A note from Jamie Howison: Sunday August 1 saw us celebrating a baptism at saint benedict’s table, which meant I preached a slightly shortened sermon with a particular focus on the meaning of baptism. That same day, however, I had been invited to preach at the parish of St Mary Magdalene, and in that setting I really couldn’t talk about the baptism! What follows here is the text from the morning’s sermon, some of which found its way into my reflections in our evening liturgy. The texts for the sermon are Colossians 3:1-11 and Luke 12:13-21.
ver the past six months or so, a lot of my free evenings and weekend afternoons have been given over to work on a biography of my great-grandfather, Sidney Smith. Smith was one of the founders of Winnipeg’s Elim Chapel, a noted lay preacher and conference speaker, and a confidant of some of the giants of the evangelical world of the first half of the 20th century.
He was also a highly successful grain merchant, and a very wealthy man. And as I’ve unpacked his story by reading through his sermon texts and correspondence, and by searching through his heavily underlined copy of the Scofield Reference Bible, it is clear that he experienced his wealth as being both a responsibility and a burden. His life-defining scriptural verse was: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12.48b) The underlining in his Bible marked any number of verses referring to the transitory nature of wealth—from Proverbs (23:4-5) “Labour not to be rich: cease from thine own wisdom. Wilt thou set thine eyes upon that which is not? for riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven”—and included the famous verse from Mark about it being “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
He wasn’t without his complexities and flaws, and I’m not sure I could cope with having a personality as big as his on our church board, but he did manage to get some handle on the trap that so often comes with wealth, “stuff,” comfort and affluence.
It is the very trap to which Jesus addresses himself in the parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21). As always, it is important to back up a step and consider the context into which this parable is offered. Someone has emerged from the crowd and has asked Jesus for a kind of ruling in a property dispute. ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’
It is actually not surprising that someone should ask for a ruling or intervention from a rabbi on a matter of property and family. In the Judaism of that day, land and inheritance issues were in fact central symbols of covenant fidelity; land is a gift of God, family is a gift of God, and doing right by both and in both was very, very important.
But something about this man’s request has made Jesus nervous. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’” Again, it was not at all unusual to seek out a recognized teacher to help sort through such issues. Yet Jesus seems to see something in the man’s face or hear something in his voice that alerts him to the fact that more is going on here than this man wanting to do right by land and inheritance. “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.’”
And into his parable of the Rich Fool he dives. We have first the character of the rich man, who has done ever so well in his business dealings, and so builds up his barns and property so that he can relish all that he has achieved. In fact, he has produced so much grain that his plan is to tear down his old barns and build bigger ones. And why? So that he can stockpile and thus control the flow of his grain into the market. It is profit-driven, in other words. And quite delighted with his business acumen, he sits back and reflects: “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
And then the second character is introduced; God. “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?’”
Where did this all get you? Or in that verse from Proverbs which my great-grandfather had underlined, “Wilt thou set thine eyes upon that which is not? for riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven.”
With great, broad-brush strokes, Jesus paints a picture of the classic self-made man; one who has done so well in business that he actually believes he’s the author of his own life. When that man had emerged from the crowd, asking Jesus to settle an inheritance dispute, there must have been something in his face that said, “and once I have my inheritance, I’ll have it made.”
When Paul writes to the Colossians and says, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly,” he’s flagging the very same thing. “The problem,” says N.T. Wright,
…is not living on earth, but living on earth’s terms. Make this earth your god, and you end up with lies, anger, greed and immorality, the property disputes of this present world. The Creator, meanwhile, serves notice of a higher calling: a full, true humanness, remade in (God’s) own image.
“You have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self,” writes Paul, “which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” So stop falling for the illusion that says you can measure your life’s success according to property, bottom-lines, bank accounts and barns.
None of it lasts.
Now, when Jesus tells his parable, he has the character of God call the rich man a “fool,” which I suppose he was. But I find in his folly a kind of sadness. You’ve worked all of your life for this? And you’ve done what with it? You thought that this was a life worth living? And now on the night that you die, it has got you where?
As usual, when Jesus tells a parable we should all feel that it is us who he has sighted, for all of us—particularly in the context of a society as affluent as our own—run the same risk. If only we could draw the winning ticket, if only we could get that job, if only we could have more, then… then what?
Back to my great-grandfather for just a minute. I think he was a very fortunate man, not because he did so well in business, but because he had learned some things about how to take his hands off of his own wealth. And he learned that from one of his great mentors, a systematic theologian from Dallas Theological Seminary named Lewis Sperry Chafer. While Chafer was in many ways the classic theologian of early 20th century fundamentalism—a conservative evangelical scholar cautious of anything that smacked of modernism or liberalism—he was also an audacious prophet of the wildness of God’s grace. We are not expected to be the authors of our own lives or the architects of our own successes… in fact, that is an illusion that can keep us from being what we were created to be. No, rather we must learn to stand with open hands, signaling both our openness to the grace of God and our willingness to release whatever we have managed to achieve or amass or accumulate.
Somehow, for all of his wealth and success, my great-grandfather got that deep into his bones. And attentive to what God has done in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so must we.