(a sermon for August 11, 2019, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 12:13-21)
(Note: an audio version of this message can be found here)
I’m sure that anyone here who’s ever been involved in the lives of very young children knows a little something about security blankets; because, as you also know, just about every child has one… and it matters!
Now, this might be an actual blanket, something along the line of that which Linus always carried in the “Peanuts” comic strips (and from which the very term “security blanket” became part of the language), or else it might be a favorite pillow, a tattered teddy bear or beloved doll. But the form is much less important than its function: a “security blanket,” you see, serves as something tangible and comforting for that little one to hold on to during anxious times.
And I remember this well; when they were young all three of our children carried around with them some form of “luvvy,” as we referred to them in our house. And I’ll never forget because over those years I engaged in many a scavenger hunt for the sake of recovering a lost or misplaced luvvy! In the wee hours of the morning, in the midst of torrential downpours, on family car trips turning around to go back home one hour into a three hour drive: I remember once driving across town back to church on a Sunday afternoon through a blizzard just so I could dig around on all fours in a snow bank (!), all so Jake could have his luvvy and stop crying! Because, as Linus himself once remarked after a struggle with Snoopy over his blanket, “The struggle for security knows no season!”
But it was okay… as a parent you know that if an old piece of quilt or a rag doll can bring some warmth and comfort to your beloved child on a cold, dark night, that’s what you want; and if it garners you a little bit of extra sleep in the process, so much the better! And besides, they’re only that young for a little while, right; and you know that eventually your children outgrow their need for a security blanket (of course, I’ve known a lot of college students who still quietly count those old stuffed animals as amongst their most precious belongings, but I digress!).
Actually, it seems to me that even as adults, most of us still have some kind of security blanket; it’s just that now they tend to be a whole lot more complex in nature than your average luvvy. As we grow older, you see, our security blankets take the form of retirement accounts, 401k pension plans and insurance policies. A warm and safe home, a good reliable car, enough money in the bank to see you through whatever rainy day comes your way: let’s face it; these are the things that most of us seek in order to give ourselves some modicum of security amid the transitory nature of life. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all; in fact, it’s pretty much basic common sense and responsible behavior to build up an abundance to provide for the uncertainty of the future. I know that every year when I get these statements in the mail from the Pension Boards of the UCC detailing the growth of our retirement account, I look at those numbers and always think to myself, “Well, there, at least I’ve got that.” Whatever else is going on, no matter what our challenges might happen to be, there’s this small sense of security in knowing that once I’m retired there’ll be some money coming in. Granted, by and large clergy don’t “retire rich,” (or at least this one won’t!) but at the very least there will be some level of abundance, right… and that does seem to me like a good thing!
I guess this is why our gospel text for this morning seems so jarring to our ears. At the face of it, Luke is telling about a couple of brothers feuding over the family inheritance, one of whom who comes to Jesus asking him to settle the issue. But you realize very quickly that Jesus has no intention of arbitrating the just division of the family estate (in fact, as The Message interprets Jesus’ response, he says, “Mister, what makes you think it’s any of my business” who gets what!); rather, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach on matters of greed and covetousness. “Take care,” Jesus says, “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Fair enough, even if that’s not the daily message we get from Madison Avenue and a culture of affluence, though I do think that most of us realize that the pathway of enlightenment is not found while driving the same luxury car that Matthew McConaughey drives! We know better; most of us know at some level that life isn’t about our money or our things.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there; he goes on to tell them all a parable about a successful businessman who has done well for himself; in fact, he has “produced [so] abundantly” that he needs to build new storehouses for all the extra grain and the rest of his goods. He’s done well for himself and he’s provided amply for his own future, and it would seem as though he had earned the right, as he himself put it, “to relax, eat, drink be merry,” to retire securely and comfortably, certainly as any one of us would be wont to do. Or, in his own words (via The Message, again), “I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made!”
But then, as Jesus tells the story, God intervenes and utters words that rip through this man’s self-satisfied plan like a clap of thunder on a hot summer night: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And these things you have prepared, whose will they be?” And so it will be, concludes Jesus, for all those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.
So much for retiring rich!
I don’t care who you are, God’s words come off here as harsh and cold; tonight you die, fool, so what good is a 401k plan gonna do you? And the worst part of it all is that this so-called “rich fool” really was no different than what you and I would at least aspire to be someday! I mean, who among us does not want to be “set” financially, at least for a few years; truly, most of us work for a lifetime precisely toward that kind of goal! So the question becomes, how do you and I make the transition from what we consider to be good and prudent common sense to that which makes us a fool in God’s sight? When is it that our “security blankets” offer no security at all?
