Sermon by William Bradbury
8 Pentecost—Proper 13-C/August 4, 2019
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21
Jesus says to us: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Really? Is this true? Do we actually live as if we believe it’s true?
Jesus’s gives a thought experiment to help us locate our true feelings on the matter. He says, “Imagine there is rich man whose land produces abundantly. This man has so much, he tears down the old barn and builds a bigger one to hold it all.”
So far so good. This is not an evil man who has stolen the land or cheated his workers. He’s worked hard, as well as fallen luckily into a good weather cycle. These is no sin in this. Nor is there a necessary sin in building a bigger barn.
Further let’s not go all “Puritan” and imagine Jesus is saying it is a sin to celebrate the big harvest. Ecclesiastes 8:15 tells us: “So, I commend enjoyment because there’s nothing better for people to do under the sun, but to eat, drink, and be merry. This is what will accompany them in their hard work, during the lifetime that God gives them under the sun.”
It is God who gives us the 4th commandment to keep one day a week for rest, refreshment, and enjoyment of life—something our busy, workaholic culture needs. Throughout the Bible we see Jewish celebrations and parties. Remember the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee where Jesus gives them more wine. Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet in which everyone is invited to the celebration.
But, just as the man starts his celebration, he has a massive heart attack and dies, leaving his wealth behind. One day this will happen to each of us and we’ll have to leave our hard-earned wealth to others. It is exactly as we hear in Ecclesiastes today: “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me–and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.”
And if we don’t have a will, others will get to decide who gets what we leave behind, so our heirs might end up like the two brothers arguing over their father’s inheritance, which begins the gospel today. So—make a will and spare your children this headache—and if you’re grateful to God for all you’ve been given in this life, I recommend you add All Saints’ Church to your will!
We live, work, and die, and no one gets to take it with them: doesn’t matter if you are a spiritual master or a crude materialist, you can’t take it with you.
The rich man believes more stuff can bring more life; that our bank account and stock portfolio are the most important things in life. So he spends his life’s energy worrying about these things that are all temporary. In technical terms we could say this man is a materialist: An online dictionary gives two short definitions of a materialist:
The first says a materialist is “a person who considers material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.” This man certainly falls into this category.
How do we know this? There’s something really odd about this guy: he apparently has no one else in his life. Notice he only has himself to talk to: “And the man thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said to himself, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” Then he starts talking to his soul: “I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” This man only talks to himself and credits himself. There is no thank you to his workers, no discussion with his family, no party with his neighbors.
And, most of all, there is no thought given to sharing his abundance with the poor. Nope—just put that money in a few more small cap funds and all will be well.
He is not rich in the things that have lasting value. He is a materialist and a narcissist, only concerned with himself.
The reason he is a materialist who doesn’t pay attention to spiritual values, follows logically from the fact that maybe he is a materialist in the sense of the second definition, which says, in philosophy a materialist is “a person who supports the theory that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.”
In other words, the information from his five senses is all there is. There is a tree, but there is nothing holding the tree in being. There is a poor person, but there is no God behind the scenes loving that person. There is no Spirit.
Even if we were raised in a religious family and went to church growing up, in our so-called Christian culture, we breathe the air of this kind of materialism that tells us there is nothing deeper that what our senses can detect. That’s why greed is considered a virtue.
We can believe in God in our heads, but in our hearts, we trust our senses and our senses don’t tell us anything about the Presence of God in our lives. Being a materialist is the default setting of a capitalistic culture, so it makes sense to make more and invest more. No reason in the world not to!
The Collect of the Day from last Sunday gets at the heart of our need: “O God, the protector of all who trust in you…increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.
This doesn’t just mean we don’t want to go through this life and miss Heaven after we die, which would be terrible to be sure, but rather we are praying that we do not go through this life and miss our life: the Life, with a capital “L”, which is found in the Presence and Love of God and Neighbor in every moment and in everything.
I compare this lonely rich guy and his new barn with the iconic scene in the 1985 movie “The Witness” in which Harrison Ford plays a Philadelphia police detective hiding out at an Amish farm as he recovers from a gunshot wound. There he learns the joy of being rich in the things that God considers valuable.
One day, in an iconic scene, all the Amish from the neighborhood gather for a barn raising for a family. It is a glorious celebration of friendship, faithfulness, hard work, and generosity, what the New Testament calls in Greek, “Koinonia”, fellowship. And it is all capped off by a huge meal eaten on long tables, as the children play in the meadow. This is everything the soul needs.
This is what it looks like to “Set your minds on things that are above”, as Saint Paul calls us to do. This is living in the kingdom of God—and it is precisely what the rich man misses.