“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Or in another translation we read, “Set your affections on things above…” Paul is being very clear in this letter to the Colossians. The reason is that our old natures have died with Christ in our baptisms, and we are called to new life in him. We are called to be a new creation that is wise and generous toward God, holding the things or wealth of this earthly life lightly.
In Luke’s gospel reading for today Jesus calls the rich man in his parable a fool. The man did not understand God’s call on his life at the end of his life any more than he did at the beginning. Jesus turns the tables on conventional earthly, human wisdom. His teaching flies in the face of modern metropolitan lifestyles now as much as it did 2,000 years ago. When we think we have done a good job and have played by the rules we have been taught in this world, he calls us fools.
We are often shocked when we realize how Jesus looks at things differently from the way we do. We should not be. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel Jesus says, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his or her soul?” (Luke 9:25) Most of us praise and exalt those who “gain the whole world,” or at least a big slice of it. We honor these people in our yearly roundup of “the most successful” and “the most famous” and “the richest” in celebrity magazines.
Yet Jesus practically calls some of these successful people “losers,” in his parable about the rich farmer. Here is a prudent, productive man. He is not only a success at farming, but he is also a wise manager of his success. He builds larger, more secure barns to hold all of his grand harvest. We might give him the “Farmer of the Year” award. Yet Jesus calls him, “You fool!”
When the WorldCom scandal broke about 9 or 10 years ago, sending thousands into unemployment, and thousands more left without their retirements, with the loss of millions of dollars in investments, the president of WorldCom was called a “fine Christian man” by his pastor. We know what Jesus would call this greedy cheat and others like Bernie Madoff, and the thousands of self-serving cheats in financial institutions in that economic climate.
The farmer was a fool, Jesus implied, because he actually thought that he could secure his life on the basis of his stuff. Get the stuff piled high enough, deep enough, and it becomes a barrier against death and misfortune.
Will Willimon, notably one of today’s greatest preachers, tells the story of a youth pastor in a certain church (certainly not Willimon’s church). The young man had led the youth into a number of controversial activities, trying to raise their awareness of issues that confront Christians. The youth responded well to his ministry, and the youth group grew. Then one day he appeared in Willimon’s office to tell him that he had been unceremoniously fired. Why? He had simply made a videotape containing a collection of television commercials.
At the youth meeting that Sunday evening, he showed the tape and led the youth in a discussion of the TV advertisements. They talked about the ways in which television and the advertising media lures us into needing, acquiring, and hoarding things. These things are supposed to make our lives happier, more complete, and satisfied. They discussed what this sort of getting and buying does to our families and to our souls. The next week he was fired. He was told by the senior pastor, “that was a foolish thing to do.” However, I think Jesus might have had a different response.
There has to be a necessary friction between the ways of the believer and the Church, and the ways of the world. Many of the world’s standards for the good and the beautiful, the right and the noble, are in the eyes of faith, foolish.
Friends, the faithful church will always be—and should be–a place that is at pains to make some distinctions between itself and the world. We are not born and baptized into the community of faith so that we can be subtly trained—oh who am I kidding, blatantly brainwashed—by media advertising and a consumerist culture, to be simply creatures of “needing” more and more and more.
No, we are born and baptized into the community of faith and into the Kingdom of God to be salt in the world; to share our material possessions and use our wealth first and foremost for God’s Kingdom. And guess what? In the process we might get fired like the young pastor. Or we might not fit in anymore with the right social groups. Worse yet, make enough of a stink, and we might even be ostracized and ridiculed and maybe even lied about. Or like Jesus, crucified—or shall we say have our lives brought down so low as to destroy us.
Today we hear so much talk in the Church about who is liberal and who is conservative ad nauseam. We waste time worrying about being right in the political issues of the church and society, while the weightier matters of life to which we are called to bring saving grace to our neighbors and our world through the love of God within us, are neglected.
God calls us to love God and our neighbors, to work for justice for all people, to welcome the stranger with hospitality. All the while Jesus is calling us to be radical—radical with a profligate, consuming love for God that spills over in ways that transform the world.
Jesus is calling us to put our attitudes, behaviors, and riches on the line, not simply give lip service or make fine appearances. Or hold on to our money until we die so that our names will be famous to various organizations when our wills are read, rather than give it while we are alive to those in serious need NOW.
Friends, the American Dream many of us grew up with is not the same thing as having a vision for the Kingdom of God. It might even work against it. I am not suggesting that we should not seek fine educations, achieve success, or receive bountiful blessings from God for doing well. We please God when we make the best use of our talents, intelligence, and giftedness.
But, look at the world around us: the lack of potable drinking water in third world countries, something that is completely foreign to us. The problem is solvable now. By the way, all proceeds from the sale of the African artifacts we have on display go to provide water purification kits for people in Kenya.
Look at the issue of starvation—one person every three seconds starves to death somewhere in the world (one, two, three…one just died; one, two, thee…another has just died.) It is a known fact that all of the starving people of the world could live on our country’s garbage. I have shared this with you in the past.
A friend of mine, Richard, is a multi-millionaire. He could afford to send his children to the very best prep schools and colleges. But he never wanted them to be spoiled by their privileged status. One Christmas his teenage daughter asked him what he wanted for Christmas. Richard asked me about the very poor family that our church helped from time to time because he knew that every Christmas season I raised money in our church to make sure the family had a Christmas. We collected enough money to provide a tree, Christmas dinner, and gifts for the parents and their five children. Not unlike what we do with our Angel Tree program here at Christ Church.
Richard asked me if his oldest daughter could do all the gift wrapping and if he and I and the kids could take the gifts to the family’s house (his daughter’s Christmas gift to her dad). I’ll never forget the looks on his children’s faces when they saw the squalor in which this family lived. You would have thought we were in Appalachia.
You see, Richard wanted his children to understand the demands and responsibilities of their privileged status. After graduating from college, the daughter who did all the gift wrapping became a Peace Corps employee serving in Africa, teaching nutrition to impoverished communities. And she has gone on to earn her master’s degree and is working toward a career in international diplomacy. To whom much is given, much is required.
Now we bring it closer to home. Are we doing all we can in our stewardship, investing in the Kingdom of God? Or are we giving in a way that is easy and doesn’t require any sacrifice? These are harsh words, but if we do not make a difference for the Kingdom of God, as the people of God, where is our witness. And if we keep up not doing it, we slowly, agonizingly, kill the very mission of the church we say we love.
How will we be different? How does the world, or the State of New York, or Columbia County, or Hudson know that the good people of Christ Church Episcopal are different, that Jesus has made a difference in our lives? That we are children of God, salt of the world, radical in our love for Christ and his mission?
Sometimes I wonder, when a greedy, prideful, rich person dies, what brings him or her comfort?
But, when a person who has been blessed with much in this life, but who during his or her lifetime lives for Christ, investing first and foremost in the Kingdom of God, making the world a better place than when he or she was born and baptized—when that person dies, I believe Jesus is right there, welcoming him or her to himself, saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enjoy the riches of Eternity.”
As the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, “When Christ who in your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly.” And, I add that if you do, you will never hear Jesus call you a fool. Instead you will be blessed.
*Text portions adapted from “Wise Up,” by William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2007.