Thursday, July 28, 2016
Parable about Kingdom Life (not Death)
I am not preaching this week, but I'm still tempted to write a sermon based on the Parable of the Rich Fool that starts with the line, "If you died tonight, do you know where you would wake up?" It's a joke, of course. It's funny because I've never heard that question in a sermon in an Episcopal church. I've heard it more than enough times in other settings, and I think it would be humorous to try it out with our congregation. It's the classic "get-your-life-in-order-in-case-you-die" appeal that well-intentioned though misguided preachers in the evangelical tradition use to scare people into accepting Jesus. This parable is about a rich landowner who tears down his barns to build bigger ones, enabling a leisurely retirement, but who is then caught up short by death itself. God comes to him and declares, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you." And, as the fiery preacher shakes his fist at the congregation, he exclaims, "What about you? Will you die tonight? Will you perish with all your wealth, or will you be accepted into the arms of your savior?"
The reason I'm drawn to that fanciful if frightful approach is because that isn't at all what the parable is about. This isn't a story about getting your life in order because death could come at any minute. It's about living each moment as fully as possible because we all know that someday death will come. Death isn't the surprise here. The surprise is that a wealthy, successful landowner, whose success must have resulted from his shrewdness as a financial planner, never bothered to consider that death would come. Instead, he approached life as if it was his to master: "I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'" When Jesus told this story, the crowd didn't gasp when they heard God say, "Tonight your life is required of you." They were shocked when they heard the fool say, "Relax, eat, drink, be merry."
Perhaps the fault isn't only with the misguided preacher. Modern hearers of this parable might miss the point because we've largely forgotten that death is inevitable. As a good estate planner will remind us, people like to begin sentences with, "When I win the lottery...," and "If I die..." No one escapes death; it's only a question of when. That reality--that inevitability--isn't threatening; it's merely life-shaping. When we accept the reality that death exists, we don't live each day in fear of it. We don't put our head on our pillow worried that we might not wake up in the morning or, worse, that we might wake up surrounded by fire and horned devils with pitchforks. Instead, we live each day as if it mattered. As people of God, that means we live each day for God's kingdom.
In the face of a bountiful harvest, there is nothing wrong with tearing down smaller barns to build bigger ones. It's what a prudent farmer would do. But the mistake is thinking that we will ever reach a point where we can stop working for the kingdom. Except because of bizarre farming subsides that pay people not to plant their fields, no farmer would ever skip a planting season simply because the silos were full. There could be a flood. There could be a fire. Jesus isn't critical of the man's wealth. He's attacking the attitude that wealth has given the man total control. Control is just an illusion--even for the wealthiest among us--perhaps especially for the wealthiest among us.
God has work for us to do. Whether we are young or old, busy or retired, rich or poor, God is asking us to live each day as a precious gift--a gift not only for ourselves but to be shared with others. The work of the kingdom never stops. We are invited to be rich toward God. That means living each day as if it were our last--not in a hedonistic farewell tour but as an expression of gratitude and devotion. All we have is gift, and what a great gift it is. Death assures us that none of it belongs to us. Life is just something we get to use for a while. How we use it--for ourselves or for the kingdom--is what makes the difference.