"Decision Time"
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
September 19, 2010
Luke 16:19-31

Rachel Naomi Remen shares some of the wisdom she has gleaned during her long medical career.  Reflecting on her internship, she said it was not possible to be in a 24-hour-a-day intensive training program and not be changed by it.  They worked 7 days a week, 36 hours on and 12 hours off.  When they were off, they slept.  Denying the body's need for sleep, and food were the foundation of the schedule.  She says, "No one complained.  It was just the way we all lived.  Many of the rooms I worked and studied in had no windows.  Often I did not know what day it was.  I remember watching the nursing shift going past me day after day.  I would look up and see Miss Harrison and know it must be morning again."

She remembers one afternoon she had off, riding on the subway to see her parents.  At some point in the journey, it dawned on her that she "had been unconsciously scanning the veins of the bare-armed people around her.  She was wondering whether her skills with a needle were good enough to successfully draw blood from them."  She writes, "This sort of training changes the way you see things, the way you think.  Gradually things that had been central in my life became vague and faded into the background, and other things more heavily rewarded became overdeveloped.  After a time, I just forgot many important things."1

Although few of us have served medical internships, her words strike a chord within us.  Certain tasks morph into routine habits and over time, we develop amnesia and forget what truly matters.  We fail to set aside special time with loved ones, we forget the joy that bubbles within us when we help someone in need, and we drift away from the church.  One day we wake up and discover that our spiritual tank is running on fumes.

This morning's passage from the Gospel of Luke tells of a man who forgot what was important and failed to wake up before it was too late.  The passage begins, "There was a rich man who was dressed in the finest clothing and who enjoyed elaborate meals daily.  And just outside of his doorstep there was a poor man who was covered with sores and who longed to satisfy his hunger with merely the scraps from the rich man's table."

Even if our liturgist had not read the remainder of the passage, we can see what's coming, can't we?  A person of means neglects the needs of one who is destitute and on judgment day he will pay a heavy price.  The poor man, on the other hand, will gain in the next life what he failed to receive in this life.  This is a patented theme in the Gospel of Luke.  Beginning with the first chapter and running throughout, this gospel warns the wealthy and picks up the poor.

In the first chapter, after Mary is told that the child she is carrying will be called the Son of the Most High, she breaks into song.  She sings, "The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." (Luke 1:52-53)

Professor Tom Long points out that "there are 40 passages in Luke that do not appear in the other gospels and 13 of the passages are devoted to issues of economic justice.  If you read Luke's gospel, you cannot avoid talking about money...Luke has a radical view of wealth and poverty.  In Luke, when Jesus uses the words 'wealth' or 'rich' you can almost hear him spit."2

Most Christians are familiar with the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, but fewer are acquainted with Luke's version - the Sermon on the Plain.  It's unclear whether Matthew and Luke heard Jesus differently or if their stories represent two different events that were similar in nature.  According to Matthew, Jesus proclaims numerous blessings.  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are the meek, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" and so on.

However, according to Luke, Jesus delivers not only blessings, but warnings.  And in Luke, Jesus does not bless those who are poor in spirit, but rather those who are poor - period.  In Luke, Jesus does not bless those who hunger for righteousness, but rather those who are hungry - period.  Luke reveals that Jesus, like the prophets of old, is concerned about economic justice and that God is concerned for the poor and wary of the wealthy.  After Jesus blesses the poor and the hungry, he says, "But woe to you who are rich (spit!), for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry."  (Luke 6:24-25)

Some have imagined Luke to advocate a simple view of wealth: the poor are blessed and the wealthy are of the devil.  However, when we study various passages, we discover that it is not so clear cut.  On one occasion, a rich ruler approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus answers, "Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor."  (Luke 18:18-22).

Yet, on another occasion, when others ask what they should do, Jesus says, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none."  At times, Jesus employs hyperbolic language to remind us of the danger of clinging tightly to our wealth and other times he gives practical suggestions of how to use our wealth in real life situations.  Some we keep for ourselves, and some we use to help others, because when we give away some of our material wealth we receive something in return.  We experience the deep satisfaction of helping someone in need, we develop a generous heart which not only lifts our own spirits but inspires others and we draw closer to God as we carry out Christ's mission of compassion.

