Rich Toward God, Proper 13 (C)

[RCL] Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Right now in the world there is lots of tension on the issues of income and wealth inequality. I am not an economist or social scientist so I will not get into these complicated aspects. However, This Sunday’s scriptures do offer us some reflection from a Christian perspective.

Jesus has taught us the two great commandments; the first is to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. The second is to love our neighbor as ourselves.

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Jesus tells the two brothers who are in dispute of the family inheritance. Jesus reminds them that life is not about owning, or possessing things abundantly. We are to love God wholeheartedly and not to worship possessions as idols.

To emphasize his point, Jesus tells these two brothers the parable of a rich man whom he also calls as a fool, the “rich fool”. This rich man had the blessings of abundant harvests. The produce is so abundant that he does not have enough space to store them. With this abundance, what does this rich man do? The scripture tells his only concerns are “I” and “my.” In his whole thought process, it is only he himself that is in the center. It shows he only loves himself.

We have a few issues here: greed, rich, and fool.

In the Epistles to the Colossians, the author admonishes that “Put to death, whatever in you is earthly: … greed (which is idolatry). (Colossians 3: 5)

Greed is defined as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed” by Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Is desiring for more of something than is needed really bad? Don’t we all want to have abundance? Don’t we all want to have a little leftover money to cushion ourselves in times of need? Isn’t that why we contribute to pension fund, to have 401K, 401C, for our retirement?

I don’t think it is when one prepares for rainy days, or stores up one’s abundance that causes Jesus to call us fools, or does he condemn wealth.

It is the selfish and excessive desire for oneself that becomes greed. It is the way we treat our abundance and our wealth that matters to God.

Jesus further says, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  These people end up with spiritual death.

Who are those who are not rich toward God?

Often times, when we mention rich, we think of money, wealth. In the Bible, there are at least fifty times that money, wealth, possession or finances have been mentioned. They are mostly based on the basic commandments that “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”

When we love God, we are rich toward God. When we love our neighbor, we are rich toward God. It is because we show gratitude to God of the blessings bestowed to us.

This rich man forgets about God, the one who gives him all the blessings he has. God gives him the talents to grow the crop and receives the produce abundantly. Whatever God gives will eventually be returned to God. Isn’t that what the Teacher tells us in Ecclesiastes?

“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.” (Ecclesiastes 2:18) He can’t take all the possessions with him, neither can we.

Isn’t this rich man a fool by hoarding all the produce and thinks he can enjoy it into eternity? He does not know his last day on earth is coming soon. And neither do we.

This man’s rich in produce can be rich toward God by showing God his gratitude. He can show God his gratitude by sharing his abundance with his neighbors who may not have such blessings but are struggling in their lives. He forgets he should love God with his whole heart, whole mind, whole spirit, and whole strength. He forgets he should love his neighbors as himself.

Isn’t this one of the issues of the inequality of income and wealth of the contemporary world? The rich hoard the abundance without showing their gratitude to the creators. Not only do they not love their neighbors by not helping them out but they oppress them so as to hoard more wealth.

Who doesn’t want to be rich? Who doesn’t want to be the 1%? Isn’t that why we want to go to Ivy League schools, to study hard and to work hard and be successful? However, when we get rich, will we be the rich fool? Or will we rich toward God?

The following list has been around in the cyberspace and is something that captures what Jesus said in the Gospel. I would like to share part of it in conclusion.

Things God won’t ask on that day:

  1. God won’t ask what kind of car you drove. God will ask how many people you gave a lift to who didn’t have any transportation.
  2. God won’t ask the square footage of your house. But God will ask how many people you welcomed into your home.
  3. God won’t ask about the clothes you had. God will ask how many you helped to clothe.
  4. God won’t ask what your highest salary was. But God will ask if you compromised your integrity to obtain it.
  5. God won’t ask what your job title was. God will ask whether you performed your job to the best of your ability.
  6. God won’t ask how many friends you had. God will ask how many people to whom you made sure you were a friend.
  7. God won’t ask in what neighborhood you lived. But God will ask how you treated and behaved with your neighbors.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 13 (C).

