Sermon for Sunday, August 4, 2019 – RICH TOWARD GOD
Preached at Sunday Assembly of Holy Wisdom Monastery, Middleton, WI
Texts are Luke 12:13-21 with a reference to Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Here in America’s breadbasket, amid maturing fields of corn and beans and pastures filled with herds of cows, today’s Gospel passage is particularly apt. I grew up in similar farm country on western Iowa’s rolling, hilly slopes near the Missouri River. Recently I drove out to my hometown and spent a few days visiting family and preaching at a small town church where a friend is the pastor. I must say, I’ve never seen the countryside more lush and green. Anticipation of the harvest is running high with all these growing, ripening fields of grain. The twice weekly farmers markets across the street from our condo at Hilldale suggest Wisconsin producers are having a good year too. Even that prolific zucchini seems, well, more prolific. My late father, a great gardener, said he believed zucchini, along with cockroaches, would be the only things to survive nuclear winter!
All this growing green around us is a fitting backdrop for the story we heard from Luke’s Gospel. Like the rich farmer in Jesus’ tale, we also gather in the abundance of the earth, albeit not crops. Most of us aren’t farmers. Our gathering is mostly greenbacks. So perhaps this is a good time to ask the question in Jesus’ parable, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
The parable and the incident from which it rose remind us to be intentional about what we plan to do with the money and the stuff from the work of our hands. When was the last time any of us sat down and prayed about the wise stewardship and eventual distribution of our worldly goods? When was the last time any of us looked beyond the balance between our paycheck or pension and our bills and ask the hard question, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Or paraphrased another way, “For whom am I doing this and why?”
This parable is often called “the rich fool.” So I find it wonderfully ironic that it is paired with a passage from that dour, down-in-the-mouth Hebrew philosopher, Koheleth, certainly nobody’s fool, who laments that all is vanity, that human toil is unending, and that wisdom avails nothing because death comes to all, wise and simple, rich and poor, alike.
You see, there is a problem with this little parable. We’d like to believe it only applies to other people, and not to us. But the truth is, it applies to all of us who are just as guilty as the rich fool was of building bigger and bigger barns to house more and more of our stuff. Of course, we don’t build literal barns, but we still have our 21st-century equivalents!
When we NEED to own both a home and a summer home, or a home and a ski condo, or a home and a cabin cruiser, aren’t we putting away our goods in barns? When we NEED to put money into a pension fund, and an IRA, and the stock market, and a few CDs…and our spouse or partner does the same, aren’t we putting our goods away in barns? When we NEED to own more vehicles or flat screen televisions than there are people in the household, aren’t we putting goods away in figurative barns? When we NEED three sets of dinnerware (everyday, special, and holiday), when we NEED two dozen pairs of shoes, and ten watches; when we NEED more than one cell phone for each family member, aren’t we making the same mistake the rich fool made, not to mention the NEED to insure it all?
“And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
When I practiced law in small-town, rural Iowa, I remember daily gatherings at the local coffee shop. On one occasion the men around the table – mostly farmers – were teasing an elderly farmer – a very well-off farmer, I might add – about how tight he was with his money. One man said to him, “Nels, you know you can’t take it with you.” To which the old farmer responded without missing a beat, “I know, but the wife will bring it with her when she comes.” It’s a nice thought, but as the old Spanish proverb says, “There are no pockets in a shroud.” We cannot take any of our stuff with us when we die. But God has shown us how we are to live in relationship to our wealth. We are to share it with the same abundance that God exhibited in making it possible for us to enjoy it in the first place. As the old hymn rightly reminds us, “We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be; all that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.”
It is surprising to me how many people get all caught up about what the Bible says or what they think the Bible says about human sexuality, when the fact of the matter is the Bible – and Jesus- say a heck of lot more about money and possessions. There are hundreds and hundreds of warnings in scripture about the dangers of greed and hoarding and about placing our trust in our stuff, or even worse, making idols out of them.
