temporary and uncertain. The only future that is certain is God’s future.
In all my years, I have never lacked for a thing. And thereby I have learned to be content. And grateful. I am thankful for my family. I am thankful for the people I love and who love me. I am thankful for all of you. All of you. Even that elderly woman who thought I was being paid too much so many years ago.
As I let go of my greed – I find that I truly am living the life I have always wanted. And I want to tell you today – that the best life you could possibly lead – is to focus on your relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Learn from Him what it means – I know this is counterintuitive – but learn what it means to be rich towards God by being rich towards others. By putting the needs of others ahead of your own. The happiest – the most joy filled people I know – are those who put others first.
I want to thank Floyd Sykes for reminding me of this awhile back. If you want to live the life you’ve always wanted – if what you really want in life is joy – then take that word joy – take the letters in the word joy – j – o – y – and let them stand for Jesus – Others – You! In that order. Jesus first! Others second! You last!
When you and I learn that simple formula – listen – first it will help us to overcome greed – and second – it will show us how to live the life we truly want. The joy-filled life. And whether you are rich or poor in terms of the way the world measures wealth – when we learn what it means to put Jesus first – others second – and ourselves last – you will find what it truly means to be rich. Why – you might even call yourself a success! Again – there are no guarantees – but let me tell you this. I know of no better way to live than this.
Jesus tells us in John 10:10 “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The abundant life that Jesus wants for us? According to Martin Luther it means having, “ food and clothing, home and family,…, money and possessions; a pious spouse and good children, …, godly and faithful rulers, good government; seasonable weather, peace and health, order and honor; true friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” In other words – love, joy, peace and contentment.
Now – doesn’t THAT sound like the life you’ve always wanted? Amen