The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour (COS), San Gabriel, a multicultural congregation with English and Cantonese, and English-only services. Ada served seven years as Convener of Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM), recently finishing her term. She is the Chair of Chinese Ministry Advisory Committee in Diocese of Los Angeles. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. Ada loves hiking and often does her meditative walk.  

Relationships are the true treasure, 11 Pentecost, Proper 13 (C) – 2013

August 4, 2013

Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”

What thoughts does this quote from today’s gospel reading bring up for you? Did you think, “Awesome! We need to talk more about greed”? Or was it more like, “Oh, no. Here it comes: stewardship season and another Sermon on the Amount”?

The topic of money tends to make many Episcopalians cringe. Perhaps this is partly due to our “denominational DNA” with its reputation of being the “wealthy, established church.” In truth, talking about money makes us uncomfortable in the larger context of our society as well. It’s one of those things you learn from an early age not to bring up in polite company. Just watch when small children ask adults how much money they make or how much their cars cost, and see how quickly parents swoop in to shush the child and follow this with the admonition, “It’s not polite to ask those kinds of questions.” From a very early age, we learn that there are some topics, like sex and money, that are taboo.

If you were raised this way, hang on! Today we’re going to break taboo. But fear not. After all, Jesus himself did so. He talked more about money and possessions, and our relationships with them, than any other topic. Now, if our Lord can talk about money, so can we; and today’s readings give us the perfect opportunity to do so.

Luke tells us of Jesus being in a crowd of people, teaching. A man approaches Jesus and asks him to arbitrate a dispute he is having with his brother about an inheritance. This man’s request may seem a bit odd at first glance. Why would Jesus be asked a legal question? Jesus was a respected Pharisaic preacher and teacher. Forget what the word “Pharisee” may conjure up in your mind. The Pharisees were the respected religious teachers and interpreters of the law who believed in the resurrection of the righteous. In that regard, Jesus’ preaching falls within the Pharisaic tradition, and as there was really no distinction between religious and state affairs in first century Palestine, Pharisees were often asked to act as judges over these types of legal disputes.

Jesus, however, opts out of getting involved in the familial squabble over property. Instead, he uses it as an opportunity to talk about money – and more importantly, a right relationship with money.

Jesus tells a parable that is often called the Parable of the Rich Fool. Let’s begin with some clarity about the main character in this parable: He isn’t portrayed as particularly wicked. He is not described as one whose wealth was ill-gotten. He hasn’t cheated anyone, he’s not one of the tax collectors – who were the shake-down artists of Jesus’ day – and he hasn’t stolen anything. From the information we’re given, he became wealthy by the sweat of his brow, by honest means. He was a farmer and his land had produced prodigiously. And at first glance, his decision to save for the future by building bigger barns doesn’t sound too unreasonable either; after all, he does need space for his abundant harvest, right? What’s wrong with saving for a rainy day?

The truth is there’s nothing wrong with saving for a rainy day. The foolishness of this man isn’t in his plan to build bigger barns. His spiritual illness isn’t inherently about his wealth or even his ambition – it’s in how he relates to it.

Notice the inner dialog this man has with himself:

“What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? 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.’”

Notice the emphasis on “me.” In this short internal dialog, consisting of approximately 60 words, the man uses 11 references to himself with the personal pronouns “I” and “my.” If we add the references to “soul” and “you” as part of that inner dialog about himself, then we have 22 percent of the words in this short passage talking about, well, “me.”

Here is part of this man’s spiritual illness: He is all about the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I. There are no references at all to others– not to family or friends, and certainly no references to God. He is under the mistaken belief that all this wealth is his: his possession, his to control, and that he alone produced this wealth.

The other delusion that distorts this man’s relationship with his wealth is uncovered when God addresses him: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

In the face of the stark reality of death, the truth is revealed: No amount of wealth or possessions can save you from your own finitude. You will die, and nothing on this earth can prevent death. Your possessions are temporal and are not of ultimate worth. They will not save you.

