Rich Toward God

A Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 13 – Year B – 4 August 2013

John Edward Miller, Rector


Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull 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, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

                                                                                                                            -Luke 12:13-21


The Collect

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 In 1936 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart scored a major Broadway hit with their three-act comedy, “You Can’t Take it With You.”[1] The play focused on two families with radically different values – particularly when it came to the question of what makes life worth living. The Sycamore household, which includes three generations of New Yorkers, is a slightly mad menagerie of characters that follow their bliss in a variety of ventures, including the arts and home-produced pyrotechnics. They make no money, and they remain incompetent, in their fields. Nevertheless they are happy, and they love each other and the life they are leading, regardless of how wacky it appears to others. By contrast the Kirby family is deeply committed to the pursuit of wealth, the achievement of recognizable status, and the accumulation of possessions. They are remarkably unhappy and fixated on material signs of success. But despite the obvious disconnect between their means and their uncomfortable end, they persist in doing what they’ve always done, namely becoming rich in things.

So, the Kirbys and the Sycamores are at opposite ends of the spectrum, financially, socially, and philosophically. The two families intersect when the Kirbys’ son Tony, the heir apparent to their fortune, falls head over heels in love with the Sycamores’ daughter Alice. Tony wants to marry Alice, but she is worried that their two families are hopelessly incompatible. He presses for an engagement, and proposes that the Kirbys come to the Sycamores’ home for dinner. The evening is one disaster after another. Alice is mortified, and she informs Tony that she plans to leave home and strike out on her own. He tries to convince her that their marriage can work simply on the basis of love. But Alice cannot see across the great divide between the families.

When Mr. Kirby arrives at the Sycamores’ to retrieve his errant son, he gets more than he originally bargained for. Tony and he argue over intra-family differences, and then Tony confesses that he had deliberately brought his parents to the Sycamores’ on the wrong evening. He wanted both groups to see one another as they are, not as staged and well-rehearsed players. Old Grandpa Vanderhoff, who walked away from a life of making money, and who has decided not to pay income tax to the government, now weighs-in to convince Mr. Kirby that he is wasting his life doing what he doesn’t enjoy in the search for monetary riches. Concerning the confrontation with Tony, Grandpa says:

 Maybe it’ll stop you trying to be so desperate about making more money than you can ever use? You can’t take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends.

Mr. Kirby resists, but is eventually persuaded that in spite of their nonconformist ways, the Sycamores understand that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” The thing that makes life worth living is loving and being loved.

Malcolm Forbes did not believe that. He lived by the motto: He who dies with the most toys, wins. When he died at age 70 in 1990, Forbes’ wealth was estimated as between 400 million and 1.25 billion dollars. His obituary stated that at the time of his death

he owned eight homes, including Timberfield, the 40-acre Far Hills, N.J., estate where he died in his sleep on Feb. 24; a palace in Tangier, Morocco; a chateau in Normandy; and the island of Lauthala in Fiji, where Forbes had directed his ashes be buried under a marker with the epitaph WHILE ALIVE, HE LIVED. In addition to the family’s feisty business magazine, which media analysts estimate may be worth as much as $600 million, Forbes also held 400 square miles of real estate, 2,200 paintings and 12 Russian Imperial Faberge eggs, more than even the Soviet government.[2]

 That description of opulence is conservative. He certainly had a lot of toys. But did he “win” life’s prize because he possessed these things? Apparently Forbes thought so, as did many of his admirers who attended his funeral at St. Bartholomew’s Church and a lavish reception afterward in the silk-stocking district of Manhattan. And yet, despite his friendships with Elizabeth Taylor, Donald Trump, motorcyclists, collectors, and a host of other scions of society, Forbes died alone in his superbly appointed mansion.  His aim to live life to the fullest gained him fame as well as infamy. He had certainly made his mark in material terms; however, did he leave this world richer for his presence? For it is the world that God so loved that he gave his only-begotten son. It is the world that is so fragile that it must be handled with utmost care. It is the world that is so precious, because it contains God’s creatures that are dying to love and be loved. When considered against this benchmark, the whole notion of judging the worth an individual’s life with respect to winning or losing is irrelevant, if not absurd. 

In today’s text from the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus is asked to arbitrate a dispute between two brothers. The point of contention was the division of a family inheritance. It is not said whether the plaintiff was a younger brother, but that would make sense. In a patriarchal culture the older of two sons was often the recipient of the estate of his parents. We also do not know the background of this urgency to get at the money. Was the other brother refusing to share? We can’t be sure. What we do know, however, is that Jesus sensed the man’s desire to claim a portion of the inheritance for himself, And that triggered his reply to the claimant and to the crowd:     

“Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Jesus proceeded to illustrate this message by telling them a parable about the rich man who had such an overabundance of crops that he fretted what to do with them. The wealthy, but anxious farmer, then had an “aha!” moment. His brilliant idea was to pull down his existing barns and build newer, larger ones to house his superfluous gains. The farmer was so proud of his stroke of genius that he patted himself on the back, saying that he would now have more than enough to remain wealthy for many years. Resting on his laurels he offered an Epicurean toast to self-indulgence: “relax, eat, drink, and be merry!” That last expression was clearly not what Jesus would do, because his parable has God blast the farmer, calling him foolish, in that he was about to meet his Maker that very night, leaving his riches to rot in their brand spanking new barns.

