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Beyond Retirement,             Luke 12: 13-21                      August 1, 2010

A stingy old lawyer had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Having heard the maxim “You can’t take it with you” he was determined to prove the saying wrong.

After much thought and consideration, the old ambulance-chaser finally figured out how to take at least some of his money with him when he died. He instructed his wife to go to the bank and withdraw enough money to fill two pillow cases.
 
He then directed her to take the bags of money to the attic and leave them directly above his bed. His plan: When he passed away, he would reach out and grab the bags on his way to heaven.

Several weeks after the funeral, the deceased lawyer’s wife, up in the attic cleaning came upon the two forgotten pillow cases stuffed with cash.

“Oh, that darned old fool,” she exclaimed. “I knew I should have put the money in the basement!”
 
Our culture today is based more heavily on material things than ever before. We are consumed with consuming. We must have the latest, the fastest, the newest, the biggest or the smallest, the costliest and the "coolest." Sure, it's nice to have "stuff." And it's even nicer to have new stuff.

But the next time you reach for your credit card or your checkbook, ask yourself, "Am I stocking up on possessions or treasures?" So often we confuse the two. We see luxury cars, elegant clothes, gorgeous houses and expensive electronic equipment as the treasures in our lives. They are not. At best, they are just things we possess. At worst, they are things that possess us.

Have you ever visited a junkyard? All around are people's treasures -- "stuff" they have lived for and died for. Now they are fit only for the dump.
 
In our ever changing economic landscape saving money seems more urgent than ever. We look for tax breaks; monitor IRAs, and hope for well-dressed investment portfolios. Many of us are concerned about our retirement, and about whether we have saved enough money to live comfortably through our final decades. We wonder if our IRAs are large enough. We if our investment portfolios are diversified enough? And ultimately: Will we run out of money before we run out of time?

Retirement planning is certainly a legitimate concern, but todays lesson from Luke points us toward a different issue: one we might call "expire-ment planning." This is a form of planning that looks at death, not life; it asks whether you are ready to expire, not whether you are ready to retire.

Jesus tells the parable of a rich man whose land produced abundantly. His first-century agricultural IRAs were fully funded. "What should I do," he asks, "for I have no place to store my crops?" He decides to pull down his barns and build larger ones, so that in retirement he can relax, eat, drink and be merry.
 
But God has little regard for these plans, and says, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" The rich man should have done some expire-ment planning along with his retire-ment planning.
 
Jesus concludes this parable by predicting the same fate for any people "who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." He urges us to be as ready to expire as we are ready to retire. Jesus calls each one of us to be rich toward God and prepared for the end of life. What might this expire-ment planning involve?
 
First: A realization that wealth is not happiness.  
 
Despite the many times we've heard that "Wealth cannot buy happiness," most of us still believe that if we only had more money, we would be happy. If we make $25,000 a year, we are sure that true joy will come with a salary of $50,000 a year. The sad truth is that no amount of money can guarantee happiness, and not even hundreds of thousands of dollars a year are a cure for misery.
 
Second: A decision to share resources, not hoard them.  
 
The Marquis de Lafayette was a French general and politician who would have fit into the same social class as the rich man of Luke 12. He helped George Washington with the American Revolution, then returned to France and resumed his life as the master of several estates.
 
In 1783, the harvest was a poor one, but the workers of Lafayette's farms still managed to fill his barns with wheat. "The bad harvest has raised the price of wheat," said one of his workers. "This is the time to sell."

Lafayette thought about the hungry peasants in the surrounding villages. "No," he replied, "this is the time to give" (The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes. ed., Clifton Fadiman [Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1985], 339).

A good expire-ment planner knows that resources should be shared, not hoarded. Abundant harvests invite gift-giving, not barn-building. Lafayette had an opportunity to store up treasures for himself, but decided instead to offer his wealth to the poor. This act did not impoverish him, but instead made him rich -- rich toward God. Such generosity is good planning for anyone who wants to be prepared for the end of life.

Jesus said, lay up treasures in heaven; seek God, and all these other things will be added unto you.
 
Third: A commitment to serve God instead of money.
 
