Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 31, 2016

2016.07.31 “Rich Toward God” – Luke 12: 13 – 21

Central United Methodist Church
Rich Toward God
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 12: 13 – 21
July 31st, 2016

 Arkansas_Red_Barn_HDR

“Someone out of the crowd said, “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.” Jesus replied, “Mister, what makes you think it’s any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?” Speaking to the people, he went on, “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” Then he told them this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: “What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, “Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’ “Just then God showed up and said, “Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods — who gets it?’ “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.” – Luke 12: 13 – 21, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Abraham_LincolnFrom time to time, during this election year, I think about Father Abraham. Not Father Abraham of the Old Testament, but Father Abraham (Lincoln) of Illinois. If Abraham stepped out of his grave in Springfield, I wonder what he would have to say about what has happened to his “Party of Lincoln” today. I would love to hear what he would say, and especially what story he might tell. As we know, Lincoln loved to punctuate even the most solemn and serious of subjects with some remotely connected story, which used to drive the members of his cabinet wild.

No, I did not know Abraham Lincoln (I am not that old), but I can say with some certainty that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton (both millionaires) are no Lincolns. But because – historically speaking – Lincoln and his times were not that long ago, in many ways he is still accessible to us.

lincolns-cottageAs an example, one of the best places in Washington D.C. to feel close to Lincoln is his summer cottage at the Old Soldier’s Home in NE Washington, which my family has visited twice now. In the sweltering summer’s of Lincoln’s presidency, the area around the White House was full of soldiers, cattle, and disease, so President Lincoln and Mary lived at the Old Soldiers Home in the summer, with Lincoln commuting back and forth to the White House on horse, believe it or not. On one occasion he even had his hat shot off, which he made the soldiers who with him swear never to tell Mary, for fear that she would worry.

When you visit the Old Soldiers Home, not only are you putting your hand on the handrail Lincoln put his hand on to go upstairs, the guides there also tell you Lincoln stories, recreating the scene.

On our recent visit, my family had a good laugh as our guide was telling a Lincoln story about Kentucky and a preacher, and as he did, to my surprise he pointed straight at me! (How did he know?) The story was that a preacher once asked Lincoln, “Mr. President, aren’t you concerned whether God is on your side?” To which Lincoln answered, “I would like God on my side, but I MUST have Kentucky.”

Whenever I hear today’s Gospel about the man who asked Jesus to help him with sorting out the family estate, I think of Lincoln. First, because as country lawyer Lincoln probably could have helped him (for a small retainer), and secondly, I’m sure it would have reminded Uncle Abe of a story, as it did with Jesus.

You heard what happened: while Jesus is talking about weighty things, at least one man in the crowd was not listening, because he was worried about something else. But he must have thought Jesus was a smart guy, a fair guy, a good guy to have on your side, because when the time came for “Q and A,” the man raises his hand and out of the blue says, “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.”

Though maybe not the right time or place, or person, we get it, don’t we? How many families have we seen (maybe even our own) blown up over who gets what after Grandma dies, haggling over furniture, dishes, silverware, house, land, and savings.

And so Jesus answers, in one of my all-time favorite Jesus quotes: “Man, who made me an umpire over you?” What do you think this is, small claims court? And who do you think I am, Judge Judy?” (At least he didn’t say, “Get him outta here!”)

Perhaps knowing it was a “teaching moment,” Jesus turned to the crowd: “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” And then – as Lincoln might have done, to make his point Jesus told a story, about a rich real estate mogul – no wait, a rich farmer.

Once there was a rich farmer whose farm did so well, he said to himself: “Self, what can I do? My barn isn’t big enough.’ “Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, “Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’”

In all fairness, we should not caricature the farmer. After all, there’s no indication he put his name on the barn, in big letters. There’s no hint of graft or theft, no embezzlement or mistreatment of workers. I mean, just read the story without prejudice:

“A rich farmer had terrific crops — so big he needed larger granaries to store it all. So he decided what to do: he’d build bigger granaries so he wouldn’t have to worry anymore, and then he’d be able to retire.”

What’s wrong with that? Haven’t frugal people always stashed excess food and supplies in pantries, silos, barns, and basements? Isn’t that just good estate planning?

What’s wrong with that? “Everything,” says Jesus. “You fool!” God says to the man in the story. Kids, don’t try this at home, even though some politicians may do in public. This is strong language in this story, and intentionally insulting! But it is only a story; don’t try it in real life.

Why was the man a fool? Because: (1) Being mortal, he hadn’t figured death into the equation; and (2) judging by the language of the story, he didn’t think about anybody but himself.

