2022-07-31 Pentecost 8
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
A Grand-Pappy was telling his grandson a story about the time when he had worked for American Zoos trapping wild animals in Africa. It was many years back when the grandfather was just a young man himself, but the memories were still just like yesterday. The grandfather talked for hours about catching lions and giraffes and hippos. After listening with bated breath, finally the grandson asked what the most difficult animal was to catch. The grandfather thought for a moment and answered “The ringtailed lemur. They were quick and smart enough to work around every trap.” He paused briefly and then he said “that was until we watched some of the native Sakalava people catch them using nothing more than a melon on a vine.” The seeds of this melon were the lemur’s favourite. Knowing this, the Africans would simply cut a hole in the melon just big enough for the lemur’s hand. When he would reach inside and grab a handful of seeds, his fist would become too big to get out of the melon! “He would pull and tug and fight and screech at that melon for hours!” the grandfather said. “But he can’t get free from the trap unless he gives up the seeds, which he refuses to do! Then the tribesmen would just sneak up and nab him!”
Greed! It will imprison us all. The Scriptures have a very strong warning about how terrible and heinous the sin of greed is. St. Paul talks about greed as covetousness and groups it in with other such bad apples as sexual immorality, impurity, passions, and evil desires. But covetousness or greed, in St. Paul’s words, is idolatry! Why? Because we often want something so bad – like that lemur with the melon seeds – that it eventually consumes us. We should be, as St. Paul says, seeking “the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” He also says “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” But all too often in this day and age, more and more people are slaving after material goods. So strong is our idolatry that we sacrifice everything for it: families suffer and fall apart, marriages crumble, churches close and faith withers up and dies all because we seek after money and stuff more than the One true Triune God and His Kingdom! Greed will imprison us all.
Jesus also has some very strong words of Law for us when it comes to possessions and greed. “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Our Lord’s words fly right in the face of the common folk knowledge of our time. We accumulate and hoard and stockpile and stash and squirrel-away all kinds of material stuff: properties, vehicles, decorations, clothing, toys … the list goes on and on. Eventually we either have to build a bigger shed to house it all or we have to sell it all in an auction sale. It’s pure craziness! All of this stuff that we spend our whole entire lives amassing can’t be brought with us. Jesus tells us about this further in His parable:
“The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops? And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).
Fool! Who’s stuff will this be? What will happen to all of this stuff when “your soul is required of you?” It is a pressing question for our time. We should ponder it before we empty our bank accounts collecting stuff for ourselves. The work and mission of the church to help those in need suffers greatly when God’s people are consumed with the sin of consumerism. Church budget deficits are often a tell tale sign of this. If our faith in God is first and foremost in our lives, then we wouldn’t expect shortages. We would instead have an abundance! But sadly, the idolatry of greed prevents the important work of the church from flowing abundantly as it should in many congregations.
St. Basil the Great, an ancient Church Father, taught that the bread in our cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes sitting in our closet belong to the one who has no shoes; and the money we hoard belongs to the poor. Those are some revolutionary, ancient ideas! And another church father, St. Ambrose wrote that “The things we cannot take with us are not ours. Only virtue will be our companion when we die.” These are very illuminating words that build on the teachings of our Lord. Hopefully they cause us to wake up and repent of how easy it is to slip into the idolatry of greed.
Leo Tolstoy once wrote a story about a successful peasant farmer who was not satisfied with his lot. He wanted more of everything. One day he received a novel offer. For 1000 rubles, he could buy all the land he could walk around in a day. The only catch in the deal was that he had to be back at his starting point by sundown. Early the next morning he started out walking at a fast pace. By midday he was very tired, but he kept going, covering more and more ground. Well into the afternoon he realized that his greed had taken him far from the starting point. He quickened his pace and as the sun began to sink low in the sky, he began to run, knowing that if he did not make it back by sundown the opportunity to become an even bigger landholder would be lost. As the sun began to sink below the horizon he came within sight of the finish line. Gasping for breath, his heart pounding, he called upon every bit of strength left in his body and staggered across the line just before the sun disappeared. He immediately collapsed, blood streaming from his mouth. In a few minutes, he was dead. Afterwards, his servants dug a grave. It was not much over six feet long and three feet wide. The title of Tolstoy’s story was: “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”
So then, where is the Good News in all of this vanity and striving after the wind? Well, St. Paul also reminds us that “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). The Good News is that Christ Jesus our Lord has called us from the darkness of greed and covetousness into the light of His grace and mercy and forgiveness. His blood, shed for you on the cross, and our Baptism into His death grants us new life. His forgiveness “hides us” in Him. We are free from the bondage of sin and death that we may live for God, being generous and sharing with those who have need. As we stare into the mirror of God’s law, we realize that we have most likely been greedy and stingy with our money and possessions. But the word of God’s gospel and forgiveness is indeed for you too. Believe that in your Baptism, you have died to sins like greed and covetousness. Rise up in the new creation God has made you to be.
“When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col.3:4). This is the reality of our Christian faith. To worship the One true Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit and know that we too will appear with Him in glory – not with scads of earthly material possessions – but with the awesome glory of Christ Jesus our Lord! This is the true promise of eternity which the “latest and greatest” products this world has to offer cannot compete with; they don’t even come close! The old adage once again proves true: “he who dies with the most toys … still dies!” The good news is that Christ Jesus our Lord has conquered death itself and has given us life everlasting. In Christ we exist not for hoarding blessings but rather to be a blessing! Our Lord’s promise asks us to look around our lives and see, who needs help? Who is hungry? Who is thirsty? Who needs to be welcomed? Who needs clothing? Who is sick and needs to be visited? These simple little virtues are what Christ commends His people for in the judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). Not mentioned are how many toys, how much stuff or the vast myriads of money the people may have acquired. “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above.” Amen!