Sermon, July 31, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
Well, this is an interesting passage to read amidst the lottery-mania of the last few days. Did you buy a ticket? Did you spend some time imagining yourself as the winner of the $1.34 billion prize? Nothing like the lure of easy money to turn our society upside down.
Today’s scripture and next weeks’ reading go hand in hand - one of them kind of answers the other. And so consider this a 2 -part Sermon, with today being Part 1. I hope to leave you with things to mull over until next week.
In our passage today, Jesus is approached by a man who wants him to act as judge regarding a family dispute over an inheritance. It seems like a weird question, but it’s not entirely out of left field. If you remember, from our series on Women in the bible last summer, there were religious authorities in Israel’s history when the society was governed by ‘judges’ who would set judgements according to Mosaic law - the law created from the 10 commandments. Even in Jesus’ time, legal matters were arbitrated by the Scribes, a branch of the religious establishment who had knowledge of the law and could draft legal documents. But Jesus is not a scribe - in fact scribes are the villains in many of the stories in the gospel of Matthew - and so he responds with apparent disdain, asking the man who appointed him judge.
Now we know the author of the Gospel of Luke is not a fan of wealth. This is evident from the very first chapter, when we hear the promises in Mary’s song. She sings that God will
bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly;
fill the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
This criticism of wealth continues throughout the gospel. I think it’s safe to assume that the author of Luke was sharing the gospel with a society that had high inequality, a community highly divided between those who had much more than enough and those who could not manage their day to day needs. And in Luke’s ancient world, greediness had communal implications. If one person became richer and richer, it meant others conversely would become poorer and poorer, because, unlike today with our complex economy, theirs was a grain-based economy and those who did not have, did not eat. And, theirs was a religious economy, where there was a communal mores, indeed a mandate from God, that good fortune was a blessing that must be shared with others as recognition of God’s action in their lives.
And so this man, whose land produced so abundantly that his barn was filled to bursting, was probably not a simple farmer but someone who owned a large share of farmland to produce that much crop. His concern over inadequate storage shows he had no intention of either selling or sharing this crops. Traditionally, a bumper crop that caused his barns to burst would have been seen as a blessing from God, one that by its nature, and the nature of God, compels us to share with others - perhaps in celebration. But this man, by his own admission intends to ‘relax, eat, drink and be merry’ by himself - is so totally self-absorbed that others don’t even figure into his equation. He has forgotten both the God who causes the earths’ bounty and the neighbor without access to that bounty. While his death pronouncement feels cruel and harsh, his actions have laid out his mistakes.
So what does this scripture say to us? What are our community mores when it comes to excess resources? When good fortune comes our way, do we save it or share it?
In my former church, there was a church family legend connected to the Sharon Field Fund. Decades before, a family named Hargleroad had belonged to the church. They were a farming family who owned lots of land but I don’t believe they had children to carry on the tradition. When they passed, they unexpectedly endowed the church with a good portion of their estate - $1.8 million dollars worth. The church did not have access to the capital, but the interest on their endowment funded one-half of our yearly budget most years. Now, when that unexpected gift arrived, the church was stunned. And it came as if a gift from God, at a moment when it was sorely needed. And yet, for one women named Sharon Field, it did not sit well just to keep it. She ranted and rallied, and pushed, and prodded, until she had the entire congregation persuaded that in recognition of such a blessing, the church had to make a pledge to be a blessing to others. She convinced the congregation to devote 5% of the yearly endowment to charitable causes in the community. that was why my relatively small church gave away more money each year than any other mega church in Hastings.
What are our community mores when it comes to excess resources? When good fortune comes our way, do we save it or share it? For example, what did you do with your COVID rebates? Have you ever gotten the gift of a surprise inheritance? Did you do something to celebrate? With whom? Say you’ve had an unexpectedly profitable year at your company; what happens to that profit? And an equally important question, if you spend it or a portion of it, who do you spend it on? Family only? Charitable causes? What is our communal obligation when good fortune strikes? How wide is your circle of sharing - and why does that matter?
You wouldn’t be out of step with our American community mores if your answer to these questions were, ‘of course I saved it for myself. I wanted … to renovate my bathroom… to take my family on vacation… to pay for my child’s education … to pay off that credit card. And, by the way, spending it was good for the economy - it helped keep my neighborhood restaurant in business, helped my contractor stay off unemployment, helped keep our economy afloat. It wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. mindset is at odds with the scripture we claim as our foundation. Our morality as Americans is so completely merged with Capitalism that any word to the contrary just feels ludicrous deep in our bones.
