Jesus’ Values – August 4, 2019

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Track 2)

In the name of our all loving God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, AMEN.

What a dark and cynical lesson we get from Ecclesiastes! That everything in life is futility and hopelessness. The reflections of an unhappy person. Still, it makes clear that a life focused on fleeting material possession and selfish pleasure is empty and pointless. Which is what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel.

One of the themes that reappears in Luke’s Gospel is our relationship to money and possessions.  Luke makes it clear that these issues are eternal questions, to be answered by every believer in every generation. Jesus speaks more of money and possessions than of anything else in the Gospels, for he understands our conflicts.  And today gives us some very definite guidelines.  Writ large.

As the text begins, Jesus is out and about, teaching and preaching. Someone in the crowd calls out and asks him to settle a family dispute about inheritance. Well, actually, he doesn’t ask him; he tells Jesus what he wants him to do and what he wants him to say. “Hey Jesus, Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!” He wants to use Jesus to give religious credibility to his own greediness.

Jesus, not new to family systems, refuses to be drawn into this family matter and instead warns the man and the crowd (and us), against the dangers of desire, the menace of materialism:  “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Then Jesus tells the story of the rich man who just keeps on getting richer. He already has barns, and his barns are already full, and now he has all this other grain. What is he to do with it? He has more than most people, more than he needs. What to do? Well, he decides to build more barns. He decides to stake his future on the accumulation of more stuff. By tearing down his old barns and cashing in his CDs, he refinances and builds new and bigger barns and now he is set! No doubt the newer ones have the latest attributes, climate control and outstanding security systems.

In a country in which many have so much “stuff” we have to stow what we can’t use in rows of storage facilities; in a time when television options include not one but several “reality shows” about people who hoard – including shows that combine hoarding and storage facilities! – this parable might connect on a contemporary note. Many Americans have more belongings than we can use, even compulsively buying things on credit, and then going into debt to store it all. We are indeed “building bigger barns.”[1]

This parable is called the Parable of the Rich Fool. The man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others. His soliloquy contains about sixty words, yet “I”, and “my” occur over twenty times. “What should I do? I have no place to store my crops. I will do this. I will build. I will store. My barns. My grain. My goods.” He wants everything for himself.  Jesus would have had no quarrel with the farmer had he built larger barns to keep his grain from spoiling. Then, in the event of famine, he would have been able to share it with his neighbors. But no, he wanted more just for the sake of having more.

We can all get caught up in the business of “big barns” which is a metaphor for whatever we might see as the “answer” to the good life. The gist of this Gospel lesson is that everything we have is ultimately a gift from God, that we can sabotage any hope for true happiness if we are possessed by our possessions, and that we need to sort out what is really important and lasting before it is too late.

I fantasize about winning Powerball, when I see the billboards advertising a humungous payout. I am a comfortable, privileged white person, I have enough now.  Sure a gazillion dollars would be nice, and I daydream about what I’d do with the money.  When I start thinking about winning, I come back to today’s Gospel, and my own greed.  What’s interesting to me as that I never see myself or my needs as being greedy. I’m pretty sure the man in the parable didn’t think of himself that way either.

Jesus is telling his hearers about money’s ability to impoverish one’s soul and rewire one’s values. The way the parable is framed, “Be on guard against all kinds of greed” makes it warn against materialism, acquisitiveness, and preoccupation with one’s own security. Which is exactly what I never consider that I am doing.

So what is this text calling us to do?  It is again another lesson about balance: the balance between enjoying the abundance with which God has blessed us and sharing a fair and just amount of what we have for the good of others. The warning in this Gospel is not against wealth but against greed.

That said, there is simply no evading it. This Gospel implores an honest, perhaps uncomfortable, self-examination of our lives.  There’s a reason that Jesus talks of our relationship to money and possessions more than any other topic in the Gospels.  All of us will have to work out our salvation with regard to our possessions and assets, one decision at a time about what it means to be rich toward God. That means that we won’t be balanced people until we live according to the values of God. And those values are decency, integrity, kindness toward all, generosity, peacefulness.

It is these values for which the Bishop of Washington, the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, and the staff at the National Cathedral spoke out this week in their statement, “Have We No Decency?”

In it Bp. Budde and staff call out the racialized rhetoric of the president aimed at members of Congress who are persons of color.  You can find it on the National Cathedral website.

They write “These words are more than a ‘dog-whistle.’ When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human “infestation” in America. They serve as a call to action from those people… by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions…”

The statement continues “As leaders of faith who believe in the sacredness of every single human being, the time for silence is over. We must boldly stand witness against the bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia that is hurled at us, especially when it comes from the highest offices of this nation. We must say that this will not be tolerated. To stay silent in the face of such rhetoric is for us to tacitly condone the violence of these words. We are compelled to take every opportunity to oppose the indecency and dehumanization that is racism, whether it comes to us through words or actions.”[2]

These values of God, to which we all commit by our baptismal promises include respecting the dignity of every human being. And standing against all that demeans others.

These same values also include figuring out a right relationship with our resources and wealth, sharing from our abundance, which is part of seeking and serving Christ in all persons. Not easy stuff.  In the same, our call as followers of Jesus. Today and every day.

[1] Kate Heichler, “Water Daily,”, August 1, 2019.

[2] Have We No Decency? A Response to President Trump, July 30, 2019.

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