Sunday, August 1, 2010
What Does it Mean to Be Rich?
Sometimes life in the here and now is like a gospel lesson come alive. After I had a sermon all ready to go, sadly I learned of such a "contemporary parable." These last weeks our lessons have presented teaching and challenge on what kingdom living is all about. We find ourselves being stretched in ways that seem hard to live out. And it's hard to keep persepctive.
We hear warning and maybe reprimand, but I'd like to suggest that they are lessons from a God who knows just how challenging it is for us live faithfully. It is in that light that I share the struggle of an adorable couple in their 70’s, who met in later years after the death of their first spouses. Their earlier lives had been a mix of feast or famine, but they’d been blessed with abundance in this marriage. She adored him, and there was a twinkle in his eyes when he saw her. She worked hard to care for their beautifully decorated home in an upscale neighborhood, where everything was “just so.” She once said that because of the gift of her marriage to him, her life was the best it had ever been.
But then he was diagnosed with a progressive illneess that moved quickly. At first when things got rough, she wanted him at home to be with him, to provide the love only a spouse can. But over the last six months, as his needs advanced, there was not only the strain of caring for his physical needs, but worry about her future needs, after all his care was costly but she could live for years. Though many tried to assure her that she would be provided for, she began to be consumed by fears, insisting she needed to keep the enormous home that was too large for her to tend. She scrutinized accounts, and cobbled together a collection of in-home companions because if he went to a nursing home, she was sure she’d lose it all. How would she be able to eat, drink and be merry? Her obsessions increasingly distanced her from family and friends, and gave her no rest at night. Her only conversations were with herself. Terrified his children would take her to court and make her divide the assets, she spent large sums of money to protect large sums of money, spending what she was trying to preserve.
Finally, someone intervened and asked a judge to determine his needs. Her life which had already begun eroding was further taken away when they placed him in a nursing home. She couldn’t agree to a private facility, so he was placed on medical assistance. She soon discovered herself rattling around in that enormous house alone-with no one to help her and no one to talk to. Unable to drive, she had noone to take her places, so she rarely got to the nursing home- she rarely saw the love of her life. She is not alone- I spent two days in continuing education as a lawyer where the overriding concern was the cost of health care and the non-institutionalized spouse. But days ago, about a month after all the courthouse wrangling, she was tragically struck by an oncoming car and killed. The sad truth is that long before the accident, she had given up her life when she lost perspective.
Today's gospel is not an indictment of wealth and possessions, or our enjoyment of them. It’s OK to rest, eat, drink and be merry. We hear this in Ecclesiastes - Life is hard. Enjoy yourself when you can. God calls the landowner a "fool" not because he's enjoying himself, but because of his lack of perspective about wealth and possessions- the ways and times we stop looking at anything other than our abilities, refusing to trust God. The ways we allow stuff to be our God and master and the consequences. The landowner finally perfects his storage solution but finds out he’s going to die in just a few hours--"this night.” All that toiling forgetting all else, for naught. He’s forgotten his relationships with God and others. Starting with where the good fortune came from. It is the land that brought forth the abundance. The amazing harvest wasn’t the result of the landowner being a spectacular farmer, but because it was a good crop year. Weather being seen as a way referring to God’s activity not ours. Like the rich landowner, the woman lost perspective too. She had long since forgotten the source of her abundance-the result of God bringing her into a surprising gift of marriage and the blessings of wealth the man had been able to earn. The first warning is to be wary of the ways we disregard God’s activity in our lives. One way we fail to be rich toward God.
The second warning is about how disregarding others is also a way of failing to be rich toward God. The rich landowner forgot that not only did he not create the abundant harvest he didn’t reap it alone either. He needed and benefitted from the labor of others. Now, though, he’s become self-absorbed, forgetting about anyone else in the equation, thinking only of how he is set. He holds onto the harvest rather than selling now, to maximize profit, worried he might not have what he needs for his future. But here again he fails to see anyone else in the picture. Not only does he not share any of the abundance now with others, he robs them of their future as well. Ninety percent of the people around him lived at the level of bare subsistence, working for the landowner with a little plot to raise food for themselves. By tearing down the barn and building a bigger one, the man is taking land out of farming- fewer jobs for those workers. And he could have built a couple small barns, taking less space, but created one monstrous barn instead, surrounded by nothing. Taking away not only jobs, but guaranteeing that the land the barn sits on will never produce future crops. So out of touch, the owner fails to see this will ultimately affect him as well! He used his power to take away and driving others into poverty and homelessness, causing crisis all around, everyone is talking. Yet, the rich man talks only to himself, and thinks only of himself. So too the woman deaf to all others, finds herself disregarding her life partner to preserve the value of the house while her husband becomes ward of the state.
All that stockpiling shows a lack of trust that the abundant God will continue to be abundant. We all have times we find ourselves forgetting both the giver of the abundance and the limitation of their powers. Because for all the self-centered strategizing, we don't run our own lives after all. Our lives are finite and the stuff we think we own we can’t take with us, but we can allow our focus on stuff to take away our life. Think of all of the ways those I have mentioned could have been merry with others, including those they loved, enjoying the gift of the days they had together if it hadn’t taken so much time and energy and worry. And how merry can anyone be partying alone? It's not much of a life. If only they could have trusted God, been rich toward God, how abundant their lives could have really been. So too for us.
So, how do we avoid this fate? If I had the magic answer I would write a book, and of course share the profits with all of you. But seriously, both the landowner and the woman started out acting in ways that were prudent, planning for the future, being fiscally conservative. Somewhere along the way they got off track. Kingdom living is just as challenging for each of us- and rather than give answers Jesus leaves us with lots of questions. How can we be satisfied with the beauty of the abundance and relationships God gives? How can we trust God to provide “enough” when our needs and the needs of others clash- when we hear “you can’t always get what you want?” We too need to stop only talking to ourselves about numbers and stuff and worries, and to talk to God. God wants to provide abundance for us, but also for others. To sort out how to balance legitimate focus on ourselves and the concerns of our neighbors, our best guidance comes from our being rich toward our relationship with God- tending our relationship, in prayer, in study of Scripture and in dialogue with others. God gives us the treasure of these things.
Then we can hear the words of Jesus, as loving teacher who takes the time to remind us as children of an important life lesson, loves us enough to remind us to step outside our barns and back into the treasure of our world, reminding us of how God gives us abundance in relationships and how we are meant to be that abundance for each other. But when we get off track, to see we’re also given the grace of a God who knows our challenges and loves us even when we fail to keep perspective. Who promises each of us that long after the stuff is gone, we are claimed forever by a loving God who in Christ has given us the greatest treasure of all. In this we have life and we are truly rich.