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Adjusting the Bottom Line

(a sermon for September 22, 2019, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 16:1-13)

(A podcast version of this message can be found here)

Let’s just say this up front: our text for this morning is by no means “easy.” In fact, let’s just go with what a whole lot of biblical commentators over the centuries have confessed in one way or another: that of all of Jesus’ parables, this so-called story of the “Dishonest Manager,” is perhaps the most “notoriously difficult.”

And it’s easy to see why:  I mean what we’ve got here is a parable that’s chock full of immoral, unethical behavior from beginning to end!  We’ve got this property manager who’s called out on the carpet by his wealthy boss for “squandering his property” – presumably cheating said boss out of his money – and demands an audit of the books before he’s fired.  So this “dishonest manager,” realizing that his days are most certainly numbered, immediately goes into crisis mode (after all, he reasons, “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.”) and decides to go around to at least two of this master’s renters and tells them to reduce what it is they owe; this to ingratiate himself to these people so perhaps he might have a place to stay after he’s out of work!

So, basically what we have here is a shady character involved in some very shady dealings, a swindler engaged in the act of swindling his soon-to-be ex-boss, “adjusting the bottom line” to his own advantage and to save his own skin!  There’s nothing here  the least bit inspiring or commendable; this man is a scoundrel and most certainly a criminal, someone who if justice were served would be convicted of fraud and tossed into jail! And yet, it turns out that not only is the boss impressed with the guy’s shrewdness but worst of all, it seems, so is Jesus!  In fact, says Jesus to his disciples on the heels of this story, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” adding, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Or, as it’s paraphrased in The Message, “I want you to be smart in the same way” as this unjust, crooked manager!

And you and I, together with generations of biblical scholars and faithful disciples, are left with the same question:  what’s that all about?  What is Jesus even thinking here?  It’s bad enough for him to be suggesting that God’s people might have something to learn from such a criminal, but could Jesus really be suggesting that as his followers we ought to be engaging in such unethical, not to mention selfish, behavior?  It’s no wonder that there have been those biblical scholars over the centuries who have wondered aloud if Jesus actually did tell that particular parable, or if maybe, just maybe, Luke got it wrong in the telling!

I think, however, if we dig a little deeper into this parable, and Jesus’ assessment of it, it actually makes a lot of sense.  And as so often is the case when we look at scripture, it comes down to language and context.  First of all, we need to understand that when we’re told that “charges” were brought against this manager, the Greek word there is probably better translated as “slandered,” which suggests that perhaps this manager wasn’t as dishonest as we were led to believe (granted, just about every Bible in the world refers to him as the “Dishonest Manager,” but it’s worth noting here that as often is the case with any accusation there might just be a rush to judgment… just sayin’!).  And the charge itself, that the manager had been “squandering” his property, in the Greek language has more to do with spreading it around rather than wasting it; literally in sense of sowing seed!  To quote Richard Swanson, could be that “the manager was investing.  Or he was diversifying.  Or he was stimulating the local economy.  Or he was making allies for his master against a time when allies would come in handy.”

Could be… or maybe not.  But can you see how a particular choice of words would serve to make a heretofore thoroughly dishonest manager a shrewd manager (oh, and by the way, the Greek word used for shrewd is phronimos, which also suggests wisdom and prudence)?

It’s also important for us to understand that Jesus tells this particular story immediately after he’s told a trio of other very familiar parables: that of the lost sheep, the lost coin and of course, the parable of the prodigal son.  Remember, those three stories were in response to the scribes and Pharisees grumbling and complaining that Jesus was welcoming tax collectors and sinners, of all people, and eating (!) with them (15:1-2).  So these stories about how God reaches out to those who are lost and draws them back into his loving embrace; about how even the worst of the worst and lowest of the low could be welcomed back home by the father who loved and forgave him actually flows very nicely into this next story about a supposed low-life criminal who is commended for his incredible shrewdness!  And isn’t it also interesting that the next thing Jesus says is a reminder to his disciples and to us that “whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much?”   Or, to quote The Message again, “If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?”