And just so you know, I’m not preaching today as some kind of prophet pointing a finger, but rather as one who recognizes I also need to hear these hard truths. I have two dozen pair of shoes and more than ten watches! So perhaps this sermon has already struck a nerve. Our stuff – our material possessions, our bank accounts and investments – all represent many things to us – security, power, status, self-esteem, independence, enjoyment, anxiety, and worry…the list goes on and on.
In Luke, Jesus is approached by “someone in the crowd” who was obviously embroiled in a nasty family feud over an inheritance and was looking for an ally. As Ben Franklin once said, “If you want to know what people are like, share an INHERITANCE with them.”
While Jesus could have beaten down this inquiring man who wanted to know with many Bible texts, instead Jesus saw a teachable moment, and gave the man and the crowd, and all of us, a warning: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” which then prompted Jesus to tell the parable about the rich but foolish farmer.
I am not suggesting – nor do I believe Jesus is suggesting – that desiring to cover our basic needs is unimportant, though it’s also plain that Jesus told us we should stop worrying about such things. “God knows what you need,“ he said. Yet we are the worried wealthy! We worry about getting more. We worry about not losing what we have. Too bad we don’t get paid to worry. We do it so well.
The point Jesus is making here is that our material things – our stuff, our assets – no matter how fun and comforting, no matter how lovely or useful they may be, will never completely satisfy our deepest longings, because we always seem to want more. And this is not an economic issue. It is a spiritual one, and one that is at the very core of our relationship with God. Jesus preached a gospel of spiritual values centered on the one true God in contrast to the many petty, fragile little gods that somehow grab our attention and too often capture our hearts. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus said.
I doubt that Jesus’ parable was much of a crowd pleaser that day. It’s probably not today. We’re big on “net worth” as the world measures us up. Yet how pathetic to measure a human being’s worth in dollars and cents! Jesus calls it another way. Focus instead, he suggests, on your infinite, inexpressible value in the eyes of God!
By most any standard, most of us in this room are rich, the world’s well-off, compared to the mass of humanity with whom we share this planet. It would be easy send you on a guilt trip about how we relatively few Americans command such a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, but I won’t. Enough said! Yet Jesus’ question in his little parable merits an answer: “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
The gap between the haves and the have nots, in Jesus’ time and our own, is a sign of human fallenness and greed because God has provided more than enough for all of us, if we were just and fair in our living. God’s reign is experienced in the abundance of God’s generosity and justice, and not in inequity and need as a result of competitive accumulation.
It’s ironic that while the Bible speaks more about money and possessions than almost anything else, the church has always been uncomfortable with the subject. Still, this incident reported in Luke and the parable it elicited offer us an opportunity to explore the question of what really provides true security in this world. We are invited to reconnect our finances with our spiritual values.
Jesus ends his parable with a most provocative phrase about being “rich toward God.” In THE MESSAGE, Eugene Peterson tells us what “rich toward God” is not. “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God,” Peterson writes.
Still, I don’t think the farmer in Jesus’ story is a bad buy. Like all of us, he has benefited from some good luck in his life. After all, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. There is no prosperity Gospel with Jesus! It’s just that this farmer allows his good fortune to become a trap of his own making. He turns inward instead of outward. Eleven times he uses the first person (“I” and “my”).
I also don’t think Jesus is down on material things per se. It’s much deeper than that: he knows the seductive power of possessions, and he wants for us to know a greater blessing and joy. The problem for the farmer in Jesus’ story – and for us – is that our anxiety about “bigger barns” distracts us from what’s really important and leads us to put our trust in all the wrong places.
We’ve got to stop putting price tags on everything, because then we miss the incalculable worth of our own lives and the lives of all others. This was the mistake the foolish farmer made. And it’s the foolish one we still make!
The Gospel is always turning the things we think we know upside down and inside out. Nobody is saying we shouldn’t be responsible about our money and our stuff, but death does come for all of us. Perhaps we could better use our time to ask ourselves if we can’t share more while we can, if we can’t give more while we can, if we can’t work more while we can for a just community where everyone has enough. In short, living lives that reflect the values and priorities God wants us to have. That kind of stewardship would make us doubly wise because that kind of produce doesn’t need any barns at all to hold it. It’s best, I think, to hear Jesus’ question one more time, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”