The Lies of the American Dream
Youth & Young Adult Pastor Brian Pell
Good morning, guys. I just want you to know at the outset that I love being able to open God’s Word with you. I love getting to fit into this series for a few minutes and see what God has for us. So, let’s get to work…open your Bibles to Luke 12.
Can I be honest with you guys for a few minutes? For about six years now, I’ve had kind of a compelling vision for where I think God’s taking my life. And, I know that’s not really normal, to feel that strongly at the age of nineteen and to take direct steps to get there.
But, ever since a fateful time shooting a basketball outside my house early in college, I’ve known…I believed at the time that God wanted me to get married and have a family and lead a church with a group of friends in a major metropolitan area and seek the Kingdom of God for that city with ferocity and intention.
I’ve known that for six years now. And, admittedly, there are things within that that I don’t know yet. I don’t know who all should go with me to start it. I don’t even know for sure what metropolitan area it’ll be…might be Denver, but Kaitlyn and I are still trying to figure that stuff out.
Simultaneously, for those of you that have been young and idealistic…what tends to happen when you get a sense of God’s calling on your life? You start to dream really big, and I’m no exception. I want to lead a church that has a profound impact on a city. That’s my dream. I won’t even hit you with all the details, but that’s what I feel I’m being equipped for.
What’s the problem with that type of thinking? The problem is that God does what He wants, and there’s no guarantee my calling will lead to success. In my own heart and mind, I feel like those things are nearly assured, because I’ve been called. That’s not the case, though.
Just look at Scripture. God called people regularly to ministries that by most standards failed miserably. John the Baptist was beheaded in jail at a relatively young age. The prophet Jeremiah accused God of seducing him into his ministry.
What’s happened to me as I think about my calling? Well, some other things have crept in and infected my thoughts. And, I believe some of those are cultural and societal in nature.
If you’ve seen the title of the sermon, then you have some idea of where this is going. I’ve looked up a bunch of definitions of the American Dream, but I didn’t really like any of them. The American Dream is a national ethos, a set of ideals that, when combined with freedom, includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work.
It’s important to note, though, that these ideals have followed humanity across time, right? Like, the idea that an individual should be able to pursue his and his family’s prosperity is not unique to America. Where regime and government have actively opposed this idea, eventually the people fight back.
So, the title of the sermon implies that today’s text is somehow written to Americans, which is not the case. It’s written to humans, and human nature has a tendency to appear across time and across cultures. So, the best way I can describe these parts of our human nature is by addressing it as the American dream. Everybody on board with that?
That sort of thinking has impacted my view of what God has called me to. It gives me a subtle feeling of autonomy within my work. I feel like, if I work hard enough and get good enough, I can achieve the things I hope to achieve. And, that sort of thinking can lead to a usurping of God’s sovereignty in our minds and hearts. And, I believe that does happen. And, I believe Jesus believes that happens.
Let’s read Luke 12:13-21 – Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” 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.” And he 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.”
In this text, Jesus directly refutes three lies of what has become the American dream…this idea that personal achievement is my life’s goal. Through my dreams and my hard work and my achievement, I can find fulfillment. The first lie of fulfillment that we’re told is that of…
- Tangible security & comfort
Okay, the first lie of the American dream is that there’s fulfillment in tangible security and comfort.
Tangible just means physical. Like, I can touch it. Think, money and stuff.
This shouldn’t surprise us. Our human nature, according to Romans 1, leads us to want to worship creation rather than the Creator. In other words, our default position is not wanting God but wanting His stuff.
And, I love how this parable starts. Jesus is teaching and admonishing and maybe healing people, and out of nowhere what happens? Some buy decides it’s an appropriate time to air his grievances. And, this is just like us as people. When we have something that we think is big in our lives, it doesn’t matter what else is going on. Often we get tunnel vision and focus on our problems and wonder why more people aren’t focused on our problems.
So, this guy blurts out to Jesus, “Tell my brother to split our inheritance.”
If you really think about that statement, you realize just how whiny it sounds. And, if you had siblings growing up, you probably had the same guttural response that I did. That, quite literally, seems annoying. I’m amazed Jesus doesn’t smack the guy.
“Mom, he won’t stop poking me.” That’s what it feels like. And, I love reading Jesus’s response as if I were the one responding to the guy, “Man, who made me a judge over you?”
But, Jesus knows the heart of the man, because He’s God. And, He flips the script and turns it into a teaching point for the rest of the crowd.
He faces everyone and tells them to be on their guard against what? Covetousness. Okay, so this is at the heart of the issue. We now know for sure that the annoying guy from earlier was primarily concerned about money and stuff. He’s upset with his brother, and we don’t know exactly why…but we do know what his motivation is because Jesus lets us in.
And, what does Jesus say about covetousness? “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Hear me, I know not everyone in here is economically wealthy, or even economically stable. But, I think, if we’re being honest, we all fall into this trap. We desire comfort and we desire security. And, one way to get those things is to have different outfits for different days and having a house, right?
But, there’s a slight inclination in all of us. Whether you shop at high end stores or thrift shops, there’s a tendency to make those moments our security and comfort. And, when we don’t have those things, we often get frustrated or anxious.
Jesus says, “of course.” Of course you’ll be disappointed if that’s the well you go to for water. Possessions and physical comfort won’t be able to do it for you. Stuff breaks or becomes unfashionable. Gravity wins…we all get ugly.
Jesus is addressing this man and the rest of the crowd and us…and He’s letting us know that if our focus is on acquiring more, we’re going to miss out.