Kind of changes our whole reading of what Jesus is saying in this parable, doesn’t it?

No… I don’t think that Jesus is actually suggesting we go out into the world and seek to mismanage other peoples’ money for the sake of the Kingdom of God, nor is it for us to take undue and unfair advantage of a particular situation in which we find ourselves.  But it does seem to me that the point that Jesus is making here is that God calls us to make use of the resources that we’ve been given; to make an assessment of all that God has provided us, in trust, to care for and invest; doing the absolute best in whatever way we can with that which we’ve been given so that when that final day of accounting comes for us we also might be commended for our shrewdness, our prudence and our wisdom.

If that all still sounds a bit suspect, let me put this another way: in a world that ever seems to be shifting beneath our feet, it would seem to me that a greater sense of responsibility as regards our faith is paramount in importance.  In this seemingly outrageous parable of Jesus we are being admonished that in times of crisis, when all the other securities of this life have either fallen short or crumbled altogether, our actions as God’s people need to be decisive, bold, creative and above all, faithful, even if some personal risk is involved; because the future, as uncertain as it might seem, is ever and always God’s future, and we who would call ourselves believers are stewards of it.  The steward in the parable takes a rather precarious and bleak situation and works with it; he  wheels and deals and does whatever he can, “adjusting the bottom line,” literally and in faith that somehow, someway some good will come out of it.  Likewise, you and I are called to take what we have, this treasure which is the hope and love and peace and joy of God Almighty, working with it in and through all the joys and challenges of this life that by our efforts and God’s grace, it will become transformed into something sacramental and miraculous.

This is what Jesus is getting at, and it’s a crucial understanding of the Christian life for you and me, and a challenge as well. Maybe it’s not tantamount to the shady dealings of a soon- to-be unemployed property manager… but the point is, if he was able to do this why can’t you and I, as the children of God and stewards of something infinitely precious, show the same vigor and determination in preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom?  Likewise, if you and I who seek to follow Christ cannot use to our best advantage the resources of this life and this world, then how can we ever be expected to be good managers – that is, good stewards – of the true riches to which God wants to entrust us?

I think that what all this means for us in these days of confused and challenging situations is that now, perhaps more than ever, where our lives as Christians and as the church is concerned it can never be “business as usual,” if in fact there ever was such a time.  As stewards of all that God has given us in such abundance, we can no longer merely rest on a safe and easy “bottom line;” that is settling for a “warm and fuzzy faith,” basking in what’s comfortable and easy and convenient about our relationship with God, daring not to risk ourselves on what one Celtic hymn refers to as “the steep and rugged pathway,” the way which requires from us courage and some struggle, not to mention wisdom and prudence.  Our bottom line needs adjusting, friends; we need to be stirred out of the comfort zone that keeps us from being bold stewards of God’s future.  And that’s true for us both individually and collectively: you have often heard me say from this pulpit what I’ve long believed, that the best thing that the Church can do in these times is to actually be the Church; well, I’d like to add to that.  If we truly hear Jesus’ words in this parable, perhaps the best thing we can do right now as the Church – and each one of us here as part of that sacred body – is to be all that we can be… and more.

Of course, along with being bold and courageous and occasionally outrageous in doing so, we also must be… cautious.  Don’t forget here that Jesus makes the point of reminding us that “no slave can serve two masters,” because “you’ll either hate the first and love the second or adore the first and despise the second;” [The Message] all this to say that you can’t love God and wealth, any more than you can employ the ways and means of the world in your faith without risking becoming sucked into that kind of a life rather than one that’s wholly centered on Christ and his kingdom… so maybe Jesus wasn’t advocating the life of a scoundrel, after all (and also, by the way, if you read the next verses in Luke, you discover that the scribes and Pharisees, “who were lovers of money,” ridiculed Jesus for what he was saying about this… which just sort of proves Jesus’ point)!  The point is to be bold, yes; but it matters how… and that’s what you and I need to remember as we seek to live out the ways of God’s purpose and plan in this life.

