Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 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.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 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?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” —Luke 12:13-21 NRSV
It is a pleasure and a privilege to be with you on Consecration Sunday. I want to thank Pastor David Spollett for inviting me and April Overmeyer and her terrific committee for all the work they have put into this day. The committee and I met twice in Stockbridge for lunch and we clicked right away. I knew from meeting them that this was a faithful and flourishing congregation. I have been looking forward to being with you for a long time, and here I am.
I’m here to tell you a story. It’s a great big story and I only have so much time so I’ll hit the high points. It is partly my story, mostly God’s story, and before I am finished, I hope you can recognize it in some sense as your story, too. It is a story about discovering God in one’s vulnerabilities and losses. It is a story about grace, gratitude and generosity. It is a story of reversals.
The story I want to tell today begins nineteen years ago when I had a catastrophic bicycle accident and hit my head and suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) that left me profoundly disabled. I had a decade of very poor health, including suffering a severe clinical depression. Because of my accident and illness, I suffered a series of losses. In addition to losing my health, I gave up my pastorate, and lost all at once my job, my vocation, my community and my home, since we lived in a parsonage. And an accident or chronic illness is a family affair. It doesn’t just effect you , but those around you
We had some hard years, and then something remarkable happened. I got better. I went off medications. I was no longer a depressed guy with a brain injury, just a guy with a brain injury, which I can assure you is a big improvement. And gradually even my brain injury improved some. Neurologists used to believe that when parts of the brain died the functions they controlled were lost for good. Now they are learning through MRI brain imagining that other parts of the brain can restore lost functions. As a former basketball player I like to think of it as if other parts of the brain “come off the bench” to help out the team.
My story would be a more typical American recovery story if I could tell you I did something really heroic or courageous to get better, but I didn’t. I didn’t pull myself up by my spiritual bootstraps. I had lots of help, especially from my family, but also from the church we joined.
And I began writing again and preaching again now and then, something I couldn’t have done before. My daughter Rebecca is a UCC pastor. Her brother Andrew works in the US Attorney’s office in D.C. I like to call them “justice and mercy” or “law and Gospel.”
I’d been a guest preacher half a dozen times at Rebecca’s church in Little Compton, RI. She was due to have her second child in May, and she and her deacons asked me if I would preach the ten Sundays during her maternity leave. And I surprised myself (and Martha) when I said, “yes!”
So, we moved in with our daughter and her family for most of the summer and I preached ten sermons. I wasn’t responsible for anything else at the church. No meetings. No pastoral care. No hospital visitation. Somebody else did all that. I was just laser focused on the preaching texts for Sunday. It was wonderful. I had a lot of fun.
Then a strange and wondrous thing happened. The readings this summer were all from Luke. I had been preaching on these texts for decades, but I started to hear Luke’s voice anew through the experience of my own struggles and losses. This is one of the things I love about Scripture. It doesn’t change. But you do, and the world does, and old texts say new things that you need to hear. And then the baby came and they named him (wait for it) Luke!
And this is where the story I want to tell stops being just about me and becomes mostly about God. Because it seemed clear to me that Luke’s description of Jesus’s ministry from beginning to end was directed at the underdogs, the broken, the vulnerable, the last, the least and the lost of society. Right at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel Mary’s Magnificat is a song of thanks to God for raising her up in her humility, and a promise that God will do the same for the poor, the oppressed and the powerless.
Recall how she said:
“God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”
Which leads us to the question of who “got” Jesus and his preaching that the Kingdom of God was at hand? The cast of characters who really got Jesus and his preaching is so telling. They were mostly outcasts or people without power or privilege. They were poor sick shunned people like lepers, or rich shunned people like tax-collectors. They were widows, deprived of status when their men died in a patriarchal society. Or orphans. Women in general. Children. Many of the same people who are vulnerable in our time.
These were the “underdogs” of this world. And Luke implies that only those who get in touch with their inner “underdog” can hear the gracious good news of God’s vast generous love that Jesus both preached and embodied. Only the people who need God “get” Jesus, because they know they don’t have the personal resources in privilege or health or wealth or social capital to live a fully whole life.
