11th Sunday After Pentecost; August 4, 2013
Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14; 2.18-23; Psalm 49.1-12; Colossians 3.1-11; Luke 12.13-21
Pastor Renee Splichal larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who warns us of the destructive power of greed, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Every two-year old knows a certain word: “Mine.” At their worst I have seen a little one walking around at daycare with a toy in each hand, and suddenly she spots another little tyke playing with a different toy. She stops…looks at the toy the other child has and plans her move to confiscate it. Clearly she needs three…but her two hands already have two toys and she won’t be able to grab the other toy in which she has set her sights.
She faces a dilemma. Letting the other child keep the toy is simply not an option and once she gets it sharing it with another child just seems ridiculous after all her hard work to get three toys. Ah ha! She thinks. I will keep this toy in my left hand, and nestle this toy into the crevice of my elbow, so that I may have my strong right hand to snatch the other child’s toy and run. Then all three will be mine!
I watch as the toddler takes the one toy in the other child’s hands and run off desperately trying to hold on to all her treasures, leaving the toy-less child in tears and empty handed. I marvel at the way she tries to inadequately handle all her toys, guarding them with ferocity from others who dare take her toys from her. The ironic thing is that when her parents pick her up she loses all the toys anyway because they were never hers to begin with.
The truth is it is not only two-year-olds who know the word, “mine,” well; we all know the word and concept quite intimately. It’s toys when we’re two, but later in life it’s: My money, my phone, my shoes, my clothes, my toothbrush (an important one), my child, my house, my car, my life.
There were a couple people in our Gospel reading today who had a certain understanding of what “mine” meant. The first asks Jesus to settle a dispute between him and his brother. Jesus makes it clear that he is not on this earth to settle family squabbles concerning possessions. Instead he shares a story of another who also had his particular concept of ownership.
An already wealthy landowner has a bumper crop. We can be sure that he was not the only one working the land (perhaps he didn’t even work it at all), but had laborers till, plant, care for and harvest the crop. When he saw that his barns wouldn’t even hold the harvest instead of sharing it with any of the workers or his community he decides to tear down his perfectly fine existing barns and build larger ones so he could have the harvest all to himself. His life goal then is to eat, drink, and be merry and hoard what he considers to be his.
We might hear this story and think, This guy is ridiculous! And, yes, this is true. He is ridiculous, and yet how is it that we are like him?
I’ll start the confession with this convicting example of myself. When I moved into my new house two years ago I had a moving truck worth of stuff. As if this wasn’t overwhelming enough, my parents thought it was perfect timing to drop off boxes and boxes of things that were mine from growing up in school, college, and such. I filled up a whole house and a garage with stuff. I regularly throw out food at the end of a week that I didn’t need because I otherwise had enough to eat. I have found it so easy to accumulate things, and to have more than I would ever need. I don’t know about you, but I am so convicted by this text.
We live in a world where we constantly have messages and advertising coming at us telling us what we need and what we should have. Our economy functions on buying what we don’t need and always having more. Somehow having the right clothes, driving the awesome car, and working the right job give us status and identity. We work to have and if we don’t have we dream of having or becoming wealthy. Did you know that the average house in the United States has more than doubled in square footage since the 1970’s? We need bigger houses to store all of our things.
It is precisely here where we meet Jesus. “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” Jesus warns, “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” I know there are many of us here who don’t have much and could fit what belongs to us in a good size duffle bag. I also know of a person who was released from YCC and re-offended just go he could have three meals a day. Not all of us can relate to the man who wants to build bigger barns to house all his things, yet we all must open our ears and our hearts to hear what Jesus is really saying.
It’s not that Jesus is condemning having possessions or wealth. God gives us many good things to have and enjoy. There is nothing wrong with earning an income and having things. What is wrong is spelled out in the story Jesus tells about the man.
The first of the man’s problems is that he did not recognize the bumper crop first as foremost as a gift from God. Not once did he give God thanks for what he was given. He thought it all came about from his own hand, so he deserved to keep it for himself.
His second problem was that he was not willing to share what he had with those in need. If he had a lot of food then that meant that all kinds of people had little or none.
The third problem he had was that he didn’t understand that he was going to die someday. He thought his possessions would protect him from death and that he had all kinds of years to live on his abundance. He looked for life in the things he owned.
So God says to the man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Scripture speaks of greed often and always the cure for it is to give. Giving money away regularly is good and is a sign of spiritual health. Give what you have away if you know it is causing you to always want more, or give it to someone who is in need. I dug out the December issue of the Lutheran this week and read the article: “The Spiritual Practice of Shedding Stuff,” as it tries to help people not let things rule their lives so much as others in the world remain in poverty.
Again, Jesus is not saying it is wrong to have wealth and possessions; it’s wrong to keep it all for yourself because it will consume you and leave others empty handed. It is a zero-sum rule, meaning that if you have a lot of something, someone else has little or nothing.
Basil the Great says to the rich: “The bread that you hoard belongs to the hungry. The cloak that you keep in your chest belongs to the naked. The shoes that rot in your house belong to the unshod (Richard Jensen Preaching Luke’s Gospel, p. 134).”
There is a saying: “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” I have also heard it said, “He who dies with the most toys…still dies.” And the write of Ecclesiastes would say, “And then the people you didn’t want to have all your stuff while you were alive will get it anyway.” This is not meant to make us depressed, we know we are promised eternal life; rather, it is a call to give and share what we have while we have the chance and to put our trust in God to provide for our needs.
One of my favorite passages in the book of Acts is in chapter 2: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” The greatest blessing in life is to share what you and I have with others. We are to have a concept of ownership and “mine,” that extends our thinking to be “for the sake of the whole community,” not just for myself or my family.
The end of our Gospel reading leaves us hanging a bit. We know from the story what it is to be greedy, but what exactly does it mean to be “rich toward God?” According to theologian, Richard Carlson, it means this (and I agree with him!):
Being rich toward God entails using one’s resources for the benefit of one’s neighbor in need, as the Samaritan did (10.25-37). Being rich toward God includes intentionally listening to Jesus’ word, as Mary did (10.38-42). Being rich toward God consists of prayerfully trusting that God will provide for the needs of life (11.1-13; 12.22-31). (Feasting on the Word, year C, vol. 3, p. 315)
Since I shared an example of child not showing us how to be earlier, I need to share an example of a child who demonstrates what gives us life. There was a person from the United State who traveled to a country in Africa. While she was walking along the way a young child came up and began to walk with her. She didn’t mind. She thought the child might be hungry, so she gave her a granola bar. She thought the child would open it up right away and eat it, but she didn’t. She held on to her treasure as they walked. They eventually came to a village where eight other children greeted them. It was then the child carefully unwrapped her granola bar and broke it into 9 pieces and gave a piece to each child present. Instead of the gift of the granola bar blessing one person, it blessed 9, plus the one who gave it.
Life cannot come from created things, from possessions. Life can only come from God who has already given you and me our bodies, our minds, our souls, the breath in our lungs and one another. Thanks be to God.