I remember how, on the days following 9/11, a few of us who were pastors in our community decided to hold an ecumenical prayer service in the aftermath of that horrible day.  As I recall it now, it all pretty impromptu,  there was little or no time to promote it, and really, we weren’t at all sure what we were going to do or say once we got there!  But word got around, and come the evening of the service, that sanctuary – which was at the Catholic Church, the largest in town – was filled to overflowing – standing room only, fact (!) – with just about every congregation in town represented and including a whole lot of people who’d rarely, if ever, had darkened the doorway of a church until that night.  It was surprising and humbling, to say the least; and what I will always remember is that our host pastor, a wonderful priest by the name of Fr. Jim Morrison, stood before these literally hundreds of people who’d come out that night and simply said, “Well, at least one good thing has come out of these terrible events.  It got us all together.”  We were together… in faith, in fellowship and above all in prayer… and we sang and we wept and we embraced one another in that moment as one people of God, relying on the power and grace of God to sustain and lead us. It was a truly holy moment, one that I know with every fiber of my being was good, and right, and acceptable to God.

It’s often said that on 9/11, the world changed forever, but the truth is that our world is always shifting and changing; and so are we in our lives and living. Each new day, each new event, each new change brings with it a new challenge for you and me as people of faith.  But whatever happens, whatever changes come our way, one thing remains the same:  God’s future is sure and God’s kingdom is forever.  And because of this, we can move into God’s future with hope, confidence and strength.

So let us not be afraid to adjust the bottom line of our lives in faith, proclaiming this sure and certain hope boldly with wisdom and all shrewdness that we might be entrusted with the true riches. Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Windows of Opportunity

(a sermon for August 25, 2019, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 13:22-30)

(An audio version of this message can be found here)

The story goes that one day Arthur’s friend Walter picks him up and the two of them go for a drive some 25 miles away from the city out into the country.  And at some point along the road there’s this large, uninhabited and rather unkempt expanse of land where Walter pulls his car over to share with Arthur his dream.  You see, Water’s just closed on the purchase of some acreage on this land, and now he’s trying to convince Arthur to buy some of the land adjoining his to handle all the hotels and restaurants Walter’s dream for his land would generate.  Walter and Arthur are friends, you see, and Walter really wanted his friend to share in his dream; to get in on the ground floor, or at least the ground, so to speak.

Well, as Walter’s laying it all out Arthur thinks it over, realizing almost immediately that the logistics of such a thing were, to put it mildly, staggering.  Never mind all the difficulties that would inevitably arise in creating such a thing – the infrastructure alone could prove to be insurmountable – but even if all that could be dealt with Arthur still couldn’t help but wonder who would possibly drive 25 miles (!) out of the city for the sake of such a crazy ideas as what Walter’s proposing.  Understand, Arthur’s known Walter a long time and he doesn’t want to disappoint his friend, but in all honesty Arthur’s thinking that maybe Walter’s dream had gotten the better of him!

So, mostly for the sake of their friendship he tells Walter he’ll think about it.  Walter, however, can’t wait that long; he really wants, needs to know Arthur’s decision right away.  But in the end, it’s just too risky a venture, and he says no.  And so it was that Art Linkletter turned down his friend Walt Disney and the opportunity to buy land around that which would eventually become… Disneyland.

As Paul Harvey used to say, and now you know the rest of the story!

While perhaps not as huge as what I just described to you, I think you’ll agree with me when I say life is filled with what’s often referred to as “windows of opportunity,” those moments when the world opens up before us in unexpected ways, and which could possibly result in a new adventure or, for that matter, a long-held regret, depending on our response!  You know what I’m talking about here; I suspect that most of us can probably tell stories about a chance encounter, the unexpected invitation or some other random offer that came our way which not only changed our expectation and experience, but maybe even shifted the course of a lifetime:  The side road, taken on a whim, that leads to the best part of a vacation and a cherished memory; the business venture that pays off big; or in my case, the blind date that leads to romance, 33 years (and counting!) of marriage and three adult kids!  Hey, you can never tell what that window of opportunity might bring forth… but only when it’s open!

