Sermon – The Rev. Leah Schade
The Spiritual Practice of “Little Deaths”
Parable of the Foolish Rich Man
Text: Luke 12:13-21
At first appearance, what the rich man does seems prudent. If you are lucky enough to have a bumper crop, absolutely, you should store it up. Every farmer knows this. If you have an abundance, you’d better get to canning and smoking and freezing to preserve the provisions for the winter when you’ll be needing them.
Why would Jesus take issue with what seems to be a perfectly sensible, practical and pragmatic practice of making good use of one’s time and money to secure one’s future? Isn’t this what we’re instructed to do from the time we start earning money doing chores as children? Save for a rainy day. Waste not, want not. Put money in your retirement fund. Contribute o your children’s college fund. A penny saved is a penny earned. Don’t be like the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable who fiddled away his chance to store up for winter. Be like the ant, work hard, save up for the cold winter months so that you can survive the difficult times.
But here’s the thing. The man in the parable was not a subsistence farmer just trying to scrape together enough to feed his family. He was not a young person learning the value of saving. And he was not the ant trying to get through one cold season.
This man was already rich!
He already had plenty of food stored up for himself and his family. And whatever he did not have, he could afford to buy from merchants who sold goods from around the world. In fact, the parable does not say that the man was even a farmer. No, he just owned land that produced abundantly. He did none of the work himself. Rather, he paid others the minimum he could get away with to work his land. He would never have to worry about a rainy day, because he had so many different hedge funds in off-shore accounts, that if one investment tanked, his portfolio was diversified enough to withstand any dips in the market. In fact, when his risky investments built on shady business dealings burst like a bubble and threatened the entire economy of his country, he argued that he should receive special government assistance because he was “too big to fail.” And yet, he comes to learn the stark reality: when it comes to God’s reckoning, no one is too big to fail. In fact, it is precisely that self-satisfied state that seems to invite the hooded figure with the scythe.
So Jesus’ parable is just meant as a critique of the rich, right? And since none of us are rich, we can pat ourselves on the back and say, phew, I’m glad this parable does not apply to me.
Except . . . this parable does have to do with you and me. Because, truth be told, many of us would gladly trade places with the rich man any day of the week. I once taught music lessons to the daughter of a famous NFL football coach and was asked to come to their house to give the lessons. It wasn’t that I coveted the mansion beautifully decorated, the huge flat screen tv on the wall, the kitchen fully equipped to cook for an army, or the yard gorgeously landscaped to be an Edenic haven. All I coveted was the ability to not have to worry about how I was going to pay my bills that month. I didn’t need all that stuff – I just needed enough.
But then, how much is enough? How do you know when you have enough? Because I heard the mother of my student talking on the phone before I came to collect my fee for the day, and she was complaining that she didn’t have enough of something – garage space. They would need to expand the number of bays for all the cars their family drove. In her mind she did not have enough. To me, she already had more, grossly more than she needed. But in her world, it was not sufficient. Like the rich man, she says to herself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my cars? I will do this: I will pull down my garage and build a larger one and there I will store all my cars. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample cars and garage space for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
So once again, I’m off the hook, right? The football coach’s wife is the one this parable is aimed toward, not me, right?
Except . . . when I went to a neighborhood in New Orleans last year with the ELCA Youth Gathering that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina and realized that, from the perspective of the vast majority of people in the world, I might as well be as rich as the football coach’s wife. It’s just a matter of degree. Because as modest as I think my life is, to the woman I met in New Orleans, I am a rich woman.
I flew in an airplane to come down to help her clean up her neighborhood. I went back to a house with three bedrooms instead of one. I was born into white skin to middle class parents. I was lucky to live in a school district that could afford good teachers and high-quality educational programs. Yes, I worked hard. But I started with advantages that this woman will never have. It’s not fair. The deck is already stacked in my favor. I was born into privilege that I neither earned nor deserved. I am already rich. And like the football coach’s wife, I am never satisfied.
I am programmed not to be satisfied. I’m not talking about being ambitious or striving for excellence. No, I’m talking about the message that I and my children are bombarded with nearly every hour of the day. It is the message upon which our economy is based: want more. What you have is not enough. Your computer and your cell phone are too old and you need to upgrade. Your clothes are so last-season and you need the latest fashion. You need more energy to support your high-maintenance life-style. Your collection – whatever it is: cars, toys, sports memorabilia, antiques -- is never fully complete, and you must make room for more, more, more.
So we build sheds and buy glass display cases, and purchase bins and file cabinets, and rent storage space for more and more stuff. And all the while the seductive voice promises, once you have this then you can relax, eat, drink, be merry. That voice makes us deaf to the cries of the poor, the ravaged planet, and whole villages of people who slave away to make all these material items for us.
How did we get this way? How did we go from a nation of industrious ants virtuously striving for an extra season’s provisions to a conglomeration of hyper-consumers, hell-bent on acquisition, no matter what the cost to our neighbor or our planet? How did we devolve into such a self-centered bunch, focused only on our own wants and those of our family, regardless of the needs of others who bear the burden of our lifestyles?
