Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 31, 2022
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
We have several people in our congregation who have downsized recently as they have moved from larger, family-sized homes to smaller units in retirement communities. It has occurred to me recently that this is not only an incredible physical challenge, but an emotional one as well. You see, while I might be in a different stage of life than these brothers and sisters in Christ, my wife and I have been trying to do some downsizing too. Now that our kids are older, with two of them having one foot out the door, we have been trying to get rid of a bunch of their childhood stuff. In particular, we have a large Hefty bag full or stuffed animals. We have no need for them. They are just taking up space. But I have a hard time letting go of them. Each of those stuffed animals means something to me. It represents something. There is the stuffed bison from our trip to Yellowstone. There is the weird blue monkey a kind nurse gave to one of my boys when he had to get stiches. There are the stuffed jaguar cubs that look just like the three cubs we got to see at the Woodland Park Zoo when our boys were just three little cubs themselves. I know I’m not going to cart these around for the rest of my life, so I have to let go of them sometime, but it is hard because I’ve ascribed meaning to these possessions. So I get it. I get how hard it is for those of you who have had to haul away treasured pieces of furniture that have been part of your life for decades, or things you got as wedding gifts, or knick-knacks that are meaningful to you but don’t mean anything to anyone else, things the kids and the grandkids don’t want. It is hard because we so easily attach meaning to material possessions.
This isn’t inherently wrong or bad or sinful, but it is so easy for us to go overboard with it. It is so easy for us to make too much meaning of these material things. We can begin to think that the very meaning of life is to acquire and hold on to these possessions. We can begin to think that our worth as people is tied up in what we own, what have accumulated for ourselves. We can begin to look to our material assets as the source of our hope for the future.
This sounds like a first world problem, but it was actually an ancient world problem too, as we hear in our gospel reading for today. This is a universal human problem.
Our gospel reading for today begins with dispute about a family inheritance. A man comes up to Jesus and asks him to mediate an argument he was having with his brother about who was entitled to what. To ask a traveling rabbi like Jesus to intervene suggests that the inheritance conversation had not gone well. This was a family at odds. These were brothers who were in conflict. And they were in conflict because they had let the money mean more to them than the relationship.
Jesus refused to get involved. Instead of mediating the dispute, he diagnosed the man’s heart. First Jesus warned him and everyone within earshot to be on their guard against all kinds of greed. “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” Jesus said.
And then Jesus went on to tell a parable: A rich man had a bumper crop. His harvest was so abundant that he had to build bigger barns to hold it all. It was so abundant, in fact, that now he could retire! He had hit the jackpot! He could spend the rest of his life relaxing – eating and drinking and being merry. He could travel and play golf and drink gin & tonics and take it easy.
But just when his new barn was bursting at the seams with his retirement grain, the Grim Reaper showed up at his door, saying, “This very night your life is being demanded of you. What does all that grain mean to you now?” “So it is, Jesus concludes, “with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
You might be asking yourself: Does this mean saving money is sinful? Is my 401k an example of me sinfully storing up treasures? It is more holy to live paycheck to paycheck and stay close to a zero balance in your bank account, never accumulating anything? Plenty of people find themselves living that way whether they want to or not, but is this the model for all Christians to follow?
I think it is helpful here to recall another story about bumper crops and bigger barns. In the Bible we also have the story of Joseph, who, when working as an assistant to Pharoah, had a vision of seven years of abundant crops followed by seven years of severe drought. What did he do? He built bigger barns! He used those bigger barns to store the grain from the bumper crop years, saving the people from famine. Joseph is hailed as a hero in this story for building bigger barns and storing up treasures!
What is different from Joseph and the man in Jesus’ parable? Well, Joseph used the bumper crop to serve God and to serve his neighbors. The man in Jesus’ parable used it only to serve himself. The man in the parable used his bumper crop to secure a comfortable future for himself and himself alone. The man in Jesus’ parable’s preferred pronouns were “me, myself, and I.” Just look at how he talks to himself: “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.” As Jesus said, he stored up treasures for himself but was not rich towards God. He lived for his appetites, for his comfort. He ascribed too much meaning to his money, thinking it meant his life was now complete.
Jesus held this parable up to this man who was fighting with his brother about his inheritance, but he is really holding it up to all of us. Either we have financial security and think our lives are complete, that we can rest now, or we don’t have financial security and think that winning the lottery or inheriting a fortune will solve all our problems. Either way, we ascribe too much meaning to our possessions. As St. Paul says in our reading from Colossians, greed is a form of idolatry. As Martin Luther writes in the Large Catechism in his discussion of the First Commandment, your god is really that to which your heart clings for all good. It is what you put your confidence in, what you look to for comfort and security. And for many people, that god is their stuff, their possessions, their assets. This was an ancient world problem. It is most certainly a first world problem. It is a problem for every one of us here today, whether we have a lot or we have a little. The human heart ascribes too much meaning to possessions. We turn it into our god.
Even as Jesus shows us the truth about our misplaced meaning, our idolatrous hearts, he also at the same time gives us something better to cling to by encouraging us to be “rich towards God.” Being “rich towards God” sounds like a pitch to give your money to God, and that is certainly part of it. Giving, both in service to God through tithes and offerings and in service to neighbor through charitable gifts, is a spiritual practice that helps train our hearts to not cling so much to our money. But Jesus is inviting us into something more than this. I’ve also seen his phrase here translated as “rich with God” or “rich with the things of God.” To be “rich with God” or “rich towards God” is to treasure the gifts he is giving us through his Son.
Jesus is inviting us into is a life where we find our meaning not in our possessions, but in the Good News that God possesses us, holding us close. Jesus is inviting us into a life where we find our identity and our purpose and our security not in what we own, but in the great truth that we are his own. Jesus is inviting us to relax, to eat, drink, and be merry, not because we might have enough saved, but because he has saved us through his death and resurrection.
When I was on my pastoral internship in rural North Dakota, my wife and I drove into Grand Forks to do some shopping in the big city. This was couple of years after a terrible flood devastated the Red River Valley. Many areas of the city had recovered, but there were areas down by the riverbank where you could still see the damage. It was a bizarre scene. Electrical shorts caused fires which burned the upper half of several buildings, while in the lower halves you could still see the water damage. I remembered seeing the news coverage of the flood. We were living in Minnesota at the time and it was a big deal. I remembered seeing footage of barns being swiftly carried downriver by the current. I remembered how the weather suddenly turned bitter cold, freezing the floodwaters overnight, and so thousands of livestock which had been up to their bellies in water froze in place and died. I remembered seeing interviews with usually stoic Scandinavians openly weeping after they had lost everything: herds and homes, barns and businesses. Most of all, I remembered seeing a big plywood sign propped up against the front door of an evacuated farmhouse, with a message spraypainted on it that said: “You are not what you own.” It was a message of hope. It was a message of truth. It was a message that people desperately needed to hear. It is a message we need to hear too.
You are not what you own. So often we define ourselves by our possessions. So often we ascribe our sense of worth to what we have, or don’t have. So often we look for comfort and contentment in things. We make too much meaning of what we own.
You are not what you own. You are so much more than that. Your life does not consist of an abundance of possessions that can be purchased. It is instead to be found in the one who has purchased you and redeemed you, not with silver or gold, but with his own body and blood. You are that precious to him, regardless of what you own. It is not what you have, but that he has you! Life is truly found when our hearts cling to Christ and Christ alone, who fills our hearts to overflowing with the riches of God’s mercy, God’s grace, and God’s love. Not even the Grim Reaper can take this life, our life in Christ, away from us.
You are not what you own. You are his, and your life is truly found in him, today and forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church