Rich Toward God

By The Rev Leslie Chadwick, Guest Preacher

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” Good morning! When I hear this passage from Scripture, a certain place pops into my mind [Hold up a Target bag]: Target. Tar JAY to some. I sit in my car in the parking lot, repeating to myself, ”Two items. Ten minutes.“ An hour and $200 later, I emerge from the store, reassuring myself, “It was worth it. I really needed this stuff. I just didn’t know it until I saw it.”

One of the items that recently made its way into my shopping cart was this card. It says, “It’s your birthday! Eat Drink, and be Merry: Now that’s the kind of multi-tasking everyone likes.”

“Eat, Drink, and be Merry.” Where had I heard that before? Could have been any number of places. It’s a pleasant message: hedonistic, old as the hills, older than Isaiah. And it’s the phrase verbatim that the rich man in today’s gospel says to his soul: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry!” This phrase is the second of three responses we get in our Scripture this morning to the irrefutable fact that, “We’re all going to die and you can’t take it with you.” Our first reading from Ecclesiastes offers the response of despair. “It’s all vanity. What’s the point in working so hard? The people who come after me are just going to throw it away.” The third response comes at the end of our gospel passage and is fleshed out in our reading from Colossians: “What does it mean for us to be a people who are rich toward God?” (Patricia J. Lull, FOW, 314). Let’s focus on this last and most unusual question.

Before we can be rich toward God and be on our guard against all kinds of greed, we have to know what greed is. As one commentator explains, greed is more than just “a craving for money, material goods, and honor….It deceives us into overvaluing finite goods, thinking that this house or this car or this promotion can satisfy the soul’s deepest longings….It often disguises itself as prudent planning for the future.” (John C. Shelley, FOW, 306).   Money and acquiring stuff are often linked to issues of “anxiety and control” (Lull, 212). In June, my husband and I each prepared to go away for a week without our children. His parents were staying with the children, but I was still anxious about leaving them. I bought enough food for three families to live on for three weeks. When I returned, I found dozens of snack wrappers hidden in my son’s room and asked him about them. He shrugged, “I was hungry!” He had hoarded food to feel secure while I was away, and I had set the example in my own anxiety by supplying more food than he could possibly need.

There’s a lot of anxiety in our church and in our nation related to uncertainty about the future. You are in the midst of a long process to create a parish portfolio and call a new rector. The country is stuck in an election year that is particularly nasty. Jesus warns us, “Be on your guard.” Again, commentator Patricia Lull suggests, “Where there are “anxiety and control” issues, greed is sure to follow. “When we have to wait, our worst behaviors can emerge” (David E. Gray FoW, 306). Greed can mask itself as trying to expedite and orchestrate things behind the scenes “for the good of the Church or for the party or for the country.” It can seem like a short-cut to circumvent the painful waiting and questioning involved in discernment—“Who are we? Who do we want to become?”

The rich man in today’s gospel didn’t start off in bad shape. His land produced abundantly. That abundance in itself is not a negative. It is a gift from God. The rich man asks, “What should I do?” Fair question. Who knows? If he’d sat with that question a little longer, it might have led him to some generous alternatives—sharing the abundance, finding a way for it to serve the common good, finding a way to honor the God who gave it. Instead, he circumvents discernment and jumps to action, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” I. I. I. My. My. My. The rich man forgets in his feverish planning that God even exists and that his own life is finite.

The author of Colossians knows how easy it is to forget those two simple things when we get into controlling and scheming for the good of whatever we’re doing. He urges his congregation who has been acting out in unhealthy ways: “Guys. We’ve already been over this. You’ve already chosen Door #3: Be rich toward God. You’ve stripped off the old self with its practices (anger, lying, wrath, malice, greed, slander, abusive language) and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed…according to the image of its creator. In that renewal, there is no longer Greek or Jew…slave or free. But Christ is all and in all. Go back to what you know the minute you get anxious.”

He continues, “You, like everyone else, are going to die. So don’t worry about anxiously trying to hold onto life. You already have died. In the water of baptism, you were buried with Christ in his death and by it you share in his resurrection. Your refrain is no longer, “I. I. I. My. My. My.” You are a part of the family of God—the way you act in the face of uncertainty affects “we and us.” It’s our job as Christians to practice dying, the way others practice a good golf swing. We forgive; we let go of “being right” or getting our way for the sake of seeing Christ in one another; we give generously instead of keeping a tight grip on our stuff. We have something much better than business as usual in this world to follow: the way of Jesus Christ. It leads to life. So set your minds on the things that are above.”

Being rich toward God as a community and as individuals, means pausing before jumping into action. It means remembering who we follow and where we are headed. It means being generous toward our neighbors whether or not they deserve it our minds. Remembering that Christ is in all and Christ is all. Being rich toward God means that we have a choice beyond despair or numbing ourselves by living it up as if there were no tomorrow. The title of today’s Adult Christian Ed Class sums it up: “Facing Change with Courage and Joy.” Our choice is to face the both uncertainty and the givens of life with courage; we live our lives as a blessing and a gift even though there are no guarantees or exceptions. We give generously from our possessions with the freedom of those who know that they have been given all that they need and it will not be taken from them.

Some of you were present for Sue Van Meers’ funeral the Saturday before last. Sue was a member here for over 40 years and part of the Gifts to Glorify the Lord organ committee. She was always in action, rarely pausing to come up for air, giving and doing. She’d never really been sick before she was hospitalized in March of 2015. And that scared her. She told me, “You never think you could die, and then you get sick and realize how close you came to death.” When her MDS turned into leukemia last August, she grew defiant: ”I will not let this define me.” She requested prayers for strength, healing, and courage to fight the disease. She took an inventory about what she could and could not control; she was very firm about what she would not give the disease: herself. She practiced dying to those things she could not control and, to the end, was not bullied by death.

Being rich toward God is not about being perfect. It’s about remembering that we have already died in Christ and have been raised with him to new life. We cannot see the full glory of that new life in this world of shootings, division, hatred, mudslinging, and violence, but we respond in faith to God’s promise of abundant and unending life that starts now. So we pause and wait instead of hoarding and acquiring to feel secure. We pray when we feel ourselves feverishly trying to regain control in uncertain times. As we practice dying, we begin truly to live. And we remember that as a community in change, we are to ask ourselves this question above all others, “What does it mean for us to be a people rich toward God?”