More importantly – what’s it going to take for us to change? Because the end of the parable is clear. Just when he thinks he finally has it all, has acquired the prize, has reached the pinnacle of achievement – that’s when the rich man’s life is demanded of him. And when that bill collector comes calling, there is no other form of payment that will suffice. You can’t offer the cars in your garage to appease it. You can’t trade in your property to buy it off. You can’t cash in your stocks to avoid it. When death comes for you, as the saying goes, your hearse will not come with luggage racks.
Again, don’t misinterpret the parable. It’s not saying you shouldn’t make provisions for your spouse and family in the event of your untimely death. What the parable is doing is creating a crisis that is meant to shock us into some serious reflection about the state of our own soul. It’s asking the question: where are you investing your heart and your life-force, which is truly the only thing you can offer God at the time of your death? In what ways are you striving for material wealth when you should be working towards being “rich toward God,” as the parable puts it?
This is a difficult parable to heed because none of us likes to think about our own deaths. But perhaps we need a little dose of reality to counteract all those commercials implying that we will be immortal, and so we can afford to invest in all these material things. Perhaps you and I need to take this parable to heart and do some honest reflecting on what would happen if the Grim Reaper were to come calling tonight? What will you have to show for the priceless gift of your own soul? And what can we do to become “rich toward God”?
Perhaps what we need is to practice “little deaths.” One of the best ways to avoid the scenario of the rich man is to engage in the spiritual practice of dying to those things that are keeping us from a healthy relationship with God and others. These are spiritual practices that we can do that in three ways. First, we can put to death the idea that we are the center of the universe. Listen again to verses 17-19 in the Gospel reading. How many times does the rich man say the word “I” or “my soul?”
“What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” “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. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’” (12:17-19). Thirteen times!
How many times does he speak of God? Zero. How many times does he speak of others in need? Zero. How many times does he speak of the workers who planted and harvested this abundant crop? Zero.When the rich man talks in this parable, he talks only to himself, and the only person he refers to is himself.
There is a strong myth in American culture about the man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and makes his own way independent of others. Self-reliance. I did it all by myself. Friends, it’s time to put that myth to death. Everything we have is because of someone else’s labor, time, sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears. Yes, you worked hard and put it your own effort. But your success is connected to a complicated network of people whom you have never even seen. Not only are we accountable to them, we are also accountable to God who can demand our lives back at any time. If we ignore those who enabled and helped our success, and, worse, if we fail to cultivate a sense of gratitude to God, we are sure to find our lives demanded of us in harsh ways.
But it gets easier if you practice giving away what you feel to be yours. This is the second spiritual practice: “dying” to your material goods and wealth so that you can be generous with your possessions and money. Try going home after church today and looking at the pile of things you have the most of. Maybe it’s winter coats. Maybe it’s model airplanes. For me, it’s books. Try putting to death the grip you have on these things, or rather, the grip they have on you. Keep what you really need and give the rest away. Soon you will realize that you don’t need all those storage bins and extra rooms after all.
Finally – there is one more thing to put to death. It is your pride. Remember the reason for this parable in the first place: two brothers fighting over the family inheritance. Each wants his share, wants the upper hand. But when the storage barns are built and filled with possessions, who does the rich man have to share it with? No one. He is alone. Whatever he has done to accumulate his material wealth has driven away every important and meaningful relationship in his life.
The spiritual practice of participating in the life of the church on a regular basis helps us to “die” to our pride so that we can live for God and others. You see, you don’t have to look far for the antidote to the rich man. The congregation in which you are now seated is bursting with role models of selflessness, generosity, and compassion. When there is a need in this congregation, or in the community, people in this church rarely fail to respond by giving of their time, gifts, skills and financial support. Immersing yourself in this faith community, and giving of yourself in this place – that is another spiritual practice that won’t feel nearly as painful as those other little deaths. Because giving up a little time on Sunday morning to worship and fellowship with others who are on the same spiritual path as you – well, that feels pretty good.
Letting go of some of your hard-earned income actually becomes an act of joy, because you know that it’s joining with gifts of thanksgiving from people who are as inspired as you are by God’s generosity. Preparing a meal for a mourning family after a funeral, or serving ham and bean soup to help raise money for Habitat for Humanity, or helping with youth fundraisers to send our children to camp and the ELCA Youth Gathering – these are spiritual practices that help you die to yourself so that you may live for others and God.
And then when the time does come for the angel of death to end your journey on this earth, you will, of course, be saddened to leave. But you will not be struck with the awful realization of the man in the parable that all you worked for was yourself, and all that is left for you is yourself. No, this will not be the way for you, because you will be surrounded by so many people who love you. You have nurtured and cultivated relationships with them, you have given of yourself and practiced “little deaths” so many times, this final one will not cause you fear or regret. Because when God calls for you, we will gather around you tearfully, but joyfully, to celebrate the life of one who was rich: rich toward God. Amen.