Working for a Loss

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
August 7, 2016

Luke 12: 13-21 (CEB)
Someone from the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

14Jesus said to him, “Man, who appointed me as judge or referee between you and your brother?”

15Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy.” 16Then he told them a parable: “A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. 17He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! 18Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. 19I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. 20But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ 21This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.”

Each of us is claimed by God in our baptism, and we are called to serve God’s kingdom in a special way. This is what Martin Luther referred to as the “priesthood of all believers,” which means that though all of us might not make ministry our profession, each of us has a ministry to do. While I recognized God’s particular calling in my life when I was 15, my road to professional ministry began late in my college career. Two very important events happened that set me on the path that has brought me to this place.

I was student teaching, working with a middle school and high school band program in Greer, South Carolina, when one day after lunch my supervising teacher (the director of the middle school band) looked at me and said, “Clair, this is a tough job, and it takes complete dedication to do it well. Can you imagine yourself doing anything else with your life, because if you can, this isn’t the job for you?” And I could imagine myself doing something else. God was already working in my heart, directing me toward church ministry. Then, a few months later, after applying for Masters Programs in conducting at several schools, I got a letter from UTK, my first choice. I had been rejected. With the letter in hand and tears in my eyes, I walked into my next class, band rehearsal, with my mentor professor and conducting teacher getting prepared at the podium. I went to him, showed him the envelope, and then told him the news. Again, tears came to my eyes and I said, “Its okay.” At that point, my mentor gave me a big hug and said, “No, it’s not okay. It’s not okay.”

I share those two stories with you in order to say this; one of the things I realized in those moments was the way my life had been molded and shaped and impacted by many adults who had dedicated their lives to selfless ministry not only to me, but to many young adults. I started thinking back over my junior high, high school, and college years, remembering all the people who had made a difference in my life; three different mentors in college, my choir director from First United Methodist in Oak Ridge, my youth director, my private trombone instructor. And I realized that God was calling me to work, serve, and minister in such a way that I, too, could impact the lives of young people. First, that took me into the teaching profession, then into youth ministry, and now here. I’ll save that story for another time because this isn’t about me; it’s about the people who offered themselves in ministry to others.

Last Sunday as we sat in a Leadership Team meeting in the Fellowship Hall, Thomas, looking at the plaque of the people who served on the building committee for the Fellowship Wing shared how those people had touched his life as he grew up in this church. And I understand exactly what he was conveying. The truth of the matter is, we all can, because each of us has been touched, molded, shaped, and cared for by certain people who in various, but particular ways have made an investment of themselves for our sakes; which brings us to the reading from Luke’s gospel this morning, what is known as the parable of the rich fool.

Obviously, the primary focus of this parable is money and earthly treasure, and there is an important message here about what it means to steward the resources God has given us. But what I want to focus on this morning is not so much the problem of wealth, but instead the problem of self-centeredness that drives us to distraction and a primary focus on earthly matters. See, when we are working with the sole purpose of building bigger barns and accumulating greater wealth that means we are only concerned with ourselves. And when our personal concerns are primary in our lives, then our role as disciples of the Kingdom takes second place. But as we were reminded in Jesus’ teaching earlier in the service, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves [deny themselves]….” At its core, this parable is not about investments and dividends, it is about distractions, the things that keep us from doing the work we need to do as Christ’s disciples.

I don’t think there is any question that the pursuit of material gain can easily deter us from God’s course for our lives. But have you ever thought about what it can mean to be so distracted that we get off course in our discipleship? Or have you ever given consideration to other ways we are distracted from our ministry for God’s kingdom? Of course, the obvious problem of not investing our lives in the way God has called us to do, is that we don’t impact other people’s lives for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. If my mentors, and teachers, and music directors hadn’t gone “above and beyond” to do more for me than just teaching or directing, I wouldn’t be where I am today. If Alex Gamble, and Elbert Long, and the Prices, and the DeFrieses, hadn’t invested their time and energy in this church decades ago, many of us wouldn’t be sitting here (or even in any other church) today. Do you see this? When we get distracted, when we become concerned only with ourselves and our own personal gain, God’s whole kingdom and many who are a part of it suffer.