The author Robert Fulghum has written a series of best-selling books, beginning with one called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. More than 14 million copies of his books are in print, and they are published in 27 languages and 93 countries. Needless to say, he has done very well financially.

In an interview with a Christian periodical called The Door, Fulghum reports that since his success, people are always saying, "Well, you must have a big house and a big car." And he responds, "No, I have the same house, same car, same friends, same wife...." Mr. Fulghum is on guard against all kinds of greed, and is committed to serving God, not money.

Of course, fame is a challenge, he admits, "and the challenge is to be a good steward with this kind of authority and power -- especially with the economics." So one year he did a book tour, and used it to raise $670,000 for a number of good causes. "I don't think I should be given extra credit for doing that," he says. "I think you should think ill of me if I didn't do that." (The Door, May/June 1995).

As Christians, we are all called to be wise and good stewards of all God has given us.
 
Those who find ways to serve God have discovered the right path. They need not fear death, because they know where they are going. Their treasure is waiting for them in heaven, not in barns or bank accounts.

Why not sit down and put pencil to paper? Ask yourself if you are able to share more with the needy than you have up to this point. Ask yourself if your life, in all its multi-faceted glory, reflects the priorities God would like you to have. Has "making a living" kept you from serving your Living Maker?

Jesus teaches that God does indeed want us to be rich -- but he defines riches very differently than the world does. Our riches are not possessions. Our riches are treasures.
 
What's the difference, you ask?

You possess a job ... You treasure your family.
You possess a house ... You treasure your home.
You possess a bank account ... You treasure your friends.
You possess a car ... You treasure your freedom.
You possess a great wardrobe ... You treasure your health.
You possess an appointment book... You treasure your time.
You possess a heart ... You treasure love.
 
J.H. Jowett says, “The real measure of our wealth is how much we would be worth if we lost our money.”
 
Planning for retire-ment is important, but planning for expire-ment is of ultimate importance.
 
This is not to say Jesus calls all of us to be economically poor or without possessions. Christianity is not a "one-size-fits-all" spirituality. Among the tremendous freedoms we enjoy in our faith, there is even diversity about how many "possessions" each of us can handle.

Clement of Alexandria explored this truth when he somewhat tongue-in-cheek observed that there is a certain similarity between our eternal "souls" and the "soles" of our feet. Each soul has a different size. Just as everyone gets a different "sole size," so everyone gets a unique "soul size."
 
Possessions must fit the person -- they will be cumbersome and uncomfortable if too large; painful if pinched. One soul might require large amounts of space, but very little music. One soul might need symphonies, but have only a slight requirement for fine food. One soul might long to taste every gourmet "goody" that comes his/her way, but need only a humble abode.

When enjoying the requirements of our own souls, however, we must measure them as treasures, not possessions -- gifts to our spirits, not notches on our belts.
 
Television journalist Ted Koppel was on a lucrative speech circuit for about 20 years. After he returned from a tour as a correspondent in Vietnam, in the mid-1960s, he began taking engagements at around $500 each; by the mid-1980s, because of his eminence as host of the TV show Nightline, the stakes had gone much higher, and he was able to command $50,000 per speech.

At this point, he did something that few prominent journalists would do: He stopped speaking for pay.
Koppel says: "One day we reached this price that was so astronomically high that I went home and talked to my wife about it.
I said that nobody out there who makes a normal salary is going to hear that amount, and realize that it was paid for a day's work -- to put it generously -- and believe that there wasn't something else that was being purchased for that price, beyond my time for a day....
Particularly since I am extremely well paid by ABC, I felt that it was easy for me, at least, to make the decision and say, 'Why run that risk of losing whatever credibility I have for the sake of something we don't need?'" (James Fallows, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996), 88, 108-109.)

How refreshing it is to see a person serve something besides money.
 
 
Here is Art Linkletter’s philosophy on learning to be content with what you have:

Do a little more than you’re paid to;

Give a little more than you have to;

Try a little harder than you want to;

Aim a little higher than you think possible;

And give a lot of thanks to God for health, family and friends.
 
Let us do likewise. Amen.
 
 
 
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
First Presbyterian Church
Bastrop, Louisiana
 
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