Sermon Seeds: Soul Investment
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 13
Hosea 11:1-11 with Psalm 107:1-9, 43 or
Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14; 2:18-23 with Psalm 49:1-12
Worship resources for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are at Worship Ways
Church folks spend a lot of time discussing who is “in” and who should be “out” of the church, or perhaps more to the point, who is in or out of God’s good graces, often turning to Scripture for justification, even if supporting verses are few and far between. How often, though, do we use wealth – the lack or the excess thereof – as a standard for these judgments? Money and possessions do seem to be important in the Bible, which refers to them many, many times – thousands, actually, mostly warning about the dangers of greed and of placing our trust in material goods, or worse, making them our idols.
Material possessions represent many things in our culture: security, power, status and self-esteem, independence, enjoyment, anxiety and worry…the list goes on and on. Yet how often do we address the subject of money in our churches: from the pulpit, in adult education classes and church school for children, or in our newsletter, unless, that is, we’re talking about giving to the church? What about money and greed in general, their presence and their power in our lives, and their role in the life of the spirit?
Money, and the life of the spirit?
In our passage from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is approached by “someone in the crowd” who is obviously embroiled in a family feud over an inheritance and needs a religious authority like Jesus to render a judgment against his brother. Jesus has been encouraging his followers to be fearless and faithful in preaching the Kingdom of God (the Big Picture), and along comes this man apparently whining about a problem that sounds petty in comparison.
Rather than giving the kind of judgment provided by many religious texts (Deuteronomy, for example), Jesus recognizes a teaching moment and gives the man – and the crowd (including us) – a warning: “Beware! Watch out! Be on guard against greed! For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (v. 15).
Seeking “the good life”
How would you define “the good life” – what makes your life rich and full? Of course, an income that covers the basic needs of living – food, shelter, clothing, medical care, education – would be considered a starting point, but we also know how easy it is to measure the quality of our lives in the quantity of our goods and the size of our income. If our income is $20,000 a year, we probably think we would be happy if only we could make $30,000 a year. But people who make $30,000 a year could also think they would be happy if only they made $50,000 a year. And even people who make $100,000 a year may think they need $50,000 more, and so on.
Jesus knew that material things, no matter how fun and comforting, lovely and useful they may be, will never completely satisfy our deepest longings. We will always want more. Material goods make very poor gods for us to worship: this truth is at the core of our relationship with God. Just as the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures had to call the people back repeatedly from worshipping “other gods” than the God of Israel, so Jesus and Paul, the passionate apostle who followed him, preached a gospel of spiritual values centered on the one true God, not the many, petty, fragile little gods that somehow grab our attention and too often win our hearts.
Everyone has something to worry about
Words like these are hardly a crowd-pleasing sermon, and many people must have drifted away after hearing them from Jesus, so he addresses his disciples, reminding them about the flowers and the birds which are splendidly beautiful and which don’t worry for a moment about what they want or need in order to thrive and give glory to God. Like those magnificent creatures, Jesus reassures us that we don’t have a “net worth” as the world measures us – he tells us instead that we have infinite, inexpressible value in the eyes of God.
Of course, even people who have lots of money can still worry about it: about their future, about getting more (when “enough,” as noted above, keeps moving higher and higher), and then about not losing what they have. Those who are poor, however, worry about survival right here, right now. The gap between the haves and the have-nots, in Jesus’ time and now, is a sign of human fallenness and greed, because God has provided more than enough for all of us, all God’s children, if we were just and fair in our living. The reign of God isn’t marked by inequity and need as a result of competitive accumulation – instead, it’s experienced in the abundance of God’s generosity and justice.
Approaching the subject with pastoral sensitivity and an awareness of the wider community
Most churches have members and friends who live at various points across the spectrum from financially secure to profoundly worried about money, including some who appear to be comfortable but are in fact struggling with tremendous debt, so I believe that any sermon that touches on the themes of money, wealth and greed requires a high degree of pastoral sensitivity. However, that doesn’t mean we should shy away from texts like this one – rather, Luke’s story, and Jesus’ parable, offer a wonderful opportunity to explore the question of what provides true security in this world, the kind of security that really matters.
