Sermon for August 4, 2019
This morning, I want to thank Jesus and the writer of the Gospel of Luke for the lovely gift of a gospel story that is not only clear, but modern. Here we have a contemporary and familiar dilemma that echoes to us through scripture. More than two-thousand years ago there were families fighting about inheritance, and twenty minutes from now a new family fight will undoubtedly begin.
Big thanks to Jesus for not sending the man who asked him to arbitrate his fight with his brother away, and instead used this as a teaching moment, that echoes to us from ancient Judea to Brookline this morning.
Picture Jesus surrounded by people, perhaps on a hot and dusty road. There is no sound amplification, and Jesus’ reputation has become more wide spread, so people are traveling to see and hear him. On this particular morning, they press in close to hear him, and his revolutionary words, calling for the upending of power structures, new ways to understand, experience and honor God. He is traveling lightly – without fanfare, caravans or fancy and obvious trappings of authority and he makes a point of associating with anyone who approaches him.
He is telling profound truths, touching hearts and transforming minds. He is expounding on the Kingdom of God, teaching people how to pray for their daily bread and asking followers and believers to create God’s Kingdom on earth. And out of this gathering comes a shouted request for arbitration between siblings fighting over their parents’ stuff!
This impertinent man is a heckler. Rather than send the disrespectful shouter away – Jesus corrects the man by reminding him that life is not about an abundance of possessions. Then, broadening the lesson beyond this one man and his family, Jesus makes the point to the whole crowd with the parable of the Rich Fool, a man who responded to the blessings of bountiful harvests by demolishing his older, smaller barns and building bigger barns to hold his stuff. Once he has secured all his stuff, the Rich Man gives himself and his soul permission to celebrate.
The twist in the parable is God telling the man that his death imminent, “[T]his very night your life is being demanded of you”. In other words, accumulating all this stuff and investing all the time and energy to store it and keep it safe is meaningless, as it has nothing to do with the Rich Fool’s relationship with God.
I am going to boldly go a step further and suggest that building the bigger barns to attend to the man’s stuff was actually a barrier to his relationship with God. The time and resources spent honoring and valuing the possessions, was time not spent praying and communicating with God, communing with family or connecting and enhancing his community. The message conveyed was that he valued his possessions and was willing to invest time and treasure to protect them.
And for what? On his death bed, on the day God says the Rich Fool is going to die, what good is what he has accumulated? Life is not about an abundance of possessions. Jesus the radical is directly contradicting the notion emblazoned on bumper stickers in the 1980’s, “whoever dies with the most toys wins”! Apparently not…
Yet, each of us falls prey to the seductive notion that we need bigger, better, newer, more. The advertising industry trades on the currency of this human desire and doubles down by insinuating that bigger, better, newer, more will make us happy.
But does it? Have you worked hard at a job to earn a higher salary, scraped and sacrificed for a promotion, compromised family time, fun and vacations to get ahead? And was the result ever as fulfilling as you expected it to be? Perhaps it facilitated the ability to buy more stuff, or provided temporary comfort and delight, but the point of today’s gospel is that it probably didn’t draw you closer to God, nor did it result in anything that will make your final day on earth more enjoyable or satisfying.
Some of us are being swallowed up by our stuff. Might the modern equivalent of the Rich Fool’s barns be the exponential growth of the self-storage industry? Cheaply constructed pods that allow us to save our extra stuff that no longer fits in our homes, or our stuff with which we can not bear to part? Allowing us to postpone the consideration of how much stuff is enough.
While that is what it looks like for individuals, we are on the cusp of a national if not global conversation about how much stuff is enough, and how much is too much. The terms Income Inequality and Wealth Disparity sound pretty sterile and benign. They remove us from the reality of the Rich man and his brand new big barns and the people living around him, who harvested the crops he is hoarding, built the new giant structures he is touting yet do not have the means to provide for themselves or their families.
Perhaps you heard the statistics bandied about this week about three individuals in the US owning as much wealth as the bottom half of the population combined, which is more than 160 million people? Or the top 1% of wealthy Americans owning more than 90% of the rest of the country put together. It is staggering. And the crux of Luke’s gospel message this morning is – to what end?
Wealth and the imbalance, is creating a yawning chasm between the haves and the have nots – allowing whole groups to not only segregate themselves but we can be insulated and live lives that shield us from connecting, much less understanding or empathizing with whichever group we are not in.
It is not often I get to turn to the lovely and talented prophet and Oscar winner Mr. Denzel Washington, but a number of years ago, he spoke directly to this point when he said, “I’ve been blessed to make hundreds of millions of dollars in my life. I can’t take it with me, and neither can you. It’s not how much you have but what you do with what you have. You’ll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse.”
We can’t take our stuff with us. We can use this week’s parable as an invitation to take inventory of our own stuff and evaluate where our focus is, with the guidance from Jesus that life is not about an abundance of possessions.
Consider the competing forces between the enormous growth in the home security and self-storage industries and the quiet counter-revolutionary organizing guru Marie Kondo. Are you familiar with her book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”? It seemed to take the country by storm several years ago. I had friends who would devote a full weekend or longer to using her method to sort through and evaluate their stuff. On phone calls I would find them considering whether a particular pair of jeans they bought in the 1990’s gave them joy. The part of the method that delighted me was the moment when you hold something up and decide whether it sparks joy…in Episcopal parlance…does it connect you to God’s love, facilitate your generosity to God or do nothing. Sparking joy, or living with sparks of joy is not a bad recipe for a happy life.
Holding lightly to your stuff, so that it doesn’t define you, suffocate you or become the focus of your purpose, but rather allows you to have purpose and connection to God is what our lives are supposed to be about.
This week, my very much loved Aunt Pepper died after decades of living with MS and slowly ceding her independence to the disease, but never relinquishing her desire to connect to loved ones, friends and God. On Wednesday and Thursday as she was preparing to graduate into God’s full-time care, she was surrounded by her children and grandchildren, hearing their voices of appreciation and love. I think — I hope — she would say that she had exactly what she needed on Thursday, and what she has left to each of us is the memory of being in her light and life. Feeling important to her. Our shared memories this week have not been about the stuff she gave us, but rather about the times Aunt Pepper went out of her way for us, arranging gatherings, sewing costumes, anonymously knitting puppets for hospitalized children. That will be my Aunt Pepper’s legacy, that and a fantastic fashion sense and dressing for every occasion – her residue of kindness, love and generosity does not require a U-Haul, nor self-storage container. We will carry it with us lightly.
How might we be generous with God this week, carry our stuff lightly and consider what sparks joy, conveys love and connection to one another? You can certainly try the KonMarie method of evaluating each item in your home, but I suspect this is on few August agendas.
What about setting aside some intentional time to reflect on our living environments, taking quiet inventory and noticing where there is joy, and what might spark stress. Let us give thanks to God for each, but we might consider tidying up a bit, sharing extra stuff that might be treasures or add joy to someone else’s life and generally making more room for divine connection – being generous and rich to God.
The Reverend Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq.
Sermon for Sunday 10:30 am service, August 4, 2019 || All Saints Parish Brookline || Proper 13 Year C || Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21