Thanks to the kindness of Canon Gerns, I have this fine sermon to share with you this morning. As I’ve mentioned, I’m in Canterbury attending the Lambeth Conference this week. I send you greetings from the mother church of the Anglican Communion and prayers for all of you this week. Thank you Andrew for this gift.
May only God’s word be spoken.
May only God’s word be heard and believed.
It has been said that dogs have masters but cats have staff. I learn this every time I visit my daughter’s house and her cat pretty well decides whether I am worthy of attention or not. Since I am not on the feeding staff of that household, my utility is quite limited. My grand-doggy on the other hand definitely has a master, and she pretty well listens to whatever my son tells her, but whenever I visit, my main purpose is give scritches until she says to stop (which is never!). In both cases, the animals pretty well have my number.
If I am a member of my grand-kitty’s staff and if my grand-doggie has psyched me out, I kind of suspect that they have done the same to their resident humans. I wonder… who owns whom?
I don’t think this question is limited to dogs and cats. Given the time and attention my stuff demands from me, I wonder if in fact my possessions don’t own me. If they don’t, in fact, own us all?
Think about it. What happens when your car breaks down on a very busy workday or if your roof springs a leaks or what if your computer crashes in the middle of a project? Having a reliable computer, an operable car and a water-tight roof is a good thing—a worthwhile investment to be sure—as my dad used to say, if you you’re your tools to care for you then you’d better take care of them!
It works that way spiritually, too. Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel to be aware of all kinds of greed—for life consists of much more than the abundance of possessions. Another way to say this is: if we want our things to do their job, then we’d better care for what’s inside us first. First the heart…then the stuff.
Jesus said that to a man who came asked him to sort out a question of a shared inheritance. Now going to a rabbi to sort out a dispute was a fairly common in the first century. In still happens in Judaism. The late Jewish theologian and sociologist Martin Buber recorded the teaching of the Rabbis of 17th and 18th century Russia in a book called “Tales of the Hasidim” recording the stories of Rabbi Baal Shem Tov., today, especially in Hasidic and some Orthodox communities, stories are still a main way that faith is taught.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is doing what Jesus does, he tells a parable—in this case a story typical of the rabbinic tradition. It went like this: a rich man had some fields and one year he had a bumper crop. So he says to himself “Self, why not store up all this extra grain in new and bigger barns and live off of the proceeds?” So that’s exactly what he does. He ate, he drank, he was very merry until, whoops, the next day he died.
Jesus asks: What good did all that preparation and investment do in the long run? Not much.
Jesus tells the crowd, the man with the inheritance (and us), “Beware of storing up treasure outside but being poor inside.”
The man in Jesus’ story is a kind of a “Functional Atheist.” You know, a person whose everyday practice and behavior happens without reference to God or to faith. Notice that when the man discovers he has way more grain that he can either use or sell, he takes his own council. He does not bring his situation to God and he does not take it to his community. He says to himself “build bigger barns!” The rich fool may protest that he has always believed in God, but when it comes to managing his life, dealing with possessions and planning for the future, he lives as though there were no God.
He also forgets the purpose of his abundance which is to share it with others; to use it for the good of all. By hoarding his abundance, he squanders the opportunity his good fortune brought him to share that good fortune with others. He revels in his stuff, but does not feel blessed, and so he has no blessing to share!
Contrast this with another story in the Bible about a person who managed a bumper crop—Joseph. A person that everyone in Jesus’ hearing would know about. Remember from the Book of Genesis and the musicial: “Joseph, he was Jacob’s favorite son of all the family Joseph was the special one?” Joseph was a man given to dreams and their interpretation. It was a gift from God that gets him in a heap of trouble. Through a series of misadventures he lands in jail, where he hears that Pharaoh had a dream of abundance and scarcity. Joseph rightly interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and was then tasked to manage Egypt’s abundance in advance of the famine. Joseph, in contrast to the foolish rich man in Jesus’ story, was doing God’s work for the benefit of many.
Now Jesus knew that when he told his story to the man who came to him, that people would think of Joseph. They knew their Bible, that’s for sure! They’d understand that the Rich Man in Jesus’ story forgot that his abundance was a gift from God. The man in the story is the opposite of Joseph because he was out of tune with God and who hoards his gifts instead of sharing them.
Jesus is telling us that things are not the problem. Money is not the problem. The root of all evil is not money— the saying is actually “the love of money is the root of all evil.” It is our attitude towards money and our attitude towards our things, our time, and our talent that can either create heartache or generate blessing. Our stuff and our money can be our power for good… or our main distraction.
As Jesus said—beware that we don’t get so busy with the having things, that we forget whose and for whom they are.
Heartache or blessing. Scarcity or abundance. No matter how much we have, we have a choice and chance to be in control. The solution is here—in our hearts and our attitude and our mindset.
Allow me to share a story of my own. It comes from Florence Ferrier about a social worker somewhere in poverty-stricken Appalachia. It’s called “We Ain’t Poor!”
The Sheldons were a large family in severe financial distress after a series of misfortunes. The help they received was not adequate, yet they managed their meager income with ingenuity — and without complaint.
One fall day Ferrier visited the Sheldons in the ramshackle rented house they lived in at the edge of the woods. Despite a painful physical handicap, Mr. Sheldon had shot and butchered a bear which strayed into their yard once too often. The meat had been processed into all the big canning jars they could find or swap for. There would be meat in their diet even during the worst of the winter when their fuel costs were high.
Mr. Sheldon offered their visitor a jar of bear meat. She hesitated to accept it, but the giver met the unspoken resistance firmly. “Now you just have to take this. We want you to have it. We don’t have much, that’s a fact; but we ain’t poor!”
Well, what’s the difference between not having much and being poor? Mr. Sheldon’s answer “was that when you can give something away, even when you don’t have much, then (as he would say) you ain’t poor. When you don’t feel easy giving something away, when you hang on to it, even if you’ve got more than you need, then you’re poor, whether you know it or not.”
When we know that everything we have is provided by God, and that everything we have can be used for God’s purpose then we will be rich when we use tap into the gift of God’s generosity, it seems ungracious to doubt that our needs will be met without our clinging to every single morsel.
Jesus and Mr. Sheldon both teach us something about where real wealth is found: wealth is found in an abundant and generous heart.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.