July 31, 2016
by Emily Rowell Brown
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
One of the questions I am asked most often when people learn that I am a minister has to do with how I prepare sermons. I answer that I typically read the lectionary for the coming Sunday on Monday, listen to podcasts and study commentaries on the texts over the course of the week, and allow the scriptures to marinate. The Holy Spirit will do her work and will pull me towards a theme, and Friday or Saturday, I write.
But this week, that didn’t happen. That one direction did not emerge. The Spirit planted many seeds, all of which beckoned for my attention.
Here’s another unspoken rule about sermon preparation: I was taught (as are many priests) to take myself out of the sermon as much as possible because the sermon is not about any one individual’s experience but about what touches all, albeit to greater and lesser degrees any given Sunday.
Today therefore marks a departure on two counts: my process consisted in following many rather than a singular thread, and I am about to talk more about myself than I’d like.
Last Sunday, and hours before I read this week’s text, my husband Dan and I found out we received an inheritance from his grandmother that we had not expected at all. I cannot separate my reading of this text from this recent personal event–the timing is too coincidental and has God’s handwriting all over it.
I also have had on my nightstand Rob Bell’s How to Be Here and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, both books which have been published in the past year and which make the point that creativity is a fundamental part of the human experience. To make life worth living, we need to to do what brings us joy, to express ourselves in ways that only we can, to do what is entirely nonessential and yet vital for our souls’ well-being. Their books celebrate self-indulgence and self-importance, arguing that we each have a unique perspective to offer the world. In other words, these two authors make precisely the opposite point of our scriptures–or so it seems. Whereas Luke and Qohelet (the figurative writer of Ecclesiastes, which translated means “Collector”) suggest that we all, whether rich or poor, important or insignificant, old or young, leave this life in the same way, Bell and Gilbert claim that this life does matter; it matters very much.
Yet we should not too quickly render the message of today’s lectionary as one which diminishes the life here on this earth, even though at first blush such appears the case. It is the false promises for happiness that are the issue, not the human experience itself. When we seek to ease our restlessness and insecurity by gaining fame and prestige, or by acquiring money and material possessions, or by working so hard that we never have a moment left for being still, we distance ourselves from our fellow humans and from God. We try desperately to forget that we rely upon each other, this creation, and our Lord to survive every day. Imagine if any one of these collapsed: we would not soldier on for long.
That is partly why the rich fool (as he is commonly known) in today’s gospel commits such an egregious crime. He seeks further to differentiate himself from his fellow humans. Rather than accepting the plentiful harvest as a gift and seeing it as an opportunity to share his good fortune with his neighbors, he thinks only of himself. His world begins and ends with him and himself, leaving no space for God or anyone else.
This warning against money ensuring success and favor finds critique in our scriptures, and especially by Luke, again and again. It may remind us of the line “give us this day our daily bread” from the Lord’s Prayer, which, as Weezie told us last week, recognizes our reliance upon God to provide for us every single day. Or it may call to mind the story of the Israelites in the wilderness attempting to store up manna only to find that it spoiled the next day because of their refusal to trust God’s promise to give abundantly always.
What if the rich man instead filled his existing barns and gave away what was left over? Or what if, in an even bigger act of faith, he immediately set aside a proportion to distribute to others before saving any for himself? In church, we hear of this concept as proportional giving, but it dates back to well before Jesus’ time. Tithing was a practice of the Israelites and Jews before Christians even entered the picture. Ten percent came right off the top because nothing really belonged to any one person; rather, it all ultimately was God’s. Tithing was an expectation, not a generous action. Not to tithe was to take unfairly, to hold on greedily to what one could not rightfully claim.
I heard a Methodist pastor’s reflections on this gospel this week (she actually serves a church here in Richmond), and she cited the figure 65 billion dollars as the annual amount needed to end worldwide poverty. American churches alone have the capacity to do so, if only everyone who claimed to be Christian would give 10 percent.
Whether we are talking about our annual income, an unexpected windfall, or, as was the case for me this week, an inheritance, this charge hits close to home for us all. Dan and I have felt the impulse to grasp tightly. This gift will help us save for our future children’s college and affords us security, but when we get too carried away, we forget just what it was: a gift. It does not belong solely to us. We have learned a few practical tricks along the way about giving: we set up automatic monthly deductions from our bank account to distribute to our favorite organizations rather than waiting to see what we have left over; we pledge and hold ourselves to our word; we vocalize our giving intentions and keep each other accountable. Nonetheless, the practice does not always come easily.
Trust resides at the root of faithful living, whether expressed in holding our material blessings loosely or searching for our creative calling. Bell and Gilbert so appropriately speak to these scriptures because they pinpoint that a meaningful life consists in resting in the belief that we do have a contribution to make to this creation. We do not live only for ourselves but as a participant in this amazing but troubled world.
Eternal life is not what waits for us when we die but what happens when we eschew the trappings that Qohelet and Luke mention and instead rest in God’s provision. Eternal life is seeing abundance, not scarcity. Eternal life is when we ask how we can enrich this world rather than how the world can enrich us.