On one level, we all know our wealth won’t save us. We tend to know this in our heads, but often our hearts don’t believe it. We are anxious about money – anxious about our jobs, putting the kids through college, the market fluctuations of our 401(k)s, making the mortgage payments, fearful that our cars will die on us, worried our refrigerators will give out – all of which make us nervous about money. But notice all these anxieties are focused on the self, and this myopic, internal focus becomes the basis of the fear in our hearts.

As Christians, we are called to shift our focus away from the small, egocentric self and outward into a radical trust in God.

When our focus moves outward in this way, we begin to view our wealth very differently. First, we realize that it isn’t our wealth at all – it all belongs to God. Not only has our wealth come from God, even our own talents by which we are able to obtain our wealth are gifts from God. None of it belongs to us – it’s all on loan.

The Rich Fool hasn’t figured out that the wealth he claims isn’t really his, he only has temporary custody of it. To put it into today’s context, we might ponder exactly how much Bill Gates or Warren Buffett will be worth when they die. The answer is: the same as you and me.

Death is the great equalizer, and when we die, our net worth in dollars is zero.

The second thing we realize is predicated on the first: If all comes from God, then we have an obligation to God to use this wealth in right ways.

This realization moves us from being consumers of resources to stewards of God’s good gifts. We begin to ask different questions about the use of wealth: “Do I really need this? Or is it a want I can live without?” “Where can I best use this money for everyone’s benefit?” “How can my wealth be a blessing?”

It doesn’t mean that our personal needs will be left out of the equation, but it does mean that we will balance personal needs with the needs of others and the environment, promoting healthy and holy relationships to bring glory to God.

So Jesus’ teaching is not a condemnation of wealth or ambition; rather it is an invitation to view our material possessions differently.

Can our wealth and possessions help us live a relatively comfortable life? Of course they can.

Can they make us confident that we are worthy of God’s love and guarantee us right relationships with God and each other? Absolutely not!

Christ invites us into a life greater than our anxious fears over things that have no ultimate worth. He invites us into deeper relationship with God and with others – a treasure far greater and more enduring.

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

You have been blessed, Pentecost 10, Proper 13 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Hosea 11:1-11 and Psalm 107:1-9, 43 (Track 2: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23 and Psalm 49:1-11); Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

There is a popular saying for church signs, “Too Blessed to Be Depressed.” It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? Think about being so blessed by God and knowing it, that you can’t possibly be depressed. That is a wonderful thought. Unfortunately, it’s not scriptural. Very seldom does theology do well condensed to bumper-sticker length. And also unfortunately, the notion that when blessed by God, we are beyond the reach of depression is just wrong.

In this morning’s reading from Ecclesiastes, we encounter a writer better described as blessed and depressed. Sitting right in the middle of our Bibles is a cynic who is blessed and depressed, and he’s not afraid to say so. The Teacher writes that he was King of Israel in Jerusalem and later goes on to tell of his accomplishments, saying, “I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.”

What did this wealthy man think of all he had done? He wrote, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

The word translated there and throughout the Book of Ecclesiastes as “vanity” is the Hebrew word hevel. The plain sense meaning of the word is “a puff of wind,” “vapor,” “a breath.” The Teacher uses hevel to describe how everything is quickly passing away. The Teacher looks at all his accomplishments and says that they are but a puff of wind, a vapor, something that passes before it ever fully existed.

Our reading for today leaves us with the cheeriest thought of all. The Teacher says, “What do mortals get from all their toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”

This week we find in the words of Holy Scripture that everything we do is so ephemeral that it is gone before it is fully formed. The Bible gives us the definitive word from a man who has really made it to the top and found all he had seen and done and become is worthless. The Teacher describes himself saying, “I had everything a man could desire!” and yet he says, “There was nothing worthwhile anywhere.”

If you read the entire Book of Ecclesiastes, the picture gets even bleaker. Here is a sampling. The second verse of the book says, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” A closer translation of the Hebrew word hevel would be something like, “A puff of wind of a puff of wind, everything is fleeting.” The New Living Translation does a great job of capturing the sense of the words in writing, “Everything is meaningless, utterly meaningless.” There’s a Bible verse not likely to be emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers.

