Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 12:13-21
A theme that stands out in today’s readings, both the Gospel and the reading from Ecclesiastes, is that when it comes to human reality, all things come to an end. Endings happen in many ways, with pointed focus finally on death.
The lists of varied endings can be long. We are on the brink of the conclusion of my pastorate here at Resurrection. Decades of relative stability for the privileged in our country seem to be giving way to a new period of chronic instability. We’re all getting older. The pandemic has brought all of this into sharper and poignant relief. And the list goes on concerning the claims of human mortality and finitude.
We see this theme in the parable of Jesus that Luke records that we just heard. The rich man’s land produced an overabundance of crops and goods, so he tore down his barns to build larger ones, and having done so was prepared to sit back, relax, and to eat, drink, and be merry. Except that on that very day, his life would end in death.
Most of us here live with the great privilege of abundance, if not to say overabundance. While this wealth can occasion a life of comparative leisure and opportunity, the work, the toil required to produce and maintain abundance can itself also become a source of great burden for us.
We get a palpable sense of that in today’s first reading from Ecclesiastes where the teacher exclaims: “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23) And a chasing after wind.
And then our lives of overburdened abundance come to an end, sometimes quite abruptly and unexpectedly.
This is the reality of the human condition. We are mortal. We will die. This is the weight of our sinful finitude that can feel so very heavy, and which we go to great lengths to guard against, to keep at bay, even to deny. Here I am reminded of Ernest Becker’s classic work, The Denial of Death, where Becker posits that human society is organized in such a way as to keep the reality of death out of our conscious awareness. Published in 1973, it’s still a classic; because Becker’s insights remain true. No matter how cleverly we try, death catches up with us, and our various worldly possessions and achievements do not change that reality.
Martin Luther summed it up well when on his deathbed his reported last words were these: “We are beggars. This is true.”
Luke reports that Jesus told the parable about the rich man to make the point that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. This teaching moment came in response to a request by a person in the crowd asking Jesus to convince his brother to divide the family inheritance with him. Luke says that Jesus concluded the parable about the folly of abundance only to lose it all to death with these words: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Where does this leave us? So far, both the gospel reading and the passage from Ecclesiastes make for quite the downer that gives us no relief. This bad news is summed up again in the words of the teacher in Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” Vanity as in futile, empty, worthless, short-lived, and without meaning.
Is there any good news today? Most certainly, and thanks be to God for three lectionary readings and not just one or two.
Today’s appointed gospel reading leaves us hanging and wondering what it might mean to be rich toward God. Being rich toward God seems to hold the promise of good news. And indeed, we can find that good news in today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians where the apostle elaborates on what it might mean for us to be rich toward God.
Here’s what Paul writes: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 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. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” In short, Christ is the source of divine richness.
And we have in fact been raised with Christ, even as we have died with Christ. And for us, it is baptism where this all happens. Drowned in the waters of this life-giving flood, we emerge from the torrent with new life in Christ, having been baptized into his own death and resurrection.
There are lots of veiled references to baptism in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and we have some of that in today’s reading. Paul exhorts the hearers to “put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly,” that is, to be rid of the ways of the old Adam, of sin.
This suggests the renunciations that are integral to our baptismal rites when those to be baptized renounce the forces that defy God and the powers of this world that rebel against God and the ways of sin that draw us from God (cf. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 229).
It's important to note that our struggle is not so much about heavenly things being up there and earthly ways being down here in a clean, cosmic, spatial dichotomy. No, these heavenly and earthly forces contend right here where we live, all the time. Baptismal life is a struggle in the Spirit against the forces of sin and death.
Thus, Paul in Colossians also points also points to baptism when he writes that we have “stripped off the old self with its practices and [our having] clothed [ourselves] with the new self,” which is our new life in Christ. Indeed, at baptism, we are clothed in the brilliance of Christ often symbolized by the white gowns worn by the baptized.
But when it’s all said and done, the only death that ultimately matters has already occurred on the cross of Christ. In that light of Christ’s resurrected new life our own mortal end in death is relativized and pales in comparison, and our own death in the baptismal waters is arguably more significant in the divine, grandest scheme of things than the end that is coming to us all in our own personal deaths.
For, as Paul concludes in today’s passage from Colossians, “Christ is all and in all!” Christ is the cure to that which ails us; Christ is our life beyond mortality, beyond death. Christ is the antidote to the cry of vanity of vanities and Christ is the end of our futile chasing after the wind. Christ imparts to us the richness of God. This is good news indeed.
So, let’s return for a moment to Luther’s dying moments. Reportedly a friend asked Luther when he was stricken ill and was close to death: “Do you want to die standing firm on Christ and the doctrine you have taught?” Luther answered with an emphatic, “Yes!”
And we answer our own “Yes!” whenever we reaffirm and give thanks for our own baptisms into Christ.
In Christ, then, we can relax, eat, drink and be merry with faith renewed and with meaning and purpose, not futility. In fact, it’s at this table where we do truly relax, eat, drink, and are merry in thanksgiving to God for Christ’s gracious abundance, the only abundance that really matters.
And in this Spirit, we are freed from bondage to our many possessions and their claims on us. We are freed to give it all away, not storing up riches for ourselves, but using our abundance to help and to feed others because in Christ we are made rich toward God.
When it’s all said and done, the only inheritance of any ultimate significance is that which we inherit from Christ. Thus, our freedom to give it all away, not giving up our hearts to despair, but finding joy and meaning in our loving service to others.
Thanks be to God. Amen.