The PEER Conference of 2002
Theodore J. Wardlaw
This may sound like heresy in a crowd like this, but I want to begin this morning by thanking God for these tumbling, humbling financial times through which we’re living these days. Not that I won’t be equally grateful when they are over for awhile. Not that I, or any of us, didn’t enjoy it—and even take a little credit for it—when, day after day and week after week and year after year—the bulls just kept on running, and all the indications pointed north, and financial trees kept growing endlessly up to the sky. Not that we didn’t enjoy those times, too, for that truly was a fun ride.
I served this church during that long run, and watched this church’s endowment quintuple itself; and was even tempted once in a while, God help me, to presume somehow to take some credit for it. This in spite of the fact that I never really understood it all. In fact, I asked my dear friend Tony Amos to explain our endowment to me once, and he did; and then I begged him never to explain it to me again. It was too complicated for my French Impressionistic mind. Nonetheless, I enjoyed serving this church during those fat economic years. And I would have preferred, if I could have had my druthers, to preach to you during one of those years. I might have brought a different sermon.
But today, our challenge, I think, is to thank God for these financial times; and to ponder what faithful thing we might learn from them.
And here to help us today is a man who, like ourselves, is rather successful. He's the main character in the parable that has been read to you this morning. We don't know how old he is--maybe he's fresh out of graduate school; maybe he’s in his mid-thirties or mid forties; maybe he's in his most productive years, financially speaking; maybe he's living off of his assets; we don't know, for sure. It says in the text that he's a farmer who has barns and barns and bigger barns, but it's probably not important how the fortune gets made. He could just as easily have been a prominent attorney, or a banker, or a doctor, or a tall-steeple preacher, even, or the owner of a Pontiac dealership. What is important is that he's a first-class success as the world defines that word. He’s probably, therefore, a Presbyterian; and when he makes just a bit more money, he’ll probably become an Episcopalian. He's a person who surveys all the surrounding territory--the ample goods able to be laid up for many years; the state-of-the-art storehouses that can hold all the stuff; the symbols, whatever they may be, of how "living well is the best revenge"--here is a person who sizes it all up and who decides that all of the credentials and all of those possessions have an ultimate kind of value.
They can do that to us, these credentials and these possessions. They can do that to us. I remember a few years ago here in Atlanta that the movie “Godzilla” was big, and a lot of the MARTA buses here in Atlanta were advertising it. They captured my attention because I could pull up to a stoplight in my little Honda Civic and note that plastered across the side of each bus, in big, arresting letters, was the statement: “His foot is as long as this bus.” And then beneath it, the slogan of the movie: “Size does matter.” One film critic wrote that “the most terrifying thing about the movie…isn’t that the creature stomps New Yorkers to death…No, it’s the realization, as you sit with your giant Coke and bucket of popcorn in stadium seating in a theater with sixteen screens, that the beast is one of us.”
I mean, after all, what do you see in this country these days, if not big? Big houses, and big hamburgers, and big stores, and big TV’s, and big pizza, and big pants. We love Big! I’ve just moved to Texas, where they drive big cars the size of subdivisions. We love Big! Big barns and bigger barns. Never before has big been as big as it is now. One consumer psychologist puts it this way: “Large things compensate for our vulnerability,” she says. “It gives us insulation, the feeling that we’re less likely to die.” Well, maybe. But does Ted Turner really need another ranch to persuade himself that he’s immortal? Does Evander Holyfield need a 54,000-square-foot mansion with eleven bedrooms and seventeen bathrooms? Does Bill Gates need another billion dollars? When is Big big enough? When will it be big enough for you? And, more importantly, what will you do with it?
This person in our text looks at all the evidence of Big, and thinks out loud, “What should I do?” and, in a little private soliloquy, concludes, “I will do this: I will build…and store…and I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”
Did you hear that? It is the soul that is addressed. Which tells us, I think, that some of our decisions about what we value go deeper than just choosing a profession or deciding what neighborhood we want to live in or where our kids are going to go to school. Some of the decisions about what we value are decisions which go all the way down to that place deep inside us where what is at stake is our soul.
Do you remember the musical “Rent”? It's a musical about some contemporary bohemians living in the East Village of New York. They are a mixed bag of junkies and cynical idealists and cultural revolutionaries; but in the midst of all of their pathos, they are people who have an uncanny ability to tell the truth about the world as they see it. One particularly gripping song describes our culture with twenty-twenty vision, I think:
“Don’t breathe too deep
Don’t think all day
Dive into work
Drive the other way
That drip of hurt
That pint of shame
Just play the game.
You’re living in America
At the end of the millenium
You’re living in America
Leave your conscience at the tone.
And when you’re living in America
At the end of the millenium
You are what you own.”
That, my friends, is the great lie of our culture—that we are what we own. That great lie is, in fact, the number one enemy of the soul.
“Soul,” he says, “you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” And just here in the parable is where God intervenes, and says, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
The problem here with what attacks and devours the soul is not what it appears to be at face value. It’s not wealth or achievement per se. Don’t go away from this occasion thinking that the preacher tried to dismantle our attachment to endowments and the careful management of wealth. That’s not the problem here. The foolishness of this person lies instead in his presumption of ownership with which he approaches everything he has. Concentrating on my, my, my, my, my, he discovers too late that everything he has, even his own being, is a short-term loan from God.