We can read further, after our reading for this Sunday, and it only gets worse. In Chapter Three he writes, “I saw under the sun in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well.”

In the fourth chapter he writes, “I concluded that the dead are better off than the living. And most fortunate of all are those who were never born. For they have never seen all the evil that is done in our world.”

Ecclesiastes goes on for 12 chapters of brutal honesty. Do you think you can get ahead with wealth? He writes, “Those who love money will never have enough. How absurd to think that wealth brings true happiness! The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it. So what is the advantage of wealth – except perhaps to watch it run through your fingers!”

Do you think that your work will bring you deep satisfaction? He writes, “All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied.”

One last example shows what an optimist the Teacher is. He writes, “I have observed something else in this world of ours. The fastest runner does not always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise are often poor, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being at the right place at the right time.”

The Teacher seems content to pose the questions without giving any lengthy discourse that can be considered an answer. If you think you’ll find the answer in a book, even this book, the Teacher clears that up, writing, “Of making many books, there is no end, and much study is weariness of flesh.”

What in the world is this depressing little book doing tucked in after the great poetry of the Psalms and the pithy statements of Proverbs? First and foremost, this book goes against our every attempt at bumper-sticker theology. The Teacher would scoff at “Too Blessed to Be Depressed,” saying that the person who wrote it probably had observed too little of all the evil done in this world to both the good and the bad. Ecclesiastes also tells us that it’s Biblical to question all that we have seen and experienced. The Teacher is not afraid to present life in all its frustratingly contradictory absurdity.

Before leaping to any conclusions, it’s important to pause just long enough to take in a breath of fresh air. In a world that will pressure you, as a Christian, to have all the answers and present a public face that says you have your act together, the Teacher says all of that is meaningless. It’s fine to have more questions than answers. It’s even all right to find yourself blessed and depressed at times. That doesn’t make you any less Christian. It just makes you all the more human. And being human is a key to understanding Ecclesiastes. For through his questioning, the Teacher learns his place in the universe. Understanding what a fleeting puff of wind human life is teaches the humility. Being humble is no small trick for a great king who possesses land, property, and other wealth exceeding all who have come before him. Seeing how fleeting and meaningless all his possessions are humbles the writer.

Then through this book of questions, the Teacher hints at the answers. Woven in the very fabric of this book is the idea that all that we have is a gift from God to be enjoyed. The Teacher says that God gives wisdom, knowledge and joy. He tells us that God has made everything beautiful for its own time.

The way to find more fulfillment is to take joy in the gifts God has given you rather than to join in the all too human pursuit of the things you don’t have. The Teacher writes, “I have noticed one thing at least that is good. It is good for people to eat well, drink a glass of good wine, and enjoy their work – whatever they do under the sun – for however long God lets them live. And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life – that is indeed a gift from God. People who do this rarely look with sorrow on the past, for God has given them reasons for joy.”

The Teacher tells us that life is fleeting, but rather than being upset by that he concludes that we should get the enjoyment out of life that we can. Live life to the fullest by enjoying what you have or can achieve rather than by an endless pursuit of things that will not in themselves bring happiness. If you are not happy with what you have now, you will not become happier by getting more of it, or even something else. For happiness does not come from stuff. Know and appreciate what you have, the good and bad, as a gift from God.

The great church reformer Martin Luther wrote of Ecclesiastes, saying, “If someone compares the good things he has with the bad things he does not have, he will finally recognize what a treasure of good things he has.”

Take joy in the many good things God has given you. You have been blessed. Perhaps not always too blessed to be depressed, but blessed nonetheless. If you take joy in what you have already been given – the good and the bad – and enjoy your work as a gift from God, then you will have little to look back on with sorrow, for God has given you reasons for joy.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is canon for Congregational Ministries in the Diocese of Georgia.

