Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sermon for Proper 13

St Mary's, Robinson--Luke 12:13-21, Ecclesiastes 1:12-14; 2:18-23

A few months ago, the Power Ball lottery jackpot got up to such a ridiculous amount that it was getting a good bit of publicity. So Brenda and I were driving home from some event one evening, and we spontaneously decided to pull into a convenience store and buy a ticket. We were about a minute too late, and, as it turned out, the winning ticket was sold not too far away, in Redbud, Illinois.

Do you ever find yourself playing the mental game, "What if I won the lottery"?  I certainly do. Sometimes we even find ourselves bargaining with God.  "Lord, if you'll just let me win, I promise—cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye—I promise I'll be responsible. I'll tithe, a full ten percent, before taxes, even.  I'll be very generous to all sorts of good causes— just think of the good I'd be able to do—if you'll just let me win the big one!"

Most of us, if the truth be told, don't even want to live in opulent splendor, with fifty-room mansions, a dozen servants, gold-plated fixtures, and all that, like the British royal family. We don't necessarily want to be featured on the next episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. What we really want is for money just not ever be a concern, to not have to deal with financial anxiety, to have the security and the freedom that comes along with being wealthy. The preponderance of evidence, all around us in the affluent western culture in which we live, suggests that such freedom and security can indeed be bought, that it is possible, if one is fortunate enough, to amass enough wealth to be able to say, "Take this job and shove it", and to secure our lives and the lives of our loved ones against the vicissitudes of the unknown future. 

And so, we've grown accustomed to using wealth—one's personal balance sheet and cash position—as a sort of unconscious, unofficial, but very real measuring stick by which we place a value on ourselves and on others. What if ... what if we here at St Mary's had heard it on good authority that, say, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and one of the richest people in the world, was going to visit Robinson today and worship with us?  Don't you think there would have been a certain amount of pressure to hire a professional maintenance crew to come and make the buildings and grounds look just as beautiful as they can look? And if Mark Zuckerberg actually did show up at St Mary’s, would we be looking for him to drive into the parking lot in a 1985 Toyota Corolla?  No, we'd rather more likely expect to see him emerge from a chauffeur-driven black Cadillac limousine, because that's the symbol that we associate with someone to whom we instinctively assign a certain intrinsic value and importance and status merely because he has the ability to write a check for a hundred million dollars with full confidence that it will clear the bank. And because the great majority of us harbor a certain amount of envy of such check-writing privileges—envy really of the freedom and security that it represents—one of the great temptations of our lives is to begin to treat wealth, the accumulation of money and things that money can buy, as somehow transcendent, as worthy of our ultimate allegiance, as something that is almost ... well ... divine, a god. 

Now, a god is that from which, or from whom, we find our meaning in life, a meaning that puts our everyday existence in some sort of satisfying larger context.  Without God, and without the meaning that God provides, our lives are just pathetically irrelevant.  We may as well have never been born. This is the realization of the author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, we he writes, "I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind." 

Without the eternal context that God provides, all is, indeed, vanity.  But just as not everything that glitters is gold, not everything that looks divine is God.  There are such things as false gods, and false gods we call idols. We sophisticated modern westerners like to think of an idol as some crude statue that a group of pre-literate tribesmen prostrate themselves in front of. That image lets us off the hook.  An idol, though, is any false god, anything from which we derive a sense of self, something on which we rely for present and future security, but which will eventually let us down. An idol will, in the end, abandon us back to the vanity of life without God.  "So I turned about", the author of Ecclesiastes writes, "...and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it.  This also is vanity and a great evil." 

If the character in Jesus's parable—the "rich fool", as he's called—had been a better student of the Hebrew Scriptures, and read the Book of Ecclesiastes, he may not have been so cocky about his accumulated wealth and the security he thought it would provide.  "And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.'"  He may not have left himself wide open to those chilling words from God, "Fool!  This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?"

The rich fool of the parable literally had more than he knew what to do with.  But even our middle class need for present and future security—a fashionable car, an occasional trip to Disneyworld, and a comfortable retirement—this need for security can be an idol.  And idols, you see, are very seductive. They cloud our perception and judgment. They're like the Sirens, the feminine characters in ancient Greek mythology, who called out to sailors from the rocky shoreline.  Their voices were so appealing as to be irresistible, but if the sailors steered their ships in the direction of the Sirens, they inevitably crashed on the rocks, and all perished. 

Most Christians, when they think of Jesus as "savior", imagine him stretched out on the cross, winning the forgiveness of our sins.  But in this instance, Jesus's "saviorhood", if I can invent a word, is shown in his delivery of a simple warning, "Take care, and be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."  This warning was delivered in response to a request from someone in the crowd that he arbitrate in a legal dispute over the distribution of an inheritance. But Jesus was able to see beyond the concrete legal technicalities of the dispute and identify the underlying issue as a moral one, an issue of greed (or "covetousness," as the Revised Standard Version  translates it). 

Jesus said, in effect, "There's something more potentially dangerous than the possibility that you might not get your fair share of the inheritance, and that's the spiritual danger to your soul that is represented by the greed in your heart. Losing your inheritance may cheat you of a some comfort, or even some freedom and security, in this earthy life. But if you persistently harbor greed, envy, jealousy, and malice, that will rob you of your relationship with God, and consign you to an eternal existence of pathetic irrelevance, devoid of anything that it means to be human."

Jesus stands at the edge of the abyss, warning us to look before we leap, to think twice before we embrace an idol. He reminds us that our right standing before God—a standing that is based not on anything we accomplish or earn, but simply on grace, through faith—this right standing is the only valid measuring stick for valuing ourselves or anyone else. What made the rich man a fool, Jesus says, is not that he was rich, but that he was not also "rich toward God." He had so much more than he actually needed, that he was planning to tear down his barns and build new ones in order to store all his super-abundance of grain. One of the fathers of the ancient church wrote that the "larger barns" this man was looking for could have been easily found in "the mouths of the hungry.” Being "rich toward God", then, means, among other things, using what we have not only for ourselves, but for others. It means realizing that none of our wealth is really even ours, but is given to us in trust, a trusteeship for which we will one day be held accountable.  We are, in fact, stewards, and our attitude toward our material wealth should be one of stewardship. 

So, by warning us against greed, by calling our attention to the spiritually dangerous seductive power of money, Jesus gives us an opportunity to experience genuine and lasting fulfillment.  To be sure, giving up the idol of security means that there will be moments when we feel ... well ... insecure!  But on the other side of the insecurity, is freedom—freedom from the anxiety of trying to hang on to what we think is ours. My money is not my own, so you can't take it from me. My time is not my own, so you can't take it from me. My family doesn't belong to me, so you can't take it from me. My career, my health, my future—all these belong to God. I am but a steward, so you can't really take them from me. 

Do you see the freedom that Jesus offers us in his warning? My value is not determined by the amount of money I have. My value is determined by God, and I know how He values me. Quite honestly, I couldn't ask for anything more.  Amen.

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