On the face of it, this gospel reading today tells a very simple story. A man goes up to Jesus and says, “Make my brother give me half of the family inheritance.” Jesus says, “I am not going to do that. You’re asking me to function as a judge in this family matter, and I am not going to be drawn into it. You’re focused on the dollars and cents, and that’s the wrong thing to be focused on. You can’t take it with you!”
Now, I could preach for the next ten minutes or so on why it’s a bad thing to be greedy, on the fact that earthly treasures mean nothing when you go to the Pearly Gates, and that we are victims of a culture which values us by how much stuff we have. Heck, I could preach for the next hour on that.
But I think I’d like to go in a different direction today. I’d like to ask the question “Why? Why do we want to keep on accumulating stuff? Why must we have the latest car, the coolest technological gadget, the newest designer jeans or shoes? Why are those things so important to us?”
The question is circling around my brain because of two events that were front and center in our lives as a parish this past week.
The first event was the mission trip our young people and several adult companions took to New York City. They spent the week helping out at soup kitchens, at homeless shelters, and centers for the aging. They took what they could easily carry in a backpack and a small suitcase and slept rough, as they say, in a church basement down in Brooklyn. They had to take a subway and walk a bit even to go take a shower. And they did this because it was the way they had to live to go there and do the work of the gospel, to help others who had even less than they were carrying on this trip.
Now in my experience, having raised five teenagers, I can tell you that traveling light and dishing out food and mopping floors and swabbing toilets is not their first choice of summer vacation activities. But these young adults lived as those they helped live. I suspect they realized how fortunate they are in the course of their week there. I also suspect that for some of them, they realized they really didn’t need to have their laptop and iPod and such to keep occupied and amused for seven days…and that realization was a gift in and of itself.
The second event was on Tuesday evening when Epiphany parishioners helped out at Emmanuel, Brook Hill, which was providing shelter for the Richmond-area homeless for a week. We provided dinner, drove guests to the Y for showers and to the Laundromat to do their wash, and bagged up breakfasts and lunches for our guests for the next day. Again, we were doing the very thing that Jesus commanded us to do, to help those who needed our help.
When we got there, before the guests arrived, the cots were neatly made up, with a bag of personal belongings alongside the cot. On a few of the cots, there were little stuffed animals, a poignant human touch that reminded us of the tender emotional state of some of our guests. The guests themselves were young and old, black and white, from different circumstances. For most of them, you might not have guessed that they had no permanent home. They looked like folks you’d see at Kroger’s or in the bank or in your office. In conversation, it was clear that for most of them, they had gotten caught somehow in a terrible situation and were trying to find a way out of it. And every week, these people backed up their stuff, and moved on to the next church hall or basement where they would sleep for that week. Just a bag full of their belongings. Nothing more, except perhaps a stuffed animal, or a treasured book, or a special pillow. No iPods. No designer jeans. No cell phones. Just the very basic things they needed to survive for another week. They were grateful for the little we did for them – a meal, a bag lunch, a drive, a conversation. They didn’t ask us for a handout, or half of our inheritance. They asked for our prayers.
For our mission team in New York, for those of us who went to help out at Emmanuel Brook Hill, for those of you who make lunches for the Outreach Meal program or who donate things to Lamb’s Basket, there is a common realization: the things that we covet, the things that we get distracted by, the things that the television is screaming at us that we need, those things aren’t really important. What is important, what Jesus is talking about in this parable, is how we live our life.
The world tries to define us by our belongings and our net worth, our clothes, our gadgets, our bank accounts. If we look at the movies and the advertisements and the magazines, you would think that a person only has value if he or she has a Rolex watch, the latest Droid phone or an iPad, a Lexus crossover vehicle, and a bank account managed by a private banker. By those standards, we are a pretty low-rent bunch, aren’t we? Thanks be to God!
Our value as Christians is defined by the love we show to God and to each other, by the help we offer to those who need it, by the appreciation we show for those who love and help us.
And that is why the third event of this week tells us so much more about what is truly valuable…
the Celebration of New Ministry held here on Wednesday night.
It was definitely a home-grown event. Our church was, as always, beautifully maintained and simply decorated with some lovely flowers and banners. Our liturgy was not carried out on a big stage with a fancy sound system and projection system and a bunch of professional musicians – it was our usual wonderful and traditional liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, done with grace and attention to detail. Our faithful all-volunteer choir sang, and Cynthia played, and it was so moving. The gifts that were given to me were the symbols of the work I am called to do among you, not the sorts of things that you would buy out at Short Pump Town Centre at the fancy stores. A Bible. A Prayer Book. Oil for anointing. The keys to this place. Bread. Wine.
This is what is truly valuable, not in dollars, but in the depth of our spirit, in the care we show to others around us, in the recognition that all we have comes from God, not from human endeavor. We do not need to be defined by the things the world cares about.
If we have to be greedy for something, let’s not be greedy for the things that don’t really matter. Let’s not worry about the inheritance, or the iPad, or the new car.
If we have to be greedy, let’s be greedy for the Holy Spirit working in us, transforming us, reminding us of what Jesus tells us is most important: loving God, loving each other, caring for each other and those whom we’ve just met who need our help.
If we have to be greedy, let’s be greedy for a world in which there doesn’t need to be a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen or food pantry.
Then when we meet our heavenly Father in heaven as the rich man did in the parable, we will know that what we have stored up is grace, and that’s a good thing to have in abundance.Amen