A sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost
(Psalm 49; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21)
I’m sure you’ve seen them, either in person or in an ad – a new innovation in personal storage, PODS. The company will deliver to your door a container that is 8 x 8 x 12 that you can load up from the comfort and ease of your own home on your own schedule and then arrange to have it picked up. Then they will whisk it away to their storage facility where it will be well cared for. One of their slogans is: “Store your excess with us.”
Now, as a life-long, hereditary packrat (meaning my cluttered life resembles my father’s), such companies are MARVELS of the post-modern consumer culture. Anyone who witnessed my move to Blacksburg almost 5 years ago now can testify to the boxes upon boxes of books alone that were piled high in what is now my dining room. The sad and yes, embarrassing truth is that I had a storage unit full of other things back in Pittsburgh that I left behind and had to go empty some months later.
Now to those of you who are not packrats, those of you who live in clean, orderly, clutter-free homes with empty closets and immaculate attics, I say “Woe to you!” No…actually I envy you. I wish it was just as easy as the advice you often give me and others like me – just throw it away! Ugh! Somehow it is hard to even imagine. I must say it was telling when I found myself knee-deep in other people’s clutter at my first Christ Church yard sale and Clare, among others, saw a gleam in my eye. Scott was in his element!
I have consulted with a therapist or two – is there any cure? Usually they sagely lean back, look at me and say, “Just throw it away!” I pay good money for this!
Three out of the four lessons today are saying, in essence, “Just throw it away.” Now, I’m not here to suggest that Jesus, Paul and the Psalmist are providing me living advice. What they are doing, however, is pointing to a universal and timeless truth – things get in the way.
This remarkable scene in the Gospel lesson seems like one that has been played out over and over, even in our homes – a disgruntled sibling is demanding justice. Having been that disgruntled sibling on more than one occasion, I can feel his pain. He feels wronged about his share of the family inheritance and wants Jesus to settle the matter. He wants justice. The very essence of Jesus’ ministry has been just that, bringing justice to the earth, right?
So why does Jesus rebuff this man? Is Jesus saying, “Oh, get over it!” or “Stop whining”? No, Jesus is calling this man to repentance, and repentance in it truest form. The Greek term is metanoia, literally changing one’s mind. Faced with a dispute over money and things, Jesus calls this man to step a step back and gain a different perspective. Jesus is essentially saying, “If you think your life is about the accumulation of stuff, you are going to be sorely disappointed.”
The first audiences hearing the Gospel of Luke must have heard this parable quite differently. They were people who had suffered loss, tremendous loss. For the early Christians, especially those who were part of the Jewish community, their lives had been turned upside down. Many of them had lost the things they had accumulated for themselves. This was not a reality they would face at death, but it was a present reality. The temple was gone – torn down just like the barns in Jesus’ parable. Only it wasn’t being replaced with a bigger and better one. The Jewish nation suddenly found itself homeless.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to witness your hometown overrun, your family home either destroyed or invaded? Were the words of the Psalmist this morning echoing in their minds as they witnessed the destruction of their old lives, perishing only to leave their wealth to those who come after them? In this case, their wealth and inheritance were taken from them.
Early Christians, even the Gentile converts, often had to choose between the comfort and safety of their old lives to the challenges and sacrifices that followers of Jesus had to make. Many of them lost not only their homes and livelihoods, but their families as well. We know that some of the earliest Christian communities were residential because those who became believers in Jesus, especially in pagan lands, were choosing to begin a new family with their fellow Christians. Indeed the early church in some areas was structured on a household model, with the head pastor being called the Pater Familias, why some clergy to this day are still called, “Father.”
Jesus’ words to this kind of Christian must have resonated deeply – do not count on the things you have accumulated to bring you comfort or peace or happiness. You must look deeper. Look somewhere else.
Paul’s words to the church in Colossae are similarly powerful – get your minds off temporal, material things. Focus your mind and hearts on God. “Your life is not in the things you see around you, your life,” Paul writes, “is hidden with Christ in God.” Many of these believers, like those hearing Luke’s Gospel, had faced the turmoil of losing all for the sake of their new-found faith. Some had left behind lives of corruption and degradation, lives of greed and impurity. But they are in a new place; they have been given a new start. Their minds had been changed. They had repented.
It seems even in this early community there were still those seeking to divide the Christians into camps – Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, freedman and slave. When we are truly in Christ, Paul admonishes them, all those divisions drop away. When the common note of our lives in the love of Christ, these differences, these categories amount to as much as the things that get in the way. We cannot allow ourselves to be divided so easily. The early Christians needed community, first and foremost.
As we have been reminded all too often of late, life is fragile and life is short. It can be gone in a second. Planes crash. Bridges collapse. People are murdered. All with no warning. We are caught up short at moments like these. What do we do with the things we have accumulated for ourselves? Our value doesn’t come from our possessions, Jesus reminded us of this again and again. Consider the lilies. Consider the birds of the air. Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not corrupt and thieves do not break in and steal. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
It’s such a simple concept, but one that we can spend our entire lifetimes learning, over and over. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. Do you remember what happened less than a week later? Mother Teresa died. At her death, Diana left behind great wealth. I remember hearing what Mother Teresa left behind at her death. A bucket, a pair of reading glasses, an extra sweater and a well-thumbed Bible. Perhaps Mother Teresa took her Lord’s words to heart and actually lived them out.
God be merciful to those of us who have lives of accumulation. It’s not easy to break the cycle to wake up to the reality that our lives are more than the things that fill them. But in our deepest self, in our innermost being, what is the source of our happiness? From where do we draw our joy, our peace?
Christians, we must find our joy, our peace, our purpose in God and God’s people. Nowhere else. Buildings decay. Bodies wear out. Let us set our minds on things eternal, not on the things that clutter up our lives.
God grant us hearts that seek only you and lives dedicated to the building up of your church, the body of Christ, our home that will never pass away. Amen.