Text of the sermon preached on Proper 13C (July 31, 2016) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Jesus taught us the two great commandments: the first is to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all of our strength. The second is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed: for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Jesus tells the two brothers who are in dispute of the family inheritance. Jesus reminds them that life is not about owning, or possessing things abundantly. We are to love God wholeheartedly and not to worship possessions as idols.
To emphasize his point, Jesus tells these two brothers the parable of a rich man who he also calls as a fool, the “rich fool”. This rich man had the blessings of abundant harvests. The produce is so abundant that he does not have enough space to store them. With this abundance, what does this rich man do? The scripture tells his only concerns are “I” and “my.” In his whole thought process it is only he himself that is in the center. It shows he only loves himself.
Jesus often talks about priorities, specifically about reorienting our priorities so they line up better with the order God yearns for us to adopt. For us today, the two priorities that need lining up are possessions and relationships. So, show of hands: who thinks Jesus would put our possessions above our relationships?
(No one raised their hands) Well, I guess my work here is done and I can just sit down then.
But you all are exactly right. For Jesus, relationships always trump possessions. It’s not about the money or possessions. Not in this parable or in life.
Listen again to the conversation he has with, not a spouse or friend or parent or neighbor, but only with himself: “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and 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.’”
Do you see what I mean? It is an absolutely egocentric conversation, even including a conversation with himself inside the conversation he is already having with himself! This is why he is a fool. He has fallen prey to the notion that life, and particularly the good life, consists of possessions, precisely the thing Jesus warns against.
What, then, does the good life consist of? Read the rest of what Jesus says across the gospels and it becomes pretty clear: relationships — relationships with each other and with God. And, as we discover while reading the Bible, these two can’t really be separated. Hence, Jesus tells stories like the parable of the Good Samaritan that invite us to think more broadly about who we imagine being our neighbor, and he preaches sermons that extol caring for the poor, loving our enemies, and doing good for those in need. Not once does Jesus lift up seeing up a retirement account or securing a higher-paying job as part of seeking the kingdom of God.
But have you ever stopped to wonder why relationships are more important than possessions? The answer starts with how relationships and possessions differ. We possess our material goods. We own them. We paid for them or they were given to us.
Our possessions have an uncanny ability to lead us down this life-denying path. Just think: when you were three years old, were you able to let the other kids play with your firetruck? I didn’t think so.
But possessions differ from relationships because other people cannot be possessed. The history of the United States is tarnished by the evil of us trying to possess other people, and the legacy of slavery still reaches its cancerous tendrils into modern society. While one set of people thought of another as property, I can’t imagine that those subjected to the dehumanizing nature of slavery ever thought of themselves as possessions. People can’t be possessed, and when we try, evil is the result.
Since we cannot possess others in the same way we can possess objects, our relationships teach us how best to prioritize our material possessions. A relationship flourishes precisely when we aren’t trying to possess it; therefore, sustaining life-giving relationships helps us practice the kind of emotional letting go that we aren’t good at where our material goods are concerned.
Which doesn’t mean material possessions are bad. Really. Money can do lots of wonderful things — it can provide for you and your family, it can be given to others in need, it can be used to create jobs and promote the general welfare, and it can make possible a more comfortable life. It just can’t produce the kind of full and abundant life that each of us seeks and that Jesus promises. So it’s not about the money, it’s about our attitude towards the money and those around us. Again, the problem isn’t money, but the way we look to money, rather than to God and each other, for life.
Each of us is blessed with an abundance of possessions, but abundance doesn’t become a blessing until we pair it with generosity. Generosity turns our possessions into the resources which fuel new relationships. As we give away that things that we might otherwise bow down to, we come into contact with the recipient of those things and discover the opportunity to form a new relationship.
Generosity catalyzes a virtuous cycle: generosity spurs new relationships. Generosity in a relationship helps it to flourish. This flourishing teaches us to be generous with our possessions and turn them into new relationships.
It’s little wonder that we have fallen prey to the message of today’s Gospel. Materialism — or consumer-consumptionism or afluenza or whatever else you might want to call it — has one distinct advantage over the abundant life Jesus extols: It is immediately tangible. Relationships, community, purpose — the kinds of things that Jesus invites us to embrace and strive for — are much harder to lay our hands on. We know what a good relationship feels like, but it’s hard to point to or produce on a moment’s notice. And we know that wonderful feeling of being accepted into a community, but it’s not like you can run out to Walmart and buy it. And so we substitute material goods or immaterial ones because, well, they’re right there in front of us and we’ve got a whole culture telling us that this is the best that there is.
When we prioritize possessions over relationships, we become lonely misers like the foolish man in the parable. His foolishness is not that he’s wealthy. It’s that he desires to share his wealth with no one else. God blesses us with abundance, but God also blesses us with the ability to turn abundance into blessing when we pair it with generosity. And the good news of today is that Jesus came to tell us that God wants so much more for us than simply more stuff. God wants for us life and love and mercy and relationships and community. And God will not stop sharing this message. So what does a life full of God consist of? Not the abundance of possessions, but the generosity of relationship. And for that we can be thankful.