And this summer I preached on the parable of the rich fool who built bigger barns to hold his accumulated wealth. Jesus concludes the parable with these words: 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?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
I’ve preached on this text a number of times over the years and I never really noticed the phrase at the end “rich towards God.” It’s a great phrase. What might it mean to be rich toward God?
Let’s take a look at the reading: it begins with a dispute between two brothers over an inheritance. Under the rules of primogeniture the inheritance would rightly fall to the older brother. But the younger brother is greedy. Notice that Jesus refuses to arbitrate the dispute. After all, who can judge whose greed is right? So, Jesus warns them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
And then, he told the parable about a rich farmer who built bigger barns to hold his abundance. This story is told only in Luke’s Gospel, but it is consistent with everything Jesus ever said about wealth and greed.
As we listen to this story let us be careful not to dismiss this farmer too quickly as a fool. If we turn him into a caricature, it is would be easy for us to dismiss him, rather than seeing something of ourselves in him.
After all, was this acquisitive farmer really so bad? Jesus doesn’t portray him as a monster. His prosperity didn’t come from theft or graft. He is not Bernie Madoff, pillaging the retirements of thousands. Or big Pharma that help create the opioid epidemic to profit off the suffering of others. Jesus says nothing about him mistreating any of his workers or exploiting them. There is no dishonesty or criminality here. Just prosperity. Sun, soil and rain have collaborated to make him rich. He seems to be a careful and conservative fellow. You know people like him. Perhaps you are one. He isn’t a bad man. So, what is he? He is a fool, says Jesus. And what makes someone a fool? One good definition of a fool is: “We all make mistakes, but a fool persists in them.”
What is this man’s persistent mistake? His folly is that he lives for himself. Notice how he talks to himself, he plans for himself, he congratulates himself. He even talks to his soul, saying “Soul.” In other words, he lives completely for himself. It never occurs to him that the brief candle of his life could be snuffed out at any time. And then it is. His sudden death proves him to have lived as a fool.
In religious terms the rich fool was an idolater. He had put his wealth and possessions in the place of God. To be an idolater doesn’t have to be as obvious as bowing down and worshipping a graven image. It can be a subtle as counting on your wealth and possessions to do what only God can do. The rich fool derived security, comfort and meaning from his abundance. But things cannot provide real security, comfort, and meaning. Only God can.
What does being “rich toward God” have to do with our wealth? Let us be clear that wealth is not evil. The farmer’s abundance was not evil. Many people think the Bible says that “money is the root of all evil,” but it doesn’t. The Bible doesn’t say, “Money is the root of all evil,” but “love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10) And Jesus didn’t quite say, “You can’t serve God and money (even though that is the way the NRSV translates it). You old timers who grew up on the KJV know what Jesus said. He said “You can’t serve God and Mammon,” which is not money per se, but the god of money. The personification of money as a false god, an idol.
It is the love of money, the worship of money, that endangers the soul, not money itself. Money is neutral, neither good nor evil. Money is an instrument. It is what we do with it that counts. Whatever abundance we have is a gift of God to be used for the purposes of God. That was what made the rich farmer a fool. He thought all he had was his to use for himself. To store and save. And he did nothing with it. In the end he had nothing to show for it. He missed his opportunity to be rich toward God.
You and I, like the farmer, are rich by accidents of weather, geography and history. If you were born in Ecuador or South Sudan, the chances are exceedingly slim that you would be born rich. And many of the people who want to immigrate to America merely want better for themselves and their families, just as many generations of Americans have since the founding of our nation.
Most Americans don’t think of themselves as rich. There is always somebody richer. But notice how our cars and houses get bigger and bigger, and things that were once considered luxuries are now considered necessities. Are we any happier than we were before we had 35 kinds of olive oil to choose from? Ask any elder who lived through the Great Depression if they feel that our nation feels better, stronger, more unified today than it was then during some truly hard times? Or if people today seem happier, and more at peace with themselves. Today, we have incredible abundance, but we also have poverty and drugs and gated communities. “What does it profit us to gain the whole world and lose our soul.” So, has our abundance really been that good for us, not to even raise the question of whether it is good for the world?