I work on this reflection looking out my window at one of the poorest cities in the United States: Cleveland, Ohio, a struggling community that nevertheless boasts a rebuilding, rejuvenated downtown center with outer-ring suburbs of expensive homes and impressive, world-class – and costly – medical facilities, sports, and arts institutions. We were able to attract the recent, national political convention, along with many other revenue-producing events, by putting substantial resources into new hotels, restaurants, parks, and other amenities. A national sports championship, at long last, also has lifted the spirits of those who live and work here, who care about the good of the city in which they live and work.
Is everyone included in a new day?
Still, while many civic leaders are boasting of a renaissance for the downtown area, many of us – and not just in the churches – ask when the poor and working-class folks of our city’s neighborhoods will share in this new beginning, this new hope, just as much as the entertainment, business and sports sectors. We live in a country where enormous wealth and persistent poverty stand side by side, and the gospel calls us to wrestle with the question of money and material goods in relation to our spiritual welfare and the common good.
For example, like the man building bigger barns to store his treasure, might we too be tempted to build a bigger, fancier football stadium (used for only eight games a year!), instead of dreaming of world-class centers for people who are homeless to receive shelter, training and assistance in their time of need? What a marvelous way to use the abundance with which we have been blessed!
What about our personal finances?
This parable from the Gospel of Luke speaks as well to the subject of personal financial wellness, which also bears on our individual relationship with God. We have to wonder if the discomfort of the church with the subject of money has even contributed in its own way to the economic dislocation being experienced by our nation and the world, including many of our church members, if money is a subject that can’t be discussed in an atmosphere of trust and openness in the community of faith, where the most important things in life should be thoughtfully and prayerfully examined.
Where do you find security?
Have you ever fantasized about receiving a windfall of money, and how it would make you feel relieved and secure at last? Do you think you would be free of worries? Isn’t that what happened to the rich farmer in this parable? True, he started out with advantages in his society, where a tiny percentage of folks actually owned land. On top of that, his harvest that year was staggering, and he had to tear down his barns and build new ones to hold it!
It’s always interesting to think about what might be in the minds of those listening to Jesus, and it’s not unreasonable to think that Jesus’ story might make them remember the story of Joseph in Genesis, who built new barns to hold the abundant harvests during the “fat” years in Egypt so that the people (including his own family, who had tried to kill him) would have enough to eat during the lean years. Jesus’ story undoubtedly rang a bell somewhere in their memories.
Rich toward God, or rich on our own?
But Joseph wasn’t plotting for his own profit and he wasn’t motivated by greed. The rich fool, alas, thought only of himself. From the telling, that’s all he had, anyway, and he even had to carry on his “financial planning” all alone. He seems to be completely turned in on himself and his own future, however lonely it might be. How, indeed, might such a future be a “merry” one?
We find much more than just a parable in this section of Luke: Jesus is addressing the larger question of value, of our value, and he tells us that we are precious in God’s sight, so we shouldn’t worry about “stuff” or believe that a storehouse of treasures constitutes real wealth. The phrase “rich toward God” is intriguing. In his translation, Eugene Peterson tells us what “rich toward God” is not: “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God” (The Message). We might spend fruitful time exploring what “rich toward God” actually means: to store up spiritual treasures that cannot be stolen, and cannot be consumed by moth or rust (Matthew 6:20).
What did he do with what he had?
The rich fool doesn’t seem like an evil man who has cheated and stolen his wealth; like all of us, he’s benefited from good luck, from the rain that falls, as we hear in Matthew’s Gospel, on all of us, both the good and the evil. The trap he falls into is in his next steps: when he has a windfall, he doesn’t run into the village celebrating and announcing his plan to share his good fortune with the community, let alone get their help with deciding how to deal with this excellent problem. He turns inward and stays there, figuring that he can be self-sufficient and secure solely because of his wealth. Eleven times he uses the first-person (“I” and “my”) and never “our” or “their.”
Several commentaries point out the irony that the community, unaware of his solitary thoughts, will inherit his bounty and probably think well of him, although Dianne Bergant believes that his wealth simply went to waste (Preaching the New Lectionary Year C).