- Conceptual security & comfort
So, Jesus tells a story to further make His point. There’s a rich man whose land is doing really well. The guy has plenty in terms of resources. He has plenty in terms of space. He’s got a good life. He drew a good hand.
In all of his success and comfort, what happens to the guy? He starts to wonder what he’s going to do with all his stuff. “I’ve got so much of it that I don’t have room for it anymore.” And, if that isn’t true of us and the stuff we all pack into our homes, I don’t know what is. I’ve been into some of your homes.
The guy is growing more crops than he can store, so what does he think to do? I’ll build bigger barns. And this, friends, is the American dream at its finest and most broken. Once we reach a moderate level of success, what do we do? Hoard, coast, and enjoy…
We create more space for all of our stuff. We get a better credit card. We decide to engage the stock market. We join a club. We buy a timeshare. And, on and on I could go.
There’s nothing wrong with those things, but what can happen if we’re not careful is we’ll fall into the trap of conceptual security and comfort. We start to get this feeling that there’s something more that I need to do. There’s somewhere else I need to invest. There’s some other place I need to visit. Like, comfort and security are always just barely out of reach, so I’ll reach little further.
And in the parable we’re given a sense that there are so many other better things that this successful guy could be engaging in…not the least of which is getting to know the God of the universe and actually sharing some of his success with others. This guy wants to build some asinine, bigger barn, when in reality he’s missing out on all of the things that life is truly offering him.
And, Jesus points this out for us. He, quite honestly, points at us. I mean for goodness’ sake; I love shoe shopping. And, I’m really excited about a pair of shoes I got for my birthday. I felt it. When I wear them, I feel like I’ve arrived at comfort and security. I look like how I want to look. But, the reality is that I’m a few months away from liking another pair of shoes more, so the cycle of wanting to feel comfort and security internally continues.
If we’re not going to right well for water, we’re always going to end up thirsty. That’s the illusion of the American dream. That we can quench our thirst if we work hard enough and do things the right way. It’s a farce.
- Personal security & comfort
And, as Jesus wraps up the parable, we see exactly why this successful man’s life is a sham – “so is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
The guy in this parable has made a mistake that we all make at some point in our lives…we become about us first. We become about us first. Our highest priority is ourselves, and we all do it.
“I am all I need to be happy.” “I don’t need anybody else.” “I can handle this.” “Follow your heart.”
I mean, this sort of thinking is rampant in modern culture. Across history you see a great emphasis placed on the family and one’s role within the family. Since the Enlightenment, there’s been deep-rooted individualism in how we view the world.
There’s a pervasive lie that seeps into every one of our lives, and it’s that within myself I can be happy. I can be happy as long as I get disciplined about my work. I can be happy as long as I work out and eat well. And, the reverse is also everywhere…I’m fine and can be happy with how I look or how I think or what I value, and everyone else can just catch up with that.
And, the lie is that there’s fulfillment within personal security and comfort.
As if there’s fulfillment within yourself…listen to me, nobody tries to subvert your own happiness more than you do. I mean, who is your harshest critic most of the time? Who do you get most frustrated with for not reaching goals? Who tries to convince you to do or say things you shouldn’t more than you do?
And, the Bible teaches us this: Jeremiah 17:9 – The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
Yet, this is what we do, and I’m no exception. I don’t trust anybody else’s analysis of a situation as much as I trust my own. I often go about my day thinking primarily about my stuff, my tasks, my goals, my hopes.
And, Jesus is telling us that’s not how we were designed to work. Jesus implies that this guy is missing all of the most important things in life because he’s “not rich toward God.”
What’s being rich toward God? Most people have an intuitive answer to that question, including nonbelievers. Lots of people would say it looks something like praying and meditating, it looks like holding good morals, it looks like trying to be kind and love people, it looks like believing in God and Jesus.
But, I think we miss the more basic but more true answer to the question. The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is, “What is the chief end of man?” In other words, why are we here? What’s our purpose as living beings?
Can anybody tell me the answer? “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”
Obviously, that quote isn’t from the Bible, but it’s based on the truths of the Bible. Our life does have purpose. We do have value. We’re not just randomly going through our day till we can get home to watch more TV. We’re more than that. Where we are, and who we are, and what we enjoy is all by design.
All of those things were given to us so that we could glorify God and enjoy Him. So, there’s a reason that I have different gifts and like different music than just about anybody in here. And, the same is true for you. Because God is using those things, and because God draws me to Himself through those things.
And, God loves us enough to allow us to be able to bring Him glory and enjoy Him. That’s Jesus. That’s why we have Jesus. Without Him we’d be stuck in our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world. But, Jesus absorbing our sin frees us to be able to enjoy God. We get to enjoy God.
So, the reality is that there’s a way out for the man in the parable. The solution to His problems isn’t bigger barns, in some ways it might be smaller barns. The solution to His problems is Jesus, because that’s where fulfillment can be found.
Listen to me, your American dream, regardless of its success, cannot and will not solve your problems. It may solve little ones. Like, that guy may have been able to store his crops without any issues. But, it creates other problems of identity and the need to be fulfilled by things that cannot fulfill you.
There is only one place where we can go to be fulfilled. There’s only one place where we get freedom. There’s only one place we feel peace. And they’re all with Jesus. He is the change agent. He creates that for us.
More stuff won’t solve anything, that next, better thing won’t solve anything, and you can’t solve these things. Only Jesus can.
Be thankful today that God has communicated that to you. Either you’re a Christian and you know this conceptually, though you may drift away sometimes. Or, you’re a non-Christian, and God is wooing you. Right now. Either way, He’s after you, and He loves you. Enjoy that truth today.