Sunday, July 31, 2022
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘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; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Let me tell you a story about my big red chair.
Recently I was at the famed Chautauqua Institution in far Western New York for some continuing education. One afternoon, my friend Jim and I sat out on an antiquing adventure. We ended up in a rather rough-around-the-edges little town on the shores of Lake Erie, where we knew there was a particularly good antique store. The first floor was sort of a bust, but on the second floor, toward the back of the room, sat the big red chair – its deep crimson leather unbroken, its workmanship unquestionable. And I was smitten. Of course, I had no idea if it would fit in the SUV or if it would fit in our house. But it was so beautiful and the price was right. Of course, I went to find the owner to see if I get a better price. And surprisingly, the man agreed. His wife, however, looked on with cool detachment, before informing me that the Jamestown Royal Furniture Company, who had made that chair, used to supply the White House. I guess she wanted me to know that I really was getting a bargain. And then the big red chair was in the back of the SUV and on its way to life in Connecticut. It now lives in my church office if you’d like to stop by sometime and say hello.
I have a story like that for every painting and vase and rug and knickknack that we own. Each piece has its own history and carries its own meaning. And together these treasures and their stories make up the patchwork of our life story. But the hard truth is that one day, when are no more, people will take our things and divide them and sell them and fight over them, or maybe just throw them away.
One day, someone in a crowd called out to Jesus: “Rabbi, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” This was likely a younger brother who was unhappy with the unequal distribution of assets based on Jewish inheritance practices of the day. It was customary for the oldest male child to receive 2/3s of the entire estate, leaving 1/3 to be divided between however many other males there were. Maybe the man in the crowd that day hoped that this rabbi, with his radical new ideas, would say something fresh about dividing money more equitably. But apparently, Jesus didn’t do probate. Instead, he used this dramatic moment as a jumping off point to tell a story about how we usually measure riches and how we ought to measure riches.
And he said: Once upon a time, there was a very rich farmer who had a bumper crop – so great that his old barns just would not do. So, he decided that he would tear them down and build much bigger ones. Then he would kick back for the rest of his life, take an early retirement, and sail around the world.
But the party took a sudden turn when God spoke up. “You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus ends this most unsettling story by saying: “So it is with everyone who stores up treasures for himself or herself, but is not rich toward God.”
This is a difficult lesson because it flies in the face of ideas that we hold dear: things like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps; like saving for a rainy day; like enjoying the fruits of your labor – values that my folks raised me with. I was taught to work hard and save my money – the more you saved, the better because you didn’t know what the future would hold. And that sounds exactly like what the farmer was doing. Surely Jesus wasn’t disparaging being prepared. What was so wrong with the farmer enjoying his success?
Well, to understand Jesus’s criticism, you have to understand that this was no ordinary farmer. This man was a major landowner. And his farm was an agribusiness. And that made him significantly different from almost everyone else. Historians tell us that in the time of Jesus, 80-90% of all people either worked on or benefitted from others working on someone else’s land. In other words, they were serfs or tenant farmers. They worked for “the man.” And all of those non-land owners bought their daily bread, their staples, from “the man.” His success or failure was essential to the entire community’s success or failure. He was, quite literally, his brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. So, he had a major responsibility.
Therefore, when that bumper crop came, what he could have done – what he should have done - was to sell his surplus grain to his neighbors at a reduced rate. In that way, it would have meant a blessing of abundance for everyone. The farmer would still have made a profit just by the sheer volume of his sales.
But greed does awful things to us humans. It confuses our thinking and messes with our morals. And so, this man, who knew better, hoarded the daily bread of others. One biblical commentator has suggested that by doing so, he could dole out that grain bit by bit, creating a demand that really wasn’t there and thus driving up the price – making large profits on the backs of the poor. – Some stories never get old.
In addition to that, notice the way that the rich man speaks of his success. It’s all about him. In the four verses it takes to tell the story, he uses the words “I” or “my” eleven times! Not once does the man mention the God who created the sun and the soil and the seed. There is no prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings of a bumper crop. There is no recognition of his responsibility to his neighbors. Instead there is the selfish and a singular attention to what this wealth will mean for him and him alone – to hell with everybody else.
And that’s why God speaks up. This is the only time in any of the parables of Jesus that God actually says anything. And what God says should give us all pause. “You fool, your time’s up. You’re planning for your future at just the moment that your life is over. And all these things you have accumulated, (like your big red chair!) whose will they be once you’re gone?” Or, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it: “one who has worked with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not work for it.” (Ecclesiastes 2:21)
And then the farmer died and left it all behind. And one day, I will too. But how he lived and how I live and how you live will be the legacy by which we are judged. We can choose greed and selfishness, and that can be our legacy. Or, we can choose justice and kindness and generosity. It’s about planning for our retirements… and or expirements… all at the same time!
There is a lot of blustering going on in the world right now – a lot of ego and blow-hard-ism and fear. And one thing fear will do is make you selfish. And when you are afraid, then all those constant calls to stockpile and hoard and build walls of suspicion against your neighbors sound like good ideas. If you believe that the world is going to hell, then selfishness is the natural response because you never know when you’re going to need all those barns full of your treasures.
But the challenge of the Gospel of Jesus has always been to live by faith, and not by fear. And what is true for people is also true for institutions. The call to live by faith is true for this church, as we consider what God is calling us to do and be in a world so radically changed in the last few years. And if we are to live by faith, then we have to exercise that faith muscle, that generosity muscle, that justice muscle, something Jesus called being “rich toward God. “
So, friends, by all means, enjoy your lives. I do. Eat, drink, and be merry. I do. Just don’t be fooled. Don’t forget that there are the riches that matter and the riches that don’t. Choose wisely. Be rich toward God.