The Peril and Promise of Prosperity
Luke 12:48; November 19 2017
”For everyone to whom much is given, much will be required.” Are there any words of scripture that hit closer to home than these? For we have a level of prosperity that would stagger most of the people live on this planet.
I got a new perspective on my own prosperity and privilege when Barbara and I went to SE Asia last month. We went into the slums of Bangkok–garbage and litter on the street, no one owning a residence of more than two rooms. We visited a family in a floating village in Cambodia–two rooms for eight people. Our guide said, “These people live simply but they are happy. And then I came back to look at my own life with different eyes. My home filled with such lovely, nonessential things. Furniture I never sit on. Three sets of dishes. A closet full of clothes. Food enough for weeks. I was as rich as Croesus, and I didn’t even know it.
When I was a teenager I was involved in an organization called Youth for Christ. One night at a Youth for Christ rally an evangelist spoke about the second coming, when Jesus would come again. If Jesus would come again, he said, we teenagers wouldn’t want to found doing something Jesus would disapprove of…such as being in a movie or dancing. By the way the reason Southern Baptists are opposed to premarital sex is that it looks too much like dancing. Well, the Youth For Christ leaders said, we wouldn’t want the returning Jesus to find us in a movie theater or at a dance.
Well, as I have gotten older I don’t think I would be embarrassed if Jesus came again and found me dancing or in a movie. I think where I would least want to be found by a returning Jesus would be a place like the new Fry’s super store in my community. It’s the Taj Ma Hal of grocery stores. With all that food around me, and with all the hungry people in the world, I would feel the Lord’s judgment on my life there as much as any place.
So I want to address the subject of our prosperity today. “To those to whom much is given, much will be required.” What does prosperity mean in light of the Lord’s requirements of us?
The first observation I want to make about prosperity is that it tends to desensitize us to the pain and suffering of the world. We read about it, but we don’t feel it. We are educated–we can analyze what’s wrong in the world, but most of those wrongs don’t touch us personally. Our economic circumstances have lifted us above them.
The home in which I was born was far from rich, but I never lacked any necessity in life. What’s more I was born in a family where books were honored, and television took a second place to games and reading, a blessing, believe me, a blessing.
I was born in a family which expected me to go to college. My college education at Pfeiffer was financed by scholarships and scholarship loans.
In short, I was born in a world of staggering privilege. I was never hungry. I never had to spend the night without some sort of shelter over my head. I have never known the situation of not having a father or mother. My father and mother always found work enough to make ends meet. And they both loved me with all their hearts!
And we all know all around this church there are thousands of people who would give anything in their children could be reared as I was. They work their hardest, yet they have a tough time making ends meet. .
And if someone should say to me, “Terry, you shouldn’t feel guilty for the way you were brought up,” I would reply, “I don’t feel guilty, but I do need to recognize the fact that I have been so privileged my entire life that I am blind as an own at noonday as to what is really going on in society.
We all see those statistics the top 1% controls 38% of the wealth of our country The disparity is actually worse than Russia or Iran. The official poverty rate is 13.5 percent, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 estimates. That year, an estimated 43.1 million Americans lived in poverty according to the official measure. We have in this country today luxury a la F. Scott Fitzgerald walking side by side with poverty so sordid that Charles Dickens would recoil in horror.
The temptation of having so much is to build walls around ourselves. The temptation is that our hearts become hardened because we do not directly feel the sting of poverty and the injustice of racism.
I was watching a PBS program not long ago where a group of African Americans were talking and one woman said, “You know, I just don’t think white people care very much about what is happening to us.” And by and large, I think she’s right.
Since prosperous people do not feel the pinch of racism and poverty, we tend to be the last on board on the great social movements of our time, such as civil rights and affirmative action.
William Gladstone was prime minister of the British empire during the 19th century. Gladstone was born in the best of circumstances. He said that during the first half of the 19th century the privileged classes, the aristocratic and educated classes, had been on the wrong side of every great social issue and if their opinion had prevailed, “It would have been to the detriment or ruin of the British empire.”
Our prosperity desensitizes us to what is really wrong in society. Our prosperity builds a wall between us and the poor.
The second observation I want to make about prosperity is that it is fleeting. It is like life. Here today, gone tomorrow. The applause, the acclaim, the good fortune dies so quickly. If you don’t believe it, try this test:
Name the last ten winners of the Heisman trophy.
Name the last ten winners of the Miss America beauty pageant.
Name eight people who have won the Nobel prize.
How about the best actress at the Academy Awards last year, and the year before, and the year before.
Who won the World Series in 2007?
Prosperity is fleeting.
The things of this life that seem so important–the things we work so hard to cushion our lives–will vanish in a gust of wind. So the choice before us is this: we can either hold on to the things of earth or invest in the things of heaven.
