Pentecost 8: life in God is where we are wealthy.
Sermon by Anne East
Readings: Luke 12: 13-21, Colossians 3: 1-11
There’s a cartoon from the comic strip ‘Peanuts” that has been doing the rounds recently on social media. It shows Charlie Brown and Snoopy sitting by the side of a lake, with their backs to us, looking out over the water. Charlie Brown is saying, “Some day, we will all die, Snoopy.” And Snoopy says, “True, but on all the other days, we will not.” It all depends how you look at it! The parable Jesus tells of the rich fool and his barns, is not about death, but about life: about the way to live, not about the need to die.
Jesus is talking to his disciples about his mission and his identity when someone interrupts him and asks him to arbitrate in a property dispute, to sort out a family squabble. He asks Jesus to tell his brother to divide an inheritance with him. According to Judaic inheritance practices, an older brother would receive two thirds of an estate while the younger would receive one third. The questioner in this case is asking Jesus to help him possess his rightful share.
Jesus doesn’t get drawn into the details of this case, but says, “Well, let’s look at this differently – life is about more than possessions.” So, as he often did, Jesus tells a story, but unlike the stories of the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep, the Prodigal Son, this one doesn’t involve a last minute rescue and a happy ending. A rich man harvests a bumper crop, more than he can deal with. He plans to tear down his old barns, build larger ones to store his crops in and then sit back and enjoy the excess. He stands as a negative example, this is how not to live as a follower of Jesus. In the end, the man’s days are numbered, and death separates him from his overflowing barns.
Note that the man in the story is not just a simple farmer with a small plot of land, but someone who controls much of the agricultural produce of the whole district. And he doesn’t see his plentiful harvest as a generous blessing from God, but as something of a dilemma, because he doesn’t have enough storage space.
Of course it is prudent to gather in the bountiful harvest and save it for the future, that is exactly what Joseph instructed Pharaoh to do when the dreams showed that seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine. But this particular rich man is no Joseph acting wisely for the benefit of those in need. This is about Greed, the desire for more, where enough is not enough. This rich man had enough and to spare - he had so much that he couldn’t store it all. Did others around him have enough food? Did he bother to find out? Did he call to mind God’s frequent insistence that we should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give to the poor? No, he didn’t. He was only thinking of himself, of having all the good things stored up for years to come. And in future times of scarcity, of course, he would become even richer, as others became dependent on him and the price he sets for food.
There is nothing wrong with prudent planning for the future – we have to do that here at St Margaret’s to look after and repair our building, pay our bills. But we know it is important that we do more than that – we need to make provision for supporting other poorer churches, our local communities and charities.
Greed applies to more than money, it can be a craving for the things that our culture sees as bestowing status and privilege: this house, this car, this latest gadget.
Greed can give rise to oppression and exploitation. For example - I want to wear nice clothes, to feel smart and be well-dressed, but what if those clothes are made, packed and despatched by people working in dreadful conditions? Clothes are among the items most at risk of being produced through modern slavery, it’s an industry where women make up a staggering 80% of the global workforce. Does my greed allow me to think of that when I’m looking at a pretty shirt I want to buy? This challenges me.
When is ‘enough”? The text doesn’t tell me that! It doesn’t give specific answers to our questions about possessions, it doesn’t provide rues that define how much is ‘enough’, what I should limit, where I should draw the line. But it prods me to think about these things.
Paul offers some suggestions to the people of Colossae. He lists the things that we should get rid of: anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language and lying. He offers the image of stripping off our old self and putting on a new self. Paul encourages us to see that God is so near to us it’s like being newly clothed. I am reminded of that wonderful image from the writings of Julian of Norwich, “He is our clothing”. For Julia, it is an image of the closeness of God: “He is our clothing, He wraps and holds us. He enfolds us for love and will not let us go.” Here is treasure, here are riches. Our life in God is where we are wealthy.
Our Gospel reading ends with Jesus commenting on those who ‘store up treasures for themselves’ but are not ‘rich towards God’. How can we as individuals, and as a community, live richly towards God? One answer might be that it means to live as if we are already in heaven, bringing the values and priorities of God into our thoughts, our activities, our way of being in this world.
A final word on riches: The Blackfoot tribe of North American indigenous people used to have a Blanket Ceremony each year. Blankets represented wealth. They saved all the year round to buy blankets, and when the ceremony came, they gave them away. The person who was able to give away the most blankets was counted the richest. The richest person is not the one who possesses most, but who has given most away.