Sermon
August 2, 1998
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading

Luke 12:21-31

So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."22 He said to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you -- you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. (NRSV)

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Text - If I'm here, I didn't win Powerball

Well, here I am. By now you know I didn’t win the big Powerball lottery. It was still uncertain when I picked my Sermon title on Tuesday. I guess you didn’t either. I don’t know how many of you bought tickets, but it sure seemed that the lure of an easy 250 million was too much for many to resist. It’s funny how our perspective changes with that amount of cash dangling in front of us like a carrot in front of a horse. People for whom a couple thousand unexpected dollars would be a windfall are blasé and oblivious to jackpots of 3 or 4 million - we’ll wait till it’s 100 million - then we’ll bet a dollar.

Did you read the stories about people who waited on lines for several hours and then plunked down thousands of dollars on tickets? Of course, they were the one least able to afford such a risky bet, but the lure of the big bucks was more than they could bear. I’m waiting now for someone to follow up on the big losers with the same splash the big winners will get.

Actually, I thought there was quite a bit of Powerball backlash in the news - especially from the town of Greenwich, where the whole affair took on an air of class warfare. Listen to this report from the New York Times:

In a tony town where many residents have already won life’s lottery, a Powerball frenzy has drawn flocks of out-of-state optimists bearing not just traffic jams and litter piles, but a world that locals say has gone from novel to scary… Each night of this week the boutique lined streets of Greenwich have been packed with clunkers from the boroughs - with some drivers going the wrong way, forcing the Land Rovers to screech and dodge… The previously pristine sidewalks now resemble the floor of a theater after a double feature, and the restaurants have been empty because the regulars have been afraid to go out…. The owner of one café sent a call-to-arms to fellow merchants that included the declaration: "Invaders from neighboring states are swarming our streets. They are tireless and determined, overwhelming our public servants with their persistence."

The backlash wasn’t limited to Greenwich. The Danbury News Times ran an op-ed piece by Chester Hartman, executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington, DC. Mr. Hartman wrote: Lotteries are bad public policy. Amid the publicity of this week’s quarter of a billion dollar Powerball drawing, you’ll hear a lot about the winner. But you won’t hear about the losers: poor people and minorities. For people with little hope of investing in mutual funds or ending the year with five-figure bonuses, spending on lottery tickets is seen as the only way out. By promoting lotteries states are fostering problem gambling - and New York State estimates it has half a million problem gamblers. A study in Wisconsin estimates that each problem gambler costs that state $9,500 a year in social services and business loss. State and local governments have no business pushing this dangerous, ill-conceived gambling policy. It’s a bad bet for individuals, and a worse bet for good government.

Do you think all this Powerball backlash will bring any changes? I don’t. In fact, it seems to me more evidence that of how deeply enmeshed we are in our addiction to lotto fever. We’re now at the stage of the cigarette smoker who crumples up the remaining ten cigarettes in the pack, throws them out the car window, and then can drive only two more miles before turning into the convenience store to buy another pack. The cycle of addiction is complete: obsession, struggle, weakness, giving in, remorse, penance, renewed obsession. We just can’t free ourselves from the lure of the almighty dollar and the transformation of our lives we think it will bring.

What is the desire that is behind this illusion? Is the desire itself wrong, or has it simply become attached to the wrong object.

This morning we read a familiar passage from an unfamiliar source. In the passage Jesus speaks of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and ends with: seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be given you as well. Normally we read this from the Gospel of Matthew where it is part of the Sermon on the Mount. This morning we read it from the Gospel of Luke, where it has a slightly different setting. In Luke the teaching is prompted by a question shouted out from the crowd.

Luke 12:13 Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

I could really relate to this question because I have a brother and we’ve always been somewhat zealous in defense of our rights, privileges, and property relative to one another. When we were little our favorite Saturday night meal was steak with mushrooms. Once they were served up we would count the mushrooms to make sure "He didn’t have more!" My wife and I use this as a catch phrase now when we find some of this same dynamic in our relationship - stop counting the mushrooms!

