Sermons That Work

A Perceptive Parishioner…, Proper 13 (C) – 2004

August 01, 2004

This very night your life is being demanded of you. (Luke 12:20)

A perceptive parishioner once posed this question: “What would you do differently,” she asked her Bible study group, “if you knew you were going to live forever?” Although she posed the question in a light-hearted moment, her query went to the heart of our Christian life. How important, really, is what we do in our everyday lives? Does it make a difference? Should we change anything? Think about it. What would you or I do differently if we knew we were going to live forever?

There was a similar question posed in the past, namely: What would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? In fact, there is a well-known anecdote from church history, perhaps apocryphal, of Martin Luther being asked that very question. Luther is said to have responded, “If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, I would plant a tree today,” such was his faith in the continuity of God’s love for him and for our world. Perhaps we could also begin by planting a tree.

In any case, it seems likely that we would all do many things differently if we knew we were going to live forever. Most people would probably have an extensive list of things to change. For one thing, if you knew you were going to live forever, you would stop worrying. You would probably just live life as it comes and allow yourself to make a lot more mistakes. After all, you could always try something new tomorrow and the next day and the next until you got it right. If you had forever, there would not be the pressure to perform and get things right the first time.

If you knew you were going to live forever, you would be more firmly rooted in the present, in the here and now. The past would not bog you down so much with its hurts and regrets. And, the future, being always there, would cease being a minefield full of dangers and fears and become, instead, a never-ending and exciting festival ground of renewal and growth.

If you were completely honest with yourself, you would probably also be a lot lazier if you knew we were all going to live forever. You would probably be late quite frequently late for the appointments that occurred in your daily schedule, since no one would particularly care when they met or how long the meetings lasted. If you were a priest, your sermons might ramble on for hours. And, you would leave all church meetings as soon as you got bored or tired. Sorry, vestry! Most important of all, the clergy among us would take a lot more time for prayer and people, and a lot less time for “things.”

Which brings us to today’s account from the Gospel of Luke. A rich man has done very well for himself. His enterprise and foresight have made him a fortune. He has planned ahead, building ever-larger barns and storage bins for his many possessions. Everything is carefully accounted for. He has thought of everything. This is a man who has left nothing to chance, someone who is well prepared for the future. Except for one little thing. He does not have a future.

Instead of being able to look forward to years of relaxation in the sun, plenty of food and drink, and a scintillating social circuit, he finds that his life will be demanded of him that very night. In living for things and for himself alone he has ultimately forfeited everything including his very nature as a child of God. His many possessions will end up in the hands of others. What he worried about and worked so hard for—wealth, security, and the pursuit of life’s pleasures—turns out to have been a chimera, a fantasy, an illusion. As Jesus explains, “…One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” The tee-shirt slogan of a few years ago is proved dead wrong: He who dies with the most toys most emphatically does not win.

The great irony of Jesus’ parable is that the rich fool has done everything right. He has done exactly what any of us would have done in similar circumstances. Anyone with an IRA account can attest to it. He is prudent, not perverse. He has not harmed others; he has only harbored what is his own. But the challenge of the parable is that more, not less, is demanded of the fool, and by extension of us. Prudence is not enough. Safeguarding our assets does not bring peace or security. “This very night your life is being demanded of you,” says Jesus. Our very being is what the Lord requires of each of us every day and night of our existence.

The rich fool of Jesus’ parable has lost control—or at least the illusion of control. This is perhaps the most disturbing factor of all in this brief story. For we all treasure being in charge of our destiny. We all want to believe that we can get our needs met by our own effort and industry. Our society and media teach us as much. Yet it is precisely this illusion of control and possession—this false treasure—is that takes us furthest from God and others and most impoverishes our spirit.

What would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? What would you do differently if you knew you were going to live forever? In reality, we are all going to die tomorrow. And in faith, we are all going to live forever. There is no “what-if” about it. The questions, and today’s Gospel account, challenge us to live the only kind of life that matters, the life of the Gospel, a life for others. We are freed to leave behind worry about ourselves and our future. Not only can we give up our long cherished treasures and illusions of wealth and mastery, we must do so in order to abandon ourselves to the extravagance of God’s love.

This is risky business of course. But with great risk comes, in the case of the Gospel, the promise of great reward. Too often, like the rich fool of the parable, we live as though we did not know it or believe it. Too often we hedge our bets, loving and hoarding the things of this life, yet also trying desperately to be “rich toward God,” as Jesus describes it. It is human nature, but ultimately it is a failed enterprise.

But lucky for us, God never fails to lavish his gifts and treasure upon us in spite of our own spiritual penury and miserliness. Most of us pray, perhaps daily, reminding God of our perceived needs and petty wants. We would all be terribly inconvenienced if God suddenly could not be bothered any longer with our affairs and pleadings, if God felt there were more important things to be concerned with, like perfecting gravity waves or fixing the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

Yet what happens to the least among us, what happens to the beggar standing at the freeway entrance with a paper sign asking for a quarter is of greater moment in God’s scheme of things than stars colliding in faraway galaxies or high speed Internet access or even flat-screen television. That is how important each of us is in God’s sight. Ptolemy was right after all. The universe does revolve around us. How we live our lives in the here and now changes the very fabric of eternity. Each of us matters to God beyond our capacity to fathom.

The problem with the rich fool was not that he had too much grain in too many silos but that he starved to death spiritually in the midst of God’s abundance. He sought sustenance and security where none was to be found. The solution for us is to open the granaries and to feed others as we have been fed. We must invite others to the banquet. We must plant a tree everyday and share its fruit for years to come. But our time is short. The Kingdom is near. “This very night your life is being demanded of you,” Jesus insists. Do not delay.


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Christopher Sikkema


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