Sermon preached by The Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 1, 2010
In the Name of our all-loving, tender, embracing God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Money. It can buy a house but not a home. It can buy a clock but not time. It can buy you a position but not respect. It can buy you a bed but not sleep. It can buy you a book but not knowledge. It can buy you medicine but not health.
So you see money isn’t everything. In fact it often causes pain and suffering. I tell you this because I am your friend and I want to take away your pain and suffering. So send me all your money…and I will suffer for you. Cash only please!
Now that I’ve gotten your attention we can seriously consider the difficult lesson Jesus presents in the Gospel which is the first of two that we’ll hear examining issues of material possession. Today’s passage begins with a man asking Jesus as “Teacher” or Rabbi to act as arbitrator in a dispute over family inheritance—a common practice since inheritance issues fell under the jurisdiction of Torah or Jewish Law.
What is suspect about this “someone’s” request is that he abruptly interrupts Jesus who is teaching the large crowd that has gathered. For this unnamed individual, it’s all about “me”—his needs being met, right then and there, no matter how disruptive that would be for the rabbi who is ministering to the whole group. Jesus seizes the opportunity to launch into another lesson—a difficult one to hear—then and now. As he is wont to do, he uses a little story, a parable, to make his point.
You have probably heard it many times and that’s a problem because it is now “old hat.” But it’s also a problem because it’s so very true and very real. When, in our Tuesday morning discussion group, we read the story of the rich man who pulled down his barns and built larger ones, one of our participants remarked: “That’s the motto of Fairfield County.”
I think we can all agree that this is one of those gospels that is not meant to make us comfortable. It doesn’t take much looking at the Gospels to deduce that Jesus regarded those with wealth as living on the dangerous ground of substituting their riches for God. The temptation for all of us is to think “Jesus isn’t talking to me. I’m not a wealthy person.”
Well, you can relax for a moment. Jesus never said we can’t have money or own a nice home or drive a good car or have cable TV or even an IPOD. This story is not about owning things but rather about the mindset of accumulation for the sake of owning stuff and the balance between enjoying the abundance with which God has blessed us and our sharing a fair amount of it for the good of others. The warning in this Gospel is not against wealth but against greed—all kinds of greed.
The rub here is that we can be guilty of greed whether we have a lot of possessions or very few because greed comes in so many forms, some of them less obvious. We can be greedy of another’s affection, wanting to totally possess the person and not allowing her or him to have any breathing room. We can be greedy of power, of taking charge, in our workplace or on the school playground. What about the current economic mess of our nation and the role of corporate and individual greed in that debacle.
We can even be guilty of greed in church—claiming a certain ministry we exercise as our “territory” and not welcoming others to share in it with us. Think about the generous action our leadership has taken in redefining our worship times this fall. Yes, it might be more comfortable to continue as we are, letting those who have yet to come sit on the periphery or struggle to find a seat or eventually even have to stand, but isn’t that being greedy—greed over what we have discovered here and cherish yet not making room for the next person in the door to enjoy it as we have?
The Good News in the gospel today is that Jesus both sees our futile quests for security in our possessions but also sees beyond them to a more enduring reality: God wants to delver us from worshiping our abundance and liberate us to use what God has given us to help build up the reign of God in this world. Our lives have significance, not in what we accumulate, but in the light of God’s love for us.
There is simply no evading it. This Gospel begs a genuine, honest, even painful, self-examination. Our riches, our possessions, far from being our great treasure, can also be the source of great delusions.
Where does your life weigh in when you hear this Gospel? What are the bigger barns you have built or are tempted to build because conventional wisdom tells us that personal peace and security emanate from acquisition and prosperity? How much in balance is what you spend on yourself and the needs of your household and what you gratefully offer back to God, for example, by supporting this sacred place that feeds you and so many others?
To help you along in that soul searching, I offer you two short pieces that resonate with Jesus’ radical view of earthly living. The first, the wisdom of a Sufi master who said: “If you put the world between you and God, the world becomes a spiritual obstacle; if you use the world to remember God, the world becomes your spiritual friend.”
And the second, the story of an American tourist who paid a visit on a trip to Poland to a renowned Polish rabbi. He was astonished to see that the rabbi’s house was very simple and filled with books, a table, a few chairs, and a bed.
“Rabbi,” asked the tourist, “where is your furniture?”
“Where is yours?” asked the rabbi in return.
“Mine?” questioned the puzzled American. “But I am only passing through.”
“So,” said the rabbi, “am I.”
As are you and I. So are we all.