The seductive power of possessions
It’s tempting to think that Jesus is just down on material things and wealth. But it’s much deeper than that: he knows the seductive power of possessions, and he wants to clear the way for us to receive much greater blessings and joy. The rich man’s anxiety about the inadequacy of his barns mirrors in some ways our own preoccupation with handling our possessions, protecting them with security systems, investing them safely, worrying about them. It’s not that such precautions are irresponsible or sinful, but they can distract us from what is really important, or lead us to place our trust in the wrong places.
Again, Eugene Peterson’s translation of the passage following this story, when Jesus speaks of our hearts and our treasure, is enlightening: “What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving….Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions” (The Message). Jesus wants his listeners to move their focus from possessions to the things that matter to God first, trusting in God’s plan and God’s good intention to provide what is needed. As beloved children of God, we have a Parent who wants to give us good things, if we can just make room in our lives for them!
How do we measure true value?
We’re used to looking for the (metaphorical or real) price tag on everything and missing the incalculable worth of our own lives, how precious we are in God’s eyes, not just some of us, but every single one of us. This is an interesting thought to meditate on, say, during rush hour traffic on one’s way to work. It certainly can soften the heart toward all those other drivers, who are dealing with their own struggles: they – we – are all of infinite value in the eyes of God.
We can’t measure our value and our security, however, in our accumulated goods – what an offensive concept it is, if we really think about it, to speak of a human being’s “net worth” measured in dollars and cents! Our value is not measured by the value of our possessions, of course, but even the enjoyment of our lives is not experienced most powerfully all on our own. When there’s an abundance of goods, Jesus says that sharing, not hoarding, is the path to joy.
That was the mistake of the rich fool. He could have known an incomparable joy in the short time he had left, if he had spread out the abundance of his goods among the community.
The voice of God
One of the striking features of this parable is the voice of God, the only time in the Gospels, Richard Bauckham notes, when the voice of God actually speaks in a parable. Perhaps that’s because the rich fool has shown blatant disregard for God’s role in his life, so a direct word from God is most timely, and Bauckham writes that all of us “fools” need to be jolted into remembering our dependence on God, not on material things or anything we can do for ourselves.
In a sense, the rich fool has used his wealth to set himself up as a kind of “god” who can ensure his own welfare. What does it mean to be “rich toward God”? Bauckham says that it means trusting God enough to share what we have received (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Could this be what it means to love God back?
Jesus’ words are true today
Richard Swanson observes that the rich fool assumes that the abundant yield of his fields “exempts him from future work, and (more crucially) from present sharing. Economies work because they are knit together….Both earning and sharing are essential to the fabric of God’s world” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke). Swanson finds a way to bridge the gap between two very different socio-economic settings, and to shine the light of the gospel on both.
How amazing would it be, in our present political and economic climate, if our leaders and thinkers embraced such a gospel ideal? Gary E. Peluso-Verdend also encourages readers of this text to focus on the connection between money and our spiritual health. Perhaps that is what Jesus is trying to help his questioner to do, but we too are often in need of the same reorientation. In a “Me” culture, it’s even easier to fall into the trap of the rich fool, Peluso-Verdend writes, and to keep for ourselves what really belongs to God, and to all of God’s children; Jesus uses our mortality as a powerful reminder of the need to share while we are here, and able to do so (New Proclamation Year C 2007).
Giving it all away: a story
This passage from Luke’s Gospel always reminds me of a story about my Aunt Therese Anne, my mother’s youngest sister and a lifelong music teacher and nun. Throughout my childhood, she was my favorite aunt, and she was beloved in the family and in her religious community for her gentle, sweet spirit. She had lights in her eyes and a lilt in her voice, and was gifted in her music and her teaching, in Catholic girls’ schools in Kentucky and Maryland. My Aunt Therese Anne had a deep appreciation for things that are beautiful: flowers and cats and the music of Beethoven, especially. She kept a large, framed picture of her favorite biblical image, the lion and the lamb, over the piano in the room where she taught her students their music lessons.
When my aunt was only 48 years old, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and spent three years struggling against the disease. Like all those who loved her, including the sisters in her religious community, I was heartbroken when she died. We share a communal sense of grief, even though we may not have known each other while she was alive. She has been gone for more than thirty-five years, but we still remember her and share stories about her.
