Sunday, August 4, 2013

Store and Serve

Store and Serve
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 4, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 12: 13-21

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘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. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” [1]

My biggest criticism of the lectionary has always been that all too often the passages do not make sense together. For instance, this summer the gospel readings have been walking through the gospel of Luke passage by passage, but the epistle lesson has been walking through the shorter letters of Paul, Galatians and now Colossians. The letters and the gospels are not in sync together, so often they are unrelated, and the Old Testament passage is often the same, walking through one of the prophets or through the historical books, but not today. It really does seem that the texts making up today's readings really do connect together. For this reason I tried to include them all in the bulletin in some fashion. The prayer of preparation comes from Ecclesiastes, one of the wisdom readings for today, dealing with the "vanity of vanities" that is trying to amass wealth in this world. The Hebrew word that is translated "vanity of vanities" literally means, "trying to catch the wind." What an image. . . that the amassing of wealth is a vain waste of time. Likewise the Psalm, Psalm 49, which is the Call to Worship, includes the line: "those who trust in their wealth and the abundance of their riches," does not save them from the end that reaches all of us. Death is the great equalizer of all mortals. The distinction goes with the name.
But then the Old Testament passage, as Nancy read this morning concerned the ways that the Israelites had chosen idols over God, turning away from the right path. At first thought you have to wonder what greed has to do with idol worship, but if you read the Colossians passage, we see some of the connection. So I wanted to also read the epistle reading this morning to give us a deeper perspective. Colossians 3:1-5. . .

3 So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).[2] 

 So Paul is saying that greed is idolatry. . . but is idolatry what we think about when we think about the problems of greed? We typically think about wealth and luxury when we think about greed, private jets, swimming pools, yachts, mansions, and movie stars. Or we think about people who cheat others for money, whose ethics become based on whatever makes a profit. We think about disproportionate wealth. Haves and have nots, etc., but do we connect this with idol worship, maybe in church we do, but in our world do we see greed and idol worship connected?
The Sunday school answer is, yes of course greed is idol worship. Greed is the worship of money, wealth becoming the central focus of life, obviously a replacement for God. The problem with this simplified understanding, though,  is that it is too easy to separate ourselves from such notions. We don't have yachts and private jets, we don't have great mansions, and money is not the central focus of our existence, at least not consciously. We separate ourselves from greed and we miss the central problem of greed as idol worship.
In his parable Jesus really isn't talking about private jets and yachts. Look at the parable he uses to teach, and look at the situation in which Jesus is teaching. Here are two brothers, what is it about siblings in the Bible and trying to get Jesus to act in force over the other. "Jesus, tell him to divide the inheritance with me. . ." This is all the man asks. And Jesus says back to him, I am not the arbiter between you two, very similar to his response to Martha from a couple weeks ago. But Jesus doesn't end there, he then says to them, notice the change in pronoun of address. His first response about not wanting to force and make judgment is to him, but this next part, the parable is to both of them, to beware of the dangers of greed, because life does not consist of the abundance of possessions. So they both are the audience: the brother who wants the other one to share is being addressed, but so too is the brother who won't share. It would seem that both have something to learn from this parable, that both of them have something to change in regards to their relationship, that both have a need to bend in the disagreement. Again we have a broken relationship, where two people are seeking arbitration from an outside party, again in this case Jesus, and Jesus tells them to work it out themselves, but doesn't stop there, instead gives them the parable to help them to think about their situation in a different light, the light as is Jesus' constant message, of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus tells of a man whose crop comes in abundantly, and doesn't know what to do with the excess crops, so he decides to build bigger barns with which to store the excess. He believes that having done this he will be able to live the rest of  his days in comfort, no longer having to toil, he can relax, eat and drink and be merry, and in such then fulfill his soul, but that night God comes to him and his life is taken from him, so what good was all that extra storage. It did not add one extra day to his life. That seems to be the basic pattern to the story, but in the middle the man brings up his soul, talking to his soul, telling his soul, Soul, you have enough, so you can relax. . . it is his soul that will be satisfied by his stored up goods. But you have to doubt it, especially because he says it to himself, like he is trying to convince himself. Do you ever do that, speaking to yourself, trying to convince yourself that something you know is wrong is good for you? You say, don't worry it will be alright, I'm in control. I'll make this work.
See that's it and that's the point of Jesus' parable, and that is the connection to idolatry. The bottom line is, Jesus is saying, hey don't for a minute think that you are in control because you aren't. Money is the illusion of control, just like that little statue you pray to is the illusion of God, and it just isn't that way. Money cannot by your life, as the psalm today said:

no ransom avails for one's life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave. 

