May 25, 2014

The Assumption of Consumption

Kids crack me up…when they don’t drive me crazy.  If I think about it, though, kids make me a little sad.  Let me explain.  Little kids offer us the clearest picture we have of what people look like in our rawest form.  If you have ever wondered what people are really like, spend some time watching kids.  Now, this doesn’t hold universally true because some kids get messed up by their circumstances really early on, but for kids in relatively healthy situations, they offer a window into the human soul.  The reason for this is that kids don’t have a filter.  Whatever they are currently feeling is what comes out.  For instance, on Mother’s Day, if you’ll remember, it was a little warm in here.  (If you were here you know that I’m understating that by…a bit…I just lied from the pulpit…)  Well, on this Mother’s Day, in part because we did our Parent-Child Dedication service, there were more kids in here than usual.  If you had been able to stand where I am, you would have seen lots of ladies around the room fanning themselves.  The men just toughed it out.  But, other than sweating a bit more than usual, everybody behaved pretty normally.  The kids, though…not so much.  Two out of the three babies we dedicated were abnormally fussy.  I had Avery come and join me up on stage, but instead of standing and preaching with me he lied down on the floor.  And can you blame him?  All the hot air was rising to the ceiling and the only cool place left in the room was probably right where he was lying.  Some of you may have noticed me smirking a bit during one of the songs.  This is because as I watched, Samuel kept going over to the back door and trying to escape.  And again, it was cooler out there.  But for social convention I’d have been doing the same thing!

But, unlike you or me and our tendency to hold onto feelings for longer than is appropriate, for kids, if their feelings change, so do they.  Sometimes they change so fast it almost gives you whiplash.   The other day Noah got in trouble on a morning before school.  He was ranting and raving and throwing a fit because he didn’t want to pick up his toys.  Finally we got him off to the car and he sulked most of the way to school—five minutes—but when he got to school, a different child stepped out of the van.  It was like aliens came and took over his body.  One second he was fussing at us and literally the next he was greeting his teachers politely and asking how he could help get ready for the day since he was a little early.   We were wondering who this other child was and whether we could bring him home instead of the one we dropped off.

I think perhaps the soul-window kids offer that is the most depressing for me, though, is the one that opens when the toys come out.  If you haven’t seen them together, Josiah and Camden are best buddies.  But, when it comes to whose toys are whose, all bets are off.  If you’ve kept the nursery or arrived at the Kitchen Table early enough you’ve seen what I’m talking about.  The other day Camden arrived at the house and we saw him at the door before Josiah knew he was there.  “Josiah, Camden’s here,” we shouted.  Josiah’s response: “Yay, my best friend Camden’s here!  Oh-no!  He’s going to touch my toys!”  Last Sunday morning when Camden walked into the house Josiah greeted him with, “No toys, Camden.”  I have to say, Noah’s not much better, but he’s more focused on his brother.  Noah will play with Josiah absolutely peacefully until Josiah tries to pick up something he either is or was playing with.  Then the knives come out.  Not a few battles have been waged in our house because Noah thought Josiah was getting something that either he considered to be his or else that he might not also get.  All kids are like this.  They are sweet and selfless up to the point that they feel like something that should be theirs is being threatened at which point they become mean and manipulative.

Now, this all makes for some funny stories on the one hand, but on the other, it’s depressing.  It’s depressing because they don’t learn this kind of behavior.  Parents don’t usually teach their kids this early on to want what other people have and to throw a fit when what they feel is or should be theirs gets threatened.  They may very well teach those lessons by example later, but not when they are this young.  No, at this age we are getting a glimpse of what comes naturally to people.  This is a particular facet of the impact of sin that is easy to observe.  As we grow, absent a lot of training to undo what comes naturally, these attitudes and accompanying behaviors don’t go away.  Instead, we develop filters to keep the worst of the ugliness from coming out.  Socially speaking, it isn’t very couth for adults to be on the floor throwing tantrums when we don’t get something we feel we should have so we find other more socially acceptable ways to let the me-monster express himself.  But, we can rest assured that he’s still there.  He may have a suit on, but he’ll still eat you if you get too close.  And, if he eats up enough of the world around us, eventually there’s going to be a size problem.

