Monday, August 5, 2013

Proper 13 of Series C (Luke 12:13-21)

“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twelfth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, we sing it every Sunday, in fact, we will sing it not long after this sermon. Simple words, but profound words, one verse of a hymn as the gifts of God’s people are carried to the altar. “We give Thee but Thine own, whatever the gift may be; all that we have is Thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from Thee.” In our congregation, as well as in many others, these words have become a part of the fabric of our life together, an important piece of our worship each Lord’s Day. And we all know what these words mean; they aren’t a mystery, they aren’t unclear. With this hymn on our lips, we declare that all of our possessions belong to God, they are a gift from Him, and we only manage them as His stewards for the good of His kingdom and for the good of our neighbor. When we place an envelope in the offering plate, we are simply giving back to God what already belongs to Him, acknowledging Him as the giver of every good gift. By singing these words, we are declaring an important and profound truth: all things belong to God—our money, our possessions, even our own lives—not to us.

But we don’t believe it. We say the words, but our hearts are far from them. Maybe you’re someone really pious, who truly believes that “We give Thee but Thine own” as the offering plate comes around, but when you come home, you’re back to thinking of your possessions as your own. The rest of us, we aren’t even that pious. We may sing the hymn like everyone else, but deep down, we don’t believe those words; we still believe that our money, our possessions, and our lives belong to us. It’s so American: the things of this world that I have accumulated through my labor are mine. They belong to me, they are mine to possess, to use however I want to. And that belief changes how we approach the offering plate. I’m not giving God what belongs to Him already, the firstfruits of what He has graciously given to me with great thankfulness. Instead, I’m giving to God something that I earned from my own labor; its mine, and now I show God how much I love Him by giving to Him some of what I’ve earned.

The pronouns that we use are vitally important; they reveal just how we view our possessions. Did you notice how often the rich man in our text used the pronoun ‘my’? My crops, my grain, my good, my soul. In his eyes, it all belonged to him, to do with what he wanted. And what he wanted was to enjoy it. “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” That’s what money and possessions are for, if they belong to you alone: they are to bring you pleasure. Sure, you may put some of the leftovers in the offering plate, you may give some to charity, but the rest is to give you pleasure, to make your life better. The things that you think belong to you are to bring you joy and relaxation. Relax, eat, drink, be merry! Build bigger barns to hold your great bounty! Store it up for yourself, for your own good—you earned it! They don’t belong to anyone else but you, and so they are yours to do with whatever you want. Isn’t that how we look at our money and possessions, whether we have much or little? They belong to us, not to our neighbor or anyone else, and so they are for my good. Isn’t that how we even think of our bodies and our lives?

This is a radical individualism, encouraged by our culture and our sinful nature: what I have is my own, and no one, not even God, has a claim on them! Therefore our possessions isolate us from others, they divide and separate. Notice how the rich man, when he is blessed with a bountiful crop, doesn’t go to God in prayer, he doesn’t consult his family or speak with his friends. Instead, he actually has a conversation with himself, the only one who will listen! “He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’” His wealth has isolated him from all others, because he sees it as his alone, to use however he pleases. Earthly treasure threatens to divide us from others, it threatens to separate us from our God, in fact, it threatens to become our God. No wonder St. Paul calls covetousness ‘idolatry.’

The rich man trusted in his possessions as his god; he thought they belonged to him, that he could depend on them, that they wouldn’t fail him. But God quickly shattered that illusion: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The rich man trusted in his possessions, but his possessions couldn’t conquer the grave. Death still sought him and claimed him, just as it does every child of Adam upon this earth, rich or poor. The psalmist declares about us all, “When he dies he will carry nothing away; his glory will not go down after him.” It is at the moment of death that our trust in our possessions, our claim that they are ours, is revealed to be foolishness. Our goods cannot save us from the grave, for as we heard in the Introit this morning, “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.” Even our lives are not our own, they belong to our Creator, and they will be demanded back from us one day, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that all the wealth of the world can do about it. In fact, if we think that our wealth is our own, if we trust in our possessions above all else, they have the opposite effect. Far from saving us from death, earthly wealth, if we place our trust in it, if we claim it as our own, they can only deliver death.

And so Jesus doesn’t deal in earthly wealth. A man came to him and said, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus responds, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” He is no arbiter of earthly wealth; his kingdom is not of this world, for he has come to bring a much greater treasure. He is a judge, but not a judge over money and possessions. He is the judge of the living and the dead. His judgment is over the things of eternity, and He won’t waste His time judging property disputes, for that’s the point of His parable: earthly goods have no value when death and the final judgment come. “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

The final judgment isn’t determined by the size of your pocketbook or your TV. Neither wealth nor poverty will save you from death or grant you access into God’s kingdom. While the rich may be able to afford better doctors, wealth cannot defeat death. The psalmist declares definitively, “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.” Nothing we can do, no amount of wealth or possessions that we claim as ‘mine’ can offer the ransom for our soul. Only the blood of Christ can do that. Jesus came to offer the ransom price for our souls, to buy them back from the clutches of sin and death. He doesn’t deal in earthly treasure, but in heavenly, as we hear in the Small Catechism: “[He] purchased and won me from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” Christ’s death paid the price for your sin; His cross frees you from the power of death itself. Yes, our lives are not our own; they have been purchased by Jesus’s own blood. And now He offers us a treasure beyond any that this world offers: we are given heavenly treasure, the very glories of His eternal kingdom.

This is truly a treasure worth rejoicing in! The rich man foolishly said to Himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” The tragedy is that this rich man had the same reaction to earthly treasure that we are to have over heavenly treasure. The Scriptures call on us to relax, eat, drink, and be merry, but not over earthly treasure. Instead, the relaxation we are called to is the Sabbath rest of heaven, we are to eat and drink at the Lord’s Table here and in eternity, and the merry rejoicing is over Christ’s salvation. Yes, relax, eat, drink, and be merry in the Lord’s salvation, for He has offered the price that you couldn’t pay, He has ransomed your soul, forgiving your sins and saving you from all your enemies. You have heavenly treasure, treasure that endures, treasure that will never be taken away. Rejoice! Relax, eat, drink, and be merry in Christ’s salvation!

And as we rejoice in heavenly treasure, we seek to use earthly treasure for the good of others. We have been set free from reliance on the treasures of this world to bring us pleasure or joy; we have an eternal treasure that is beyond anything that this world can offer. So, instead of using what has been given to us for our own good, as if it belongs to us, we can in joy seek to serve God’s kingdom and our neighbors with what He has given to us. The very first line of Jesus’ parable is key: “The land of a rich man produced plentifully.” Who gave this rich man such abundance? God Himself. Everything that we have, little or much, is a gift from our Creator. Nothing belongs to us; we are simply stewards of whatever the Lord sees fit to give us, and so we truly “give Thee but Thine own” when we use what the Lord has blessed us with to support the work of the Church or to serve our neighbor. The treasure of this world isn’t for us, it’s for others, because Christ has already given us the only treasure that we need, the only treasure that will endure beyond the grave. In your baptism you already possess everything, so that when God demands back your life, He will not say, ‘Fool!’ but ‘Welcome, my beloved child.’ In the Name of Jesus, who offered the ransom for our souls by the price of His own blood, Amen.

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