Anyway, this territorial behavior did diminish over time, but it was temporarily renewed when it came time to divide up my parents possessions. It wasn’t fun and I was surprised and even a little shocked at some of the thoughts and feelings I experienced in the process. So I take this teaching of Jesus personally, as something I need, as an antidote to some wrong headed ideas and associations that keep me from a full and abundant experience of life and its blessings.

Did you know that there is a whole school of religious thought today that has turned this teaching on its head. Ignoring the introduction where Jesus says: one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, it interprets the passage to mean that if you seek the Kingdom of God you will get rich and have abundant possessions. You can find this so-called "abundance" theology all over the religious cable channels. Probably eight out of ten of TV preachers make this pitch, right before they ask for your money. It’s kind of a Preacher Powerball - God wants you to be rich but first you have to show you trust God by sending in money to this ministry. This is what passes for Christianity in the world of mass marketing. It’s a long way from the sentiments of our opening hymn: It’s a gift to be simple, it’s a gift to be free.

I found much closer to the mark the words that Bernie Segal spoke to the cancer survivors celebration here in June. He basically said, don’t wait to have a life threatening disease to live your life the way you want. Don’t wait until death comes knocking on your door before you decide your priorities and flex your freedom and become the human being you were meant to be.

That, to me, is a lot closer to what Jesus was saying. Don’t let anxiety about possessions get between you and life, between you and wealth, between you and God’s blessing. Don’t wait to hit the lottery to be a winner.

Last year I was visiting the Oratory of the Little Way in Gaylordsville, where Nigel Mumford bases his healing ministry. And I picked up a little tract there published by the Salesian Missions of New Rochelle, New York. Normally I don’t care much for these booklets with their cute poems and simple sayings. After all, I have a degree in this stuff; I’m not unsophisticated, you know!

But, as I said, I’m in deep need when it comes to this subject matter, so I took the gamble, opened to a page, and began to read.

Life’s winners aren’t the ones

who stroll down Easy Street

Till they find a pot of gold

right there beneath their feet.

Now this demanded more investigation. I went back and read the title: True Wealth, and I thought, this gets to the heart of what Jesus was saying. It’s no mistake to desire the good things in life; it’s not wrong to want wealth and seek transformation - but possessions and money and winning big lotteries are not the path. If you attach your dreams to those things, you will waste your life. True wealth is not won in that way. It’s actually much simpler than that, much more accessible, and really no gamble at all. As the book ends:

I wonder who’s the richer man,

A miser with his gold in pan,

Or the peasant with a cart,

Who has a loving, caring heart -

For riches do not come from gold

Or treasures owned from ages old,

True wealth is being true and wise

Seeing value in blue skies-

Living life with attitude

Of thankfulness and gratitude.

The miser stores his earthly wares,

The richer man his bounty shares.

So let me turn from jackpot and lottery, and see what wealth surrounds my life. Let me stop counting the mushrooms and eat the steak with enjoyment! And, by the way - don’t tell me about Powerball ever again (unless, of course, it get over $200 million.)

Psalm 34:1-22 Of David

I will bless the LORD at all times;

his praise shall continually be in my mouth.

2 My soul makes its boast in the LORD;

let the humble hear and be glad.

3 O magnify the LORD with me,

and let us exalt his name together.

4 I sought the LORD, and he answered me,

and delivered me from all my fears.

5 Look to him, and be radiant;

so your faces shall never be ashamed.

6 This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD,

and was saved from every trouble.

7 The angel of the LORD encamps

around those who fear him, and delivers them.

8 O taste and see that the LORD is good;

happy are those who put their trust in God.

Let us turn now to the table of God’s abundance, a table set simply with the elements of bread and cup, our reminders of Gods great love and wonderful deeds which offer us life, redemption, and salvation. We celebrate an open communion. This sacrament is for all who wish to know the presence of Christ and to share in the community of God's people.

This is the Lord’s table and Christ invites you to share this meal of grace. Christ recognizes you and looks upon you with favor. Christ befriends you and wants you within his circle. Count yourself among Christ’s disciples by partaking in this feast of fellowship.  Amen

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