This week finds us in the fourth part of our series, How Big Is Your World.  The whole idea for this series is that while we like the idea of having a huge world to explore and enjoy, lots and lots of people live in tiny little worlds that barely stretch beyond the end of their fingertips.  Now, they may have sufficient resources as to be able to treat themselves to a host of different experiences all over the place thus giving the illusion of a big world, but the truth is that they are simply moving their tiny world to a lot of different places rather than exploring the fullness of the one in which they actually live.  This is because there is no fullness to it because it’s tiny.  What we need, then, is a surefire way to make certain we are living in as big a world as possible.

To this end, in the first part of the series we discovered that living in a big world requires generosity.  The reason for this is that God is the real owner of everything we see and don’t.  This is His world.  Our world consists of pretty much just ourselves and not really even that.  What this means is that our world is tiny.  God’s world is big.  If we want to live in God’s big world, we have to play by His rules; we have to use the stuff He’s loaned us in a manner consistent with how He would use it Himself.  Because He is exceedingly generous with His stuff, if we want to enjoy it  to the fullest degree possible, we must be generous too.  Incidentally, there is a practice we can take up to help us in this goal.  It is a practice which has the potential to both expand our world and break us out of the ruts of life we sometimes fall into when our world has gotten small through spiritual neglect.  This is the practice, discipline really, of giving.

This morning, then, I want to look with you at an attitude that will derail our efforts to live in a big world every single time.  It is a guaranteed kryptonite to our drive for big living.  It is actually an attitude that Jesus encountered in His ministry.  Somebody who clearly didn’t recognize Jesus as anything more than a famous rabbi—which in the culture of the day made him the perfect candidate to take a problem like he had for resolution—brought this attitude to Jesus, set it down firmly in front of him, and started hollering, “Look at me!  Look at me!”  Luke actually records this interesting little story for us in his Gospel.  If you have a Bible with you this morning find your way to Luke 12 and take a look at this with me.

At the beginning of chapter 12 we find Jesus out in the country teaching.  On this particular day a huge crowd had gathered to hear Him.  Luke writes starting at v. 1: “In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another…”  Well, He wanted to do some teaching with His disciples and in fact began to do so, but eventually some knucklehead in the middle decided his particular issue was more important than whatever Jesus was talking about.  Jump down to v. 13: “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’”  Now, in the inheritance laws of the day, when a father died his estate was split between or among his sons.  They would divide the total estate into one more parts than the total number of sons, the eldest would get two shares and everybody else got one.  Everybody knew about this system and held to it pretty tightly.  Apparently this guy’s father had died, the estate had been divided, but his brother—probably older brother—was refusing to give the man the portion to which he was legally entitled.  Culturally speaking this was a big deal.  And again, a rabbi like Jesus was looked to as a voice of authority on matters like these.

Jesus, however, doesn’t take the bait.  Verse 14: “But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?’”  In other words, “I’m not wading into that mess.”  Now, if that’s all Jesus had said the story probably would have been left on the cutting room floor.  Once Jesus makes clear that He’s not going to get involved in the property dispute, however, He goes a step further to challenge the man’s attitude and make the episode a teaching point for His disciples and the rest of the crowd.  Verse 15: “And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  You see, what was going on was that even though this man was justifiably upset that his brother was cheating him out of a possibly large sum of money, his heart and mind were focused on the stuff he didn’t have, but wanted, for one reason or another.

Now, because you kind of know the story or at least know the basic trajectory of Scripture and can guess at the punchline here, our first thought tends to be that this guy was obviously a selfish so-and-so who got the scolding from Jesus he probably deserved.  But, culturally speaking, all the people around him would have been shaking their heads up and down in agreement.  Again, inheritance issues and the land rights that came with them were a big deal for these folks.  Most notably, there weren’t banks and retirement accounts in this day.  The only guarantee of future income was to own land.  Also, land was not readily available for sale.  Most people couldn’t afford to buy land.  It was simply handed down from parents to their children.  In the eyes of his culture, then, this guy was making an entirely reasonable request of Jesus, who again, was understood by the crowd gathered to have the proper authority to speak on these kinds of matters.  For Jesus then to respond like this, essentially accusing the man of being guilty of covetousness would have shocked the crowd.  This wasn’t covetousness.  It was common sense.  It was good policy.  It was legally appropriate.  He wanted what his brother had because what his brother had should have been his…oh wait…that’s kind of the definition of covetousness.  Jesus, then, being…well…Jesus, took this moment as a teaching opportunity.  Listen to what comes next.