Or, to put it another way, this person’s problem is that he doesn’t know how to tell time. I don’t mean, how to look at his watch and discern that it’s about 9:35 A.M.; but how to look at life and to distinguish the temporary from the permanent, and the transitory from the eternal. And since he doesn’t know how to tell time, he looks at all that he has—all of those things which separate him, by the way, from any sense of living in community with others—and decides that these things are what have ultimate value for him. He doesn’t know the time. He doesn’t know how late it is. He doesn’t know how to tell time, and so he says, “I am what I own.”
How good are you at measuring value, and at telling time?
Will Willimon, the Chaplain up at Duke University, wrote recently of a phone call he received one night from someone about a year out of Duke. It was late in the evening, and she began by saying, “I’m here at the office, and, as usual, I’m eating cold Chinese at my computer.” Her brokerage firm hired six people just out of college, telling them that only three would be needed at the end of two years. She can’t be the first to leave the office in the evening—there’s too much at stake. Willimon asked if she was in a relationship, and she said, “Are you kidding? Nobody wants to date over a copier machine.”
Bless her heart! She's just starting out, and this is what she's learning! It is no easy thing, this business of measuring what we value, of telling time.
Stephen Carter, the sociologist, in a book on civility (it’s about time for a book on civility), has drawn a lesson about American life from the way in which railroads, as they came in in the nineteenth century, changed the way we approached travel—and maybe more than just travel. With the advent of railroads, it became the case that, for the first time in human history, horseback was not the fastest way of traveling. But it also became the case that travel took place necessarily in groups. Nobody but the very rich could afford to travel alone. One bought a ticket, and sat down in a train car full of strangers. “This remarkable new technology worked as well as it did,” writes Carter, “because the travelers understood their obligation to treat each other well.” Books were written about proper behavior on railroads, and sensible rules were developed. One rule, for example, was that
William H. Willimon, “Better Than,” the baccalaureate address preached at Duke University in 1996. “whispering, loud talking, immoderate laughing, and singing should not be indulged by any passenger.” Another rule was that “Passengers should not gaze at one another in an embarrassing way.” Carter writes that conductors were soon cracking down on passengers who indulged personal preferences at the expense of other passengers.”
And then he makes this observation: “To travel so far together, packed shoulder to shoulder like chess pieces in their little box, everybody had to behave, or the ride would become intolerable. Everyone followed the rules for the sake of their fellow passengers, and they did so…out of a spirit of self-denial and the self-sacrifice of one’s own comfort for another’s. Alone of God’s creation,” he concludes, “human beings can make those choices, setting aside their own needs and desires for the sake of living in society with others. And so this nineteenth-century understanding captures two of the gifts that civility brings to our lives: First, it calls on us to sacrifice for others as we travel through life. And second, it makes the ride tolerable.”
Whatever else the Gospel does, whatever else the church does; it acknowledges what is good and redemptive about traveling through life--packed shoulder to shoulder like chess pieces in a world full of strangers--and it holds continually before us a way of measuring value that is more important than what we own.
Please forgive me if I sound like I’ve got this whole business about measuring value all figured out. I don’t. I couldn't do another thing in the world besides be a minister. I love being a minister. But in my years of ministry, I have discovered, even in this high calling, a landscape littered with our own churchly, tall steeple versions of barns and bigger barns. I served one of them, as a matter of fact. The only difference is that our barns have crosses on top; other than that, it’s so often the same insidious game. So, over and over again, I, too, need to be reminded of the truth of the Gospel, that life is measured not in terms of what we own, but in terms of Who owns us.
I get reminded of that all the time. I had lunch not long ago with a man who lives in the Northeast, but who was involved for a time with a very exciting project here in Atlanta. He’s a bright guy, nationally recognized in his work, a gifted and effective leader, at the top of his game, really. He was in town, so we had lunch. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years, and so I said, “You look great.” He said, “Yeah, I feel great…now.” I said, “What do you mean?” And then he told me about being poised, about two years ago, to take a six-month sabbatical in order to write a book. And right before that sabbatical was to begin, he went to the doctor for a routine check-up. The doctor looked him over, ordered some tests, and said, “Cancer.” More tests, an operation, recuperation, so much for the six month sabbatical. “I’m doing fine now,” he said. “But something like this changes everything.”
I said, “What’s different?”
He said, “I had a chance to look at all that I had done, and to ask myself the question, `Does any of this make the world a better place?’” He said, “Now I’m trying to live as if time is my ally as I try to do something really useful with my life.” He said, “The main thing that’s different is that I used to think I owned my time, and now I don’t.
Would you accept these words of his as maybe a message to this group today from—who knows?—that man in our text with all the barns? Would you hear these words as maybe the chastened awareness of one who had forgotten for a while that the essential question of life is not "Where can I put all my stuff?” but is instead “Who, to begin with, has placed me here in the world on loan?”
Meryl Streep, the actress, gave the baccalaureate address several years ago at Vassar; and, in it, she said, “You’re going out into the real world. Do not expect the real world to be like college,” she said. Then she paused and said, “It’s more like high school.”
Which is another way of putting what I’ve been trying to say. There’s so much in our culture that is just like high school! There's competition and conspicuous consumption and acquisitiveness that doesn’t satisfy and a lot of shallowness and pettiness and, in all, a whole lot of what I call “cultural adolescence.”
So, for sure, we need to endure the lean times. For sure, we need to make careful and faithful decisions that will enable the various institutions we represent to batten the hatches and ride out the storm. But mainly, for God’ sake—for God’s sake—we need to remember that we and our means are here on loan. That it’s not just what we own that matters, but Who owns us—One Who once said that the more you give away in love, the more you are. And not just for the sake of other people, but for your own sakes, too. For the sake, finally, of your very soul.