Now you and I as Christians believe that life is more than food and clothing, that there is a higher moral law than the law of the jungle, and that our ultimate goal and destination is to God and not to advance our own prospects.
And this is where I hope you find this great big story that is mostly God’s story and partly my story to be something of your story, too. That you can be honest in admitting that our world is broken and that in some sense you are broken as well. That you can realize that your own vulnerabilities and neediness are not a flaw, but the condition for recognizing and receiving the gracious generosity of God.
I often find that people in the recovery community are better at getting this than many Christians. Their first step is to admit that they are powerless. One of my favorite writers is Anne Lamott, herself in recovery. Do you know her writing? She writes, “The difference between you and God is that God doesn’t think He’s you.”
She also writes, “The desperate drive to own and control in order to fill our psychic holes, relieve anxiety, fix difficulties, and cauterize old wounds takes root at an early age, and is doomed. It is like going to the hardware store for bread. It doesn’t sell bread.”
One of the gifts that you get as a pastor is to get to know people at a really deep level. And one of the things I learned is that appearances can be deceiving. You meet someone in church who is well-dressed, smart, articulate and funny and you think their life is perfect. As you come to know them you learn of their struggles. You learn that everybody suffers, everybody hurts. Everybody has broken places in their lives. A couple I knew well had a son who had graduated from an Ivy League college and soon after developed schizophrenia and ended up living with them for most of their lives. I’ve had very successful congregants on the cover of Forbes magazine who struggled with heartbreaking family issues. And I’ve seen again and again how coming honestly to terms with one’s brokenness and vulnerability can lead to deeper faith and greater gratitude.
What Jesus meant about being “rich toward God” was about living a life of generosity. Because God has been so generous to us, the proper response is to be grateful to God and generous to others. These early Christians saw Jesus’s death on a cross as a life-saving act of love on behalf of God. We see this in Paul’s admonition about generosity in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
Jesus, of course, was not worldly rich. But he was rich in sharing God’s divinity, and his self-emptying sacrifice was the ultimate solidarity with broken humanity. Jesus himself became a nobody so that all the nobodies of the world could know they were loved as beloved children of God.
Jesus, of course, is not only for the powerless and the poor, but he has a special affinity for them because he was one of them.
And I’ll tell you a secret. Generosity in giving your money to the church will make the church more important to you. That the way it works. I have a friend who likes to bet on sports. Now I am tempted by many things, but gambling has never been one of them, possibly because I have some of my mother’s midwestern Methodist DNA. I just don’t understand the attraction. So, I asked my friend why he likes to gamble, and he said, “It makes it more exciting when I have some skin in the game.” And that got me thinking how Jesus told the disciples, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He didn’t say “where your heart is, there will your treasure be.”
Being rich toward God is acting with the same kind of generosity that God has toward you. Did you know that Jesus talked about money more than anything except the kingdom of God? Do you know why that is? Because he knew that money can be a bar to discipleship. Or it can be a bridge. In the church we’ve often sold stewardship backwards saying “the church needs your money.” The more important thing is for you to give money to the church. Because you won’t really know fully about grace and gratitude until you have some skin in the game.
Your theme “Living the Love of God” is exactly what Jesus meant when he taught his disciples to pray “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
When we talk about “Living the Love of God” we are not talking about some religious abstraction, but about bridging the gap between our broken and unjust world and the kingdom of God that Jesus both preached and embodied. This is what we pray for whenever we say the Lord’s Prayer. It is important work. It is God’s work. And it is our work.
As Anne Lamott puts it, “You can tell if people are following Jesus, because they are feeding the poor, sharing their wealth, and trying to get everyone medical insurance.”
And one final amazing thing about the generosity of God is that it is never too late to accept it and act on it. Jesus warns us, “Don’t be a fool! Be rich toward God!” Amen.
(I preached this sermon at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Fairfield, Connecticut, on November 10, 2019. To listen to the sermon go here. Photo: Sanctuary of First Church, Fairfield)