“And [Jesus] told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?”  And he said, “I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”  But God said to him, “Fool!  This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.’”

So here’s what’s going on here.  A rich man unexpectedly got a lot richer.  Think of it like this: Imagine there was no such thing as electronic banking.  Imagine that all the money in the world existed as coins that owners had to store themselves.  In this world, Bill Gates, who’s still as rich as he is in our world, hits it big in the stock market and makes an unexpected $50 billion.  But, his vaults are only designed to store $100 billion and he already has $91.  He would be faced with a terrible dilemma: what to do with all this extra money?  His solution?  He’ll just build a large vault that is easily capable of holding all the extra wealth.  Then he’ll sit back and take it easy.  This is pretty much what the man in Jesus’ parable did.  He all of a sudden became flushed with assets and had to figure out what to do with them.  His solution was to build bigger facilities to handle them.  Makes sense, right?  You’d do the same thing.  If you won the lottery you would go to the bank and create a new account or three to safely store all the money.  That’s smart finances 101.  So why does God jump down the guy’s throat at the end of the story?  How was this guy not rich toward God?

Let’s look at this for a minute.  The key to understanding what’s going on here is found in v. 19.  What’d the man say there in his little self-talk?  Remember?  He said, “Soul [I guess that’s how people talked to themselves back them], you have ample good laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry.”  Do you see it?  This guy figured that he had enough for him to sit back, relax, and take life easy.  He took the attitude that all of this extra wealth was simply for him to enjoy, he had more than enough to enjoy it for the rest of his life without having to worry about anything else, and so he was going to do just that.

Okay, but why does Jesus make up this story about a guy with this kind of attitude?  Because it’s the same attitude the original questioner had.  Wait…no.  All that guy wanted was for Jesus to use the authority everybody assumed He had and help him received what everybody considered to be rightly his.  And, Jesus didn’t disagree.  Before warning him to watch his attitude all Jesus said was that He didn’t want to get in the middle of this family dispute.  He probably agreed that the older brother was out of line and needed to do what was right by this man.  He simply wasn’t going to be the one to force the issue.  But still, the man’s attitude was problematic.  The problem wasn’t that he wanted what that to which he was legally entitled.  The problem was that he considered it his to be used however he pleased.  Now, maybe he wanted to get his portion of the estate so he could set up a foundation to help underprivileged kids, but more than likely he wanted it so he could go back home and enjoy it…just like you or I would have done.  No, no, no, the problem here was that he assumed it was his to consume.  The man in the parable assumed his influx of wealth was simply for him to consume.  These guys made an assumption of consumption and it was threatening the size of their world.

You see, when we assume that things are simply ours to consume, we limit ourselves to their consumption.  When they are gone, they’re gone.  We may get a little high from them, but once that’s gone we’re back to square one.  When we make the assumption of consumption we treat stuff like food.  When you eat food, it’s gone.  You get some energy from it, store some of as fat to be burned as energy later…or not…and dump the rest as waste.  That’s it.  Lisa and I go on occasion to a Tuscan restaurant at Stony Point called Brio’s.  They have a Kansas City strip (some folks out here call it a New York strip, but it was originally known as a Kansas City strip until some big city snobs in the 1800s decided their fancy steak couldn’t be named after a cow town…but I’m not bitter) that easily ranks as one of the top 3 steaks I’ve had anywhere and that includes Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris.  I eat until I’m near exploding every time we go and leave blissfully fat and happy.  But, the next morning, I’m hungry again.  It’s a pointless cycle.  Yes, eating does keep us alive, it has that much going for it, but it’s really a futile exercise.  In the same way, when we reduce the stuff God has given us to manage to this futile cycle of assume, consume, repeat, we are shrinking our world down to almost nothing.  We get stuff, we use it, and it’s gone.  What’s the point?  The assumption of consumption leads to small living.

