Sunday, August 4, 2019

Being Happy: Sermon for Proper 13C

When I was in college, there was a huge hit by a vocal artist named Bobby McFerrin, Jr. It was a unique song especially because, way before the TV show Glee made it cool, the song was a capella. Every sound in this song was created by McFerrin’s voice or body. The jaunty, bouncy melody couldn’t fail to make you smile, which was perfect, since the song was called “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” McFerrin’s song explains, “In your life expect some trouble; when you worry you make it double.” Given that this song came out at a time of dramatic change in US society, with instability in the USSR, rising deficits and interest rates, the song gently poked fun at the worries of materialism. The lyrics talked about not having your rent, even lacking so much that your bed has been repossessed. But the ongoing refrain is “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Jesus attempts to give us this same advice in the section of Luke we hear today. We see two different stories in our brief gospel reading that deal with the use and sharing of wealth. Both the anonymous brother who seeks Jesus’s intervention and the rich man Jesus tells the parable about are inordinately concerned with “self,” and chapter 12 in Luke consists of admonitions against falling short of kingdom values. One brother claims that the other brother is not sharing the inheritance left by their parents. The brother who is here wants Jesus to respond and mediate the dispute with his brother over the family inheritance. Here Jesus refuses to take sides, although he uses the opportunity to teach about the dangers of selfishness and greed. So just like two weeks ago, we have a story involving triangulation—and once again Jesus refuses to be sucked into that triangle.

Of course it is bad for one brother to hog the total inheritance—but Jesus has greater concerns. “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions,” he warns. And if ever there was a statement showing that the gospel is countercultural to today’s Western society, this is it. He then tells the parable of the Rich Fool to cement that statement into memory, a story that only appears in Luke.

The rich man, known as the “Rich Fool,” sees the abundant produce as a challenge, since he has no place big enough to store it. Now the question arises: why would he need to store it for such a long time that he is thinking about building new barns? It seems he has no intention of selling or sharing his abundance, but instead is going to store it for himself. This abundance is going to provide him with security to now relax, and “eat, drink, and be merry” --echoing the more famous, fuller phrase from Isaiah 22:13, which added the happy phrase “…for tomorrow we die.”

Nine times in this short little story we hear the rich man say “I” or “my.” He also refers to himself as “Soul.” Now, the New Testament comes to us in Greek, so we can only speculate here. But the Hebrew word for “soul” is Nephesh, which is used over 700 times in the Hebrew scriptures. However, it is only translated as "soul" about 10% of the time—it can also be translated as life, heart, people, creature, and even throat, according to translaors. It even is used to refer to animals, interestingly enough, in Genesis: “And God said let the waters teem with living Nephesh.” So if you're wondering if animals go to heaven, the answer is yes.

A Nephesh is not something you have—it is what you ARE- a living breathing creature—the totality of both our physical and spiritual selves. It is the essential personhood and identity. The Nephesh unites the spiritual and the physical—and as God’s children we are called to embody our nephesh fully in God’s image and by God’s kingdom values. Yet the Rich Fool has forgotten this.

And what does Jesus teach us about what matters in God’s kingdom? Love. Compassion. Being willing to admit your wrongs and being willing to change—repentance. Relationship. Community. Integrity. Living by the spirit of the law of love in all its expansiveness rather than meanly by the letter of the law. Breaking bread together—companionship. And it has been my experience that when I depend on those blessings—when I consciously think about those I love and how blessed I am to be with them, my anxiety about tomorrow diminishes, and I realize that, as St. Augustine noted, that we are given people to love and things to use, and it’s when we get that backward that we end up hurting others and focusing only on our narrow little concerns.

This is far different from our discussion last week about a laborer praying for tomorrow’s bread today. That section of the Lord’s Prayer that asks for bread is a prayer for enough. The Rich Fool has so much that he has to build bigger barns. Especially on the heels of Jesus teaching us to pray for sustenance, this hoarding strikes a discordant note indeed. After all, he did not get this huge crop by himself—he has been blessed with fertile land and appropriate weather including rain. The rich man has also employed people, no doubt, to plant and plow and weed and tend and harvest and process the grain. Yet he refers to no one but himself with the noted many times he uses the words “I” and “my”—as if he planted, and reaped, and built all by himself. This is self-delusion as well as selfishness.

The opposite of selfishness is what Jesus calls us to embody in our lives, not just here in church, but out where our deeds and actions testify to what we believe about God louder than if we used a megaphone, a very un-Episcopal thing to do.

Kingdom values would be to acknowledge God’s graciousness to the rich man by being himself gracious. As Jesus points out in our final verse today, greed that separates us from others separates us from God "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." And indeed the rich man is not going to get to enjoy the abundance he is so eager to hoard, for that very night his life is going to be demanded of him. He will not actually get to kick back and relax, but instead, Jesus makes clear, he will be called to account for his lack of piety and generosity.

What does it mean that his life is demanded of him? It's not meant to be so much a threat as a reminder. It’s a reminder to us that our lives do not belong to us. Our very breath is a gift from God. 

That’s very easy to lose sight of in a world where we think ourselves the masters of our own destinies. Jesus does not always portray money as evil—look at how the Samaritan was willing to spend more than two full days’ wages tending to a helpless stranger a couple of weeks ago. 

The hoarding of money, however, he repeatedly condemns. Rather, there are ways to use wealth for good—and that can start with especially considering how that wealth was amassed in the first place. It can be hard to see sometimes, with bad examples such as Walmart and Amazon right in our faces, but it can be good business to pay good wages and offer benefits—see, for example, Costco, QuikTrip, and Starbucks as examples of this. 

Money can also be a way of lying to ourselves, telling ourselves that we are not dependent upon anyone but ourselves.That's idolatry-- an old fashioned word for a very modern illness.

Jesus understands, as we all do, that anxiety short-circuits both the heart and the mind. We know that when a person is under stress, their body is flooded with hormones such as adrenaline. Fight or flight instinctive reflexes kick in. The ability to center your mind on God often goes up in smoke. And it’s at this point that we remember how often scripture urges us not to be afraid--- more than 365 times, or enough for every day of the year.

In all four of our lessons, we are reminded to have our priorities straight: God before all. God before all, because God is our source, creator, loving parent, our haven, our home, our rescue and guardian. Our lives themselves are gifts from God, and what we do with them should mirror that understanding and gratitude. Security does not lie in possessions, but in God’s abiding loving-kindness to us, and in embodying that same generous lovingkindness to others. We are urged to be rich (grateful) toward God, which we can most easily show outwardly by being rich (generous) toward others, with our time, our kindness, and our possessions.


Preached at the 505 on August 3, and at 8:00 and 10:15 am on August 4, 2019, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church. Ellisville, MO.

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