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Sermon: Rich Toward God

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA August 4, 2013.

11th Sunday after Pentecost; Year C (RCL): Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21.


Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.  Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.


I know it’s August, but let’s think about Christmas for a moment.  Specifically, Charles Dickens’ short story, “A Christmas Carol.”  How many of you thought about that during the reading of the gospel?  But Dickens’ story is about a very rich man who really doesn’t have all the things he thinks he has - happiness, relationships, goodwill toward his fellow humans.  One might say he wasn’t ‘rich towards God.’  I won’t tell the story, but Ebenezer Scrooge gets his comeuppance in the end, and gets right with God.

Today’s lessons offer some instruction and encouragement to all of us who may be occasionally, or even repeatedly, overwhelmed by the ‘unhappy circumstances’ of this life.  Jesus exhorts us first to take care, and second, to be on guard against all kinds of greed.  We who have died with Christ in Holy Baptism have also been made alive and raised with Him into new life and are thereby encouraged to elevate our thinking, to seek “things that are above.”  With that in mind, we assemble here today, and each Sunday, to hear the encouragement of God’s Word and to seek sustenance at this holy table in the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus.

In our Old Testament lesson, The Lord our God is grieving over the lack of faith and obedience that Israel exhibits, and Hosea is called to announce the end of the kingdom and the Diaspora of God’s people.  Yet God’s love for Israel is compared to the love that parents have for their children.  We all can see how good parents continue to love their children through trying times when toddlers learn to walk and get into everything, and when the word ‘NO’ becomes a 2 year-old, 12 year-old, 17 year-old, or 26 year-old’ default response.  Parents try to lead their children to life.  In the same way, God’s love will not let Israel go.  Ultimately, God’s chosen people will be reassembled and their heritage to the land God promised will be restored.

Paul’s teaches, in his epistle to the Colossians, that life in Christ includes a radical reorientation of our values.  Just as the newly baptized shed their old clothes to put on new garments, so are we called as Christians to let go of greed to take hold of a better life shaped by God’s love in Christ.  We will know lives full of joy and peace, reconciliation and forgiveness, and thanksgiving, grace and gratitude.

Finally, from Luke’s gospel, in God’s reign, the “rich will be sent away empty.”  Jesus uses a parable to warn against identifying the worth of one’s life with the value of one’s possessions rather than one’s relationship with God.  Our highest value should be the relationship that we enter into with God, for as Frank Wade told us last week, amazingly, God wants to be in relationship with us.  That is a relationship that is intended to be both permanent and certain.

I’ve spent the better part of this past week reflecting upon a painting by James B. Janknegt on the parable of “The Rich Fool.”

                                  richfool

The canvas has images ringing its borders - modern-day symbols of the consumeristic, supply exceeding demand, abundance of possessions superimposed over words such as: “Big 3-Day Specials!  Buy Two, Get One Free!  Essentials for Every Home!  50% Off Sale!  Now Save Instantly!”  There are appliances, gadgets, gizmos, ... stuff, some that may be necessities, but are shown all in excess of themselves.  Everything gets bigger, better, shinier, and newer.  The main center panel shows the rich fool, who is eating dinner alone in his overextended home with the angel of death staring him in the face.  “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you!  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  Next door, there is a humble gathering of a poor but grateful family.  Does this sound familiar?  I have Janknegt’s painting posted on my office door downstairs.  Please stop by to give it a careful look.

So here’s the question: What makes one rich toward God?

Jesus’ parable today makes us consider the reality of death and the ultimate illusion of an abundance of possessions.  So how should we Christians view our belongings considering the certainty of mortal death and the promise of eternal life?  Two clues I’ll offer you now:

First, you can’t take it with you.

Second, who we are, what we are, how we are or what we look like as we move from strength to strength, from this world to the next, will probably not resemble anything of who, what or how we are now in this place in time.  Our needs, wants and desires here will no longer apply in the heavenly kingdom at the sumptuous banquet.

Chrissie and I certainly know now after two household moves in less than 11 months that we have much more than we could ever need.  We are presently up to six donations to charitable groups since we moved back to Davis Ave., and there’s still plenty of stuff to purge from wardrobes and all our belongings.  Yet our “stuff” doesn’t make us who we are and, we can tell you, right now, the sheer amount can just distract us from being our best selves!

Friday night, several of us were fortunate to gather with the Muslim community that uses our parish hall for Friday noon prayer services.  They were completing their month-long observance of Ramadan, a special time for inner reflection, devotion to God, and self control.  Appreciative of this parish’s hospitality, the community invited clergy and vestry representatives to the final breaking fast meal.

My companion, Mohammed, took time to explain the Five Pillars of Islam, or primary obligations of Muslims and to carefully outline and translate the prayers we shared and the actions we all took.  The women had a similar companion.

I was touched by the devotion I witnessed and the care and compassion the community exhibited not only to their Christian guests, but also to their Muslim brothers and sisters.  The overall sense of humility was inspiring, and they were actively working to share their faith traditions to bridge relations hurt by radical Islamic actions.  NOTE: Mohammed stressed that the radical 1% does not represent the true nature of Islam.

This community shared much with us Friday night, yet only the food was physical.  The rest was strictly human to human offering as they feel God commands them.  They were being “rich towards God.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his sermon on this parable, “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool,” said:

“There are a lot of fools around.  Because they fail to realize their dependence on others.  Finally, this man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on God.  Do you know that man talked like he regulated the seasons?  That man talked like he gave the rain to grapple with the fertility of the soil.  That man talked like he provided the dew.  He was a fool because he ended up acting like he was the Creator, instead of a creature.  And this man-centered foolishness is still alive today.”

At least once a week, when the staff and I read Morning Prayer, I invite us to turn to A General Thanksgiving (BCP 836).  It was written by The Rev. Dr. Charles P. Price, Professor Emeritus of Virginia Theological Seminary, who taught my father and father-in-law when they attended VTS in the mid 1970s.  The wisdom in this thanksgiving is evident in the middle section:

“We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.”

What are some of the ways in which people today continue in their self-centeredness and fail to realize both their dependence on others and their ultimate dependence upon God alone?  What kind of greed gets in our way of seeking to be rich towards God?

We are a church in transition.  We are being called to deepen our relationship with and understanding of God in our lives, as individuals and as a parish church, in preparation for welcoming our new rector and his family.  Our lessons from scripture these past few weeks point us all to the idea that our aim and devotional work should always be about how we live in relationship with God and one another rather than trying to store up treasures for ourselves here on earth.

Remember: You can’t take it with you.

AMEN.

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Flat "Touchdown" Jesus likes what the Posting Priest has done here today with the message of the week, inspired by Psalm 107:1, and signals his affirmation: It's Up and It's Good!