The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 10/12/97
Text: Mark 10:17-31
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

"A friend in need is a friend indeed." Familiar old aphorism. Do you believe it? Do you UNDERSTAND IT? For a long time, I did not - it is not the clearest. I wondered why in the world someone who is in need should be considered a genuine friend. Instead I rather agreed with whichever wag adjusted the saying to "A friend in need is a PEST!" Finally I realized that the original version meant that a friend to YOU when YOU are in need is a friend indeed. AHA! THAT I believe.

Of course, the gospel expects Christians to befriend those who need help. The Good Samaritan story pops to mind. Juxtapose that with our ongoing FRIENDSHIP MONTH at St. Paul, the annual Greensboro CROP Walk this afternoon, the reappearance of World Food Day on the calendar this Thursday, and a focus on FRIENDS who happen to be in NEED is a natural. On top of that, the church's lectionary Gospel lesson, that sad story of the "Rich Young Ruler" (even though Mark's account does not say either "young" or "ruler"), holds up a huge red flag about the way we are often overly-enamored of our possessions. If there are indeed friends in need, the biggest reason is that their friends have not jumped in to help, Ted Turner and his recent billion-dollar gift notwithstanding (or you and me, either, sad to say).

By the way, to put Ted's well-publicized largess in perspective, listen to the following:

As unbelievable as it may sound, the combined wealth of the world's seven richest people could end world poverty. A United Nations Human Development Report recently published (and reported in the June 22, 1997 issue of Manchester Guardian Weekly) notes that an $80 billion anti-poverty program could provide access to basic social services and eradicate poverty. This, the UN report estimates, is equivalent to the net worth of just seven billionaires. The net worth of 10 billionaires, according to the report, is worth 1.5 times the combined national income of the 48 least developed countries.(1)

I guess that let's us off the hook, eh? None of us are in the Bill Gates or Ted Turner category. We are not WEALTHY! Not if we look at those with more than we have. But if we change the perspective a bit, and look at the countless millions on our planet whose lifestyle cannot hold a candle to ours, suddenly the picture changes. Not only do we have more money, but more leisure, more mobility, more choices, modern health care, and a life expectancy that is decades longer than citizens of the less developed world. Yes, Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you," and we admit, he was not talking about us.

Last month on Public Television, an intriguing hour opened as we saw a patient in a doctor's office. She whines, "I feel so awful, so bloated," and the doctor tells her, "I'm afraid you're suffering from...TA-DA...AFFLUENZA," (which happens to be the title of this special).(2) Then we cut to a "real doctor" (which is exactly how he is identified on-screen), who insists that Affluenza is a "major disease, no question about it," and he is followed by a "real psychologist" who informs us, "Many people suffer from it, but few are aware they are suffering from it."

Americans are spending more, but enjoying it less, and there is a consensus out there that, as a society, we are too greedy, too materialistic. Indeed, there is an even greater consensus that the children we are raising have been taught so well that they are even worse than us old folks. "Never before has so much meant so little to so many."

The hour offered some interesting insights. Our Gross Domestic Product is now twice as large as it was in the 1950's, yet many Americans report that their quality of life is not as high as it was in that era. In 1948, 4% of Americans owned dishwashers, 1% owned color TV's, there were no microwave ovens, VCR's or personal computers. Today, 50% of us own dishwashers, 97% own color TV's; Microwaves, VCRs and personal computers are everywhere. We now have more shopping malls than high schools, and speaking of malls, 70% of America visits one during the course of a week, more than twice as many of us who attend churches or synagogues.

In addition to the program itself, the producers made additional information available on the internet. For example, their website included a little quiz to test our knowledge of the problem. Check these out:(3)

  1. Which of the following is comparable to the size of a typical three-car garage?

    1. a basketball court
    2. a McDonald's restaurant
    3. an "RV" (recreational vehicle)
    4. the average home in the 1950's.
    5. Answer: d. Many of today's three-car garages occupy 900 square feet, just about the average size of an entire home in the 1950's. Many people use the extra garage space to store things they own and seldom use. Often we hear that Americans have lost ground economically and have less purchasing power. But Americans are buying more luxurious items, partly by working more and going deeply into debt. The homes they live in and the cars they drive today are often bigger and more technologically advanced than those purchased by their parents.
  2. The percentage of Americans calling themselves "very happy" reached its highest point in what year?

    1. 1957
    2. 1967
    3. 1977
    4. 1987
    5. Answer: a. The number of "very happy" people peaked in 1957, and has remained fairly stable or declined ever since. Even though we consume twice as much as we did in the 1950's, people were just as happy when they had less.
  3. How much of an average American's lifetime will be spent (on average) watching television commercials?

    1. 6 months
    2. 3 months
    3. 1 year
    4. 1.5 years
    5. Answer: c. In contrast, Americans on average spend only 40 minutes a week playing with their children, and working couples talk with one another on average only 12 minutes a day.
  4. True or false? Americans carry $1 billion in personal debt, not including real estate and mortgages.
  5. Answer: False. Americans carry $1 trillion in personal debt, approximately $4,000 for every man, woman and child, not including real estate and mortgages. On average, Americans save only 4 percent of their income, in contrast to the Japanese, who save an average of 16 percent.
  6. Which activity did more Americans do in 1996?