Stories that stay with us are treasures
I remember, years ago, at the end of my three years of seminary in Kentucky, when I met a nun in Lexington, Sr. Ellen, who had been a good friend of my aunt and had lived with her during her last few years of life. She told me a story that didn’t surprise me, but one that helps me think about material things in a new light. Before my aunt died, she was superior of the convent she lived in. One of the other nuns died, and my aunt and Sr. Ellen had the task of cleaning out the deceased sister’s room. It was full of stuff, so many things to distribute and dispose of. The deceased sister had held on to so many things to the very end.
My aunt, even as she fought her disease, gave me back that picture of the lion and the lamb that I had given her years before. She gave me the diamond that her mother, my grandmother, had asked her to keep for me. She gave me the three little ceramic kittens I had brought her from my college trip to Europe way back in 1971. These, all of them, were treasures to her. Sr. Ellen said that, when my aunt died, they went into her room and found it completely empty. She had given it all – each and every simple treasure – away, just as she had given her life to God. We remember her still, not for those material gifts, but for the sense she had of what was truly important and truly beautiful: life and love, God’s children and God’s creatures, and the music of God’s love and care. Perhaps she understood much better than most folks just what Jesus was talking about in this story about a man, and his barns, and his too many things. In any case, it seems to me that she really, really lived what she professed to believe.
Are we living what we say we believe? Really?
And so we turn to R. Alan Culpepper and the notion of “practical atheism,” which he attributes to Peter Rhea Jones. Like the rich man, do we say we believe in God, but live as if we secretly don’t (“Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary)? It’s often said that our most powerful, and accurate, statement of belief is our checkbook (or our electronic bank statement, as the case may be). A close reading of how we use God’s gifts would eloquently tell the story of what we really believe, and what (and whom) we really trust. We have been learning in the Gospel of Luke just what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. This week we have a powerful lesson on the obstacle of greed that might block our path along the way.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
“A greedy father has thieves for children.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”
“Seek not greater wealth, but simpler pleasure; not higher fortune, but deeper felicity.”
Oscar Wilde, 19th century
“Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.”
Pablo Picasso, 20th century
“I’d like to live as a poor man with lots of money.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 20th century
“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
Ernest Hemingway, 20th century
“Fear of death increases in exact proportion to increase in wealth.”
John Ruskin, The King of the Golden River, 19th century
“There is no wealth but life.”
Epictetus, 2nd century
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
Emma Goldman, 20th century
“I’d rather have roses on my table than diamonds on my neck.”
A story about the Marquis de Lafayette, who helped the American colonists during our War of Independence from Britain, 18th century:
When he returned home to France, he lived on his big estates and did very well. He was in the same social class as the rich man in Jesus’ parable, but acted very differently. In 1783, after a poor harvest, Lafayette’s workers were still able to fill his barns with wheat. “The bad harvest has raised the price of wheat,” said one of his workers. “This is the time to sell.” Lafayette thought about the hungry peasants in the surrounding villages. “No,” he replied, “this is the time to give.”
When Israel was a child,
I loved him,
and out of Egypt
I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know
that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them
and fed them.
They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused
to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion; when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
O give thanks to God,
for God is good;
for God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of God say so,
those whom God redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and the west,
from the north and the south.
Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to God in their trouble,
and God delivered them from their distress;
God led them by a straight way,
until they reached an inhabited town.
Let them thank God for God’s steadfast love,
for God’s wonderful works to humankind.
For God satisfies the thirsty,
and the hungry God fills with good things.
Let those who are wise give heed to these things,
and consider the steadfast love of God.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
Hear this, all you peoples; give ear,
all inhabitants of the world,
both low and high, rich and poor together.
My mouth shall speak wisdom;
the meditation of my heart
shall be understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.
Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it.
For the ransom of life is costly,
and can never suffice,
that one should live on forever
and never see the grave.
When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and stupid perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
Their graves are their homes forever,
their dwelling-places to all generations,
though they named lands their own.
Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish.
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Someone in the crowd said to him, “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 towards God.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”