Pentecost 11 July 31, 2016 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for Sunday, July 31, 2016 | Pentecost XI | Proper 13
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
Christ Episcopal Church
Sunday, July 31, 2016
The Rev. Samuel Torvend
This is what you and I need to grasp if we are to recognize the significance of Jesus’ story for his largely impoverished audience who lived lives marked by subsistence, by living hand to mouth, day after day, never sure if there would be enough for tomorrow. In that ancient society most people – that is, poor working people – believed that everything in life existed in a limited supply. For those of us who have been raised in a capitalist system in which the unlimited growth of wealth is valued highly and in which one can gain wealth, not through work, but through investments, the notion that everything in life exists in a limited supply can be hard to grasp. But grasp it we must.
In the world in which Jesus lived and Luke wrote his gospel, in an agricultural economy, in which a farmer or peasant relied on one small plot of land to sustain one’s family from day to day, the small plot of land was the limited supply that could keep one alive, that is, barring a natural disaster, sickness, disability, or death. If anyone else experienced an increase in land, harvest, or wealth, either through work or through a windfall, that other person was usually perceived as a thief. In a world of limited supply, someone had to lose in order for someone to gain. And anyone who wanted more, who desired an increase in wealth or land or harvest (at the expense of others) would be motivated by greed, by the addictive hunger for more.
Thus we come to this parable. The rich man is rich because he is a landowner who owns far more than the vast majority of the population. He has experienced a bumper crop on his lands – but he does not mention that poor field workers were the ones who toiled in sowing, watering, weeding, and harvesting to produce such a crop. He does not mention they labored for a small daily wage that was sufficient only for today’s food but not for tomorrow. Remember: for the laborer, food and drink is in limited supply, limited to the payment one received at the end of the day: no contract, no union, no benefits package. “Oh, he’s gained great wealth,” think the many who worked his land, “but gained it at our expense.” He pays little to the many but increases wealth for himself alone.
Did you notice that the rich barn builder never mentions the word “we” or “us.” He says: “What should I
will pull down my barns … I
will store all my grain … I
will say to my soul: You have ample goods for many years.” He is surrounded by scores of persons upon whom he is dependent yet they are invisible to him; he is a child of God yet the Creator and Owner of all things in heaven and on earth is absent from his ruminations. But, then, from his perspective – and perhaps from ours –he’s simply a sharp businessman, committed to continued growth and investments that will pay off in the future while oblivious to the vast majority who live in a world of terribly limited supply.
My mother, ever the diplomat in our family, once said to me that she thought Jesus could use a lesson or two in manners: “He can sound so brash at times,” she said. “Testing people, calling them ‘fools,’ taking up a whip and entering the Temple.” Well, I think she was right on the brashness but I don’t think Jesus was interested in a session with Miss Manners. Rather, I think he was and is
profoundly concerned about what motivates our interactions with others, about who is visible and invisible to us, about who has worked with little to make the lives of others comfortable. Actually I am thinking about the women of color and the recent women immigrants who earn a minimum wage, less than a living wage, as they bring my mother her medications, empty her bedside commode, help her shower, do her laundry, and make sure that she receives her daily food and drink. I think Jesus was and is
profoundly concerned about who has access to what God creates for the well being of all creatures, not just comfortable creatures among whom I count myself.
Never one to mince words, Jesus calls this supposedly sharp and profoundly self-invested investor a fool
. Why so? Could it be that in the economy of God, any surplus is to be invested in others, rather than groups or projects whose only goal is the accrual of more wealth for the few? Could it be that the economy of God is animated by an astonishing generosity and graciousness in a world whose original sin is the grasping hand, the grasping hand that wants more and more – a generosity that calls into question the ways in which we are taught by our culture to live with others? Could it be that the economy of God – so rarely discussed among Christians – invites you and me to ask how we as a parish, as households, as individuals might enlarge our generosity even when that enlarging includes loving protest of an economy that clearly benefits the few rather than the many?
I wonder if you have noticed this: that in the central ritual of Christians, the sharing of food and drink given to us by God, we engage an unusual practice. The one who breaks bread – which is in limited supply at every Eucharist – needs to discern how large or small each piece will be so that everyone is able to partake in the one bread. The one who offers the cup relies on every communicant to take a measured sip so that there is sufficient for others gathered at the altar. The unemployed and comfortable retiree, the priest and the visitor, the child and the octogenarian all – all
– receive the same amount of bread and wine. There is to be here an equitable sharing of God’s gift and thus the refusal of discrimination. In this most Holy Eucharist, you and I enter into and practice the economy of God’s generosity, of God’s richness towards us and all creatures. It should not surprise us, then, that the one who tells the parable seals with his body and blood the economy that longs to flourish in our lives, in our communities, and in our society. The only question is this: will our participation in the economy of heaven enliven our commitment to its flourishing here on earth?