August 4, 2019
Rich toward God – J. Barry Vaughn – August 4, 2019
I’d like you to listen to the two verses that immediately precede the gospel that Deacon Bonnie just read for us:
“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; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”
And at that very moment, someone said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
Jesus did a sort of double-take and said, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”
Do you see what happened? Jesus had just said, “Do not worry…” but someone WAS worried; he was worried not about what he would say if he was charged with the crime of being one of Jesus’ disciples, but worried that his good-for-nothing brother would take all the family inheritance for himself.
Somebody wasn’t paying attention… or maybe someone was just way more worried about his brother stealing from him than he was about the possibility that he might have to answer to the authorities about being one of Jesus’ disciples.
Everybody worries about money. No exceptions. Sometimes we have good reasons to be worried about money, especially in a world in which two income families are the norm because one income just isn’t enough any longer.
But sometimes our worries are not justified. Sometimes we are worried because our wants outpace our needs, and Christian ethics has a word for that: It’s called greed.
One of our biggest fears is that people are going to take something from us that they have no right to take. I believe that’s one of the primary reasons for the fear and distrust and even hatred that some people seem to have for immigrants. They are afraid that people from poor countries are going to come here and take things that we’ve worked hard for and that they don’t deserve.
Make no mistake: I believe that we should have sensible immigration laws and should control who comes into our country. But we also need to remember that every single thing we have is a gift from God. Listen to the words that I say every Sunday when the offering is presented: “All things come from you, O Lord.” And you respond, “And of your own we have given you.”
“All things come from you, O Lord, and of your own we have given you.”
But the story that Bonnie read for us this morning was not about fear; it was about greed. Listen again to what Jesus said:
“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possession.”
And then he told a story about a man who DID think that his life consisted in an abundance of possessions.
But there are two parts to what Jesus said. First, he warned us “against all kinds of greed.” I’d never noticed that until I was preparing this sermon. What do you suppose he meant by “all kinds of greed”?
We usually think that greed is just about money, but it isn’t.
“Greed is the desire to possess more than we need. We normally associate greed with money, as did Jesus. But we can be greedy for many things — for food, fame, sex, or power. Christians have always identified greed (Latin, avaritia) as one of the seven deadly sins. There’s a horrible paradox in greed – it’s never satisfied by what it desires. Rather, the opposite is true. ‘When money increases,’ observed [the early monastic writer] John Cassian (b. 360) ‘the frenzy of covetousness intensifies.’ Greed is insatiable: ‘It always wants more than a person can accumulate.’” (from Journey with Jesus.net, “The Rich Fool and the Saint Francis,” July 24, 2016)
Money is morally neutral. Even wealth is morally neutral. The so-called “rich fool” in today’s gospel reading wasn’t a fool because he was rich. In fact, it’s difficult to become rich if you’re a fool. It usually requires not only a lot of hard work but also a lot of SMART work to become rich.
He was a fool because he was not “rich toward God.,” He was a fool because his only concern was his abundance of possessions.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Jesus called this man a fool because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. He was a fool because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. This man was a fool because he allowed his technology to outdistance his theology. This man was a fool because he allowed his mentality to outrun his morality.” (MLK, Jr., “Why Jesus called a man a fool.”)
But there are other kinds of greed than greed for money. There’s also greed for power. That also turns out badly most of the time. If you doubt that, ask Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler.
The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin once asked sarcastically, “How many legions does the pope have?” Now all the power Stalin accumulated lies in the dust, but the gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ.
We can also be greedy for fame. That turns out badly, too. The great parable about the foolishness of fame is the movie Sunset Boulevard. Gloria Swanson’s character Norma Desmond says, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” but nobody is listening.
And we can be greedy for knowledge. I have to plead guilty to that one. Faust sold his soul to Mephistopheles for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasure. I have always been tempted by the accumulation of knowledge. I’m curious; I want to know everything. But being human means being finite; it means accepting that there are limits that we cannot pass – limits to our accumulation of power, of wealth, and of knowledge.
“All things come from you, O Lord…” “All things” doesn’t just mean money. It also means power, knowledge, pleasure… everything.
Sunset Boulevard may be Hollywood’s great parable about the delusion and limitations of fame, but a more recent movie tells us about why accumulating stuff doesn’t really make us rich.
In the movie Fight Club, Brad Pitt’s character Tyler Durden says:
“I’ve seen in Fight Club the smartest, strongest men who ever lived. I see all this potential and I see it squandered… an entire generation pumping gas and waiting tables, slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy [stuff] we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history… no purpose, no place – we have no great war, no Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact, and we’re very, very [angry].”
In other words, life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
So what does life consist of? What does it mean to be “rich toward God”?
One of my favorite books about death and dying is called Love and Death and it’s by the late Unitarian minister Forrest Church. An interesting fact about it is that Church wrote it when he knew that he himself was dying of cancer.
In it Church says, “The goal [of life] is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for…. The one thing that can’t be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.”
“The only thing that can’t be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.”
Or as one of my favorite songs puts it, “The only measure of our words and our deeds / will be the love we leave behind when we’re gone.”
I think that’s what it means to be “rich toward God.”
I’m not going to tell you not to be greedy, but I am going to tell you not to make the things you accumulate the measure of your life, if the things you accumulate are money, power, fame, or something similar. I guarantee you that none of that will last. Every particle of money, power, and fame will be taken from you.
The paradox is that anything that can fill up our barns and bank accounts will not last. But the things that we give away – love, compassion, and justice – are the things that are truly eternal. And that’s what it means to be “rich toward God.”