    1. graduate from college
    2. declare bankruptcy
    3. Answer: b. In 1996, more than 1 million Americans declared bankruptcy, three times as many as in 1986. Americans have more than 1 billion credit cards, and less than one-third of credit card holders pay off their balances each month.
  1. In the industrialized world, where is the U.S. ranked in terms of its income equality between the rich and the poor? (First being the most income-equal.)
    1. 1st
    2. 5th
    3. 12th
    4. 22nd
    5. Answer: d. The income disparity between the rich and the poor is greatest in the United States.
  2. The world's 358 billionaires together possess as much money as the poorest _____% of the world's population?

    1. 15 percent
    2. 30 percent
    3. 50 percent
    4. 10 percent
    5. Answer: c. Nearly 50 percent. The world's 358 billionaires' combined assets roughly equal the assets of the world's poorest 2.5 billion people.
  3. Since 1950, Americans alone have used more resources than:

    1. everyone who ever lived before them
    2. the combined Third World populations
    3. the Romans at the height of the Roman Empire
    4. all of the above
    5. Answer: All of the above. Since 1950, Americans alone have used more resources than everyone who ever lived before them. Each American individual uses up 20 tons of basic raw materials annually. Americans throw away 7-million cars a year, 2-million plastic bottles an hour, and enough aluminum cans annually to make six thousand DC-10 airplanes.
  4. Americans' total yearly waste would fill a convoy of garbage trucks long enough to:

    1. wrap around the earth six times
    2. reach half-way to the moon
    3. connect the North and South Poles
    4. build a bridge between North America and China
    5. Answer: a. and b. Even though Americans comprise only five percent of the world's population, in 1996 we used nearly a third of its resources and produced almost half of its hazardous waste. The average North American consumes five times as much as an average Mexican, 10 times as much as an average Chinese and 30 times as much as the average person in India.

Enough already. The picture is pretty clear. There is hope for us though. The program noted that, of the Americans who have voluntarily cut back their consumption, 86% say that they are happier as a result. In 1996, 5% of the "baby boom" generation reported practicing a strong form of voluntary simplicity. By the year 2000, some predict the number will rise to 15%.

I doubt that our friend from the gospel lesson would be inclined that way. His THINGS were too important. Strange, really. He was apparently a pretty sharp fellow, a first-in-the-class, wildly successful, model citizen type, even sincerely religious - the kind that Galilean mothers would want their babies to look up to. But he had a first century version of AFFLUENZA, and it was such a severe case that, of all the encounters seekers have with Jesus in Mark's gospel, this is the only one who responds to the Lord's invitation to "Follow me," with a deafeningly silent, "No way; I'm outta here!"

Has it ever struck you that we find ourselves much more concerned about this man's reaction to Jesus than what Jesus' instruction to him was? It seems so. Most often we are saddened at this special fellow's "Affluenza" and the fact that he is apparently possessed by his possessions rather than the other way around. But Jesus' instruction was not simply to get rid of the STUFF that was causing a problem; the instruction was "sell what you own, and GIVE THE MONEY TO THE POOR..." Once again, we are confronted with our Christian responsibility to those among us who are in need.

Folks to this day have a problem with that. The word continues to come that we resent giving money away to those who ought to be earning it for themselves. And behind that thought is another one that suspects that most poor people are poor because they brought it on themselves; it is their fault. So, "It's not the money; it's the principle of the thing." Really? If you remember nothing else from this message, remember this: anytime anyone tells you, "It's not the money, it's the principle of the thing," it's the money!

"How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God...It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

I wish this world worked as simply as seven billionaires giving everything away and, in the process, wiping out global poverty. Things are a bit more complicated than that. Still, there are gross injustices in our system which CAN be fixed through the generosity of those with the means. That is why we support Urban Ministry, why we have CROP Walks, why we support groups like the Society of St. Andrew and get out in the fields salvaging perfectly good food that would otherwise go to waste. Last month the National Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People approved the funding of 16 projects totaling over $700,000. The money comes from the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering to which you contribute each Easter:

  • The Gri-Ataru Women's Co-operative Food Farmer and Processing Society in Ghana will get $12,500 to buy 100 acres of land to cultivate maize, cassava, rice and cowpea, build a storage house and improve farming methods.

  • A Shia Women's Co-op Livestock and Snail Project in Ghana will receive $15,370 to develop farming and livestock production on a 50-acre property provided through local chiefs and the government. The farm will produce yams, cassava, goats, sheep and snails.

  • Launch Out into the Deep, PEJAMJO, (from Peter, James, John), in the Philippines will get $29,129 for a fishing project in which members will make their own boats and fishing gear and purchase motors so that they can fish for themselves.(4)

Just to name a few. That is happening because Presbyterians give. We have no choice. Faithfulness demands it.

You who are old enough no doubt remember that classic Jack Benny skit that has a robber approaching the tightwad comedian and demanding at gunpoint, "Your money or your life." After a frozen pause, the mugger says, "Well?" Benny responds, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking." We know. We know.

"A friend in need is a friend indeed." We know that too. Do you want to be that friend? I do. In the name of Jesus, I do.

Let us pray.

Lord, we admit we have the same problem with "Affluenza" that the rest of our society has. Help us cure it, please, so that we might be your faithful friends and friends indeed to those who need our help. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen!

1. Ministry of Money newsletter, August 1997, quoted by Carlos Wilton, via PresbyNet, "Preaching Stewardship," #1003, 10/1/97

2. A production of KCTS-TV and Oregon Public Broadcasting, John de Graaf, Producer, first broadcast nationally on PBS on 9/15/97


4. Julian Shipp, via PresbyNet, "Self-Development of People Committee Funds Projects Totaling $732,763," PCUSA News, #4473, 10/7/97

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