And in that regard, of course, I also suspect we’ve all had occasion to look back at an opportunity and wonder, if only for a fleeting moment, “what if?”  What if we’d turned left rather than right; what if we’d taken one career path rather than the other; what if we’d invested in some endeavor when we’d had the chance?  You know, we still tell the story in our family of how my parents, back over 40 years ago, had the chance but chose not to purchase a piece of undeveloped property on our lake for $3,500 – for various reasons it didn’t happen – but today that land is valued at well over ten times that amount!

Oh, well… be it out of necessity or preference, you make your choices in this life and you move on, right?  But make no mistake, windows of opportunity are unpredictable, often inconvenient and rarely easy.  They require us to weigh the pros and cons of the particular decision to be made, to consider the varying amounts of possibility and risk that’s involved.  And more often than not, they’re also opportunities swift to pass by; so generally speaking, you can’t stop to think about them for very long.  So, yeah, you make your choices, alright… but oftentimes, one way or the other, those choices are tough to make.

Well, our text for this morning from Luke is all about the choices we make, as well about the windows of opportunity we have to make them.  This is actually not an uncommon theme in the gospels; there are a wealth of stories of men and women who seized upon an opportunity involving Jesus.  For instance, the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years (Luke 8:43-48) and dared to push her way through a crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak; she was not about to let this opportunity for healing pass her by, and it turns out that by her faith and courage she was healed.  On the other hand, however, remember the story of the so-called “rich young ruler” who’d come to Jesus seeking eternal life, but when Jesus told him what he needed to do – to sell all that he had and give the profits to the poor – “he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Matthew 19:22)  Despite the massive and certain opportunity that was before him, this rich young ruler could not bring himself to make such a large leap of faith, and thus the opportunity was missed.

In both cases, you see, there are difficult choices to make; decisions in that singular moment whether to act, or not.  And the choice is theirs and theirs along… but of course, only the one choice leads to the glory of what awaits.

Which brings us to this morning’s reading, in which Jesus is traveling on the road to Jerusalem when someone asks him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”    In one sense, at least, it’s a simple enough question, a matter of affiliation, if you will, where Israel’s concerned; but, you see, as Jesus so often does, instead of answering this directly he gives the questioner and – and us – a word of caution, and it should be said, urgency:  “Strive to enter through the narrow door;” Jesus says, “for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”

That in and of itself would have led to the crowd to pay attention. The very idea of entering through a narrow door, squeezing through an opening not quite big enough for us to get through clearly speaks of the discipline and cost of discipleship that Jesus spoke of often.  In fact, what you might not know here is that when Jesus says to strive to go through that narrow door, the Greek that gets translated as the word “strive” is actually agonizomai, which is where our words “agony” and “agonize” come from!  And that means just about what you think it does: a strenuous exercise of muscle and willpower, not unlike what it takes for athletes to win medals at an Olympic event.

So this business about how many, if any, will be saved ends up not about the law, nor about affiliation and privilege, but about who has chosen to do so, and how.  Entry by the narrow door requires passionate devotion, not half-hearted commitment; one needs to agonize over entering that narrow door of salvation.

So what we have in this passage, if not a window, is Jesus offering up a doorway of opportunity that requires from us a decision:  a choice. And one thing we all know for sure: that any choice, from that of the purchase of household items to a decision whether or not to follow Christ means that you’re going to be forsaking other choices in the process.  Jesus makes it clear:  you strive to go through the narrow door, or you don’t; it’s up to you and you alone, but understand that a choice must be made.  And it’s an urgent choice, for that doorway of opportunity will not be open forever.   The door will close, and when it closes it’ll be too late, for the opportunity will have passed.

