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The misguided lure of storehouses
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on August 4, 2013

KGL+

Sermon

Christ Church Andover

Year C, Proper 13

August 4, 2013

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together always be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.

Years ago, I served as a seminarian in a parish which was just about to start a capital campaign with a bold financial figure envisioned at the end of it. To kick start the campaign, the rector invited the Rev. Peter Gomes, Preacher to Harvard College and Minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard to preach at the opening capital campaign evening service and social function following. Rev. Gomes, who died last year, was an impressive speaker. He was an anglo-phile Baptist, organ prodigy, gay-African American- Republican, bow-tie wearing truth-be-told preacher in the best sense of that word. I enjoyed his preaching and books so much that as a university student at Tufts, I would wend my way to Harvard Yard to hear him preach Sunday mornings, and barring that, tune into his sermons on the radio on the way home from my regular Sunday gig.

And he lived up to his reputation that evening on the north shore at that parish. After his usual sermon pleasantries and such, he launched into the following, according to my memory, in his faux British-WASP accent: “Now, there are some of you out there who are good and frugal Yankees. You know who you are. You keep the thermostat at 60 degrees in the winter; you save and scrimp and scrimp and save; you don’t spend a penny more than you have to even if you could. You wear the same clothes in and out for the past thirty years, and you have a certain sense of pride in that. Well, in all those years of pennypinching, you must have quite a lot saved up—why don’t you give some of that to the church?” There was a moment of bemused and slightly horrified tittering in the pews, but only a moment, because then the sainted Gomes went on: “And there are you—you with your new money, and your McMansions and gates and pools and views and so forth; you have come at a fortunate time to earn money more quickly than you can spend it. You must be feeling rather guilty about all that money in your pockets and in your bank account—why don’t you alleviate some of that guilt by giving some of it to the church?”

And there it was. He had basically insulted nearly 90% of my congregation, but what happened then? They roared with laughter. Because it was all true. He went on to preach that what we did with our money was not for the church of now, not even for the church of our children, but for God and our children’s children years after we had died and met our maker. We couldn’t take it with us, he reminded the community, but it could be used for good far after we had passed from this life. Rev. Gomes preached that wealth was not the secret to a happy or good life, and that it was heresy to believe it to be so, and to treat it as such. A good life, he proclaimed, was in cultivating relationships, now and for the future.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. For we see that the wise die also, and leave their wealth to those who come after them. Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Every reading we have this morning is a stark reminder to us—no matter how we engage with material goods and money in this life, you can’t take it with you.

What more, we have a wonderful and terrifying at the same time parable from Jesus about a man who felt himself rather settled in life. He had grains in his storehouses, enough for him to consider tearing his old ones down and upgrading to larger ones to fit all of it. He has saved for the future, and we can imagine that some sympathetic combination of wisdom, prudence, risk and focus has enabled him to do this. In light of this, the man believes that he can rest on his laurels, enjoying the fruits of his labor, indeed, giving his very own soul a sabbatical—‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But that doesn’t seem to be gybing when he is forced to reckon with God.

And why not? The man has done nothing egregiously wrong—but look again at the conversation Jesus offers on behalf of the man. The entire conversation that this man in the parable has is with himself, about himself and in light of himself, an ego-driven understanding of the good life, one where only he was involved, where only he benefitted, where only he was at the center. Look back down at your texts from this morning, and count the number of ‘I’s, ‘me’s’ and ‘my’s’ in the gospel passage. Interestingly this is not a passage about the evils of wealth or raising up of the poor and those excluded from the insular world of abundance, but it is about the imagined consolation and security that we often imagine that wealth brings us, and only us. It’s a bootstrap mentality taken to the extreme—we feel pride in what we accomplish, so much so that we imagine that it is only us that accomplishes it. Not the people in the fields who helped the man plant, sow, reap and harvest the grains; not the people who taught him to do it in the first place, and certainly not God, from whom all things are given, and in whom our lives are secured.

Our tendency is also to believe that wealth will secure us from the uncertainties of this life—that with enough money and resources (and trust me, what constitutes ‘enough’ is variable even for the most balanced of us) we will be set for life. That we too can kick back and say to our souls, we are all set. But no amount of money will secure our life, our joy or our happiness. Money will not avert an illness or disease; it will not save a marriage; it will not even ensure good family relations, as we can see from the brothers who open up our gospel parable this morning, arguing over their inheritance. Being rich towards God, however—in giving, in sharing, in cultivating relationships, in our concerns for others above and alongside our own selves, is what God actually seeks. Money often breaks up relationships more often than it cements them. St. Augustine once said that God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin, in short, is the confusion of those two things.  

While reading and preparing this passage for this morning, I recalled watching with Chris a few episodes of Extreme Couponers. Essentially, it’s a show documenting how many items people can get by manipulating coupons and specials at the supermarket. The folks on the show would have rooms dedicated to their a) stocks of coupons and b) their stash of stuff. Basements, attics, extra bedrooms, closets, garages, filled to the gills with the fifty boxes of Hamburger Helper and cases of Gatorade or reams of deodorant. I am not mocking this penchant, especially with the financial straits that many are living in these days, but it was a sharp image of the man with his storehouses filled with grain, trying to make room for everything else he had. One of the episodes, later on in the season, featured a young couple, probably in their twenties, and youth ministers in their church. They were also extreme couponers, and the cameras followed them into the store as they racked up carts and carts of goods for a total of about $3. Then they loaded them up into their cars and trucks and drove it all to their church food bank. They kept nothing for themselves. I recall their explanation to the obviously baffled crew and producers, essentially saying that they had all they needed, and that it wasn’t about the stuff—it was about serving others.

We hear and see and preach and pray the message that our lives are not grounded in what we have but in who’s we are— by people like the Rev. Gomes with his not so subtle message, or some young adults who are using the couponing system to effect some good—but it is challenged by our day to day exposure to our world telling us that we don’t have enough, that true security comes only when we need to rebuild our storehouses because they are overflowing. Our gospel, however, reminds us that the size of our storehouse does not matter as much as our generosity and richness towards the One who created us and in whom we live and move and have our being. We are simply stewards for a while on this earth, not, and never, masters of our own goods.

I wonder what would happen if we invested our lives and spirits in God as much as we pay attention to our finances and storehouses, as much as those couponers work at their stores of coupons and finding the best deals. Peter Gomes’ point was nearly ruthless in its clarity, but truthful all the same—pennypinchers and McMansions together signal that our trust is in something other than the God who loves, keeps and stewards us. That is God’s richness towards us, and we can do likewise, if not in the same capacity, towards God.

AMEN.

Last Published: August 7, 2013 9:35 AM