Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 13C] - August 4, 2013 (Luke 12:13-21)

I am not going to lie: it is awful challenging to come home from a week-long servant trip with thirteen youth and preach a sermon the next day. It is even more challenging to come home from a week-long servant trip with thirteen youth and preach a sermon on this passage from Luke about the parable of the rich fool.

It has nothing to do with the youth. Like usual, they were absolutely outstanding in terms of attitude and work ethic. And the challenge has little to do with the exhaustion I still bear in my body—we didn’t get much sleep at all, 60 some-odd people crammed like sardines into three large bunk rooms. The food was standard camp fare: somewhat filling but not terribly nutritious.

No, the reason why this sermon was even more challenging that it should have been is that after spending a week in Logan County, West Virginia, where more than a third of the population under 18 lives below the poverty line, I have started to feel like the rich fool with the bigger barns. After spending a week interacting on-site with at-risk youth whose only daily meal most likely came from the meager lunch in the program we were helping to run, I am starting to feel like someone who eats, drinks, and carries on pretty merrily on a regular basis. After all, I have a job…at the moment, at least. You contribute generously to my salary, health benefits, and a pension for retirement, and you added on a very lavish Christmas gift at the end of last year. I’m not necessarily affluent by most standards, but, then again, I am storing away something for my later years, a privilege that, I suspect, most people in this world don’t enjoy. And I don’t know the financial details of any of you—nor do I care to—but I imagine you’re in pretty much the same boat I am with regards to all this. We do store up all kinds of worldly treasures and can afford to eat and drink pretty much anything we want.

Furthermore, we care about equality in all things economic, and the initial question this person in the crowd asks Jesus about sharing the inheritance between sons seems absolutely legitimate to us. As a younger brother, the man simply thinks it’s fair that the family treasure should be divided among heirs equally instead of letting it all go to the first-born. After all, Jesus comes to re-distribute wealth, to liberate people from oppressive systems of commerce and economics, according to many believers and theologians. Doesn’t he at one point famously take a boy’s lunch of two fish and five loaves of bread and use it to feed five thousand hungry people (not counting women and children)? Why wouldn’t he care to dismantle an economic system that so obviously puts people at an unfair economic advantage just because they aren’t born first?

What was our youth group doing in West Virginia, after all, with all our school supply donations and trusty hammers and circular saws, if it wasn’t some sort of economic relief for the people we were supposedly serving? What were our Vacation Bible School children doing two weeks ago when they collected close to $1000 for people living in drought-stricken areas of Africa? Yes, this parable of the rich fool could make us a little uncomfortable this morning, I suspect, because despite all those wonderful examples of our generosity, they is still a small portion of what we have stored away.

However, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool to make everyone a little uncomfortable—to make everyone pay a little closer attention—because the warning in this text is never against affluence. The lesson is never against having things, per se. It is, rather, against greed. It is a warning about where we place our security and where we look for salvation, and anyone—be they rich or be they destitute—can fall into the trap of thinking that we alone are responsible for our own success and that we can work hard enough or manipulate money well enough to be safe and secure.

That is not a danger only for the wealthy, although I do suppose we are more susceptible to it. We have the option of building bigger barns, after all, of using our wealth to get what we want from people or from the political systems that govern us. But, in reality, greed is a trap for all people. This parable is really a lesson not about how we are supposed to use our wealth, but about how our wealth can use us! The things we possess end up possessing us. We can start thinking that the ledger books we balance should end up making us feel balanced. However, let us not forget that there is only One whose love balances us, there is only One whose Spirit truly possesses us.

Scrooge McDuck
Our life is never in our own hands, which is what this rich fool believes, as he amusingly discusses only with his own soul what he should do with all his crops. Notice he’s never called the rich “evil guy.”  He’s called the fool, a term that implies no thinking, a lack of consideration. He is a fool because, in speaking only with himself, he doesn’t really think through his actions of accumulating. He just selfishly—but even more mindlessly—gathers more.

If he is a fool, then I know that this congregation is populated by many who are wise. I heard, for example, of one mother among you who held a leadership position last year at one of our local elementary schools which, we shall say, is located in a fairly affluent area of Richmond. This mother was put in charge of organizing the yearly Christmas party for the school. Rather than thoughtlessly planning yet another party for the kids where they would accumulate more candy they didn’t really need to eat and make more crafts they didn’t really need to take home to clutter up the kitchen, this mom decided the Christmas party would be replaced by a donation drive to collect basic items for people who are served by a local shelter downtown.

The project, as you can imagine, did not catch on with immediate popularity. Kids and parents included thought they were going to miss another chance to be merry. However, as the project gathered steam, as the children learned somewhat to their shock that many people are deprived of some basic hygiene items. Thanks to the faith of this parent, the children and parents alike at the school learned that merriment can be found in giving. Lots of it, in fact. Whether it was explicitly stated or not, they got a good glimpse of what it means to be rich toward God—to be involved in God’s restoration of creation through the outpouring of their blessings—and they didn’t even have to go all the way to West Virginia to do it. Yes, this congregation is filled with people who are rich toward God and wise with wealth. (And now I know someone in particular to tap for a youth service trip in the future).

In the long run, what those elementary school students learned is the lesson that the man in the crowd received who is worried about the fairness of the distribution of his family inheritance: namely, the kingdom of God is not supremely concerned with economic fairness or everyone getting and having the same amount of stuff. Rather, it is about realizing that the future lies in God, not in the insurance we think we have in money. It is about the awareness that his grace is ultimately to shape the world, not some amount of money or goods in certain peoples’ hands.

Wealth, possessions, food, shelter—the things Luther said we can call our “daily bread”—all these things are certainly given by God, but our vocation as people who have been baptized is not to count our richness in them. Our richness is in the God who gives them, because it is God who has given even his Son for us. Because of Jesus, we know we have value to God, that we are God’s prized possessions. As the psalmist says this morning, “There is no price one can give God for our life.” As his own life is poured out, the barn doors of God’s goodness are flung wide open and the sheaves of love and mercy come tumbling down upon us.

This is where our true wealth lies: in the knowledge that we are created and redeemed by a loving God who wants us to be a part of his restoration of creation. And when we are truly wealthy in this way, we are empowered to tear down some of our barns and look into the eyes of those folks we encountered in West Virginia…into the eyes of those receiving our bags of hygiene items here in Richmond…into the eyes of those we encounter anywhere…and see past their lack of worldly things, past their need of what we have in excess, and not look at them as purely an object of our charity but instead see another one of God’s prized possessions looking back at us.



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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