In a recent column, David Brooks notes that since the economy has been in the tank, Americans attitudes toward wealth are changing.  He notes that in the run-up to the global economic meltdown, Americans were buying McMansions and oversized SUVs.  "The rule was, The Smaller the Woman, the Bigger the Car."  But now that tough times have hit, people are questioning their pursuit of possessions and seeking "noneconomic ways to find meaning.

Brooks points out that "When Europeans first settled this continent, they saw the natural abundance and came to two conclusions: that God's plan for humanity could be realized here, and that they could get really rich while helping God do it.  This perception evolved into the notion that we have two interdependent callings: (devotion to God and the pursuit of wealth.  However, we have discovered that materialism)...is too soul-destroying."  Quoting a young Christian minister, Brooks states the obvious: "The American dream radically differs from the call of Jesus and the essence of the Gospel."3

That's because the American dream is focused inward - what I can achieve for myself.  The gospel is focused outward - sharing our wealth with people in need.

The American dream strives for becoming friends with people of means.  Christ tells his followers to become friends with the poor.  I do not expect to wake up tomorrow morning and find that all Americans are suddenly following the wisdom of Christ rather than the lure of wealth, but it does appear that this recession has prompted some to question their desire for material riches and to seek the more satisfying reward of spiritual riches.  And make no mistake, the two are deeply intertwined.  What you do with what you have determines the depth of your spiritual life.

That is precisely the point of this morning's passage.  The rich man used his wealth only for himself and the result was that he cut himself off from God.  It's the same message Jesus drives home when he tells the parable of the rich fool who reaped an enormous windfall when his crops produced beyond expectations.  Rather than sharing his abundance, he decided to build bigger barns so he could keep it all.  Jesus said that those who store up treasures for themselves and are not rich toward God lose their souls.

There are points in life, when we face critical decisions.  We have to decide to go to college or into the work force or to join the military.  We decide whether we will remain single or choose a mate.  We decide what career path to pursue and where to live.  Presbyterian pastor, John Buchanan, reminds us that "beneath those decisions is a more basic decision...it is a deeply personal and spiritual decision of what to live for, what to sacrifice for, what to follow and give to, what to die for."4

At some point in our lives each of us made a critical decision.  We decided to follow not the whims of culture, but the ways of Christ.  And at various milestones we are called upon to demonstrate our commitment with more than words.  Each fall we are called upon to confirm our commitment by promising to give a portion of our wealth to God.  As today's passage, as well as several others, make clear, our relationship with God is dependent on what we do with what we have.

This week you will receive a stewardship letter from the church asking you to make a pledge for 2011 and asking you to increase your current giving by five percent.  The reason for the increase is not because we are planning large increases in spending, but because the amount of income we receive from our endowment fund is down more than $100,000.  We are living in very difficult economic times and in the past two years our Session has cut expenses and benevolences by 11%; that is about $180,000.  There is no low hanging fruit in the budget.  We have made painful cuts, including reducing staff.

Despite those cuts, Westminster continues to be a dynamic congregation that impacts many people's lives.  We inspire people to become their best selves, we teach children and youth Scriptural values and how to become followers of Christ, we help people survive the crushing blows of life, we feed people who are hungry, house people who are homeless, work for just causes, care for God's creation, we become conduits for God to transform people's lives in this community and in places around the world.  There are numerous practical reasons for giving to Westminster.  If those of us in the sanctuary this morning fail to support our community of faith, this church will close its doors and many people's lives will be worse off.

We are asking everyone to increase their giving by five percent, but in truth, some do not need to increase by five percent.  They need to increase by 200 percent.  All of us need to look at our income and look at our giving, and then ask ourselves what we imagine God thinks of our giving.  I hope that each of our personal stories is very different than this morning's passage where in the end, God must say to the man, "I'm very sorry.  You had your chance to share with the poor, but you blew it."

Christ urges us to become faithful followers so that we can experience the joyful and abundant life that comes with committing ourselves to a life of faith.  The measure of our commitment is easy to calculate.  It's what we do with what we have.





  1. From an interview of Rachel Naomi Remen by Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith, July 29, 2010.
  2. Tom Long, "Investment Strategies for Unrighteous Mammon: Preaching about Money from the Gospel of Luke" at the Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta, May 2009.
  3. David Brooks, "The Gospel of Wealth," in the New York Times, September 6, 2010.
  4. John M. Buchanan, "Decision Time," March 8, 2009.