Audio of this sermon is available here.
August 4, 2013 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13C
© 2013 Evan D. Garner
About twenty-four hours into our Africa trip, I heard one pilgrim say to another, "You know how I was saying that I don't have enough storage space in my house for all our stuff? Yeah, that won't be a problem anymore." We were on a bus, driving from a poor part of Ghana to an even poorer part. Both sides of the road were lined three or four deep with tiny little shacks—four walls and a roof that families called home. They were smaller than most of the bathrooms in our houses, yet they contained the entire worldly possessions of their inhabitants. Suddenly, my friend on the bus wasn't interested in getting more closet space. She was ready to dump all of the extra stuff that she’d been collecting over the years.
We call them "first-world problems"--challenges that rich people like you and me face. Things like how the coffee isn't quite hot enough after putting refrigerated half-and-half in it or how the department store never seems to have the shoes you want in your size during a big sale. I haven't seen it as much lately, but, for a while, people seemed to take pleasure in posting their first-world problems on Facebook. I’m pretty sure that most of those were attempts at ironic humor, but they seem a lot funnier when you're sitting on your couch in your air-conditioned den watching your huge flat-screen TV and checking Facebook on your smartphone than when you're riding down a pot-hole-infested highway where waifish Ghanaian children beg for enough money to feed their starving families. That kind of puts it all into perspective, huh?
I just spent two weeks in Africa. During my trip, I met a quiet, humble woman who has single-handedly taught hundreds of impoverished women to become seamstresses and open independent, successful businesses that bring their families out of poverty. I met a deaf man who opened a school to teach other deaf men how to be carpenters. He was so excited about what he does that he literally bounced up and down the street hugging strangers. I met a priest who lost his job because his bishop found out that he went to a conference on human sexuality. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t gay; in his context, simply showing up to discuss the issue is enough to get you suspended by your bishop. Part of me thinks that there is no such thing as a first-world problem and that, instead, the first-world is the problem. At least that's the conclusion I reach when I read today's gospel lesson--a story about a man who came to Jesus with a problem a lot like ours and who got a humbling lesson in return.
"Teacher," someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." This man had heard about Jesus. He had heard that he was a wise rabbi who preached about fairness—who encouraged his listeners to look out for the disenfranchised. Theirs was a society in which the oldest son would inherit everything, meaning that the only way this younger brother would receive anything was if his older sibling felt charitable. It seems that that brother wasn't being very nice, and this man thought Jesus might help.
It's funny, isn't it, how problems like how to split up a family's estate can still cause us as much trouble today as they did back then. It's a hot-button issue than any rabbi or clergyman would be wise to avoid. In a period of grief, things like money and property get mixed up with things like love and preference. I remember standing with my mother and her two siblings as they divided up the treasured possessions that had belonged to their parents. All of the sudden, a rolling pin wasn't just a rolling pin--it was a symbol of whether their father loved them best--a symbol worth fighting over. Maybe we should add this lesson to the list of suggested readings for funerals.
This man came to Jesus with a problem about money, hoping to pull him onto his side of the family argument, but Jesus looked at him and said, "You know, life isn’t measured by the abundance of one's possessions." Wow! Smacked across the face with the sharpness of God’s word! That wasn’t what the man wanted to hear. And, as if that weren’t enough, in order to make his point, Jesus told the man a story.
There was a rich man whose land produced a bumper crop, which suddenly presented the man with a new problem. "I've got too much grain and nowhere to put it. What shall I do? I know! I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and then I'll say to myself, 'Rejoice! Eat! Drink! Be merry! Because now life is good!'" But sometimes even the best-laid plans go to waste. That very night, God appeared and said to him, "You fool! This night your life is required of you. And now what will become of your possessions?"
So what's this story all about? When I read it, I kind of wonder what the man did wrong. Isn’t it reasonable, when faced with an unexpected surplus, to figure out where you should store it? What’s Jesus trying to tell us? Is he telling us to live each day as if could be our last? Should we cash in our IRAs and 401(k)s? Should we abandon our plans for the future and live purely in the moment? I know a lot of twenty-somethings who moved to places like Colorado to do just that, and, given the totally unproductive nature of their endeavors, I don't think that's what Jesus wants us to do. That’s because this isn't a parable about the prudence of poor planning. It's a story that shows us that you can't get to heaven if you're stuck in your first-world problems.
The truth is simple but terrifying: you cannot store up treasures for yourself if you want to be rich toward God. You cannot be consumed by possessions and still enter God’s kingdom. Jesus tells us that it doesn’t work that way. I remember several years ago when a physician pointed out to me that there aren't a lot of obese people in their 80s, and that makes sense. It’s pretty hard to make it to 85 if you’re overweight. I'm afraid the same thing is true about rich people in the kingdom of God. Jesus wasn't kidding when he said that it's easier to fit a camel through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to get into heaven. You can't be rich and rich toward God at the same time.
So what does that mean for us? I don't exactly know. I think I've been ignoring this part of the gospel for a long time because I'm afraid of what it means. I do know that the only way someone gets to heaven is by God's grace--his unearned love for us. And I think that those of us who live in the first-world have a much, much harder time understanding that. Just like the man in the parable, the more stuff that we have the harder it is for us to appreciate God’s mercy. That’s because you and I don’t depend upon grace to feed our families. We simply go to the grocery store and buy what we want. I think that means that in order for us to be a part of God's kingdom we're going to have to get rid of most of the stuff that we're holding on to.
The value of your life isn't measured by your earthly possessions. And, even more than that, those possessions are probably standing in between you and heaven. What are you going to do about it? You cannot be rich and rich toward God at the same time. What will it take for you to be rich toward God? What do you have to give away in order to know what that means? And, like the man in the parable, how long will you wait before you do something about it? Amen.