Preached from the pulpit of The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd on August, 4, 2013:
Overcast and gloomy texts this morning, for an overcast and gloomy day in August in Berkeley – welcome to summer in the city. They and the weather match my mood of late, maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about death and my own mortality. As I’ve aged, I find myself thinking about things before I sleep and when I wake, sometimes at three in the morning, mostly at about five-thirty. I’ve started thinking about death – moments when I think, “Dang! It’s really going to happen!” Then I go back to sleep – as if pulling the covers over my head will change anything – and as I drift off, I start to fret over mortal matters. I always thank God for my children, family and friends, the many gifts the Trinity has bestowed and for being patient with me, loving me despite the numerous faults and imperfections that are the many layers of Ellen; I breathe a sigh of relief when I open my eyes and know there’s another chance to get things right the way God would have me do them – thank you, Jesus – and I worry about my stuff.
What’s going to happen to my stuff?
I know my children will be provided for, but what’s going to happen to all those flash drives with my research notes on the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings and the end of Anglo-Saxon England, my downloads of music, episodes of “Castle” and “Downton Abbey?” All those books about Richard the Third and the Plantagenets? Phoebe the Mighty Deaconmobile? I really panic when I start to wonder what going to happen with my yarn stash, my handbags, and my shoes!!!
Why am I worrying about this?
I don’t know where I’m going to be when it happens; I don’t know when it’ll happen! Am I going to care? You betcha! And won’t I have other matters on my mind?
Being mortal is just so interesting.
Why am I so worried about this?
That’s what Jesus is asking this morning.
We’ve been conditioned by society to believe that to have, and to have the most, is what makes a person successful, makes them powerful, gives them the advantage. Look how far back it goes. Our gospel text introduces us to a wealthy man surprised by the yield of his harvest. In fairness to him, you can’t predict the quality or amount of a crop. It’s been a good year for him. He’s so excited by the bounty he decides to make room for it and tears down what he already has and builds bigger, better barns so he can later relax and enjoy his life – eat, drink and be merry. To my way of thinking, that would be party like the Cubs finally won the Series, but for our wealth landowner, party in a first century manner.
And then God speaks – something God hasn’t done in any of the parables until now – and tells him he’s a fool because his life is being demanded of him and it’s over. He’s going to die. Jesus ends the parable, which surely shocked everyone hearing it, by telling the audience to get its priorities right. He says, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”
Is this an attack on wealthy people? Is it a condemnation of wanting nice things and a comfortable life? Should we constantly live in fear and anticipation of death so that we are afraid to live? Sell everything right now, everything, and just sit on the corner and wait for the end time?
My answer to these questions is a simple no.
It’s a matter of setting priorities in our lives.
Wealth is something most of us wish we had – right? To be able to work towards achieving that status and reaping such a reward is not sinful, especially if honest effort goes into the labor; we don’t hear Jesus condemning the rich man, just how much store the man puts by what he’s got. How we use what we have in our lives is the key. To live comfortably is good, but greed is not good. Focusing all our attention on money and goods and acquiring them is not the best decision.
I’ve heard people say that they wish they had achieved their present comfort level while they were young, because they felt time was running out on enjoying what they’ve worked so hard to get. To that way of thinking I say, your life may be demanded of you at any time. Our lives have so many, many demands on them – just think about it. The demands to be a wife, mother, sister, friend, employee, a Christian, a child of God, are made every day. If I managed to win the lottery or work out a six-figure book contract or screenplay option for one of my novels, the last thing I’d worry about is how much time is left to enjoy my success. I’d take it one minute at a time and make those minutes count. A 23 year old software wizard can just as quickly be called up as a venerable professor of theology of 82. It will happen and it happens to all of us. It’s the wondering about what we leave behind.
Eventually, soon I hope, I’ll stop worrying about what happens to my stuff after I die.
Let’s face it – we’re aging; no matter how hard ad executives try to convince us that we can all look young and be young and that that is the preferred state of being, the only thing that prevents aging isn’t a beauty crème but death.
A month of face lifts and plastic surgery won’t change the fact that we die.
And as for all we’ve accumulated to show our status and success, yes, it is said that the person with the most toys wins, but you can’t take them with you. The Pharoahs tried and their tombs were looted.
As we grow older, we find a consciousness of mortality while more earthbound issues such as wealth and status push it to the back of the mind. What sociologists and philosophers call “the post-modern mind,” I like to call it “the present-day mind,” works within these two irreconcilable realities. The unique contribution of this parable is to lead us to the edge of life after death. Our focus should be on the inevitability of death, that which no one can prevent, and the importance of being wise as to how life is lived.
We struggle between the pervasive materialistic view of existence, in which life is only what we experience here and now, over our instinct that there may be, is, something about life after death after all.
These are not post-modern issues, however. As we have heard, it was an issue during Jesus’ earthly lifetime. After he tells this zinger of a parable, Jesus explains to the crowd, his disciples, how wrong it is to build up material wealth and not consider one’s spiritual gifts. This will be more fully revealed in the text that following this morning’s gospel, the glorious passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about earthly matters – take time to trust in God and don’t let that which you cannot prevent, or take with you, bar your way to a full and rich life in Christ. Die to self – live to hear what God is saying, inviting you to be now.
God is demanding your life so that you can live. Then look around and see what your treasures truly are.
You may be surprised to learn that you can take those with you.