August 4, 2013: What Owns You?

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

What owns you? Have you ever thought you might be owned? That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? We own. No one owns us, right? We are free bodies and souls. Or are we?

One day from the crowd a voice hollers out: “Hey, Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” “Friend,” Jesus responds — and whenever Jesus calls a stranger friend, somebody better duck — “Who made me a judge?” Jesus must have misunderstood. The guy needs a court order executed, not an opinion rendered. Be careful when you talk with Jesus – especially about money. He talks back – not about getting your share of the inheritance, but about your greed.

As usual, he tells a story. A rich man’s land yields such a crop, it’s a problem: “What will I do?” It’s like each time you win the Powerball jackpot: “How will I spend all this money in a lifetime?” I’ve thought about this. I have a way you can “praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Think St. Paul’s.

The rich guy falls short on “praising God.” He doesn’t even call up an investment adviser or business consultant for help. He’s quite enough for himself. “What do I do, for I can’t possibly store all this in my barns. Oh, here’s what I will do: I will tear down my barns and replace them with larger ones, and I will store all my grain and goods. I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you’re set. Relax, eat, drink and be merry.’” Wouldn’t we love to have a problem like this? Maybe — until we learn God shows up, and what he’s there for: “Fool, tonight you die. Who’ll get all your stuff now?” Bummer – just when he reaches the top, secures his future, finishes reading his Wayne Dyer books, visualizes his goals, harnesses his inner Bill Gates, he draws the big D card. Maybe we don’t want this guy’s problem after all.

Yeah, it’s a stewardship thing. And if anyone feels nervous right now, pledge cards are standing by. But this parable is about more than pledge cards, or the dangers of wealth. Jesus has never opposed abundance, wealth, a good life, and parties. He even changed water into wine at a party once. This parable warns we can become owned by things we think we own – obsessed with possessions. They consume us, especially our souls. That’s why I think it’s important we say, “All things come of you, O Lord,” when we present our gifts at the altar – remembering whose all things are.

So what’s the problem? Rich guy has simply done what any hard-working American dreams of doing. He hits the mother lode. He wants to take care of what he’s earned. Those who   work hard, do well, certainly don’t deserve to come to church and be called “Fool.” So what’s up with this?

Is his death a punishment for being greedy and self-centered? If so, what am I doing here? Actually, he’s already dead, before God shows up. He’s virtually dead to his creator – who creates, preserves, sustains and secures us. Without seeing his blessings – a world larger than his profits, bank accounts and Monsanto stock – how can he really be alive? His land produced the crop, not him. But who owns the land – really? Who makes the sun to shine and rains fall, seeds sprout that yield a bodacious crop? When our vision is compromised, all we see are bulldozers, construction teams, new cavernous barns – better return on investments, greater interest yields, tax shelters – all that stuff we must have to make us secure and happy. We kid ourselves, thinking we really own this stuff. I’ve seen church folks become violently angry when their stuff is stolen or misplaced.

An interesting observation about wealth and abundance – I don’t know if it’s true for you or not. When we open our hearts to God in gratitude, we can become less attached to stuff we think makes us secure and happy. When we do, our stuff loses its control over us. We begin to see blessings we’ve been missing. We can sort out what is eternal and matters, and make better choices. We are more likely to become generous. Why is that? Some religions say attaching ourselves to things, especially the wrong ones, can make us miserable.

The rich fool dies when his stuff begins to own and control him. I can imagine this guy asking God if Fed Ex delivers to heaven. Here’s the reality and the stewardship issue. When it’s over, what will we be taking with us? I’ve never heard anyone on a death bed say, “Father, I wish I’d stored more; given away less.” God isn’t judging wealth, good fortune or success. He judges the man because he fails to see what owns him.

“Fool!” Do you wonder what happens to him? Where does he end up – you know, heaven or elsewhere? I don’t make these calls. But as I read Jesus, he’s more concerned about us entering God’s kingdom here, than a parking garage for our souls later. We neither gain nor lose the kingdom with our own efforts. Besides, it’s like Mark Twain supposedly said: “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

Death in this story is a wake-up call for us. Death is a perspective on life. We can re-calibrate our priorities if we realize we’re off course. We are not our own. We are God’s – part of the “all things that come of God.” This parable pokes around in my false sense of security – tries to pry me from what is lesser to receive what is lasting. If you suspect God may be stepping on your toes too, take it as grace. God is probably calling us back to life, once again.


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