2019.08.04 "That Which Belongs to Us" Sermon on 8 Pentecost C: Luke 12:13-21, by Pastor Dave Van Kley

That Which Belongs to Us 

Sooner or later, all of us face the question: what will become of our possessions?  I assume most of you have have a will; if you don’t, please have one drawn up.  It can save your family a lot of expense and heartache.

But recently, I’ve witnessed a family torn apart because an elderly man executed a will—or to be more precise—decided to change it near the end of his life, redirecting a considerable amount of his estate to help the economically disadvantaged and developmentally disabled.  He was wealthy enough that his children still stand to inherit a lot of money.  But they are unhappy.  A lot of money is not always enough money.

In today’s gospel, someone in the crowd asks Jesus to order a brother, apparently the oldest in the family, to divide the family inheritance with them.  We’re not told if this request had merit.  Indeed, Jesus does not seem interested in that question.  He says, instead: “Who made me a lawyer or a judge over you?”  And then, turning to the crowd, “Be careful.  Watch yourself!  Don’t let greed carry you away.  Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 

Jesus follows that up with a story about a farmer who works hard and does well for himself.   His harvests are so bountiful that he lacks sufficient room to store his grain.   Mindful of future uncertainty, he decides to expand the operation.  He tears down his barns, replaces them with larger, new ones and fills them with grain—a first century farmer’s equivalent of an IRA, I guess.  Then, just when he’s confident he’s set enough grain aside and has time to put his feet up and relax, he dies.  God says, “All this stuff you’ve got, who gets it now?”  

Now someone from Morgan Stanley or Edward Jones might have advised the farmer to do exactly what he did: save for retirement.  “Put together a plan: IRA’s, CD’s, a balance of stocks and bonds.  Begin while you’re young, so you have enough to live on when you’re old.   Anticipate that you may live to age 90 and beyond.  You don’t want to burden your kids, do you?”

What’s the point of this story?   Is Jesus against managing your money wisely?  I don’t think so.

Listen to the farmer:  “What will I do, for I have no place to store my crops?  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 self, ‘Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”  

Who’s he talking to?  He’s talking to himself about himself.  As if he’s in an echo chamber.  There is no mention of a family to provide for, no thought of a hungry or poor neighbor.  No generosity of spirit.  No mention of the God who gives the harvest.  No hint of gratitude.

But I confess: sometimes I talk to myself, too. I say to myself, “Self, you have the place you always dreamed of, a house out in the woods.  You started a garden this spring, dug out the boulders, fenced it in, built some boxes for raised beds.  Keep adding to it.  Put up a greenhouse.  In four or five years, will enjoy the fruits of a great harvest.   A couple years down the road, before you get too old, add a sunroom on the back of the house.  Then you and Arlene can sit out there and soak in the sound of the birds and be happy.” 

It’s like this old song my parents loved:  “We’ll find a perfect peace where joys never cease: we’ll built a sweet little nest somewhere out in the west and let the rest of the world go by.” 

But what if my life is required of me?  Better: what about when my life is required of me?  What then?  What will all this amount to? 

In a sense, the question is moot, for I have already died and so have you.  Or most of you.  For in baptism, you have died with Christ.  You died to the values the world around you so treasures: self-interest, greed, getting ahead, material wealth.  You died, Colossians says, to anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.  You died to one way of life and were raised to a new life in Christ: a life of love and gratitude.  

We forget all the time that, in this sense, we are already dead and our possessions are not our own.  

Clark Christopher Sauve is at the very beginning of his life’s journey.  Starting today, he does not live in a closed universe.  He does not yet know it, but he is not the only character or even the central character in his own TV show.   He is one of many beloved children, called into relationship with God and his neighbor—all his neighbors!   As he grows into this identity, we pray he will come to see everything in life as a gift.  And every gift as something meant to be shared.  And that in sharing every gift, he will find the joy and fulfillment he was made for. 

I think one reason I said yes to the request to serve you at Bethany is because I realize my life is not about that little house at the end of the road, much as I love it.  You have treated me with generosity, some of you even opening your homes to me on the nights I stay late for meetings.  To put it another way, you’ve shared grain from your barns with me instead of hoarding it for yourselves.  

After worship, when we go downstairs and sit at table, with ice cream to eat, I know we may talk about everything from the weather to the upcoming UP State Fair to those awful shootings—but underneath and through all that talk I will hear care and compassion, which I’ve seen in you when someone ends up in the hospital or struggles with grief or has financial need.  

You know, the little bit of money we put into that little pile of diapers in the choir loft is every bit as significant as the greater sum of money we are putting into the repairing our building.  Because in Christ, we have been called into relationship with our neighbors, all of them.

The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story called “How Much Land Does One Man Need?”  In this story, tracts of land on the Russian frontier are made available to homesteaders.  The law allows you to claim all the land you can walk around in a single day.  The main character in the story is ambitious and wants as much land as he can get.  He heads east, following with this compass, but when a quarter of the day is through and he must turn north, he sees an especially rich patch of soil and goes around it.  Before he turns west, he skirts a hill that he wants to include in his claim.  And so it goes until the shadows grow long and he realizes he’s bit off more than he can chew.  He turns toward the starting point and begins jogging and then running full bore, heart pounding.  With one last gasp he dives to finish line just in time.  Only to have a heart attack and die on the spot.

They dig a hole right there to bury him.  Six feet by six feet by three feet.  In the end, that’s all the land one person needs. 

Sisters and brothers, beware of all kinds of greed.  Life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.

Life consists of faith, hope, and love, these three, abide.  And, as you know, the greatest of these is love.  Amen.