“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 good to be with you and to see so many old friends from both churches (It’s a joint service with First and South Churches). For the handful of folks who don’t know me, I’m Rick Floyd and I used to work here!
Lately, I’ve been thinking back to when I first came here to candidate in 1982. We came in late June and Martha was pregnant with our first child. We stayed with Dan and Doty Dorman, and since Dan was an obstetrician, that seemed like a good omen. Our son, Andrew, was born on July 22 (we just celebrated his 40th birthday last week.) I was 33 then, and I’m 73 now, so the math adds up. We returned that summer for a second interview with our new baby and the rest is history. I stayed at First Church for 22 years. I left 18 years ago. And here I am. Thank you for inviting me.
Let us pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.” Amen.
For a long time after I left here, I didn’t preach very much. After my traumatic brain injury and subsequent mental health issues I didn’t have much confidence and preaching was hard for me. Some years later my friend and neighbor Art Kaufman invited me to fill in several Sundays at the little Federated Church in Charlemont, where he was the interim. They were a warm and supportive congregation and that helped my confidence.
Eventually we joined the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, where we became active and I preached once or twice a year for my pastor, Brent Damrow. And Joel (Huntington) would have me come for a Sunday at South Church several summers. But I was pretty much retired and took my name off the Conference guest preacher list. I thought I was a retired preacher.
In 2019 all that changed. Many of you know that our second child, Rebecca, is an ordained UCC pastor. I’d been a guest preacher half a dozen times at her church in Little Compton, RI. In 2019 she was due to have her second child in May, and she and her deacons asked me if I would preach for 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, not one, not two, but ten sermons! I wasn’t responsible for anything else at the church. No meetings. No administration. No pastoral care. No hospital visitation. Somebody else did all that. All I did was preach, which is something I always loved to do. I was laser focused on the preaching texts for Sunday. It was wonderful. I had a lot of fun.
Then a wondrous thing happened to me. The readings that summer were all from Luke, either from his Gospel or from Acts, which he also wrote. I had been preaching on these texts for decades, but I started to hear Luke’s voice in a new and different way 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!
It seemed clear to me then and is clear to me now 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 in society.
For example, 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 and prostitutes, 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. Migrants. 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.
That summer I preached on the parable of the rich fool who built bigger barns to hold his accumulated wealth. We have a three-year lectionary so here it comes around again. And I checked my records, and I preached on this same text also six years ago at South Church, when I filled in for Joel.
This text seems to be following me. Some of you folks from South may recall I had read an article about the proliferation of storage units in America, and concluded that we were still building bigger barns to hold our stuff.
I want to go in a different direction today. I want to talk about our need to fill voids in our lives, and accumulating earthly treasure is one way we humans try to do it, even though it is futile. The French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil wrote, “All sins are attempts to fill voids.” The sin of greed is holding stuff close to try to fill the void inside us.” And writer Anne Lamott 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.”
Why is the rich man a fool? That is the question for this morning.
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.”
Jesus seldom answers a question directly. Instead, he often tells a story. This time he tells 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 ponder this story let us be careful not to dismiss this farmer too quickly as a fool. If we turn him into a caricature, it would be easy for us to dismiss him, rather than seeing something of ourselves in him. Often in these parables Jesus holds up a mirror to us to see things about ourselves.
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.” His favorite adjective is “my.” “My grain, my barns, my crops. 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. They can’t fill the void, the empty places. 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. What was evil was the way he looked at it. He didn’t share his abundance. He saw life as a zero-sum game, with winners and losers. He functioned out of a theology of scarcity and not a theology of abundance.
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) As Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up!”
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 we had been born in Ecuador or South Sudan, the chances are exceedingly slim that we would be born rich. And many of the people who want to immigrate to America merely want better lives 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.
But does our abundance make us a happy people? Do you know about the United Nations Happiness Index? You can download it for free. For ten years scholars across disciplines have compiled an annual report on happiness and rated countries by happiness. The top ten happiest countries in 2022 are:
1. Finland 2. Denmark. 3. Iceland. 4. Switzerland. 5. Netherlands. 6. Luxembourg. 7. Sweden. 8. Norway. 9. Israel. 10. New Zealand.
The United States, despite the highest GDP in the world, is 16th. So, money alone isn’t what makes you happy. Two of the findings about what makes one happy are high levels of benevolence and trust, looking out for neighbors and trusting institutions and government.
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, drugs and gated communities. We have deepening political and social divisions. We politicized public health policies which would have saved lives lost to COVID-19, eroding trust in governments and institutions for political gain. Yes, we are a wealthy country, but that wealth is distributed very unevenly, with the wealthiest 1 percent of families in the United States holding about 40 percent of all wealth and the bottom 90 percent of families holding less than one-quarter of all wealth.
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. 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. Anne Lamott, herself in recovery, writes, “The difference between you and God is that God doesn’t think He’s you.”
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. 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.
And I want to give a little personal testimony. I believe I have always preached that God’s steadfast love is particularly strong for the vulnerable and needy. But I thought of the vulnerable and needy as a category outside myself. I wasn’t part of it.
When I left here eighteen years ago, I was vulnerable and needy with multiple physical and mental health issues and challenges. And it took a good nine or ten years of poor health before I came out the other side and started a new chapter of my life. But when I did, I understood Jesus and his Gospel in a new light. Jesus had come and preached and lived and died, not just for the lepers, tax collectors and those with demons, he had come for me. And I needed him. And I still need him.
My friend Tony Robinson once asked his preaching teacher at Union Theological Seminary, James Forbes, the great black preacher at Riverside Church, why the black church had so much more passion and vitality than the white churches. James Forbes answered: “People in the white church think God needs them. People in the black church know that they need God.”
It is out of our need and vulnerability that we can grow towards the God who fills the voids and empty place in our lives that we have tried to fill with things. Such faith results in gratitude.
What Jesus meant about being “rich toward God” was about living a life of gratitude and 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.”
Jesus 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.
Being “rich toward God” is acting with the same kind of generosity that God has toward you. “Set your minds on the things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3: 2-24).
Did you know that Jesus talked about money more than anything except the kingdom of God? Do you know why that is? Not to give us textual fodder for our Stewardship sermons, but because he knew that money can be a bar to discipleship. Or it can be a bridge!
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 abundant generosity of God is that it is never exhausted, it never runs out, and 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 First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. on July 31, 2022. I am Pastor Emeritus there, and it was my first time preaching there since 2004.)