What are your possessions?

Ascensioncast

Sermon by The Rev. Patrick J. Wingo, August 4, 2019

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The Gospel: Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Sermon Text

Sermon for Proper 13C 8-7-19 CAK The Rev Patrick J Wingo   Today’s gospel presents us with a slice of Jesus‘s ministry where a man asked him to judge between himself and his brother in a dispute over their inheritance. Jesus deflects the request, and instead spoke to the crowd about greed, saying “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And then he tells them the parable of the rich fool, which includes that classic line that the rich man says to his own soul: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” Little does the man know that he only has one night left to live, and so while he has made himself very rich monetarily, he has not built up an ample store house for the treasures of God.   John Vaughn, the director of the Peace Development Fund, has written this:     “Money is not just a head thing; it is also a heart and soul thing… One’s money is not separate from one’s spiritual journey… If they are not integrated, then one’s spiritual journey is incomplete…”   I don’t think I have ever encountered a church where everyone—clergy or lay people— is completely comfortable talking about money. I suspect the reason has something to do with that “spiritual integration issue” that John Vaughn writes about. I also think that the relationship between money and spirituality is very complicated. Money is a subject that I have seen people have more passion about than college football, and yet it is considered such a private issue that is off limits at parties—and you know what the other off-limits party issue is: religion.   So let’s be clear: in the first century understanding of wealth—in Biblical terms—it is likely that every single person in this room is rich beyond measure. Some have more possessions and assets than others, but almost all of us probably have more than we need. We all have food on our tables and roofs over our heads. We live in a nation of great opportunity and prosperity. We have leisure time, and discretionary spending money. Even so, there are people in our country, indeed, people who live not far from here, who go to sleep hungry. Whatever the reason, that is simply a fact.   Even though we come to church regularly, and give of ourselves, and we pray for and care for our fellow human beings, still we are called to pay attention to what the Bible says to us on the subject of money, earthly possessions, and justice for those who are poor, because it is not just an occasional verse here or there. Here’s some perspective: Jesus told thirty-eight parables.   Sixteen of those thirty-eight have something to do with how we handle wealth and possessions. One out of ten verses in the Gospels deal directly with the subject of earthly treasure. The Bible offers us about five hundred verses on prayer, and less than five hundred on the subject of faith. Do you know how many have to do with money or possessions? Over two thousand. We have to pay attention to this, and I think of all the verses about money and possessions in the Bible, perhaps the one we might want to pay very close attention to is in today’s Gospel lesson. It is in the last verse, as Jesus wraps up the telling of the parable of the rich fool, when he says, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves and are not rich toward God.” What does it mean to be rich toward God?   Some thoughts:   Becoming rich toward God is being willing to allow God into our thinking and feeling about money and possessions. It’s being able to admit to God that you want stuff, and you want more of it, if that happens to be true for you. It’s being willing to listen to God about how you use and how you share your resources, even if that means changing your lifestyle. It’s seeking to develop a spirituality and an attitude that nothing you have really belongs to you but is a gift from God. It is opening your eyes to the pain, suffering, and injustice that comes from greed and misuse of money in our world. Being rich toward God is about how we choose to live. The way we exist in the world affects every part of our being, and our relationship with others and with God always involves money and possessions, even in small ways.   Clarence Jordan was a biblical scholar who earned a PhD in New Testament Greek, but he was also a visionary. From an early age Jordan was troubled by the racial and economic injustice that he saw in his community. Hoping to improve the lot of sharecroppers through scientific farming techniques, Jordan enrolled in the University of Georgia, earning a degree in agriculture in 1933. In 1942 Jordan and his wife moved to Sumter County, Georgia, to live out the teachings of Jesus amid the poverty and racism of the rural South. He envisioned a place where blacks and whites could live and work together based on a radical call to discipleship. He founded a community called Koinonia Farms, from the Greek word for community that was used in the New Testament to describe the early Christians in Jerusalem who pooled their resources and shared a common life in the spirit of Jesus, with a particular love for the poor. (From followingJesus.org)   Jordan died in 1969, and the whole of his life on Koinonia Farms was a battle against the local racist reaction against his vision. But he was also a prolific writer, and his Cotton Patch translation of the Gospels uses southern vernacular to make point after point about what life in Jesus is about, and it has been hailed as an extremely accurate translation. So here’s Jordan’s translation of part of today’s Gospel, starting with the rich fool talking to himself: “And I will to myself, ‘Self, you’ve got enough stuff stashed away to do you a long time. Recline, dine, wine, and shine!’ But God said to him, ‘You nitwit, at this very moment your goods are putting the screws on your soul. All these things you’ve grubbed for, to whom do they really belong? That’s the way it is with a man who piles up stuff for himself without giving God a thought.’   A former colleague of mine, also a New Testament scholar, wrote this about Jordan’s translation: “Alone among all the translations of the New Testament in my library, Jordan translates the story correctly. The New Revised Standard version reads, ‘This very night your life is being demanded of you.’ But that is not what the Greek text says. Rather it says, ‘They have demanded your life.’ Who were the ‘they’ that demanded the life of the farmer? His things, of course. He no longer owned his possessions; they owned him. Or, in Jordan’s words, ‘Your goods are putting the screws on your soul.’”   Being rich toward God is about how we choose to live. The way we live and move and have our being in the world is intricately wrapped up in our spiritual lives. There’s no separating it. We can’t compartmentalize the things that make us uncomfortable. When we come to church, in a sense we bring with us everything we possess, and when we go out into the world, our connection to God through each other and through the sacraments goes with us as well. So if we don’t at least struggle a bit with the meaning of our possessions and our position in the order of life in the world, we are, perhaps, in a certain sense, fooling ourselves. There are no easy answers about the institutions and powers that control the way things are in the world, and likewise, there are no easy answers concerning the balance in our individual lives between our wants and needs, and between sharing what we have, taking care of those we love, and planning for the future.       But there is one thing that is certain: we are God’s possession. God wants us, desires us, loves us, and has given us our very lives as gifts. How can we know ourselves to be God’s possession and live like it? “God is always trying to give us good things,” said St Augustine, “but our arms are too full to receive them.” So we open our arms to God and let go of those things which we hold onto so tightly, which ironically hold us in their grip so tightly that we can’t fully live. We open our arms to the world that desperately needs people who understand what is truly valuable in life. Because it is in resting in God’s loving arms, and providing ways for others to do the same, that we find no greater treasure.