We continue our five week series this stewardship season on the fruit of the Spirit. By now you’ve figured out this Spirit-filled life comes in stark contrast to the way the world tends to work. It is in the working for peace in a brutal and violent world. It is in taking the time for kindness in a world full of bullies. It is seeking joy in a world that leaps to either criticism or a bland and superficial optimism. In a world that wants everything, as we want it, NOW, it is having the courage to listen and be patient with one another, to be patient and wait for God. Today’s fruit is generosity. Listen…
It always begins with something else. Jesus has been preaching and teaching his way through the crowds when a man shouts: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." I paid for dad’s medical care, I was always around to help, no one else did their part. I am entitled to my share, Jesus. The money was the catalyst, and we have all seen families splinter over the care of parents, over awkward communication and hurt feelings, over who will get the silver or the savings account or, more importantly, the gratitude and respect. We have seen marriages fall apart as the bills and the pressure mounts. A recent study by a professor at Utah State University found that couples who reported disagreeing about finances once a week were over 30 percent more likely to get divorced than couples who reported disagreeing about finances a few times a month.
But Jesus knew that it starts with the money, but quickly moves deeper. After refusing to make a specific judgment on the case, he turns: "Take care!" he says to us. "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." The first step is to get below the money to poke at our desire for it, our desires for the redone kitchen or the neighbor’s fantastic yard equipment. Be on guard for ALL kinds of greed, for your life is not about those things. And he tells a story about a man who had done well. He had worked the land, hard, and the rain and the wind and the soil so conspired that the land produced abundantly. And he ran out of storage. Because he could not rent a storage unit, or pay someone with a warehouse to keep his crops for him, he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones.
At first glance it seems like a thoroughly practical idea. Especially if it’s an older barn, it might even be cheaper to tear it all down and build something new, maybe pre-built and assembled on site. But it is precisely here when the problem comes. With this change of building comes a change of attitude that is dangerous. It’s not just about storage anymore, for the barns become symbols of this man’s achievement, of the things that HE feels like HE has earned, that are HIS to possess. His words soon confirm, as he speaks to himself in the third person: "Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry." You have earned it, my friend. What a good job you have done. Relax. Then Jesus, maybe turning back towards the brother, continues. 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?’ And we feel the punch, right in our gut. "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich towards God."
And so we move below the money and the things, below the greed, we are challenged to wonder who all of these things are for. The problem for the man in the text is not that he had worked hard, not even that he had made some money, but that when he had a chance to share, he chose to keep and gather more and more unto himself. That he did not encounter the world with openness and faith, but had held things back and was not generous, rich towards God and God’s world. These are surely anxious, anxious times, in the markets, with our jobs, throughout our political system. And so much of our society is focused towards the building of those barns, but even more than that, that we can collect enough that we can create for ourselves the illusion – and it is an illusion – of security, financial or otherwise, so that we can do what we need to do, take care of the people that depend upon us, live out our days in relative peace. But one thing Jesus is trying to do in this text is challenge the brother, and us, to look beneath these illusions we create for ourselves, with our stuff, our money, our education, the achievements, and know that our identity is not composed of these things. We are not made up of these things.
It is this anxious desire for security that keeps us from being generous. We see the caller ID from our school’s annual fund, and let it go to voicemail. We see someone coming who we know is going to ask us for something, and we turn away. Even when it is something that seems like a good idea, our default – I know mine is, and I am not proud of it – is likely to be to rationalize why I shouldn’t give to something, than to meet new opportunities with openness. The bills are too much. Too many things are unknown. Too busy, too full, don’t have time to consider helping out – I think we might hoard our time as much as our money – at MP2 or to serve a shelter meal, to be on a committee or help with an event. We start with closed fists, and force people to pry them open.
That is why I think we need to realize two things. One is that we don’t come to all of this in a vacuum. We are where we are because people have been generous to us, to get you where you are, to get this church where it is today. So many – here and who have moved away, or saints who have died – built this place. Do you know how amazing it is we don’t have a mortgage, freeing us to give generously to the community, to take good care of this amazing physical plant, to build a remarkable staff team who equip us all for so much good ministry? We receive so much because of those who have gone before. I want all of us to think and pray about how we might be generous, so we might glorify God by generous living. To be a bit more concrete, if each pledging unit gave $200 more this year, we would be able to reach some remarkable goals. I know many of you can do more than that, and many of you will. But do at least that, start there, open your hands, set your default mode in favor of generosity, and see what happens.
Because the most important point is that we serve a generous God. Our God offers us, each day, grace upon grace, far more than we can ever deserve or imagine. Our money, our greed, is certainly a problem, but it’s merely a symptom of a larger spiritual problem. We work and plan and stress and hoard because, deep down, we don’t trust that God will really provide enough for each day. But this text reminds us, as scripture does in so many places, to NOT BE AFRAID. It is God’s good pleasure to grant us the kingdom. And God can be trusted with God’s own promises, with everything, with every part of our lives. And because of God’s grace we live with an openness of spirit ourselves, as we worship, as we listen and study and pray, as we go out and serve, as we offer our time and our money – which aren’t really ours – to the church and the God and God’s glorious world. Make purses for yourselves of these things, of joy and service and caring for each other, those are purses that do NOT wear our. It is in those things, of family and church, of meaningful work of seeking grace and understanding, where we KNOW where our treasure is.
Last month the deacons coordinated a collection of non-perishable food for a backpack program at Lakewood Elementary. This food went into backpacks for kids on free and reduced-price lunch to take home over the weekend, where too often their cupboards are bare. And you, as usual, responded. I had a wonderful email at the end of last week from Nancy, who coordinates volunteers at the school. She was overflowing with gratitude and, through our gifts of money and food, have been able to add families to the program that they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, actual kids in actual families fed because of what you brought. She wanted to say thank you. Then she went on: "You have an amazing church with caring, kind members who truly GIVE in the most munificent meaning of the word. Bless you all. Your hands reaching out are felt all over Durham….all that you do is extraordinary!" But she didn’t stop there. She saw online that in October we are gathering household supplies – laundry detergent, paper towels, soap, things you use when you are settling into new housing. And so she went shopping. This woman, inspired by your generosity, came by last Thursday, walked right in the office and hugged Kara and Tracy Fletcher, thanked us again, and left a couple of bags in the bins by the reception desk. Paper towels, tissues, cleaning supplies. Things real people who haven’t had a solid place to live in awhile will be able to use, as they begin to put the pieces back together.
That is the wonderful thing about generosity – it is contagious. One person is a part of giving, and then they find that they are the one who receives. One person receives, and it inspires you to want to make a difference for someone else. It keeps going. All in response to the love and grace of a God who is extraordinarily generous to us, despite our anxiety, despite our lack of trust. We could build barns, or we could fill our purses, Jesus says, with those things that do not wear out. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
All praise be to God. Amen.
 Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 162. Craddock, like many interpreters, assume this man is a younger brother, and points to Numbers 27:1-11 and Deuteronomy 21:15-17.
 Nancy Austin is the President of Duke University Retiree Outreach, a group that works closely with Lakewood Elementary. Email used with permission.