Proper 13C – July 31, 2022
St. Paul’s, Bellingham – Proper 13C – July 31, 2022
Luke 12:13-21 & Colossians 3:1-11
The Rev. Rachel Endicott
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Wow! I don’t know if you found the readings today as oppressive as I did. We heard about forsaking God, about idols, and about greed. In the letter to the Colossians, we got not just one, but two extended lists of what we might call vices. The first lists fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed -- which the text notes is actually idolatry. The second list includes anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.
And in the Gospel passage, Jesus, who I must say is introduced as being rather like Ann Landers or Dear Abby as arbitrator of family squabbles, doesn’t answer the question presented. Rather, he warns against all kinds of greed, specifically saying “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then – not surprisingly – he tells the parable of the guy who is greedy, piling up all sorts of crops and goods and building bigger and bigger roadside locked storage units (oh, sorry, barns).
As a preacher, and reader of the Bible, I think I – and we – would be irresponsible if we didn’t do some thinking about these two passages which both bring up the important issue of greed.
So, why do you think the author of Colossians specifically lets the community know that greed is idolatry? Certainly, I’m guessing that we know people – religious or not – who seem only motivated by financial gain. This becomes the essence of who they are and what they desire. It becomes the motivational force for what they learn, how they act, and how they treat others. And the reason I believe that greed is named as idolatry is clear: if that is what is at our core, what drives us, it means that it can’t be God who is at the center of our being. It means that we hold more value in what we own than in who we are and how we journey with God and treat others.
And it is here that I need to take a place in opposition to the preachers of the Prosperity Gospel. I do NOT see a consistent message in Scripture that those who are the most prayerful or reverent are the ones who are always rewarded in financial ways or with good health. Sometimes yes, but sometimes no. And while there are a number of places in Scripture where it is claimed that workers should be paid, even those who work on behalf of spreading the Gospel, the Scriptural images are varied and include those who are rich or can afford to being generous (remember the parable where even the one representing God does this?) and place after place the giving of food, other types of hospitality, and pooled community resources are commended.
In recent years, I’ve even come to wonder whether some manifestations of greed should be truly considered as spiritual illnesses as well as being considered mental illness. If you go to the Mayo Clinic website (among others), they list “Hoarding Disorder” along with other various mental health and physical ailments. My sister, as a public health nurse, has had to deal with this as it overlaps with other issues with clients. When I was director of a Lutheran home health organization, several times we faced the extreme challenges presented by people who had significant hoarding issues. It affected their relationship with their families, friends, as well as God. It often separated them from others and indeed often took up all their time and energy, so that they could not spend time in prayer, go out to see others, and certainly for many did not or could not invite others into their homes, either because they physically could not do so or because they were too embarrassed or shamed to do so.
Jesus said, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” I’ve thought about this warning which leads into today’s parable. Driving up and down I-5 between Bellingham and Bellevue, I have time to not only look at the lovely mountains, rivers and sloughs, the fields and farmland, but all the other things that abut the highway. And much of what I see are places to buy things, get more possessions. There are malls, outlet centers, big box stores and more. And almost back to back, there are also whole sections of storage units, places – among others – where we keep our abundance of possessions. A few statistics about storage units in the US… The numbers are big. “10.6% of households currently rent a self-storage facility. That is an estimated 13.5 million households.” (SSA Self Storage Demand Study, 2020)1 And there’s more… “In the U.S., 65% of self-storage renters [also] have a garage in their home, 47% have an attic, and 33 percent have a basement. This suggests that Americans have more things than their homes allow them… [and as a vivid picture, the square feet of space devoted to storage unit facilities mean that] Every American could stand under the rooftop of … [a] self-storage facility at the same time”.2
And for those who don’t have storage units, I’m guessing that many of us still have other places that might be filled up with possessions: garages, personal sheds, attics, banks of cabinets, the trunk of your car, and other spaces. And in our modern world, we have a different way to pile up what we possess, often not as belongings, but as finances. When I was young, I remember just learning that one could have a bank account. Then it became a savings or checking account. Then I learned there were such things as Money Market accounts. Then I read more and learned people buy stocks, bonds, and even more recently cryptocurrency, things that take up less space than items in barns. And while our finances or possessions can support us in the things necessary for life, can hopefully provide for us in retirement so that our kids aren’t stuck with providing for us, I would – following Jesus’ model – caution us that possessing more than we need may be a manifestation of greed – and I would suggest idolatry. So, I’m wondering whether for any of us, we felt a little pinch or nudge when we heard today’s Gospel parable.
Did we see ourselves in any way as the “rich man”? I would suggest that we think deeply about this. In the US, there’s a deeply ingrained cultural dichotomy. We both are taught through the lens of consumerism and the “bootstrap economy” that buying is good and stockpiling belongings and money is our primary focus in life. The goal is to earn or amass more and more, and we’re evaluated on what we have. Even our shorthand asking new folks when we first meet them about what they do sets us up for doing a quick calculation about how much money they make. BUT, and this isn’t a small thing, we also aren’t always truthful in our discussions about money. While I’ve been aware that sometimes people hide their poverty or find ways to appear more prosperous than they are, I’m also aware that our cultural norm often has us downplay the level of income we get or assets we have. For a long time, my husband would never talk about the house he had bought with money from the residence he and his deceased wife had owned. To him, he felt like it was too ostentatious to say he had a house separate from the one in which we were live, even if he rents it out to help pay the mortgage and finance the upkeep.
But, I do wonder what it means when we are dishonest in front of God. I wonder what it means when money becomes an idol. I wonder what it means when we refrain from sharing our possessions and financial assets with others, particularly for the good of others? Is that the will of God?
And as importantly, do we spend the time and energy working to grow our relationship with God and others? What if every month, our primary goal was not to amass more possessions, but to grow closer to God?
So, next time you head north on Northwest past the storage units there or down I-5 and see the signs advertising storage units, or even “Heated storage” so your stuff can be toasty and warm in the Bellingham winters, or past one of the many other units, think about your relationship with possessions and your relationship with God. Most importantly, are you rich toward God?