11th Sunday after Pentecost, year B (preached 7/31/16)
first reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
second reading: Colossians 3:1-11
gospel reading: Luke 12:13-21
Today’s readings have a strong message, one that’s uncomfortable for many to hear, because especially in our culture, we have a strong attachment to STUFF. We like our stuff. We LOVE our stuff.
It’s the American dream to have nice things in a nice house and drive a nice care with a nice bank account. But dang it, Jesus calls us on it. And not only Jesus, ALL the readings call us out.
The writer of Ecclesiastes is depressed and hopeless because they’re realizing that all their hard work and toil is ultimately pointless – “chasing after wind.” They also realize they must pass on the fruits of their work to unknown heirs, “and who knows whether they will be wise of foolish?”
Our psalmist writes, “for the ransom of a life is so great that there would never be enough to pay it, in order to live forever and ever and never see the grave.” “Their graves shall be their homes forever… though they had named lands after themselves.”
The writer of Colossians reminds us to “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth… Put to death therefore, whatever in you is earthly” including “evil desire and greed (which is idolatry).”
But Jesus hits the hardest, where it hurts. “Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” and “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 toward God.”
This IS a strong message, and one that IS uncomfortable for us. Not that we in this congregation are in danger of being called ostentatious. I can’t speak to the greed that might be in our hearts, but I know we don’t show it on the outside. None of us have big houses. I know most of you live modestly on more or less fixed incomes. What are WE, who live simply, to take from these readings that focus on greed and mortality?
We focus on the end point of the gospel – the zinger – storing up treasures ourselves, but not being “rich toward God.”
What does this mean?
Well, first of all, Jesus is NOT condemning the rich man simply for being rich. There is a difference between wealth and greed. The man is a fool because he focuses his whole life on his possessions.
On a podcast called “Sermon Brainwave” that I listen to every week, the commentators described this man as living in a “1st person universe.” He’s all wrapped up in himself. Look at the language in the parable. It’s all in first person.
“What should I do, for I have no place for my crops?” “I will do this,” “I will pull down,” “I will store,” “I will say.” He “thought to himself“ then spoke to himself. He’s completely turned inward and there’s no room for anyone in his world but him.
Jesus calls us to a life BEYOND ourselves. Jesus calls us to see our neighbors. Jesus call us to love God AND our neighbors in word and deed.
The man is a fool not because he was productive and had abundance – he was a fool because he hoarded it all for himself, and FORGOT about his neighbor AND his God.
Instead of finding the poor around him and sharing from the crops of the field, he built bigger barns to keep them to himself, and “relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
Being “rich toward God” means fighting against the urge to make everything about ME. It means setting our “minds on things that are above” as we read in Colossians.
Now, even though you and I may not be building bigger barns, I’m sure there are “things” in our life that distract us from loving God and neighbor, things that compete for our attention. It doesn’t have to be money or “stuff.”
I think Jesus uses greed as an example because it’s easy and obvious. It’s a temptation because the more worldly successful we become, the more likely we are to think we did it ourselves and deserve more. It’s a rare person who can be wealthy and successful while being humble and generous.
But there are certainly other things that can distract us from being “rich toward God.” We can go back to Colossians again for some examples. The writer gives us a pretty good list of things that distract and/or tempt us from the “things that are above:”
“Fornication, impurity, evil desire, greed,” but also “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.” Notice that greed is only one among many distractions or temptations. And notice too, that many things on this list have to do with how we treat our neighbors.
It is a constant theme in Jesus’ preaching. It is the ONE thing he called the new commandment for us who follow him – that we love one another.
Love of God and neighbor is central to our faith because it is what Jesus calls us to do.
We have been claimed by a loving God. A God who SO loved us that Jesus came and gave HIS life for us – HIS neighbors – so that we could live.
We have been forgiven by a loving God. All the sins which weigh us down God raises up on the cross.
And we are called by a loving God to love others. To show them in word and deed what God has done for them too.
Being “rich toward God” means paying attention to God’s relationship with us – our first relationship – the one that gives us life. Then, as we often pray at the end of communion, we live “in faith toward [God] and in fervent love toward one another.”