And if that isn’t foreboding enough (!), then consider what Jesus says next:  it’s a parable, a rather disturbing parable, in which there’s this householder who welcomes people into his home until the moment comes when it’s time to shut the door.  And once that door is shut the people who were running late, those who had preferred to linger out in the yard and the rest of the crowd who were basically waiting around for a better party to come along… they’re all out of luck because now the door is closed and it’s too late.  Inside the house there’s this incredible feast going on with people in attendance from the four corners of the earth, but outside are all those who missed the opportunity to come inside when it was offered.  And as though to add insult to injury when the latecomers knock on the door to ask if they might still come in, “in reply he will say… ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers.’”  And as The Message goes on to translate it, “And all the time you’ll be outside looking in – and wondering what happened.”  It’s the Great Reversal, in which the last will be first, and the first will be last and so it will be with you, says Jesus, if you don’t take advantage of this opportunity NOW.

It’s harsh, no doubt; this is not exactly one of the more “feel good” parables of the gospels!  The bottom line is that nobody wants to be shut out; no one wants to miss out on the banquet.  But in life, and especially in faith, we need to understand that there are things that are available to us “for a limited time only,” so we had better “act now because this offer may end without notice!”  Once the time for the offer has passed, it’s over!

However, there’s good news within the warning, friends, and it’s not only that the door’s still open, but also that there is one who is watching for us, and who keeps bring forth opportunities for us to come inside.  Our God fills up our lives with windows of opportunity, chances for us to make life more a holy thing, chances to find and to deepen a relationship with Jesus Christ:   perhaps in the opportunity for worship, for prayerful reflection and an immersion, if you will, into the riches that are found in God’s Word; maybe in the chance we’re given from time to time to actually apply what we profess to know in faith in a real-life situation, say for instance in how (and who) we view as our neighbor; or could be it comes in that fleeting  moment we can reach out in love to someone in need, to be there in a time of difficulty, to provide a listening ear in a time of crisis.

The point is that it doesn’t have to be some grand and momentous thing – and may I say here it transcends all of the political and cultural conundrums of this world – but might just be revealed in the simplest happenings of life.  In the words of Arthur Gordon, “It’s that almost always there is a lot more to these commonplace happenings than meets the casual eye; and most people would find a lot more in them if only they would pause and look and feel and care just a bit more than they do.”  You see, the nature of such windows of opportunity is that while they tend to be brief and often involve some risk and sacrifice, they also bring us in deeper fellowship with God and Christ, leading us to discover the Kingdom of God in our midst and thus the worth of our own true selves.

But the thing is… it’s always our choice whether to go with the opportunity before us… or not.

In truth, these days of confused situations do tend to, in the words of the late cartoonist Walt Kelley, “surround us with insurmountable opportunities.”  There is not a day that goes by, beloved, in which our faith in Jesus Christ does not provide an opportunity for a graceful, loving, just response to both the situations of our lives but also the destructive ways of the world around us.  I ask you, friends, how would it be if we truly seized the opportunities to live as true disciples of our Lord Jesus?  What would happen to you and me if we got up off our collective doubts and fears, and started living like the people we know, way down deep inside, that God wants us to be?  How would it be for you and me to live wholly and fully like a believer?

Let me tell you something, beloved;  the older I get, the more I’m coming to realize that faith is not so much about doing great things for Christ as much as it is doing small things greatly.  And to do small things greatly for Christ comes when we truly seize the opportunity for Christianity in our own hearts and lives!

You see, the window is open; the doorway is being held open for us to enter.  God is waiting by the door, holding it open… for now.

And so, Carpe Diem!  Seize the Day!

Seize this day, for the sake of Christ Jesus our Lord!

And may our thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2109  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
3 Comments

Posted by on August 25, 2019 in Faith, Jesus, Life, Sermon

 

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Security Blankets

(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

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2019 in Family Stories, Jesus, Life, Ministry, Sermon

 

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