Recently I saw a bumper sticker that proclaimed, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Being curious, I went on line to discover the origin and meaning of this quote. Apparently, it was first coined by billionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes, although it is also the title of an episode from the original “Star Trek” series.
Forbes coined the phrase to describe his own and others’ materialistic quest. To many people, consumption is everything – and we need to have the latest phone, automobile, home, or trophy spouse. Yet, Forbes, like the rest of us was mortal and passed away several years ago, leading one commentator to note, “Those who die with the most toys are dead!”
Today’s scripture is highly countercultural and at first glance almost un-American. We glorify and measure success as a nation in terms of economic growth, consumption, and spending, and give little thought to the long-term environmental impact of our values. We delight in gadgets and baubles even if they serve virtually no purpose beyond momentary pleasure.
Greed is God in some quarters. We shouldn’t be surprised at the resume inflation that got Brian Williams in trouble. It is not enough to be ourselves and to honor our achievements; we need to present the world with larger than life visions of ourselves. Our daily life and occupations aren’t enough. We need to appear more heroic, more beautiful, more talented than we actually are, and so we inflate, exaggerate, and sometimes downright lie to look better than who we really are; as if left to our own devices we aren’t good enough and worthy of love.
Jesus’ words seem crazy in our current social and cultural context. Listen again, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life.”
Self-denial doesn’t go over well in our culture. Losing your life – letting go of status – makes no sense when winning is everything and security our highest goal.
Now, what could these words mean to us in our consumer-security oriented culture? After all, we own or want to own homes, make investments, receive pensions, put away money for retirement, and want to have some creature comforts and pleasures – we want to go out for a good meal, a filet mignon or lobster roll and margarita, or take trip to Florida or the Caribbean in the dead of winter. These are all good things and things I want, too: if you visit my home, you’ll see that we have plenty – books, two gas fireplaces, a couple laptops, a well-stocked refrigerator, and comfortable furniture and children’s toys strewn all over the place. And, so I ask myself, “Can I as an affluent consumer take Jesus’ words seriously?” or “Do I just want a prosperity gospel in which Jesus blesses my every desire, and following Jesus enhances my affluence and status?”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who was executed by Hitler’s minions, once spoke of the “cost of discipleship.” He believed in God’s grace that brings salvation to the worst of sinners. But he also believed that in the Germany of his time, grace had been cheapened – we accept God’s forgiveness and go about our lives as usual, making no lifestyle, economic, or behavioral changes in response to God’s sacrifice on our behalf.
Lent is a time to look at our values. On Ash Wednesday, we confessed our mortality and fallibility, and received ashes with the words, “Repent and believe the good news.” In other words, turn around and claim a new, more authentic and abundant life.
I think that when Jesus spoke of losing our lives to gain our souls, he meant that we need to let go of individualism, consumerism, and greed. He meant that we need to look beyond our own self-interest to care for others as much as we care for ourselves – we need to love our neighbors as ourselves even if that means sacrificing our time and treasure.
Jesus reminded us that sacrifice is at the heart of reality and that despite the inconvenience, a joyful life involves letting go of our agendas for the greater good. I experience this everyday: virtually every afternoon, Kate and I have our two grandchildren with us after preschool is over. To care for them in the afternoon, I have to get up earlier than I might like to prepare my sermons, bible studies, and church business. I have to manage my time well and cut short an afternoon coffee to pick up the boys. And, when the boys spend the night at our house, I have to sacrifice one of my greatest pleasures – my sunrise walk – so I can read to the boys and let Kate sleep in an extra hour. These are sacrifices, and I know you’ve made them, too, but they are sacrifices that make life meaningful and bring joy to two little boys’ hearts. Indeed along with my calling here at church and my marriage, these are the greatest joys of my life. I know that some of you have experienced the joy of sacrifice with caring for parents, children, grandchildren ailing spouses, beloved friends, and volunteering in the community. It was sometimes hard work, but that’s what it meant to be loving and faithful.
We are most attuned with God when let of the ego and its needs and accept who are as God’s beloved children and reach out to others, making their needs as important as our own. We need to let go of the small self, the ego, to embrace God’s good news that includes everyone.
Some of my friends speak of becoming “downwardly mobile.” They sacrifice certain creature comforts so that they can give generously to their church and programs that promote well-being of people they’ll never meet. They work a few hours less so they can volunteer at a soup kitchen, help out at church, tutor a child, coach a sports team or guide a scout troop. They work part-time and drive older cars and forgo couples’ holidays, so they can care for their children or grandchildren. They have a lifestyle in which the needs of their neighbors and strangers are as important as their own. And, they may “spend their children’s inheritance” on creating a legacy for their church’s current and ongoing mission or supporting an orphanage, program for unwed mothers, or at risk children.
We can go out for a good meal or take a cruise or warm weather. We should the good things of lifecelebrate life! But, we don’t need to keep up with the Kardashians, because we’ve chosen to follow Jesus. We may die with few toys or baubles, but I can assure you that we will grow older and face the realities of aging and uncertainty with greater peace of mind, a sense of connection with our neighbors and families, and awareness that we have left a treasure in the lives we have benefitted and we will hear words as we breathe our last, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Life is sacrifice, but when we let go, we let grow, and experience abundance even if our possessions are few and our reputation known only to a handful. We will have lived with integrity, generosity, and love, and in letting go, we will have gained everything – companionship with God in a journey that never ends and a legacy of joy in the hearts of our loved ones, neighbors, and strangers we’ll never meet.