The episode ends with a word of wisdom from Jesus. He said, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

The things that have priceless value can’t be stored in barns – things like affection, kindness, honor, trust, care, belief, respect, understanding, support, forgiveness, being heard, being wanted, and being loved, to name but a few of the greatest assets in life. When Jesus spoke of being “rich toward God” he was referring to these rare, but essential gifts. They are grace – grace in many forms, each having the power to give life, to redeem life, to sustain life.

In another context Jesus spoke to his disciples about sources of wealth that fade, or disappoint, or fail. It was in his Sermon on the Mount that he said:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.[3]

Treasures on earth, like the crops in the farmer’s big barns, are fleeting, and subject to deviousness and decay. And you can’t take them with you when “the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.”[4] When it comes to money, material possessions, portfolios, estates, control, authority, responsibility, education, and the like, prudence tells us that such things do not transfer into the next life. The Egyptian pharaohs tried, and they spent decades preparing great tombs bedecked with every possible sign of wealth and nobility surrounding their mummified, carefully wrapped bodies. Too bad for them! Not only did their plans for preservation break down, but wily thieves outsmarted security systems and made off with most of the loot. Just considering the folly of that example should reinforce the wisdom that you can’t take it with you.

Besides, the treasures that make life worth living cannot be earned, bought, accumulated, horded, or sold, anyway. All of the essential values mentioned before are people-oriented; they are born and nurtured in relationships, especially those based on the love that we experience in Jesus Christ. They come to us as pure grace, and they endure, because God is able to remember them and preserve them in eternity. These are treasures that make us rich toward one another and toward God. In short, you can take them with you. They abide in God’s gift of a “safe lodging, and holy rest, and peace at the last.”[5]

This is not to suggest that material wealth is a problem per se. According to Jesus, it’s one’s relationship to it that can go awry. Grace-based wealth – the kind that reaches its zenith in the values of faith, hope, and love – can inform us and guide us in the appropriate uses of material wealth. When we are rich toward God, love is our aim. And love gives itself away for the sake of others.

Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American steel magnate and philanthropist, wrote a great deal about wealth. In his article, The Gospel of Wealth, Carnegie proclaimed that the rich have an obligation to use their wealth for the common good. He acted on that maxim, giving away most of his riches toward the end of his life. Carnegie kept track of his thoughts by writing memos to himself. Therein he wrote one of his most-quoted sayings, namely that “the man who dies wealthy dies disgraced.” In another memo he stated this intention in a less judgmental manner, saying:

Man does not live by bread alone. I have known millionaires starving for lack of the nutriment which alone can sustain all that is human in man, and I know workmen, and many so-called poor men, who revel in luxuries beyond the power of those millionaires to reach. It is the mind that makes the body rich. There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else. Money can only be the useful drudge of things immeasurably higher than itself. Exalted beyond this, as it sometimes is, it remains Caliban still and still plays the beast. My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.[6]

Gratitude and generosity go hand-in-hand when we are rich toward God, when we invest in values that promote the love of God and the love of our neighbors in this world cherished by our Creator.

Richmonder Thomas Cannon was a retired postal worker who died of colon cancer at age 79. His obituary in the Washington Post described him well as a postal clerk who “lived like a pauper to help others.”[7] Cannon, who called himself the poor man’s philanthropist, gave away in excess of $150,000 to people in need or humane causes that he read about in the Richmond newspaper. Almost all of the checks he wrote were in the amount of $1000. To some people those sums may sound less than staggering. However, to a man whose postal service salary never exceeded $20,000, these numbers were big. But they were not insuperable. Thomas Cannon and his wife resolved to live well below their modest means in order to give others a helping hand.

Mr. Cannon’s giving can be traced to his sense of life’s fragility and life’s opportunities to show gratitude. He survived a tragic training accident while serving in the U. S. Navy as a young man. Many of his shipmates were killed in an explosion, Cannon was spared, he thought, in order to be a help to others, to exemplify the “oneness of it all.” Therefore he gave generously with no respect to race, nationality, class, or means. His role was to broadcast love impartially and freely. His first donation was in 1972, to the Westhampton Junior Woman’s Club in Richmond in support of its volunteer work with an elementary school in the city. He said, “We lived simply, so we could give money away. People say, ‘How can you afford it?’ Well, how can people afford new cars and boats? Instead of those, we deliberately kept our standard of living down below our means. I get money from the same place people get money for those other things.” His last wish was as straightforward and simple as his giving life. He said: “Help somebody.”

That is what rich toward God looks like and acts like. Jesus, our Savior and gracious companion on the way, asks that we go and do likewise, with God’s help. Shall we? In the Name of God, let it be so. Amen.


 [1] The Kaufmann and Hart comedic play was the basis for Frank Capra’s 1938 movie, “You Can’t Take it With You,”  the cast of which featured James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, Spring Byington and other notable firm stars.

[2] Charles E. Cohen, “Paladin of Publicity Bows Out in Grand Style,” People Magazine, March 19, 1990.

[3] Mt 6:19-21.

[4] This is an excerpt from Cardinal John Henry Newman’s prayer, “In the Evening,” which is found on page 833 of the, 1979.

[5] Idem.

[6] A memo quote from the Carnegie Library.