Determining the Value

When I was a young boy, I used to love to watch the Price is Right on an old black and white TV we had at the time. Sitting far too close to the television, I would watch as Bob Barker called the next contestant up from the studio audience with his famous phrase, “Martha Smith, come on down, you’re the next contestant on the Price is Right!”

Of all the games the show featured, my favorite to watch was the Mountain Climber game.

You may remember this one: A contestant stood in front of a gameboard which had this huge ascending mountain slope. At the bottom of the mountain was this little mountain man with pickax and tattered clothes and leading him up the mountain were 25 steps. The little mountain man began the game at the foot of the mountain and during the game he would inevitably climb the ridge toward the cliff at the top.

As with most games on the show, the contestant’s job was to determine the value of several items that could be purchased at any grocery store by guessing the actual retail price of each one. Usually there were three items, and one at a time, the contestant would try to arrange a series of given numbers in the correct order to match the right price with the right item.

If the contestant missed the price of the item, the mountain man would move one step up the slope for every dollar the contestant was off the price, and if the mark was missed too many times, the mountain man would go over the cliff and plummet to his demise to the disappointment of the audience and the sound of the buzzer, and Bob would usher the contestant off the stage.

If the contestant correctly determined the value of the items without sending the mountain man over the cliff, she would win the three small items she had correctly determined the value of and a large curtain would be opened showing her what else she had won – a brand new car, a jet ski, or perhaps a vacation.

On first glance, the Scripture texts we heard today seem to address whether or not we can determine the value of the possessions in our life.

The writer of Ecclesiastes is convinced that the value of all our possessions – cars, homes, investments, or whatever might be behind the curtain of our secret desires for pleasure and comfort and luxury – is nothing. No matter what we have, the king is convinced, it’s all worth nothing because after all we can’t live this life on earth as it is forever, and in the end, we will leave our things to those who come after us, as he knew he would and as he did.

The psalmist agrees and composes beautiful lines telling how the 1% die just like the rest of us and the grave is their home forever, even if they might have had streets or coliseums or national holidays or cities named for them. Small gravestones and mighty monuments alike are worn down by the persistent rain and wind of a thousand years on this earth after we come and go.

And then Jesus tells a man in the crowd who has gathered around him that he has no interest in judging between family members about who should receive what inheritance, even though a rabbi would be expected to weigh in on just such a conversation, and instead Jesus reminds the man that our assets are not worth more than our relationship with one another and with God. Our possessions should not possess us, Jesus seems to say to the man and to us.

How often have we been like the man in the parable?
The man finds himself with a superabundance of wealth – too many crops – so that they fill up his barn to overflowing. He has to decide what to do with all this, and so he decides to pull down his barns and build bigger barns.

He might have also had a house with rooms packed full of valuable furniture and decorations, closets busting at the seams with clothes and shoes, an attic filled with more things that won’t fit in the house, a refrigerator packed with goodies, and too much food on his plate to even finish.

The man never even talks to anyone but himself. He never thinks about who might be able to use the extra things he has. He never knocks on a neighbor’s door to see if they’d like to join him at the table. He forgot the Christian adage that if you have two coats in your closet you have someone else’s coat in your closet.

This man mis-values the things in his life.

And like a Price-is-Right host, you can almost see Jesus holding that funny, long, spindly, microphone and looking into our home and into our very soul, trying to tell us that when we incorrectly determine the value of the things that fill up our lives – the things we comb through on the rack, and search for online, and dream about holding as our own – that we too fall headlong like the little mountain man off the top of the cliff down, down to ruin.

So at first these Scriptures seem to speak to the value of our possessions, but I think they invite us even further, to pause, to think, and to determine what is the value of our very life.
If its true that all is vanity, and all our work is for things that only pass away, then what is life for?

If its true that the wise and the foolish meet the same end, what is the purpose of working for wisdom and what are we to do with our lives?

With his parable, Jesus invites us to consider the heart of the matter and think on what it might mean to be rich towards God.

With his story, Jesus means to shake us up and wake us up and to set our minds on the things that are of God, to seek the things that are above, to hope for the things of Christ.
Every day we are being raised to new life in Christ. Every day we are dying to the old ways of our greed.

Every day we have a chance to give away the coat in the closet we don’t wear. Every day we have an opportunity to see our whole life and all our possessions as gifts from God and to consult his guidance and even the guidance of one another about how best to use them for God’s mission in the world.

Our time and our talents and our treasure belong to God – so it is no strange thing for members of our congregation to go to Jonesville, VA, to spend a week sweating and working to repair homes, or to spend a Saturday morning serving in food pantries, or to offer our gift of music in worship.

Everything you have is a gift.

All you have belongs to God and is entrusted to you so that you might use it to bring care to your neighbor and to point the world to Christ.

Jesus invites us to ask:

What is valuable about this life?

What is eternal?

What is worth giving?

The story about Lee Dingle was in the local news across North Carolina last week, as well as on national news syndicates like CNN.

Lee was a 37-years-old engineer and father of two biological children, and with his wife, Shannon, the adoptive father of four additional children, one with special needs.

On Friday, July 19, just about 3 weeks ago, Lee was at Oak Island Beach in the ocean playing with his kids when a wave of freakish power pushed his head to the ground and broke his neck. His children and several bystanders tried to save Lee, but they were unsuccessful.

I knew Lee and worked with him at Lutheridge, a Lutheran summer camp in NC in the summer of 2002. I knew him as a sweet, caring, and focused counselor, who loved kids.

Perhaps part of the reason that the story became nation-wide news is that Lee was an organ donor and Carolina Donor Services reported that the organs Lee donated will save four lives, give sight to one or two people, and ultimately help 55 people altogether.

Christ’s love was at work in Lee Dingle and motivated his valuation of life – the way he gave of himself in life and in death.

On her blog this past week Shannon posted what she said at the funeral:

She said, “C.S. Lewis once wrote that death is an amputation, and it sure feels that way right now. I feel like we are missing a part of ourselves. I don’t think C.S. Lewis was right, though.

“His analogy is based in the ableism that says amputation lessens a person, but I know all of us who were touched by Lee are made better and fuller, our hearts made even more whole, by having him in our lives. The night I told the kids (the news), one of them asked me, “why does this place right here hurt so badly?” I think a lot of us relate to that right now. And I’ll tell you what I told him, “it’s because you love Daddy big and he loved you big. We have big hurt right now because we had big love.”

Shannon finished by saying, “And having known Lee, none of us are made less by any of this. He made us all more, more of the people who God created us to be.”

In the end we will all fall headlong off the mountaintop of this life, spilling the prizes and the things we have gathered, but we have one who loves us BIG.

We have a God who loves us so big and a God who has determined our life to be so valuable as to be worth dying for.

Thanks be to God, we have a God who has created us to be generous and giving, because we are made in God’s image.

Here’s the secret about the meaning of life:

We think that the big prize is behind the big curtain just waiting to be won, but the big prize is all of us playing the game together, gathered by Christ, the host, whose big love invites the whole world to his table of mercy and forgiveness, where we all receive the same care and a place forever.

Thanks be to God.


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