Now, here’s where things get pretty interesting. One of the things I have come to realize in a decade of professional ministry is that the distractions that often hinder our work as Christ’s disciples don’t come only from what we might call the “outside world.” It is really easy for us to get caught up with things going on “inside the church” to such a degree that we lose sight of what’s really important. Most often its things like quibbling about the music or the preacher’s dull sermons; we get frustrated and decide there’s probably some other church out there that’s better than this one, and off we go. But there are other things, too. You know, we start gossiping about so-and-so’s indiscretions, or we get entrenched in our particular peer group in the church, and we lose track of everyone else. The church starts to look and feel a lot like a country club. I think one of the biggest distractions in the church is when we get the idea that our participation in church is all about what happens to us after we die. So church participation is kind of like punching a time card to ensure our great reward in the sky. Our focus is on making sure we’ve got our heavenly mansion prepared (even though Christ has told us he goes before us to prepare a place for us, a place with many rooms, even). It’s a real problem. And I say all that to say this: these are all things that happen in God’s church, that distract us from our task of being rich toward God! It makes church all about us, about what we get out of being disciples rather than about what we give.

So let me bring this problem home. The parable of the rich fool teaches us that the problem with storing up earthly treasure for ourselves is that it is gets us nowhere with God, and even more than that, it actually distracts us from our heavenly focus and our calling to follow Christ whole-heartedly. In the same way, if the only reason we are involved in church is for what we can get out of it, then we are missing God’s purpose for our lives in this place. If we make it all about personal gain, then think how many people are out there losing because people aren’t ministering to them, aren’t investing in their lives, aren’t sharing the love of Christ with them. For those of you who grew up in this church, or those who have known the impact of another person’s personal investment in you, how would your life be different if not for that person or those people? How would this church be different if not for the selfless work of people like the Morrells, the Dunns, the Toroks, and so many others? These are people who have given of themselves for someone else’s benefit, and more importantly for the benefit of God’s kingdom.

You know, I think a lot of the time we view our personal discipleship in much the same way we approach our jobs. It’s something we do for a time in order to gain the assets to do what we want or need to do. If things aren’t going well we might look for a different job. And through it all, we know that one day we will retire and we won’t have to worry about such work anymore; that chapter of our life will be closed and we will move on to something else, something hopefully far more relaxing and enjoyable. So I think we get the idea that service to God’s kingdom is the same. We’ll go on some mission trips for a while, or volunteer with the youth group, or serve on every committee and then some, and once we’re tired of it all, or satisfied that we’ve filled every jewel in the crown, we’ll just retire and be done with it. But that’s not the way it works in the church, in God’s kingdom. Discipleship is not something that we can retire from, this is a lifelong pursuit. And even more than that, it’s a lifelong pursuit for someone else’s sake.

So let me drive this point home. We here at Wesley Memorial are in the midst of an intensive effort to follow God’s way into the future, and we’re all a part of it. In the last six months, I have not talked to a single person who doesn’t want to see this church grow, who doesn’t hope for a fruitful future that rivals, and maybe even exceeds the fruitfulness of the past. But here’s the thing. It’s going to take all of us, and not just all of us showing up, but all of us working, all of us making an investment, all of us offering all of ourselves in service to God’s kingdom. This Fall, we will launch a significant number of small groups, with the intention of reaching out to, and serving the needs of our community and those who are a part of it. These groups will only work if we are a part of them. These groups will only work if we invite others to participate with us. These groups will only work if we build relationships that point people to the greatest relationship with Jesus Christ. And all of those things require our participation, our investment, our work—not for ourselves, but for someone else.

When Esther found herself in the court of a king who was preparing to slaughter her people, her uncle Mordecai pleaded with her to appeal to the king for mercy. Mordecai said this, “…if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” The time is here, friends. You are here for such a time as this. Don’t miss it.

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