ENOUGH FOR THANKSGIVING
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 31 July 2022 [Proper 13]:
Hosea 11:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
How much is enough? I mean, how much is enough for you -- or me -- to be ok? How can you tell how much is enough? What do you think it takes to be ok? These are some of the questions that arise from Jesus’ parable from Luke: the one we traditionally call “The Parable of the Rich Fool”. It is very much a parable for our times, to be sure: a reminder to us about the source of so much of our worry, stress, and anxiety: Enoughness. This is to say that the value of our lives is much more than what we possess or make of them. Or to put it more directly, what we need in our lives is not simply a function of what we can give to ourselves.
This morning’s gospel starts with all the hints of the high drama of family competition and sibling rivalry and based on the fear of not having enough. As usual, a crowd has gathered around Jesus, when “someone”, as St. Luke reports, shouts out a cry: “Teacher, tell my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.” [Message. 12:13] From this clue we can surmise that the “someone” Luke identifies must be a younger brother who is complaining about his oldest brother’s handling of the family inheritance.
In fact, the issue may rest in the ancient laws of primogeniture, where the eldest, the first-born son received what the father had to pass on to the next generation. By virtue of the weight of this law’s custom, the eldest son possessed the inheritance. Think, for instance, of Jacob and Esau’s situation and relationship. In the operating arena of primogeniture, younger siblings were under the discretion of the eldest son’s executorship. Historically, this frequently meant that to make a living younger sons would need to leave home, enter the military or the priesthood or attach themselves to craftsmen or other land holders: All by dint of the accident of birth order.
One can only wonder about the motivation of the gospel’s complaining brother, as he publicly confronts Jesus about the settlement of his family’s estate. For example, was the indicted brother in the crowd with this sibling protester? If so, did this contesting brother point his finger at his executor brother as he yelled for Jesus’ help? Was this public outing of the inheritor meant to shame the executor brother into providing for the younger brother? Good soap opera material, but we’ll never know. Those juicy details are not what Luke seeks to convey in this story. Rather, in his typical rabbinic fashion, Jesus refuses to get sucked into this “family feud”, saying he is not a probate judge, which is also interesting because in the Jewish tradition the rabbi did function as a civil, social, and religious judge and arbiter among the Hebrew people. So, I do wonder if the underlying message in Jesus’ rejection of being triangulated in a family dispute stems from his important teachings that being a good, law-abiding citizen is not the same as being a good and faithful person. The old question among us: What does law have to with life and love?
Nonetheless, Jesus does provide a different kind of judgment: One that quite literally gets to the heart of the matter. He warns all those within earshot to be on “guard against all kinds of greed”, reminding those with ears to hear that one’s life runs deeper than having a lot of things [12:15]. At which point, in his typical teaching fashion, Jesus responds to this embarrassing family scene with another one of his parables.
Let it be said that the “Parable of the Rich Fool” is a parable about stewardship – stewardship at its most foundational, instructive form. And the parable’s meaning also lies at the heart of our worship and is expressed most clearly in our liturgy at the Offertory and is poignantly summarized by the Offertory Sentence we usually exchange. “All things come of Thee, O Lord. And of thine own have we given Thee.” Liturgically, the Offertory is the bridge between the Liturgy of the Word, where we remember who we are and Whose we are, and the Liturgy of the Altar, where we are given the fruits of what we have just been reminded of. The Offertory is what its title indicates: We offer back to God a token of what God has given to us so that we may receive from God what we need and cannot provide for ourselves.
“All things come of Thee, O Lord; and of thine own have we given Thee.”
But I also want to point out that this parable (as with all Jesus’ parables) is not a mini-morality play about “good guys and bad guys”. The point of the parables is not simply about “the moral of the story”: “Do this; don’t be like that.” Again, as Jesus teaches and embodies, there is an important difference between being a good, law-abiding citizen and being a good and faithful follower of the God-life. Knowing and doing right from wrong matters, to be sure; but getting things “right” (being on the right side of the law, for instance) is significantly different (and I am suggesting, less important) than being in right relationship with God and neighbor and self.
What does it take to “love God with all our hearts and minds and souls and to love our neighbor as ourselves”? Much more than getting the rules right.
In this vein, I am conscious of T. S. Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral. In the climactic scene where the main character faces his time of trial and eventual martyrdom, Eliot has his namesake character, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Beckett , say this truth: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right thing for the wrong reason.”
My point here is that it makes sense – at least to me -- that the rich landowner of Jesus’ parable should build more and larger barns to house and protect the amazing abundance of his farming. I maintain that it would in fact be terrible stewardship to let the abundant harvest rot for lack of cover. However, the telling stewardship issue at hand lies in the purpose the landowner wishes to increase his ability to store his gain. The parable clearly provides the pivotal motivational answer.
In the rich landowner’s mind, his ability to have more barns and to have them all filled to capacity meant that he was in good shape. He was ok – more than ok. He was in control of his life – safe and secure. And who among us is immune to the temptation of being in control – of our lives, of our situations, of our condition, of our well-being? Yet, in Eliot’s words, trying to be in control is perhaps “the greatest temptation”; and falling for this compulsion to be the center of our own lives tragically distorts and destroys the very thing we wish to control and guard – our lives.
So it is that the parable concludes with these sobering and telling words: ‘You fool! This very night your life [your soul] is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, who will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God. [12:21]
Greed. Jesus admonishes us to be on guard against greed, to be on guard against beings driven to be in control, driven to make ourselves ok. Placing ourselves at the center, being the source of our own standards requires constant attention and vigilance because we are not built for being the center. We are built for God and for being human expressions of the God-life, which is a life of tending what God gives, growing what God gives, and celebrating and sharing what God gives.
You see, this is the reason I believe that we can’t – we mustn’t – make a morality play out of this parable nor of the gospel life itself. The Christian faith is much more than merely keeping the rules. It’s about celebrating and honoring “the gifts of God for the people of God”. It’s not simply a matter of right and wrong, although that discernment matters. It’s a matter of relationship – being connected to God at the center and gratefully, joyfully sharing that God-life with everyone.
With respect to the rich landowner of the parable, here is another version of its impact. What if – what if he built all his larger barns not to hoard the abundance for himself but to keep it safe for the distribution to those in need? What if he expanded his farm’s capacity not just for himself? After all, on the one hand, he has bills to pay and mouths to feed and benefits to provide for his workers. He needs to go on vacation and rest and refresh. He needs the means to take care of himself and those he loves. But what if – what if, in his abundance, he remembered his basic, threefold theology: God-in-Christ has given us what we need; say “thank you” for the gift; share the gift; don’t hoard it. What if… what if he expanded his farm operations to be a better servant to the life of thanksgiving, to the God-life?
Gratitude is a much better way to live than grabbing in the pervasive fear of not having enough. Thanksgiving is rooted in God’s abundance and the freedom of enoughness. Anxious hoarding is a trap and a distortion of life: The terrorism of fear. Practicing thanksgiving doesn’t make us immune from worry; it just keeps us from losing touch with God and not losing our souls.
“All things come of Thee, O Lord; and of thine own have we given Thee.” Enough for Thanksgiving: Thanks be to God. Amen.