When I was in college I was introduced to the plays of Tennessee Williams, the southern playwrite, and instantly loved them. Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, but my favorite was A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I loved his character Big Daddy. There is a scene towards the end where Big Daddy, who owns the world and everyone around him, is dying of cancer and he's in the basement with his son, Brick, and they are finally talking about love, and life, and death. And he's surrounded by all the junk that he bought through the years, and his son that he thinks he owns, and he hopes that they will bring him immortality. Through you I can keep on living, but he can't because his son is not like him, is not him, and therefore he isn't in control of him. The other son he is in control of, Gooper, but a son in control isn't like him either. Control doesn't work. His son, Brick, who is there with him wants love from him, but Big Daddy wants control. . . He doesn't see it until he reminisces about his own father, who was broke, a tramp, jumping railroads with nothing to their name, but each other, together. He is sitting around in the midst of his empire of junk and broken relationships caused by the junk, and the only things real at that moment are the memories he has of his father and the pain he feels from the cancer. The rest of it is meaningless, all lies and mendacity, manipulations and manipulators, which disgusts him. Finally father and son see each other and something else real is found. Such a cool scene, and really gets at this idea that control is merely an illusion, and basing life on such an illusion is a life based on lies, and in the end a very lonely one. Relationship must be based on real.
But you say to yourself, yeah I know money won't buy me immortality. I don't fall prey to that type of greed, and again the parable is distant and doesn't speak to you, which is why I like the idolatry connection, the control connection. You don't have to be trying to buy eternity, you may just be trying to buy a little extra time, a little security. That's a big time word these days, security. . . Home security, financial security, national security, security system, security from identity theft, or from Mayhem, and it all can be bought. If you doubt me just watch our commercials. I guarantee you that you cannot watch any television show and not see a commercial selling security at least once during the program. I'd even venture to say that you couldn't even watch only one commercial break without seeing one.  Security is the commodity and we are all buying, whether by giving up our money or giving up our freedom, it has a cost, and we are willing to pay it to hold on to a little apparent control.
We may not be just protecting our life, but our status quo. We are trying to each protect our normalcy from change, our routine, our day to day, our comfort. We seek to protect what we have, the things that we have stored. Idolatry is basically trying to replace the actual God with something else. God creates, God redeems, God sustains. What do you look to for creation in your life, the source of your life? Honestly? What do you look to to redeem your life, save you, nurture you, care for you? And what do you look to to sustain your life, security, safety, energy? Whatever that is, that becomes  your god. Like the man in the parable you can talk to yourself and try to convince yourself that you are in control of what you worship that your soul is taken care of, that at some point down the road you will give it over to God, at least fully, giving up completely, but I need to hold on to what I have first, right now it's not the time. There is one more thing I need to do, and then. There is one more thing I need to have, and then. There is one more, but there is always one more. . . such it is with trying to catch the wind. You never get it in your grasp, because it's gone. You say to yourself, once I get it all stored up, then I will serve, but the problem always is that you end up serving what you store instead.
At Hampden-Sydney I had to pass the rhetoric proficiency exam. Every one did as a requirement of graduation. It consisted of writing an essay to a prompt, and it then was graded by a panel. You either passed or failed, if you failed you had to take it again, and you had three chances. On my third try I blew it away. I won't talk about my other two tries, but that third essay prompt was about the differences between needs and wants. I was rolling, I was quoting a Dave Matthews Band Song, "what I want is what I've not got, but what I need is all around me." I used that to show how for human beings our perceived needs typically surround things that we already have, but our wants are things we don't have. It's all based in our perception, obviously if you don't have something, you don't need it. . . at least on an existence level. But how often do we feel that we need the things that we have already. We become addicted to  things that easily, especially new additions, and we forget how we ever functioned without them. It's why we hold on so tight to things, protecting them, buying security to hold on to what we have. Think about it before I had a cell phone I obviously didn't need one, but now I have one I do. It's why entitlement programs are so hard to get rid of. Even here, you haven't always had a pastor on payroll, could you imagine functioning without one. You could, you know. But we don't like steps backwards. We fight tooth and nail against regression. We don't like big changes to our routine, until they happen that is, and then we find out what we truly need. We are reminded of what is real. That what we held to so tight, isn't all that important.
The man in Jesus' parable is supposed to realize that he has been holding on to the wrong things, but Jesus doesn't include his reaction, instead Jesus goes on talking to his disciples with a therefore, therefore don't worry. Remember Jesus' audience, the broken relationship between the brothers. Stop letting your worry over such thing divide you. The relationship you have with each other is more important, and the relationship that you have with God is more important, the rest will take care of itself. Do we believe that? Such is faith. . . and the means of our salvation, again the pietistic list of laws, and works based righteousness would be so much easier, but again such is faith, and the means of our salvation, it's how God works, the rest is just idolatry. So the parable tells us, that what you store isn't going to serve you, nor God, instead it's the other way around, be careful of what you store because what you store is what you will serve. All thanks be to God, Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 12:13-21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Col 3:1-5). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.