Well, first off, this parable is a not-so subtle reminder that our lives will not go on forever. I’m reminded here of a “Far Side” cartoon from several years back in which a woman in widow’s garb is looking out of the picture window of her house at a large cloud in the sky; and as she’s watching, a TV set, golf clubs, piano and even a dog are flying out the door of the house and up to the cloud. And the woman says, “Aaaaaa… it’s George. And he’s taking it with him!” Well, life is not like that; our lives will come to an end and we can’t take it with us. Our possessions, no matter how impressive, are no hedge against the ending of our lives. All those things to which we cling, all of that which we fleetingly hoped would secure ourselves against our own mortality; it doesn’t work, it’s a lie. So Jesus is right: life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions, any more than wealth can be the source of our well-being. That’s the mistake that the rich fool made: this assumption that however savvy he may have been about his life and about his financial situation, somehow he was in control of things. He wasn’t.
God is in control of things, and you and I had best figure that out now; for not only, as the parable suggests, is the knowledge of it the difference between life and death, but it’s the place where the kingdom of heaven dwells.
A few years ago at a former parish, I was asked by a man who was not a member of the church if I might come to his home and meet with his wife for the purpose of planning her funeral. By this time she’d been ill for a number of months, and she clearly knew her time was short; so there were things she wanted to discuss with me before she died, which not only included what she wished to have happen at her eventual memorial service, but also a few things that she was quite adamant not happen!
Actually, as I recall, despite the subject matter the conversation turned out to rather pleasant and quite lively as she proceeded to grill this local pastor about hymns, scripture passages and the theological and social significance of all the various and sundry traditions that go along with such gatherings in the church! Eventually, however, she began to talk about other matters as well; telling me about things she was doing in these waning days of her life, as well as expressing concern as to some things she felt she needed to do in the time she had left. Notice that I didn’t say what she wanted to do, but what she needed to do; as evidenced by a long list of tasks, both large and small, that she’d written very neatly and carefully on a folded piece of paper and to which she referred often as we spoke.
For instance, there had been an old friend with whom at one time she’d been very close, but since a falling out years before, had hardly spoken. She’d long regretted what had happened; but now, finally, she’d sought out her friend to apologize and make things right. Her list was filled with things like that, and so much more; most prominently a series of mostly small promises she’d made to her children and grandchildren over the years that she was intent on honoring, as well as bits of wisdom and words of love she was determined to share with husband and family and friend alike.
It was with great enthusiasm and, dare I say, a distinct tone of joy in her voice that she described to me these crucial tasks that lay before her. And as I listened, it suddenly occurred to me that I was sitting in the lovely living room of a beautiful house, surrounded by a huge yard with a swimming pool in the back; this was clearly everything this woman and her husband had worked so many years to have and to enjoy. And yet it was also clear that there was not a single item on her list of crucial things to do that had anything at all to do with her home, her yard, her pool, her wealth or her “things.” Everything on that list had to do with the people she loved; it was about setting things aright; about extending as much love and care as she possibly could in whatever time she had left in this life. She was determined to make it all happen; and even as frail as her body had become, there was nonetheless a lightness to her heart and a brightness about her spirit that was a true inspiration.
In the end, you see, in her own way this woman had found that which Jesus said had alluded the rich fool, and which alludes so many of us besides: the true treasure that comes in being rich toward God.
Why is it that it takes a reminder of our own mortality to wake us up to the fact that our only true “security blanket” comes in following God? How is it that we hear this “good news” spoken to us time after time but we fail to truly receive it as our own, preferring instead to cling to so much that ultimately means nothing to us? Make no mistake, we’ll still make payments toward our retirement accounts, and make sure our life insurance policies are up to date and adequate for our needs; dreaming of the day we might be able to sit back, for once, not worry and take it easy.
And we should… we should be doing all of that.
But here’s the good news of the gospel: that even as we seek to secure ourselves in this world we know so well, Christ is calling us to live as part of another world: the real world, a place and a way of life where life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, buy where loving God and neighbor is wealth indeed.
Christ calls us now to follow him, and walk in his ways, that we might find that place that we might know what true security is.
Will you follow, beloved?
Consider this as we come to the Lord’s Table, and may our thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN.
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry