A Sermon: Proper 13 Year C August 4 2019
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
You’ve probably heard this phrase: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The source is Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates, who tells us that Socrates uttered these words in the course of the proceedings.
Well, our readings today certainly afford us an opportunity to examine our lives in the light of the Scriptures.
Beginning with Ecclesiastes, we heard the Teacher, a man who has had it all, seen it all, achieved it all, proclaiming that in the face of death his toil and striving are but vanity, striving after wind. “It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.” You work and toil and then you have to leave it all behind to someone who didn’t have to work for it.
The Psalmist takes up the theme. Listen up, all of you. Rich and poor alike, the wise and the unwise alike all die and go to their graves. There’s no price we can pay to avoid this fate. Honors may come to you in life, but in the end all perish.
Then in our Gospel lesson Jesus tells us a parable about a man. The man is someone who might in America be an icon for the American dream. He is hard-working in his planning and execution of his business. His fields yield abundant crops. Now he envisions a time to relax and enjoy it all to himself; eating, drinking, and being merry.
But the judgment of the parable is harsh. He’s being a fool. He has not factored into the equation the gifts of Creation which gave him earth to cultivate and seed to place in it. He has not factored in the satisfaction that could come of sharing his riches with the community, of sharing his knowledge with others, of leaving a legacy for others to build upon. And he has not factored into the equation the reality that he may not have a tomorrow. “You fool, this very night your life is required of you.”
Then Jesus’ summary teaching: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.”
What is it to be “rich toward God?”
I stood recently with Sharon on the deck of a cruise ship as we headed north from Juneau approaching the narrows of Snow’s Passage. It was seven in the evening, and the sun lay low in the sky to the west, casting golden light on calm waters in the distance. Ahead of us and to starboard humpback whales blew jets of spray, surfaced and gracefully dove again, showing us their long bodies and finally their flukes as they filled their enormous lungs with air and dove again to feed in the depths. Dall porpoises raced alongside the ship, their dark dorsal fins cutting through the waves like knives.
We would later stand on that same deck with a group of passengers, waiting in a surprising silence - it is generally not common for a group of people to remain silent for long - in front of Margerie Glacier in anticipation of another display of a glacier calving into the sea.
Moments like that are moments of awareness of the richness of God towards us. Those whales, porpoises, those plankton and krill, those vast fields of ice and snow are all part of the web of life that sustains us all, the web of life that is the gift of God, who is so rich toward us and all humankind.
What is it to be rich toward God? Could it be that it begins with paying attention? Could it be that it begins with paying attention to the richness of God toward us?
I don’t have to go to Alaska to pay attention. I saw God’s richness toward us in a duck in the pond in Stimpson Nature Reserve on Friday. A little mallard female was all alone in the duckweed, feeding, and Sharon and I had some silence to simply witness the moment, in which the whole gift of life was captured for me. I saw the forest there, given to us the public through the foresight and generosity of the Stimpson family, who are part of the history of St. Paul’s.
God’s richness toward us is evident in manifold ways to us as we pay attention. God’s richness in making provision for everything living, in giving us each other. God has given us people from every corner of the globe, and their art, and their music, and their poetry and their wisdom.
The time to enjoy it is now. It is impermanent, just as the lives of all those creatures I saw are impermanent, and yet in the impermanence there is the urgency to see the beauty of it all.
After our return from Alaska I read Lynn Schooler’s book about his travels in SE Alaska with nature photographer Michio Hoshino, a man whose fascination with nature and humble and trusting way of being in the world changed the author’s life. One day Michio said “Everything has to die. This is why we love nature so much. It makes me want to get the most from my life. To really live.”
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes, by the way, will eventually come around from his discourse on the vanity of it all to urge the reader to enjoy the life we are given, especially in view of the fragility and impermanence of life.
Surely, being rich toward God involves enjoyment, and enjoyment involves being related to others in an economy of sharing of abundance.
“It is a most significant fact,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “that man is not sufficient to himself, that life is not meaningful to him unless it is serving an end beyond itself, unless it is of value to someone else. The self may have the highest rate of exchange, yet men do not live by currency alone, but by the good attainable by expending it. To hoard the self is to grow a colossal sense of the futility of living.”
I’m reminded of a lyric that I love from Tom Waits’ song Take it With Me, in which Waits, well aware of his mortality, dwells meditatively on moments in life - alone and with others - in which he felt grateful, felt alive. In one line he reflects on something as simple as falling asleep with a friend on a friend’s porch.
To me the meaning of the song is captured in this line in which he tells a deep truth about what he expects to take with him when he goes.
All that you've loved is all you own.
All that you’ve loved is all you own. That’s what we can take with us when we go.
How has God been rich toward us? Toward you, toward me? Have we returned love toward God, in all God’s manifestations? What are you going to take with you when you go?
What does it mean for us today to heed Jesus’ words, to be rich toward God?
Lynn Schooler, The Blue Bear: A True Story of Friendship and Discovery in the Alaskan Wild, (HarperCollins, 2002), 178.