A prominent and wealthy man in a certain community died, and at his funeral someone whispered, “How much did he leave?” His neighbor answered, “He left it all.”
There was a man from Scranton, Pa. by the name of George Frisbie. Before the great depression he manufactured silken goods and was quite successful. But when the depression came he lost his business, lost everything, and was out of work. He went from place to place looking for a job. Finally, his own church, the Asbury Methodist Church, hired him as a janitor.
The interesting thing was that during his years in business George Frisbee was very generous with his church, and gave $25,000–a princely sum in those days–to build a pipe organ in his church. And now, here he was, a caretaker in the church where he had been a prominent benefactor.
When Mr. Frisbee would take visitors around the church plant he would stop before the organ and the plaque that indicated it had been his gift. And he would say, “What I kept I lost, what I gave I have.”
Prosperity is fleeting. We have to remember that to keep perspective on our prosperity.
And that leads me on to make a third observation about prosperity. PROSPERITY WITHOUT PURPOSE IS POINTLESS. Living with prosperity is more difficult than becoming prosperous. Seneca, the Roman, said this:
“Money has never yet made anyone rich.”
There is a far deeper dimension to wealth than merely having it. Accumulating and acquiring it is nothing unless it is used for a redemptive purpose.
We certainly need money to get along in this world. No question about that. Sophie Tucker had some observations about this. She said:
From birth to eighteen a girl needs good parents
From eighteen to thirty-five, she needs good looks,
From thirty-five to fifty-five, she needs a good personality.
From fifty-five on, she needs cash.
We all need some cash.
God gives each of us the energy to earn a living, the genius to be creative, and the opportunity to utilize our gifts.
But once we have earned our living, once we have become prosperous, that’s when the test begins. It’s not what we have that counts in God’s eyes. It’s what we do with what we have.
We need a deeper purpose undergirding our prosperity, a purpose that will give priority and focus. I believe that begins with remembering that all of it, every dime, is a gift from God to be shared with others.
William Allen White, the great journalist and philanthropist gave a park in Emporia Kansas in memory of his daughter, Mary, who was killed in a horseback riding accident. when he presented the deed of the property to the mayor, he said:
”This is the last kick in a fistful of dollars I am getting rid of today. I have always tried to teach you that there are three kicks in every dollar–0ne when you make it–the second kick is when you have it–the third kick comes when you give it away…The big kick is the last one.
I know most people look forward to stewardship season in the local church like they look forward to a trip to the dentist. It is always necessary, it must occur regularly, but it is rarely pleasant.
Well, I want to do what I can to put a positive spin our stewardship drive this year. First off, the purpose of stewardship is not to raise money for the church’s budget. The purpose of stewardship is to cause each of us to examine our lives, asking, “What do we return to the Lord for all the Lord has done for us.” The purpose of stewardship is that we get an annual reminder that everything that we have and are comes as a gift from a lavishly giving God.
I hope that all of you will step up your giving this year, and that all of you are engaged in the greatest adventure of all in the Christian life–in becoming a tither. I say that not because I am worried about meeting the expenses of our congregation. I’m not worried about our budget next year. I’m really not worried at all. God will take care of this church. No, I’m worried about some of you, because I’ve been in the ministry long enough to know that in every congregation there are at least one or two people who have an unconverted checkbook. And an unconverted checkbook is always a symbol of a deeper malady, an unconverted heart. So that’s what I’m worried about. For when you make a flat out commitment to Jesus Christ, the distance between your heart and your pocketbook is miraculously shortened.
So I see stewardship season as I time to ask the question, “Does Jesus Christ have all of me, heart, soul, mind, strength, and wealth?”
In a great church in Dallas, Texas, on a cold day in that city, a minister had delivered, by his own admission, one of those sermons where you wonder if it did any good at all. It had been a long week, and he was tired, and didn’t prepared as carefully as he usually did. At the end of the service an associate pastor was giving the invitation to discipleship, in a kind of half-hearted voice, “If you want to join our church, then visit with one of the elders following the service. ” Immediately after that announcement a man in the second pew stood up and in a loud voice said, “Do you mean I can’ come down right now and rededicate my life to Christ?”
Well, you know you don’t we don’t do that kind of thing in a Presbyterian Church. By the time they had resuscitated the associate pastor, he turned to the pastor, and asked in a whisper, “What do I say?” The pastor forgot that he was still wearing a cordless mike, and the whole congregation heard him whisper back, “Say, yes, for God’s sake. That’s what we’re here for.”
And not only did his congregation hear him, the service was being broadcast live on television, so the whole state of Texas heard what he said, “Say yes, for God’s sake, that’s what we’re here for.”
That’s what stewardship season is all about. That’s what we’re here for. To say yes…for God’s sake, to turn our prosperity into something redemptive, to use what we have for God’s church, for God’s people, and for God’s kingdom.