August 1, 2010: A Fearsome Generosity

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

Who let this guy in? Is he not following the lecture? Jesus has just warned followers: “Speak out for me and you could get hauled before rulers and authorities, not to give you an award.” Where is his follow-up statement coming from? He must have only heard, “Speak out.” He does, but it’s on a topic near to his heart and far from Jesus’ intention, “Tell my brother to cough up my portion of the family inheritance.” Jesus won’t step in. He’s not going to put the “fun” back into his dysfunctional family by taking sides.

Jewish law says that an elder brother gets two-thirds of the inheritance and a younger gets a third. If this guy’s right, he is getting ripped off and has a point. Jesus isn’t going to find out. If you’ve ever stepped into the middle of a family squabble to mediate peace you’re lucky to have survived and be here.

Instead, Jesus pulls up another lecture: “Be on guard against all kinds of greed.” Greed comes in a variety of colors and forms – not just money. We can become greedy for fame, praise, power, designer shoes, and Coach Hand Bags. We convince ourselves we have to have it. We get it. Then what? Do we live happily ever after? “The one with the most toys wins,” does not get God’s “You’ve lived a great life” award. Greed leads us down a selfish, deathly road. It grips us relentlessly, and we don’t even notice. On the surface you may appear to be alive since you’re still breathing. Inside you’re choking to death, clutching tightly to what’s yours and wanting more, thinking that will make you happy. But all this fellow wants is for Jesus to talk with his brother. Are we really greedy for asking what is due us?

Jesus then tells a story we know well – especially good for the church stewardship drive: “Don’t be a fool. Be rich toward God. Turn in a pledge card, before it’s too late.” I hope you will support the church but not out of fear and guilt. Besides, Jesus’ point is greed, not giving it up for the church – that’s later.

A nameless rich guy with an abundantly productive farm scores a huge harvest. He dances all the way to the contractor’s office to arrange for bigger barns to be built. Notice that he’s the only one who talks in the story, and he only talks to himself. He must think well of himself. He keeps saying, “I”, “My” and “Me.” His world is small. He even tells his soul how lucky it is to belong to him. He and his soul will be set for years, just relax, knock back a few cold ones, and party on. He is the poster child for greed. Greedy people rarely see beyond themselves, listen to or play well with others. Suddenly a voice interrupts the exclusive conversation. God shows up, “You fool; tonight I’ve planned a little reality check. See you then. By the way, who would you like to own your new barns – since you won’t need them now?”

What’s so bad about enjoying what’s yours – planning for an uncertain future? Should we empty our freezers; unstock our pantries; get rid of our retirement accounts? Not at all –otherwise someone else gets stuck with taking care of us, and that’s also foolish. It’s perspective and balance. We live now in light of a coming future of God’s reign. We align ourselves with that reign because we follow Jesus. We’ve been around the church enough to know we are not in control of the future – or even now. Getting stuff and more stuff does not secure a happy present or future. Greed distracts us. Fear shuts us down. We become so self-absorbed we fail to hear that God’s been throwing a celebration of life, a party – and all are invited. Sadly, the greedy can’t love God, themselves, or anyone else.

“You fool, tonight I’m reeling you in.” Is Jesus saying God punishes us and threatens the greedy? No, though these words may sound this way. Think of a huge reality check. Our lives on earth end one day. Some people are so distracted they forget that. If you have ears to hear, invest in what lasts, eternally. You can’t take your barns with you. Some may not buy this – but what secures us is God’s offer of enduring love and life freely given us.  We are secure in God’s presence now and later. Besides, God is fearsomely generous towards us. God loves so generously to let us be foolish to choose lesser gods, like self and stuff, until we finally figure out what really matters and align ourselves with God’s reign of life and love.

A theology scholar only had time for himself – books to write, research for articles, world-wide lectures to give. He crammed his life with really important things he treasured. One day he had a stroke, leaving him curled up, dependent on tubes and nurses, helplessly stuck between life and death in a hospital bed. It was hard to tell what his wife meant when she put copies of his books, articles and papers on his bedside table. Were they a shrine to his accomplishments – or a statement that’s the sum of his life — all he did?[i]

Again, God’s fearsome generosity allows us to be as foolish as we want. Neither people, nor affection, power, nor stuff – what’s outside us – can fill that divine inward space where God longs to carry and secure us. Focused outside that sacred space we desperately cry for more. And maybe we begin to move gradually to inner cries for the grace to be held, loved and carried by God. We don’t do that alone. We need a community that loves us and incarnates God’s love and life with us. We hope that’s the church. We need to point others beyond self – live responsibly – and keep our focus on God’s unconditional love.

Today Sara and Jason bring their baby son Brady to be baptized. Brady will be told stories about his day. He’ll be told that you and I we have promised to stand with his parents and godparents to support him and help him remember his life in Christ. He’ll grow to learn what we possess isn’t nearly as important as knowing the One who possesses us. We’ll help Brady know that he’s God’s, and we were here with him when God that day God’s Spirit sealed him forever, naming him “Beloved.” That’s what peculiar people, we Jesus followers, do for each other – hold each other, help each other be open, receptive, and growing in love for the God who seals us by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marks us as Christ’s own forever.

We live lightly, freely, joyfully, and burdened with the right things. I think that’s what it means for us all to be rich toward God.

[i] Adapted from Frederick Buechner, in Pulpit Resource,  William Willimon, Vol. 26, N0.3, Year C, 1998


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