When we assume that the stuff we have is simply there for us to use how we see fit—even if we happen to see fit to give a regular portion of it away—we are taking up the same attitude as Jesus’ questioner and the rich man in the parable.  It’s an attitude that is not rich toward God, but rather rich toward ourselves.  And again, even folks who give consistently can do so from the position of this assumption of consumption.  They give almost as if they are doing God a favor.  It pleases me to use my wealth to advance kingdom causes and so I give generously.  But, as long as this assumption of consumption is in place, it’s not doing us any long term good.  We get, we use it, and it’s gone.  In the end, we’re left with nothing but ourselves and the tiny little world we inhabit.  The assumption of consumption leads to small living.

Incidentally, God the Father was confronting this attitude through the prophets a long time before God the Son had to deal with it in person.  After the people of Israel returned from the exile they were all gung-ho about getting things rebuilt for a while.  Eventually, though, the ardor cooled a bit.  They had gotten the walls repaired and the foundations for the new temple laid during the big push, but once they got that far they settled in and focused on themselves.  They made the assumption of consumption and set spiritual matters to the side.  God let things run like this for a while, but He knew they were on a path that was leading them nowhere fast and so He sent the prophet Haggai to call them back to action.  Right at the beginning of Haggai’s short message he draws their attention to the problems with the assumption of consumption.  Listen to this from Haggai 1:5: “Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways.  You have sown much, and harvested little.  You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill.  You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm.  And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.”

Do you see what was going on here?  The people were going through all the normal motions of life just like you and I do, but because they were doing them with this assumption of consumption firmly in place, they weren’t getting them anywhere.  They were living in a tiny little world that kept them going around in tiny little circles, always consuming but never staying full for long, and they somehow thought that was good enough.  The assumption of consumption leads to small living.

So then, what do we do with this?  How do we avoid the small living that comes with the assumption of consumption?  Well, here are four attitudes we need to avoid, one we need to adopt, and the promise of a fuller answer next week.  The first two go together.  They are the twin but opposite errors we often make when we get stuff.  The first twin is Spend.  For many folks their first thought upon getting stuff is how they can use it on themselves right now.  We don’t need to spend much time here because that’s not a huge problem for this group.  The second twin, though, may surprise you: Save.  Of course we shouldn’t think to spend every dime we get, but neither should we save all of them.  Both of these attitudes stem from this assumption of consumption.  The man who asked Jesus to intervene with his brother represents the first twin and the man in the parable represents the second.  Many folks who rail against profligate spending habits of the country easily fall prey to this second twin.  Now don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with saving for a rainy.  But, God was also pretty clear in Genesis 9 that He’s not going to flood the earth again.  Saving is a fine thing in and of itself.  But saving predicated on the idea that it is all ours to spend later is a problem.  It’s a form of this assumption of consumption, and the assumption of consumption leads to small living.

The second two go together as well: jealousy and covetousness.  Jealousy is getting upset that someone has gotten something you haven’t.  This is painfully easy to see in young kids.  I watch the green-eyed monster rear its head on a regular basis in my house.  As we grow, the tendency toward jealousy doesn’t go away; we just learn to express it in more socially acceptable ways.  But, if jealousy is getting upset that someone has gotten something you haven’t, covetousness is the logical next step.  Covetousness is wanting it.  And this is not simply thinking, “Oh, that would be nice to have,” but rather a fixated desire that causes us to look at the things we already have as insufficient.  Both of these ideas spawn from this assumption of consumption in that they work on the premise that once we getting the object of our anger and longing it is ours for the enjoying.  This is not the case.  The assumption of consumption leads to small living.

 

So what’s the alternative?  We must constantly and aggressively remind ourselves that nothing we have is really ours.  It isn’t intended simply for us to use and enjoy although God does expect us to use and enjoy it.  We should use and enjoy to our heart’s content, but those must come through the lens of something bigger.  The assumption of consumption leads to small living.  Come back next week as we wrap up this series and we will see the frame of reference that allows us to get this right, that allows us to live in a big, big world.  See you then.