Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, August 4, 2019
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
My grandfather did not approve of my mother’s choices, especially her financial ones. So he tried to use his money to control her while he was alive, and even after death, tried to use the terms of his will to control her financial choices. For reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, I’m now the trustee for my mother’s inheritance, which meant that when the well pump on my parent’s property gave out this week, I had to call the financial planner guy to authorize him to give my Mom money to replace it. My granddad was not a Christian, so he probably never read anything from Ecclesiastes, but if he had met somebody complaining that their children will use their inheritance in ways they don’t approve of, my Granddad would probably have nodded in sympathy and offered the name of his lawyers and financial planners. My grandfather was always one of those people who think that everything good in their life is because of their own hard work and good choices, and so in the last few years of his life when no amount of clean living or hard work or money would fix his health, it was hard for him. He’d always judged anybody who had problems, whether those problems were physical or financial or anything else, because surely if they were strong enough, smart enough, good enough, hardworking enough, if they ate right and exercised enough, surely everything would be fine. And then he came to a point in his own life where he was old and infirm, and money could buy good care, but it couldn’t buy health. Nothing he could do would change the fact that his body was wearing out. And that was really hard for him to deal with. The emptiness and the loss that Ecclesiastes talks about, I think he felt in the last few years of life. I found myself thinking about Granddad a lot this week. Partly because I had to make a decision as a trustee for the money he left my mother, and partly because … I see echoes of him in all the readings. Not just Ecclesiastes.
But these readings stir up other memories besides my grandfather, about how people use and abuse money. I once sat through a sermon on this Gospel reading, for example, which argued that Jesus didn’t really mean to condemn the rich fool, because the rich guy was smart and a good planner and we should all be like him (my Granddad would have agreed with that one). Then there’s my first internship, at a rich church with a large endowment. They had a large congregation, but they took in very little in offering, because everybody knew that the endowment would cover all the church expenses, so why bother giving. They didn’t need to be generous, or practice good stewardship; they had enough money to last indefinitely. I got there just in time for the 2008 stock market crash. When I started my internship, their endowment was worth $11 million dollars. When I left, it had dropped to $8 million dollars and they were panicking, because how could they survive on only $8 million dollars? I told this story to another pastor this week, who shared his own experience on the board of a Christian school. They were given a large donation, which they invested wisely. And after that, every month at their meetings, they would spend more time worried about what the stock market was doing with their money than they did focusing on the ministry they were doing.
Then there’s Notre Dame cathedral. You probably know that it suffered a major fire recently, and that many billionaires pledged money to restore it. What you probably haven’t heard is that most of them have refused to actually give the money they promised without control over how it’s used. Some of them went so far as to say that they would give the money as reimbursement after the work was completed, once they could inspect it to their liking. And mostly what they wanted the money to go for was the restoration of interior windows or beautiful art, not the structure of the roof. They wanted public credit for generosity, and they wanted control; the actual needs of the cathedral restoration were irrelevant.
Money is not bad or evil in and of itself. Money can be used to make living spaces safe and good. Money can be used to feed people. Money can be used to pay for healthcare. Money can be used to help people in abusive relationships escape and build a new and independent life. Money can do a lot of good, both for individuals and communities. It can’t buy happiness, but it can fix a lot of the problems that cause unhappiness.
But there’s a dark side, too. Money can become an obsession. Money can become more important to us than people. Money can be used to hurt, to abuse, to cover up for crimes. Money can be used to control people. Money can facilitate sin, or as an excuse to treat people badly. The problem in all of these cases is not the money itself, the problem is us.
In our reading from Colossians, St. Paul says that greed is idolatry. If you’re wondering how that works, well, Martin Luther explained it this way in the Large Catechism: your god is the thing in which you put your trust. Do you rely on Jesus more than anything else in the world? That’s what you should be doing. But if you rely on anything else—on your money, on your politics, on your health, on your family—that thing becomes your god. It’s not that money or politics or healthy living or family are bad in and of themselves, but when you make them the bedrock on which you stand, the cornerstone on which you rely, that’s idolatry. When we are greedy, we put our love for money higher than our love for God or for our neighbor. We put our fear of losing money or wasting it or not having enough as more important than our love for God and our neighbor. And that is idolatry.
With that in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel reading. It starts off with a man demanding that Jesus tell his brother what to do. Now, Jesus wasn’t just walking or hanging out; Jesus was in the middle of teaching a crowd, and this guy yells at him to bring the guy’s brother into line. Now, inheritance could be just as complicated then as it is now, and sometimes even more so; notice that the guy isn’t asking for Jesus to help untangle a difficult case, or mediate between two brothers whose relationship has turned sour. All he asks is that Jesus force his brother to pay what he thinks his brother owes him. He wants to use Jesus as a club he can use to force his brother to comply with his demands. We know nothing about the family or relationships involved, nothing about the money, nothing about who was in the right and who was in the wrong. We don’t know if there was anything specific the guy needed the money for. All we know is that he put more importance on getting that money than on reconciling with his brother or learning from Jesus.
Then there’s the rich guy in the parable Jesus tells. A fool. Not for his financial acumen, but for his understanding of the world. He is blessed with a great harvest, and look at how he reacts. He doesn’t thank God for the sun and rain and soil; he doesn’t thank his workers for doing the work of planting and harvesting; he doesn’t consider that when God blesses us, God usually wants us to use that blessing to bless others in turn. He just wants to store up that wealth so he never has to worry again. The problem is not that he’s planning to manage his wealth, but how that wealth shapes his whole identity and all his relationships. He’s forgotten everyone else around him, the community God might want him to use his wealth to benefit. He’s put his trust in his new, bigger barns and the crops stored in them. That’s his god. That’s what he looks to for comfort. That’s what he looks to for meaning and identity, that’s what he judges himself by, that’s the most important relationship in his life. And then he dies. And none of that wealth matters any more. It’s going to be someone else’s now; one of those people he didn’t care about when he was deciding what to do with his great harvest is going to get the benefits of it. The work he put in, the mental and emotional energy, all his worrying and all his greed and all his gloating and all his satisfaction … they’re useless. Vain. Empty. No longer relevant.
Just like Ecclesiastes said, if you put your trust in your hard work or your money or your control and influence over other people, you’re going to be disappointed. If that’s what gives your life meaning, it can only work for a little while. Eventually, inevitably, even if it takes decades, we learn the truth: none of the things in this life that we put our trust in can truly sustain us through good times and bad, in this life and in the next. They all fail. They may be good things, or things that we can use for good purposes, like money, but they will not bear the weight of life and death. And to build our lives on them is idolatry.
But we were united with Christ in our baptisms, we have died with him and been raised with him. We are being transformed by God’s grace, and it is that grace that we should put our trust and hope in. It is that grace that gives life meaning. It is that grace that can bear the weight of everything in our lives, good and bad. May we always work to live according to that grace, and to put our trust in the One who created us, who redeems us, and who inspires us.