Powerful truth, Pentecost 10, Proper 13 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Hosea 11:1-11 or Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 107:1-9, 43 or 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Jesus had just said, “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say.” Then suddenly, out of the blue, someone in the crowd shouted to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
Someone had not been paying attention. Someone’s mind had been somewhere else. Someone in the crowd was very worried – worried about money.

Jesus’ story of the rich and foolish farmer is framed by the commandment “Do not worry.” Just before the story of the farmer, Jesus told his listeners not to worry about what they would say when they were brought to trial for his sake. Just after the story, he said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” And in between, he told a story about one of the things we worry about most: money.

We can empathize with Jesus’ anonymous listener. We live in a prosperous country and the economy is robust, but we probably worry about money at least some of the time. Some time ago public television broadcast a program entitled “Affluenza.” The point of the program was simple: the more money we make, the more we want, and the more we spend. Our wants always outpace our income.

So when Jesus’ listener asked him to command his brother to divide the inheritance, Jesus responded, “Take care! be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Human beings are greedy. Older translations use the word “covetous” instead of greedy. The two things are different: greed is wanting more than we need; covetousness is looking at what someone else has and wishing that we had what they have. There’s nothing wrong with wanting and having a nice car or house or clothes, but there is something very wrong when we feel incomplete if we don’t have all the things that we would like to have. Yet, our economy is largely based on creating in us the desire for things we don’t want. Advertisers base their appeals on our insecurities. Drink this kind of soft drink! Use this deodorant! Buy this car! It will make you happy, attractive, fulfilled.

In 1931, Alabama’s bishop, William George McDowell, said that the cause of the Great Depression was “the general extravagance in the recent era of so-called prosperity. This is an economic term for presuming on God’s providence. The vicious circle is something like this: our desires are inflamed by clever advertising till we feel we must indulge them for the things we want. We delude ourselves into thinking we must have the things we crave and that we can afford them.” They were prophetic words, as applicable now as then.

Many years ago, renegade Baptist minister and all-round troublemaker, Clarence Jordan, rendered the gospels into the idiom of the modern South. Here’s his translation of today’s gospel from his book The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts:

“A certain rich fellow’s farm produced well. And he held a meeting with himself and he said, ‘What shall I do? I don’t have room enough to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my old barns and build some bigger ones in which I’ll store all my wheat and produce. And I will say 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 shall they really belong?’ That’s the way it is with a man who piles up stuff for himself without giving God a thought.”
One reason that I like Clarence Jordan’s translation of the story of the rich but foolish farmer is that, 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” who 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.”

Somewhere deep inside, we all know that Jesus was stating a powerful truth. Everything we own also owns a little bit of us. If we own a house or a car, then we are under an obligation to earn money to pay for the house or car; we have to take time to see to it that our house or car is cared for. We are no longer quite as free as we were before.

The rich farmer made the mistake of believing that he really possessed his great wealth, although Jesus said that the reality was that it possessed him. Movie magnate Sam Goldwyn, on being told that he couldn’t take it with him, replied, “Well then, I just won’t go.” But that is not an option. We can’t take it with us, nor can we refuse to go when it is our time. And neither can we really possess, only hold in trust. Today’s possessions become tomorrow’s garage sale treasures.

So, Jesus concluded his parable of the rich farmer by saying, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” He had stored his wealth in earthly barns, even though he had had the opportunity to store it in heaven.

I want to reiterate this: Wealth is not wrong or sinful, but it is problematic. The spiritual problem of wealth is that it anchors our hearts too firmly in this world, rather than in God’s kingdom.

The rich and foolish farmer tore down his barn and built bigger barns. He opened more bank accounts and invested his money in high-tech start-ups. Nothing wrong with any of that. But God invites us to invest our money and ourselves in the kingdom of heaven.

The story is told that at the funeral of the fabulously wealthy Aristotle Onassis, one of the mourners turned to another and said, “How much did he leave?” And his friend replied, “Everything. He left everything.”

Written by the Rev. Dr. J. Barry Vaughn
The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution, and more than fifty of his sermons have been published. He is a member of the history faculty at the University of Alabama.