Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Every now and then I will hear someone say “they are living their dream”; and sometimes it is referred to as the “American dream”. This can mean various things, but usually this fulfilled dream means a beautiful home, the mortgage has been paid, a nice vehicle, maybe two, profitable investments and a secure retirement. The American dream does not only refer to possessions, but they seem to play an important part. In today’s gospel Jesus told a parable about a rich man. He is on the way to fulfilling a dream of a secure and pleasurable retirement. The story told of his land producing abundantly. The rich man has to build bigger barns to store the crops. He was able to confidently tell himself, “Self”, or soul, you have plenty of assets. Now is the time to retire and relax. He told himself, “Eat, drink, and be merry”. However his internal conversation was rudely interrupted: “You fool! This very night, your life is being demanded of you.” Who interrupted this man as he surveyed his wealth and delighted in living his dream? God.
Jesus told this parable to challenge a man in the crowd who was concerned about a dispute over an inheritance. The man called Jesus “Teacher” or “Rabbi”. Rabbis were often sought out to settle disputes because of their knowledge of God’s word and instruction. Notice the man did not say to Jesus: “Rabbi, my brother and I need your help. We cannot agree on how to divide the family inheritance. We argue about it and we are both concerned our dispute could lead to us no longer in fellowship or speaking with each other. Please help us to find the just way and be reconciled.” What he did say to Jesus may sound all too familiar: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” In other words he was demanding Jesus to take his side. But Jesus told him “I am not going to be the judge: I am not going to take the case.” Jesus was not going to act like an accountant and offer a financial settlement. Jesus was and is our Redeemer, freeing us from being possessed by possessions and captivated by greed or the desire to “have more” saying, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Some time ago I knew of a man who died suddenly. He was a man who understood service: he was veteran, and he was known to do many things for the community. Yet, when the family came to clean out his house, they found several unopened boxes. The boxes were delivered from QVC, the common home-shopping network. He ordered stuff but never used it, never opened the boxes. He lived perfectly fine without the things he ordered. But if you ever watch QVC, their salespeople are very good about telling you just how much you need the items they are selling: the quality, the value, and how merchandise will work miracles. It can be funny to watch QVC and how the gushing hosts sound somewhat artificial. But we are programmed to shop, even for things we do not need. Someone has suggested that a warning should be printed on credit cards or money: “Be on your guard. Your life is not measured by the amount of stuff you accumulate.”
Beware of all kinds of greed Jesus said. Greed or avarice was considered one of the seven deadly sins. Jesus is quite concerned about how tempting it is to have more. Later in the gospel of Luke Jesus warned “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” The Pharisees, the very devote and pious ones, laughed at Jesus when they heard him because, as the Gospel of Luke explained, they were lovers of money. They more than laughed, they outright ridiculed Jesus. Jesus fired right back at them, “God knows your hearts, for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”
There is the credit card commercial that says “What is in your wallet?” Jesus would say, “What is in your heart?” Greed in our hearts hardens them, cold calculation instead of the warmth of compassion. The reading from Colossians today called greed idolatry. It is very easy to put our fear, love, and trust in money. I have done so, and I imagine some of you have as well. Think of the character of the rich man in Jesus’ parable. The land producing an abundant harvest was truly a gift from God. But did you hear the character of the rich man thanking God. Instead he talked about his crops, his goods, his barns, and enjoying his life. He forgot something; he did not praise God from whom all blessings flow. His forgetfulness is epidemic. Jesus’ parable is true to life. We forget: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” It is a standard stewardship lesson to know “all that we have is God’s alone, a trust O Lord from thee.” How are we doing with what God has placed in our trust? Money is not ultimate security, but a tool for service. We are not to litigate our neighbor but love them. Greed is not to take over so we end up talking to ourselves, saying “Soul, you have ample goods so relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” Let us be in conversation with one another and bear one another burdens. No longer is worth measured by possessions for we are to be renewed in knowledge according to the image of our creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, rich and poor, but Christ is all and in all.” St. Ambrose, a 4th century bishop commented on today’s parable saying about possessions, “you cannot take them with you. The only thing that follows us into eternal life is compassion.”
Jesus does not desire us to be downcast in guilt because of misgivings about money. He was warning us about greed which can rob us of joy: the joy of good relationships with each other, the joy that comes not from hoarding our time and treasure, but joy through helping others, and the joy of thanking God. Jesus was not condemning wealth but reminding us that greater blessings means great responsibility and faithfulness. In the first letter of Timothy the rich are told not to set their lives on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment…they are to be rich in good works, generous, ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they make take hold of the life that really is life.” The sadness of greed is that it creates a mindset of me against the world: worry about the future, concerned about protection against this or that, but how can one protect against death? Death is the hidden fear in life. The Psalm today made it clear as a wisdom psalm “truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.” Death is faced by rich and poor alike, the ‘great equalizer’. But later in the Psalm, unfortunately not part of today’s reading we read, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of death, for God will take me.”
Since Jesus redeems, frees us from the ownership of sin, death and devil, let us be, as he said, ‘rich toward God.’ To be rich toward God is to know for certain how richly God loves us. The reading from Colossians today is a wonderful commentary on baptism. Baptism is pure grace and gift for we are baptized into Jesus Christ, to enjoy the benefits of his death and resurrection for us. When we are tempted by greed, or troubled by the unfairness of life, baptism tells us that in spite of appearances, our lives are hidden with Christ in God. Possessions and money may dictate status and worth in the world, but not with Jesus. Our life is with him now and eternally. So in thanksgiving we set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” God is our refuge so set our minds on his will and priorities for life, let go of greed and take hold of a life shaped by God’s love in Christ.
Author and Lutheran pastor Peter Marty wrote of one of his most embarrassing moments. He and his wife were newlyweds. They received duplicate gifts: a picnic basket all decked out nicely with table cloth and utensils for an outing. What do with the duplicate? The answer came when a few months down the road they were invited to the wedding of friends. So they gave the picnic basket as a wedding present, what is known as re-gifting But they made one serious mistake, they forgot to remove the original gift tag with their names on it. So Peter Marty said ‘regifting can be dangerous. But he said, with one important exception. As Christians we are called to regift our faith, to share it, telling others what the love of God revealed in Jesus has meant for us, a gift we want to share. We can tell others about the life that truly is life: not in possessions propelled by greed, but peace with our loving God, ever provided by grace.