The love of money, our American pursuit of as much financial resources as we can muster, is not necessarily idolatry, not always about greed. For some, it comes out of a personal history of need and want. For others, it’s motivated by desire to provide for children. Not everyone with money is out there buying pet tigers or gold plated toilets or putting diamonds in their dentistry. For many, money and savings and hoarding is less about decadence and more about security - security for the future. Indeed, I would argue that’s what it is for the man in the parable, too; hoarding the fruit of his crop so he will have a secure future where he can sit back, relax, eat, drink and be merry without worry. We, also, want to make sure we have the resources for the future we take for granted.
Think about the resources we put into keeping ourselves, our loved ones, our possessions and our future secure. Locked doors and protective gates. Security cameras and alarm systems. Home, health, life and car insurance. Stocks and bonds and mutual funds, in addition to that pension and 401K. In some instances, private security guards or a protective doorman.
And it’s not just in our homes. Here at church, we are having a discussion about what our security protocol should look like after the vandalism we experienced a few weeks ago. Churches, schools, hospitals and government buildings - all designed to serve the public - are collectively taking action to lock and watch their doors during business hours. During the FBI training, they were giving tips to clergy, business owners and politicians alike of how to react in an active shooter crisis. We are, as a society, trying to adjust to the reality that we are vulnerable to attack in church, at the grocery store, in school, even at a concert, club or parade. How do we find security in a world such as this?
And yet, still we humans will try anything and everything our resources allow. A few years ago I read Naomi Klein’s book, “This Changes Everything” which is about the coming climate crisis. It’s full of dire predictions and recriminations of how we got here, of course. But it also had a chapter on how the super wealthy are fortifying themselves and their homes not only against the coming weather changes, but also against those less fortunate who might be displaced, destroyed, and desperate. There were stories of secret locked bunkers in wildfire territory with air filtration and self-sustaining power, and high security homes in warm climates built with self-sufficient solar and water supplies, and fortified with walls and personal security guards. Rather than put their financial resources to work to avert the coming crisis for all, there is a segment of the population hoarding resources to survive while leaving everyone else to suffer our fate. Is that security?
Or take Israel, a good example of a country that spares no expense on security. They have the most technologically advanced defense systems in the world, a standing army with superior weapons, huge economic advantages, armed checkpoints, digital mapping, even walls protecting their roads - and yet they can’t guarantee a future without attack. Instead of putting their resources into righting injustices with the Palestinian people and taking steps towards creating peace, they have sunk all their resources into protecting themselves from attack - while the conditions that cause resentment and violence simmer and become worse. Do they have security?
I’ve always found it deeply ironic, perhaps even blasphemous, that printed on our money are the words, “in God We Trust.” Really? Do we trust in God? Or do we trust in money? Today’s scripture is an admonishment to trust in God, not cash and our ability to pay. Jesus is reminding us that nothing is guaranteed, and to think we can achieve such security is human folly. God is the author of life and death, and there is no future we can secure for ourselves with financial gain. This verse, no doubt, must have been the origin of the phrase, ‘you can’t take it with you’. Here we are, faced again with the lesson that humans deny; that we are not in control. We do not have the power to determine our own fate, or that of those we love, no matter how hard we try. There is no guarantee for what the future holds, not even when we work hard and store up our riches for safe keeping.
Instead, we are invited to trust God with our journey.
But how can we trust God in a world like this, you might ask, where bad things happen to good people? How do we trust God when sometimes, we’re not sure we even believe in God? How do we trust God when all our good works put into the world can be desecrated as easily as our doors were on the front lawn? How do we trust God when there are random shooters who threaten our friends and loved ones at any given time? How do we trust God in the face of cancer, COVID, and the cruelty of chronic disease? How do we trust God when it feels like we can hardly trust other people?
I don’t have the answers for you - at least, not this week. The scripture we engage next week will have some wisdom to offer on these questions - but I’ll give you the hint; perhaps the answers have something to do with our other scripture from Colossians. Perhaps the answer has to do with setting our hearts and minds on other things, things above, not earthly things. Perhaps the answers have to do with walking a different path; perhaps the answers have to do less with the destination and more with the journey.
In the meantime, I leave you with these things to ponder; do you trust God? In what way do you put your trust in God? What would it take for you to trust God more? What might you gain from it? May we all spend the next week contemplating how our need to control impacts our relationship with God. Amen and Amen.