PROPERS: PROPER 13, YEAR C
TEXT: COLOSSIANS 3:1-11; LUKE 12:13-21
PREACHED AT ST. PETER’S, OXFORD, ON SUNDAY, JULY 31, 2016.
The original name of the screenplay was simply, Greed. It was produced in a decade during which the Dow Jones Industrial Average increased by 250%. It was a decade flush with prosperity. Morning in America.
Ironically, the movie debuted some six weeks after the Black Monday crash of October 19, 1987. That crash only highlighted the dark, ominous themes on which that movie focused.
In perhaps the most memorable scene of that movie, Michael Douglas’ character, the market genius Gordon Gekko, is speaking to a group of brokers and investors. They are hanging on his every word, hoping for some juicy insight or market tip.
“Greed is good,” Gordon Gekko says. And the gathered crowd does not flinch.The pathos of the movie comes when the Charlie Sheen character compromises all he believes in to acquire the material wealth he seeks. He even betrays his relationship with his father.
Greed is good, Gordon Gekko tells us.
+ + +Paul and Jesus would respectfully disagree. Paul does so in the lesson from Colossians today. Jesus does so in the Gospel lesson today, and in many ways in other teachings.
Paul places the sin of covetousness within the context of a larger, more problematic sin, idolatry. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
That theology is very much in sync with the parable that Jesus shares with us today. He tells the story of a profitable farmer who, because of his bountiful crops, decides to tear down his barns and build larger storage facilities. Then, he thinks, he will be able to rely on his ample stores of grain. He will have all he needs; he will be self-sufficient.
Keep in mind that this is not an evil man. There is no indication that he treads on the poor, that he mistreats his fellow farmers, or that he benefits from unjust gain.
No, the issue is where he places his trust. What gives him his sense of worth – literally, what he worships. A few verses after this passage, Jesus makes this point very clear: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:34)
And in Matthew’s gospel, the point is even clearer: “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
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The issue is not wealth, per se. Nor is it a desire to see your retirement investments do better than the market average. It has to do with worth – where do you find your value? Where do you find your meaning? On what is your foundation built?
The example I am about to share with you is lighthearted. But it has a strong element of truth to it.
Years ago, I was a rabid football fan – make that a rabid Ole Miss fan. I have described the darkest day of my life as that fall afternoon in 1970 when Southern Mississippi beat the undefeated and second-ranked Rebels. I recall clear as a bell that the running back then known as “little”Willie Heidelburg scored on two double-reverses, and the Rebels lost 30 to 14. It was awful.
In fact, fall Saturdays used to be awful for me. If the Rebels lost – which they did a good bit during my college years and afterwards – I would be in a funk for days. Nora will tell you. I was unpleasant to be around during those times. My palms would sweat during the games. My heart would pound. My fight-or-flight instinct would be on hair-trigger. I was a piece of work.
It had to do with where I placed my value – how I measured my worth. How I saw the world. What I considered the ultimate value.
I know that all sounds immature and irrational, but it was where I was.
I have jokingly – but also truthfully – said that part of my spiritual maturity was being healed of football. And I was. I still enjoy a game, but it does not make or ruin my day. And if I have something else to do that day, I do it.
+ + +Please understand: I am not holding myself up as a paragon of virtue. What I shared is merely an illustration. If I wanted to name a paragon of virtue, it would be Duncan Gray, Jr. But that is another sermon.
The essence of what Jesus is sharing with us is that we have worth beyond our belongings. We do not need to find our foundations in wealth, belongings, status, position, influence, power, accomplishments, or anything else of – as Paul notes – an earthly nature.
The fundamental issue with greed is that it confuses what one has with what one is. Our essential value is not in our possessions or any other qualifier, our true value is elsewhere.Our value comes in our relationship to God. It is in that transcendent connection – one that permeates every fiber of our being – that we are truly grounded.
The old bumper sticker used to say, “The one with the most toys at the end wins.” That may be true from a material, worldly perspective, but it is not true from a scriptural perspective.
If you watch Jesus closely, as he meanders from Galilee through Samaria, the Decapolis and finally to Jerusalem, you can see very clearly that it is not ones possessions, station in life or in society that he values, with which he connects.
Instead, he points toward the value which is found in the transformed world of his reign – a world in which the poor in spirit, the grieving, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted, and those who hunger for righteousness are the blessed ones.
We cannot add one ounce of value to who we are. But we can subtract from our value – by racing after those larger barns of our idolatry – whatever form they may take.
I am reminded of a sermon my curacy supervisor, the Reverend Bronson Bryant, preached years ago. He told of someone who had died – someone who had great riches. A friend asked the preacher if the person who had died had left a large estate. The preacher responded: “Oh, yes! He left it all.”
Ultimately we leave it all. It is all dross to be consumed – possessions, status, prestige, power or wealth. Anything we idolize; whatever we put on a throne. It is our relationship to God and the legacy of good we do in his name which survive our transition.