I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but unfortunately, the man dropped dead. Or as Jesus says in The Message (slightly paraphrased further by me, “Just then – somewhere between Mr. T and the Grim Reaper – God shows up and says: “Fool! Time’s up; tonight you die. And your barnful of goods — who gets it?”

Jesus ends his short story by warning us: “Be careful: that’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”

But like a story told by Lincoln whose point was obvious to only to himself, what did Jesus mean? The story drives us to the edge of a cliff and leaves us there. What does it mean to be “rich toward God?”

Some preachers – including myself over the years – have taken this to be a good stewardship story; never mind that it doesn’t play well on a summer Sunday in July. Many are the sermons on this text – and I have preached a few – that boil down to: “Remember, you can’t take it with you, so be generous with your gifts – and especially to the church!”

But what if this story isn’t about money, or wealth, or even our need to give to Church? What if it’s about the man’s isolation from community? What if it’s about his narcissism, as revealed in his conversation with himself, about himself, and only himself? What if it’s about his distraction – due to his stuff and his money – from whatever else is going on in the world, including in his own life? Was this rich man distracted with his money, as Martha was distracted with the dishes a few weeks ago, when Jesus visited Martha and Mary’s home?

What does it mean to be “rich toward God?” It means to have insight into our lives, to know that they are fleeting, to reflect about what’s important. To be “rich toward God” means to know that whatever we have – whatever assets we have accumulated – others have contributed to it, and it is only valuable as others benefit from it. To be “rich toward God” is to know that whatever we have, it counts as nothing without those who love us and whom we love and who make our lives worth living. Money cannot buy us love; who wants to sit on a big pile of money lonely and alone? To be “rich toward God” is to care and share what we have with others who are hurting and needy. To be “rich toward God” is not to live and accumulate wealth in solitude; it is to live in solidarity and community and to share with others.

Which is – in the end – why God calls him foolish. Because, he forgot, not only is he not immune to death, which none of us are; but because he will die alone, as none of us want. Despite all that he has, it cannot comfort nor will it protect him, but will go to others, like dust in the wind.

So perhaps this story Jesus told is not so much about wealth as it is about community, in which we find sustenance and comfort and help and hope. After all, the story began with a break in a community, in a family: one brother seeking Jesus’ intervention in a family squabble about an inheritance. No wonder Jesus will have none of it. What should have been an occasion for celebration, remembrance, and gratitude, has been turned instead – as it sometimes does – into a time of bitterness and division. And so – as a cautionary tale – Jesus tells the story of a man who wound up right and rich alright, but died all alone.

Now we might ask, “Who was Jesus talking to? The man who raised his problem? The man’s brother? His disciples? The crowds? How about us?  Yes, all the above.

Now is an especially important time for us to hear Jesus’ words, because – as you know – there is a message out there that we should not and cannot trust each other, because the world is increasingly dangerous and we should therefore be afraid, especially of the stranger. We should work hard and accumulate our own piles of money, paying the least taxes that we can, and especially not sharing with the welfare queen and the freeloader and the immigrant, needy though they may be. That might indeed be a rich life, but that would be the kind of life Jesus was warning about, and not the kind of life he was commending, a life that is rich toward God.

Lincoln-FamilyWhen Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington in 1861 to become President, he arrived with his wife Mary, and three sons: Robert, 17; Willie, 10; and Tad, 7. Another son, Edward, had died 10 years earlier. While we know of his humble beginnings, by that time Lincoln had practiced as a lawyer for 17 years and was worth about $15,000. A year afterward, Willie died, most likely of typhoid fever, usually contracted by consumption of contaminated food/water. That was one of the reasons the Lincoln’s enjoyed the relative solitude of the Old Soldier’s Home, because they were grieving the death of their son Willie and just wanted to be alone, as far as possible, even in the midst of the raging War.

By the time Lincoln was assassinated four years later at the age of 56, his estate at his death was worth $85,000, with the additional coming principally from his $25,000 yearly salary as President. Of course there were no book deals, no speaking fees. In our time when politicians and Presidents are routinely multi-millionaires, don’t you find it amazing that the greatest President of our country was financially worth only $85,000. (Harry E. Pratt, Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Monographs, Chicago, IL: Lakeside Press, 1943; Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Library, 2006.)

But what did he leave? The Emancipation Proclamation, and an end to the curse of slavery. The Gettysburg Address, the greatest memorial to the 665,000 who died in the War. The First and Second Inaugural addresses. A unified nation and a new birth of freedom, that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, should not perish from the earth. Though poor in things, I would say Lincoln was rich toward God, wouldn’t you?

Though no Lincolns, with however little or however much we have, let us heed Jesus words, and strive to be “rich toward God.”

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