Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 4, 2013
If you shop at Stew Leonard’s, you may notice a sign just after you leave the express checkout area that reads, “What would you do with 270 million dollars?” I think it’s about PowerBall but, truthfully, I have never paid much attention because I go into fantasy mode immediately, imaging what I would do with that huge amount of money.
St. Paul’s is one of the first things that comes to mind. We would have a state-of-the art heating and cooling system and handicap access in all our buildings and we would have no budget worries for a long time. The young man, Nicholas, whose family I sponsor in Bogotá would have no worries about his future. Episcopal Relief and Development would be a beneficiary so that people across the globe would get access to clean water.
Oh, I would not forget myself. I’d like a vacation home in Provincetown and no financial worries in my retirement. Beyond my monetary security, I think I would most enjoy seeing what that kind of money could do for others. Well, OK, back to reality. After all, I’ll never win that jackpot because I don’t play PowerBall!
Our story today finds Jesus, having just finished dinner in the home of a Pharisee where he berated the guests for their greed, encountering a man who addresses him as “Teacher” and asks him to arbitrate the family inheritance for him – a common request to make of a rabbi because inheritance issues fell under the jurisdiction of Torah or Jewish religious law.
For this individual, it’s all about “me” – his needs being met, right then and there, no matter how disruptive that would be for Jesus who is ministering to the large crowd that had gathered to hear him teach. Jesus seizes the opportunity to launch into another important lesson – a difficult one to hear – the parable of the Rich Fool and his barns – barns he built so that he could store his possessions and live high on the hog.
This rich man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others. His soliloquy contains about sixty words, yet “I” and “my” occur 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.”
There is no suggestion that the man is wicked or that he would delight in the fate of those who have less than he does. Yet there is no consideration here of others or recognition that the land itself is a gift from God.
We can all get caught up in the business of “big barns” which is just 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.
If our Gospels were written today, this story might include a rich man who buys the newest gas-guzzling 4X4 truck and the person who cleans his house for less than minimum wage and can’t afford her medical bills. And we know that is not a fantasy.
This is not a Gospel text that is meant to make us comfortable. It is at best unsettling and it takes only a cursory scanning of the Gospels to see that Jesus regarded the wealthy as people who substituted their riches for God. We may dismiss all that by thinking, “Jesus isn’t talking to me. I’m not a wealthy person.”
But Jesus did not tell stories so that we moderns could soft pedal or grind these hard teachings into spiritual baby food. We can’t just ignore it if we take our faith seriously.
So how do we listen to this story and let our lives be informed by it when most of us do worry about our pensions, IRA’s, debt, and possessions? I think the best starting point is to admit our personal struggles with money and what we own – that these Gospel stories about money and wealth do make us antsy.
In his weekly email reflection, Episcopal Bishop Stacy Sauls wrote, “In the context of the parable, what stood between the rich man and God was not the abundance itself. Abundance, after all, comes from God. It was the larger barns necessary to keep the abundance for himself. The only solution to hoarding is to give the abundance away. It is admittedly not an easy thing. Still, it is the only way. Hoarding has to do with surviving, and as the parable illustrates, even that it cannot guarantee. Giving has to do with living. And living for all its worth is what it means to be rich toward God.”
Jesus never said we can’t have money or own a nice home or drive a decent car or have cable TV or an iPad. The rich man was not a fool because of what he owned but rather about his accumulation of things for the sake of owning stuff. 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 begs a genuine, honest, perhaps uncomfortable, self-examination of our lives.
It is the basis for both our individual and common discernment. What does our checkbook or online banking or credit card statement tell us about how we spend what God has given us? Can we identify a percent that represents what we give back to support God’s mission through our church, the sacred place that feeds you and so many others? And that we give to other causes that help the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised? When we look at our “barns,” where does our life weigh in when placed side-by-side with this Gospel?
And then there is our common life here in this community of faith. Karl Barth suggested that we preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other; he didn’t say anything about clutching the church budget. Do we as a congregation have a larger vision for ministry and mission than what’s printed on an Excel spreadsheet?
Tough, tough questions. Much more difficult to grapple with than “What would you do with 270 million dollars?
Yet, in the end, I think the answer is very simple: It’s not how much we have that matters; it’s what we do with what we have. Jesus would probably say “Amen” to that.