Sermon: Keeping to what matters 31st July 2016, Rev Sue McCoan
We will get back to the parable of the rich fool later. But for now, I want to start somewhere else. I want to start with Gardeners’ Question Time. And no, this is not about tips on how to grow a bumper grain harvest.
In fact, if I’m honest, it might not have been Gardeners’ Question Time at all. But if not, it was a radio programme with a similar format, where members of the audience ask a panel of experts for advice. On this occasion, a lady was asking for suggestions for the surface of her patio. She wanted something softer than the usual stone or concrete slabs, so that her little boy, who was three, didn’t hurt himself when he fell down. The unanimous response from the panel was that she was asking the wrong question. Three-year old boys fall over all the time; they don’t fall far, because they’re only short, so they rarely do serious damage, and he had better learnt to deal with a few grazes and bruises now, while he had someone on hand to kiss him better, than wait until he got into the wider world and couldn’t cope.
You can’t protect your children from everything. And you can’t keep them too sheltered: they need to learn how to work things out for themselves, how to become independent. The hard part is knowing how much freedom to give, and when. Generally children will want more freedom than their parents are willing to give – I don’t want to go to bed! I don’t want to eat my greens! – and parents have to decide, am I just being cautious, or are they really in danger? It’s an anxiety, and it can be painful, because when you do draw firm lines, children are likely to kick at you for doing it. I’ve never been a parent but I have been a child and I know I put my parents through it.
If it’s painful and costly for human parents, think how painful and costly it is for God who is Father to us all. It’s lovely when we think of God as our heavenly father, and the endless love and forgiveness that comes from that – that works really well for us. But in the reading we’ve just heard from the prophet Hosea, we get to see the other side of this relationship. God speaks of Israel, the nation of Israel, as his child, and God is tearing his hair out because Israel is just being the most stroppy son on earth. You hear, in these words, the heartbreak of God over Israel’s rejection.
‘When Israel was a child, I loved him’. He was so sweet when he was little… butter wouldn’t melt…
‘but the more I called to him, the more he turned away from me’. Oh, the terrible twos, when everything is defiance, just to see how far they can push you.
The people did terrible things ‘but I taught Israel to walk’. You wait months for them to take their first steps, and it’s such a thrill, and then you spend years trying to catch them.
‘I took my people up in my arms, but they didn’t acknowledge that I took care of them’. Put me down, daddy, I’m too big to be carried.
It’s a powerful image for being so domestic and familiar. God has poured out his love on Israel, and Israel has gone off on its own sweet way and taken no notice. And they will get into trouble. War will sweep through their cities – not as a punishment, but as the consequences of their own foolish decisions. And then, you know how it is. They’ll go on and on ignoring God until they are really in deep distress, and then it will be ‘Da…ad! Help!’ When, of course, good old Dad, Father God, will help; God will not punish them in the very reasonable anger at what they’ve done, but will receive them back with tenderness and compassion.
God so longs for God’s people to know that they are loved, and to live as if they knew it. God waits, so patiently, while we learn the hard way how much God has to offer us.
In fact God does more than wait patiently, because God sends Jesus to come and fetch us; to remind us of what we’re missing in our stubbornness. God must surely hope that once people see Jesus, living on perfect harmony with God the Father; once people see the quality of his life and grace; once people see the depth of his love; and once people know that they are invited to be part of this family too; they will fall over themselves to come and be a part of it. Maybe it was all too familiar for the people of Israel; maybe they just took God for granted. But new people, given the chance to be part of the family – surely they’d leap at the chance? A bit like teenagers, being horrible to their own parents but really nice to their friends’ mum and dad.
You would hope that, but of course we all know that it wasn’t the case. People were perfectly capable of meeting Jesus and not seeing anything special in him at all, or of seeing something, but seeing it through the filter of what they wanted from him. Such is the case with the man to whom Jesus told the parable of the rich fool.
This is a man who came to Jesus asking him to resolve a family dispute. There’s nothing unusual in that. Religious teachers were respected people; they were trusted to be honest and impartial; and they were often called upon to act a bit like local magistrates, giving decisions and advice as required. The man, we gather, is fairly recently bereaved, because the dispute is about the inheritance from his father. It seems that his brother has kept the property for himself and not given this man his rightful share, so he may have a real grievance. Let’s not be too harsh on him. We don’t know the full details – and that’s part of the point.
