Living without your Possessions Owning You

Fr. Robert P. Travis
August 1, 2010

The last time August began with this Gospel
was on a Sunday morning in 2004.
What if you had made plans in 2004,
about what you would do with your treasure then,
to enjoy it comfortably for the rest of your life?
Would you have found that things had changed by 2010?

But in spite of these financial challenges,
The Psalmist tells us this morning
“Consider well the mercies of the Lord.”
And from Paul we hear,
“Set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth,
for you have died and your life his hidden
with Christ in God.”

By being baptized into the death of Jesus,
we are invited into a new life,
that is different from all those around us.

Because seem very much like the people living
a merely human life around us,
It is hard to consider the mercies of God,
and to set our minds on things that are above,
especially in the place we live in the world today.
It is hard to set our minds on things that are above,
when the things on earth, our things, are so loud,
and obnoxious as they vie for our attention.

Jesus is confronted,
on his way to Jerusalem, and his own death,
by a man who can't get his mind off of worldly things,
how to split up the family inheritance.

This seemed particularly poignant to me,
since this year, because of that gap year
in the estate tax,
some billionaires are dying,
and their families are getting their entire estate,
instead of the 50% that they would normally get.
And also because the great wealth transfer
from the baby boom is beginning to take place.
So I think we are probably seeing more disputes
about inheritance than ever before.
And that is what confronted Jesus,
when he was in the midst of teaching the crowds.

But rather than dealing with that all too common dispute, Jesus tells us a parable, that helps put it into perspective.
And while this parable seems to be very obvious,
and mostly is, about greed,
there is one key part that we may miss,
that I missed the first few times I read this.
Many have missed this point,
because the translation can mislead us
about what actually is happening in the story.
I'm going to share that insight with you this morning,
because it is good news.

Jesus starts the parable with a teaching,
warning everyone to be on guard against all kinds of greed.
Clarifying that one's life does not consist
in the abundance of possessions.
That is a hint of what's to come.
The words “one's life.”

If we don't pay attention to the fine details,
we may miss the bigger point.
Because what Jesus said there is not new,
and it wasn't new then,
everyone knew that Greed is a vice.
But they did not know how pervasive it was,
and we often don't realize how common it is today.

Jesus tells a story which includes a pretty innocent man.
His land produced abundantly.
He did not gain his wealth dishonestly,
but according to what we might call
the American Dream.
He worked hard, and he accumulated land,
and was blessed with a bumper crop.

He realized his barns could not hold it all,
and he thought... “I have no place to store my crops.”
That kind of reminds me of people
who spend their whole time
looking for the right mutual fund,
to invest their wealth and make it grow.
Or of those who look in their full closets,
and say, “I don't have anything to wear.”

The expectations of the society make us think,
that all of this abundance is ours.
The man says “my crops.”
And never once thinks about them belonging to God.

So he goes on to say,
“I will pull down my barns,
and build larger ones,
and there I will store all my grain, and my goods.”
Three more times he uses the word my,
“my barns, my grain, my goods.”
Imagine the three year old, “Mine, Mine, Mine!”

When I was traveling with my family
recently I passed major installations of
two of the largest food companies in the world.
One was a container port center for Cargill,
the other a grain elevator for Monsanto.
I have a friend who owns a major soybean refinery
in Egypt, and in his experience working with those
companies, he told me,
there is no business more corrupt,
no industry more greedy
than the American Agriculture Business.
They believe all this abundance in food we produce,
belongs to them,
and to their shareholders.
For example, did you know,
When we give food aid to the world
from the taxpayers through USAID,
We don't receive that food aid at a discount from ADM,
Monsanto, Cargill, and the like.
We buy it at full price, even though they have a surplus.
Ok, but now I'm getting off my soapbox,
because as you can tell this is one of those
things that gets me riled up.

Back to our wealthy farmer.
The big switch comes right after he says
“Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years.”
He believes his soul is content with his goods,
and his stores of grain.
But God reminds him, of what the psalmist writes,
in psalm 63,
“My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,*
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;”
The psalmist's soul is satisfied
when he meditates on God,
not when he thinks about all his stuff.
This is where greed becomes idolatry,
when our desire for stuff, overtakes our desire for God.

The big switch in the fine detail,
comes when God says, “this very night
your life is being demanded of you.
And the things you have prepared,
whose will they be?”
When it is translated just that way,
it seems that Jesus is just reminding us
that we can't take it with us when we die.
Everyone knows that,

Ok, well most people know that.
Those who drive around with the bumper sticker
“He who dies with the most toys wins!”
and I've seen that in Knoxville,
don't seem to get it.

But most of us know that.
So it's not news.

