Are you financial plans governed by fear or by faith? Abundance or scarcity? Where is the fine line separating fiscal responsibility from greed? When is waiting no longer a virtue? When is the right time to spend it all? You can’t take it with you!
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ Jesus continued and he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “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. 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, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Prayer for Illumination (Sung)
Cure your children’s warring madness;
Bend out lives to your control.
Shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss your kingdom’s goal,
Lest we miss your kingdom’s goal.
Before the Parade Passes By
I have never heard nor preached a sermon on the spiritual practice of not waiting. So much of religion is about waiting—whole seasons!—but today Jesus says: do not wait. To introduce this peculiar theme, here’s a story by Martin Copenhaver of the United Church of Christ.
In the last decade…of my father’s life, he developed an interest in wine. He would read about the many varieties and vintages and vineyards. When a wine was purchased, it was carefully stored and catalogued. Occasionally he would even drink the stuff. That was always an elaborate ceremony, beginning with bringing the wine to the proper temperature, uncorking it at just the right moment, taking in the color, tasting the wine to make sure it was suitable to serve, accompanied by florid commentary about bouquet and body, descriptions that no one else understood or, frankly, cared much about. When friends learned of my father’s interest in wine, they would sometimes give him a special gift of a rare and costly bottle.
I never remember those wines being served. He always said he was waiting for a special occasion. The occasion never came. When my father died quite suddenly—”this very night your soul is required of you”—those bottles remained unopened. Special occasions, like tomorrow, seem never to arrive.
The point is that if we postpone the little pleasures at our own peril, how much more perilous is our tendency to put off doing what is truly noble and important in life. It may be a good idea to save money for a rainy day, but we sometimes act as if we’re saving our lives for a rainy day, and what is most worth doing remains bottled in some dark corner, waiting…
“Time,” writes Ben Hecht “is a circus, always packing up and moving away.” How often does the circus parade of opportunity pass us by? The parade of need, the parade of pain? The parade of over 25,000 unhoused Bay Area people? The mayor adds 286 beds, a home-owners associations go predictably nuts and they have a ceremony celebrating the service to the community, and there are still 25,000 unhoused people in the Bay Area. The basic needs of sanitation or water are not being met. Why have we put this off for so long? Of course we could solve this. We’re California. In the words of that great theologian, Dolly Levi:
Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.
Rich in Things & Poor in Soul
Lutheran scholar Richard Carlson echoes the words of Jesus in today’s lesson: “The meaning of our lives is not established by accumulating abundant possessions.”
In today’s parable, the rich man’s barns were already full when the bumper crop came in. So, he tore them down to build bigger barns. Then, he could sit back and relax. Jesus says: do not be like this person.
From Luke’s theological perspective…wealth, possessions, and elite economic status are not neutral. They are inherently negative. People become rich by exploiting the poor. People use riches to enhance their own status (14:7–14) and lavishly to enjoy their own positions in life (16:19–31).
But, back in Genesis, didn’t Joseph, with his amazing dreamcoat, prophesy to Pharaoh that he should store up food for the troubled years ahead? We did a play about that during worship. Here’s the difference. Joseph was advising the government of Egypt on how to avoid mass starvation, which is absolutely not the goal of the rich person in today’s reading. Does this rich man praise God for his bounty? No. Does he offer any of it to help the at-risk people all around him? No. He, like so many billionaires in the news lately want it all for me, myself and I. Selfishness and greed scandalize the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The lesson begins by someone in the crowd asking Jesus to tell his brother to share his rightful inheritance with him, but Jesus does not do probate. “As someone observed, if you’re willing to enlist a third party against your brother, the damage is already done.” However, this parable does offer a clear judgement on excess, and it’s not the first time Jesus has said something like:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
We did a play in worship about that scripture passage, too. Why? Because we live in the Bay Area, where the United Nations has studied how we treat our 26,000 unhoused neighbors and calls our collective behavior “a violation of human rights.” Jesus says don’t wait to fix this shameful situation.
…go, sell what you own, and give…to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.
I count on my neighbors, but recently, I’ve had to delete the NextDoor app because of the constant meanness of my neighbors toward the homeless. For awhile, I tried to confront them, but they don’t want to help our homeless neighbors. This week, a local news anchor actually called unhoused people “a turn off.”
Maybe it’s because of all those Magnificats Mary sang to Jesus in the womb that his gospel is not neutral on the topics of wealth and need. Both are equally life-threatening. Mary lulled the baby Jesus, singing that God will scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, fill the hungry, send the rich away, empty. The song goes on.
Mark’s gospel clarifies something too often brushed over. Jesus preaches against excess because Jesus loves wealthy people. Jesus offers a way of living that leads to deeper meaning right now. Sure, he’s cheeky in today’s parable, confronting us like that friend that just won’t let you embarrass yourself, or just can’t let you go out in that outfit, but Jesus loves us enough to tell us when we’re wrong. And today, he tells us plainly what we already suspect: we are “rich in things and poor in soul.” “The meaning of our lives is not established by accumulating abundant possessions.” St. John of the Cross goes a step further. “In the twilight of life, God will …judge us …on how much we have loved.”
And I will say to my soul, Soul…
As most of you know, recently I flew to Michigan to lead the memorial service for my best friend, the Reverend Elizabeth Grimshaw. She was only fifty-nine when she died. A few days ago her husband, David, called Lou and me, and we had a long talk about the way Beth died. David is a serious practitioner of yoga. To help him cope with losing the love of his life, he went on retreat to an ashram in Montreal.
There, during an intense meditative state, he intentionally slowed his breathing and went within. He began remembering how Beth’s breathing slowed as she neared death, and then he was then back at the moment of her leaving: just them in their living room, on the shore of Lake Lansing, David beside her hospital bed. The cancer had rendered Beth unable to move her body, what doctors call unresponsive.
Beth had already said her goodbyes, to me, to her children, family, friends, neighbors and to her congregation. Out of nowhere, a moment of clarity came over Beth. She opened her eyes. Somehow, she turned her head to look directly at David, and said, “Okay?” Dave took his time, and replied, “Okay.” Then, as she let go of this world, her right hand swept up into the position of benediction, her eyes rolled upward, and she sailed off. She died blessing. Her last act was a blessing. Weeks later, in a deep, yogic trance, this insight came to David, and he was astonished. He says that in the moment of her death, her soul moved her arm. Her soul had opened her eyes and asked the question. What he encountered, her soul, was more than the Beth he had loved his entire life. Something deeper and larger, something more real, something unlimited by time and space—her soul—was on its way home, and it took time, while leaving the shell of her body to look at David and love him one more time. Her soul was demanded of her at that very moment.
So many people confuse living with merely avoiding death, but Beth Grimshaw lived until last moment. She left no bottle unopened in the dark corner. She did not postpone living, blessing, loving. So it is with those who do not store up for themselves treasures on earth but are rich towards God.