The point is that he has come to Jesus with what is essentially a financial and legal matter. And Jesus is not interested in these issues. Jesus is offering the kingdom of God – the kingdom of God! He’s not wanting to be side-tracked by getting drawn into a technical problem. There are plenty of other teachers who could sort out this issue.
Jesus says, there are much more important things in life than getting your rights over money. And here’s a story that shows you just that.
So we’re back to the parable now. Here’s a story of a rich man, who does everything he can to secure his own comfort, to secure his own future. Much like the old kingdom of Israel, thinking they could do what they wanted, could work out their own rules, and make themselves a great nation. Here’s the story of a man who thought he had a future, who was planning for the long haul. It’s worth a good few months of barn conversion if you think these crops have got to last you for many years. Here’s the story of a man who took considerable trouble to get to the point where he never had to worry again – and just as he got to that point, he died.
It’s an interesting story, if you think about it, to tell to a man whose own father had recently died, leaving, if not a vast fortune, at least enough wealth for the two sons to be arguing over it. You wonder if this man who came to Jesus and heard this story might first of all reflect on his own father, and the sacrifices he had made to secure not his future, but theirs.
And then he might reflect, as I think we are all invited to reflect, on the thought that whatever we think we can secure for ourselves, we can’t secure life itself – and without life, none of the rest of it really matters. You can’t, as they say, take it with you when you go.
It’s not hard to see what this parable might be saying to us as individuals. It’s not always a convenient message to hear – I speak as Jamie and I are about to order even more bookcases to store all our possessions. I’m trying to convince myself it’s about being more organised and not about being more greedy. But we can reflect for ourselves on our own attitude to money, and whether we have got the balance right between prudence and generosity.
I also think this parable speaks to us as a country, and to other affluent Western countries. We have become wealthy over the years, by a mixture of hard work, enterprise and ruthless pressing of advantage, and the mood now is to hang on to what we’ve got; to build up our security, and increasingly the mood is, especially in the last few weeks, to want to stop other people getting a share of it. We’ve all heard the news stories of the increase in hate crimes; I don’t think it comes from rational analysis of the benefits migrants bring; it’s rooted in a basic selfishness. We’re hanging on to what we’ve got and we will build bigger barns and better borders and we will huddle in our splendid isolation and fester in our own meanness of spirit. Thank God for people who are reaching out to refugees; thank God for people who are building hope not hatred. And may we each be vigilant for the casual remark, the careless assumption, that if left unchallenged can feed the nastiness.
So the parable speaks to us as individuals, and it speaks to us at a national level. I hope it also speaks to us as a church. I haven’t seen the accounts here yet but I imagine that this church, like most churches these days, is not in danger of stashing away great hordes of money. Nor are we in danger of being selfish about what we have here and not wanting other people to come and join us. We are, I’m sure, more than ready to share with anybody who comes along.
Where the parable speaks to a church community is in getting our priorities right. It takes an astonishing amount of work to keep a church running – to keep the building safe and dry, the finances properly tracked, any regulations properly complied with, and so on, so that we can offer worship in a dignified and healthy way. I am deeply grateful to all the people who give up their time and expertise to make these things happen, even though I don’t yet know who most of you are. Thank you for caring.
When it can go wrong – and I’m not aware of anything wrong here – is when, like the man who came to Jesus, we think things aren’t fair, and we start grudging the amount of time we spend. Or when we forget that we are doing this for God, and make decisions that are really for our own benefit. Or when we start getting disheartened because the numbers aren’t what they were. Then we can start thinking of the church as a responsibility we have to carry, and it can get heavy.
The man came to Jesus with worldly problems, and Jesus effectively said to him, this is not what really matters. I hope, when the man had reflected on his father, and reflected on his own attitude, he might also have seen that he could have come to Jesus for something very different. Not ‘can you sort out my problems’, but ‘can you show me what does really matter – can you show me eternal life?’
When we come to church, when we gather as God’s people, let’s keep our focus on what really matters. Let’s give huge thanks to those who are keeping this church running; let’s be very ready to see where we can join in and play our part – because they don’t have to do this – but let’s above all come to Jesus for life, come to be heirs to God’s kingdom, come to claim our place as the beloved children of God.