God is saying “you fool”
to the man, not out of spite,
and he is not a God who wants to prevent us
from enjoying life.
Look at the way the prophet Hosea describes
God's love for us.
God leads us “with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.”
He is to us “like those who lift infants to their cheeks.”

I do that a lot these days,
and I can tell you it is a sweet kind of love.

God bends down to us and feeds us.
God wants us to know that our life is in Him,
not in our possessions.

And, Jesus is making a much deeper point
than “we can't take it with us when we die.”
I found a couple of scholars,
who argue that the verb translated here as being demanded,
is not passive, nor without a subject.
The Greek should be translated
“they are demanding your life from you.”
Why does that make a difference?
Well who is “they” in that sentence?
They refers to the man's grain and goods, and barns,
all his stuff.
The kicker is that the man has not died here,
God is telling him that his stuff has taken his life away,
because he believed it was all his.
When God says, whose will they be?
He is showing the man that he belongs to his things,
They don't belong to him.
Had the man thought,
“this abundance belongs to God,
how can I be a good steward of it,”
things would have been different.
“The rich man was owned
by what he thought he owned:
"my crops," "my barns," "my grain," "my goods,"
"my soul."
His fate was that he was enslaved
to the very things which he thought he owned
and in which he had his life and his security.
It is materialism that is
destructive, not the material itself.” (Stagg, Frank. "Luke's Theological Use of Parables." Review & Expositor 94.2 (1997): 215-229. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. EBSCO. Web. 29 July 2010)

That's what Jesus is teaching us differently.
On the macro level, our corporations are being lead astray
by believing that the abundance they enjoy,
is truly theirs,
and therefore they become owned by their balance sheets,
slaves to the bottom line,
and not the owners they think they are.
On the micro level we see this all around us,
and all of us take part in it to some degree.

Many of us have so much stuff
we can't fit it into our houses anymore.
On the extreme end, there are those whom
we have come to call “hoarders.”
They are examples of this in the extreme.
If you have seen any of the shows on the locally run Scripps
networks, you know what I mean.
They have the disease of accumulation
so that their stuff owns them,
and it has taken their lives away.
But on a much more common angle,
the boom in the personal storage businesses,
shines this light in our faces.
Why do we need to have a personal storage unit,
when our houses get so full of stuff?
Certainly, if we thought about it,
that stuff could be better used by someone else,
and the money we spend on storage units,
could much better go to fighting injustice,
feeding the hungry,
or healing the sick
or any number of better purposes,
than storing stuff we don't even use.

You know, this has personal significance for me,
because my grandfather died
when my dad was only 10 years old.
He had been a banker,
and one of the most successful people in his family,
They lived in a coal mining town in West Virginia,
and my grandfather for whom I'm named,
invested in a mine with a friend.
He probably thought he was doing well,
by owning so much,
by owning his own mine,
in this town where so many worked in the mines of others.
It was 1950, so he probably believed
that a man is defined by the magnitude of his net worth.

But his mine collapsed,
and in the rubble lay all of my grandfather's security.
He died of a heart attack in the midst of that crisis,
at a very young age.
To this day, I wonder if he had focussed less
on accumulation of wealth, if he would have
lived so that I could have met him,
so that my dad could have had a dad
to help him grow into adulthood.
He learned the hard way, that your possessions
demand your life from you, and you become theirs.

As Christians we already have died,
and our life is hidden with Christ in God.
So rather than storing up possessions for ourselves,
we are asked to be rich towards God.
I'm pleased to say that many in this parish
are getting very good at that.
Today we have with us as a guest
Father Beli and his wife,
the pastor of the church we have helped in Bolivia,
and we have good news to share about our efforts
to provide water and electricity to the Gathering Place
for the Diocese of Toliara in Madagascar.
Our last stewardship campaign was incredibly successful,
and we have in evidence a newly repaired roof,
and a newly hired excellent minister for our youth.
You have been rich towards God,
and you can be sure,
the opportunities to be rich towards God will continue.

The world tells us that our net worth is measured
in houses, stocks, bonds or cold cash.
But Jesus negates that equation,
and describes our worth in the amount that God loves us,
and the amount that we love him back,
by using what we have been given,
to enrich the lives of those around us,
and strengthening the bonds of love that God has given us.

Be rich towards God,
and “set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth,”
for we are but stewards of the bounty given to us,

One of the verses guiding my life has been “from those to whom much has been given,
much is also required.”

But even more than a requirement to give,we learn today,
that life is found when we refuse to let
our stuff own us,
by remembering that it was never ours in the first place.

There's no problem with being rich,
the man in the story was not criticized for that,
it's your attitude towards your possessions,
and what you do with it that counts.

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