Trinity 10 - An Abundance of Riches

A sermon preached by the Revd Ivo Morshead at St George's Campden Hill on Sunday 4 August 2013

Eccles 1 v12-14. 2 v 18-23; Colossians 3 v 1-11; Luke 12 v 13-21

But God said to him, You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of  you  Lk 12 v 20

I would hazard a guess that many of us who sometimes or often travel on the high speed trains of today, may sometimes wonder what it would be like if something went wrong. We had all too vivid images from Spain only days ago of what happens when an 8 coach train goes off the lines when travelling at 118 miles an hour. Nearly half the passengers were killed and many more injured. How many on that express would have had any inkling when they set out that their next destination would be heaven? How many would have made sure before they started that all their affairs were in order, affairs, both material and spiritual.

The man in the crowd around Jesus in today’s gospel reading was much concerned with his material affairs. Questions of family inheritance have always featured loud and strong within many families. I have said before how in my  last parish where I was vicar for thirteen years, there were two farming brothers owning adjacent land who never spoke to one another and all that time that I was vicar of the parish refused to allow their children to meet one another,  all because of a quarrel over inheritance. Jesus was far braver that I was when he was accosted by the aggrieved man in the gospel today who asked him to arbitrate on his behalf. Jesus refused to arbitrate but spoke in a warm manner in his reply; Friend, he said, Take care, be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

For many of us  possessions are associated with money. Money is very nice to have and life is very uncomfortable when it is hard to come by. Jesus when speaking kindly to the man in the gospel today did not accuse him of selfishness or wickedness in his wish to get his share of what he thought was his inheritance. In the story that Jesus told the rich man was not accused of being a profiteer or fixing prices. He was just lucky  in having good land on which to grow crops, just as many of us are more fortunate than others in having inherited wealth, be born with  skills, have had a good business sense or whatever. No wonder the man was able to relax, eat and drink and be merry. In our day the equivalent would be partaking in endless round the world luxury cruises enjoyed by so many. All this can be fine, the flipside comes in the story told by Jesus ; But God said to him;’ you fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And those things you have prepared, whose will they be?  In other words, Jesus asks us, as his story of the Rich Fool ends, is to be rich with God as well as storing up treasures for ourselves.

Riches are an old question that has always been discussed and which effect so many people. There was a marvellous broadcast the other day on Radio 4 when, in a debate on accumulation of wealth at which Justin our archbishop was a participant, Wuflston, Bishop of Worcester, was used as a positive illustration. The Anglican Church remembers Wuflston every 19th January in what is known as a lesser festival the calendar of which  we list in our weekly newsletter. The effect of the Norman conquest in 1066 had far reaching effects upon the church. For a start the existing bishops were replaced by men from Normandy. The one exception was Wulfston who was a friend of Lanfranc, the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Wulfston was the one remaining pre-conquest bishop and by a clever piece of applying just at the right time, managed to exempt all the wealth of Worcester from the hands of the Sheriff by having such exemption written into the Domesday Book of  1085. He thus avoided all tax levies that caused other areas to have to melt down their church plate to meet. Justin, our archbishop in the debate, made the comment that unlike so many today who manage to accumulate wealth by clever tax moves and salt the money away in overseas accounts doing nobody any good, Wuflston used his wealth to build monasteries and wonderful cathedrals. He is remembered as an able administrator and pastor.

The wealth that Jesus bids us seek is that of ‘ richness towards God’. The symbolism of the richness of God lies in  our raising our  eyes, in the words of Psalm 121 I will lift up my eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.. In contrast to look for gold for help means just the opposite, looking down to the bowels of the earth. Gold and silver seams are mostly from down under, from beneath surface of the earth. Any-one who has flown into Johannesburg in daylight will have  been amazed at the size and colour of the artificial mountains of  spoil from the deep, deep, gold mines in which thousands of workers have toiled miles underground and who have to live in hostels away from their families. Those who wish to seek riches in heaven must look upwards.

In the OT lesson this morning, even the gift of wisdom is of no avail for those who seek to find a purpose in life other than just accumulating wealth. Vanity of vanities, says the teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.. (Eccles 1, 1)  I the teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is a famous  Old Testament lament of a great thinker of the 3rd century BC who puts into a kind of poetic of  narrative that his seeking after wisdom has  been  a futile exercise. The world he postures is one impervious to human effort, for while human generations each pass into oblivion, so nature continues regardless of  man’s efforts and reaches no fruition or consummation. Wisdom and knowledge merely enhance wisdom and sorrow. I saw all the deeds, he writes, that are done under the sun; and see all is vanity and chasing after wind. How sad to have to live the life he depicts for himself when he feels that all his life’s work must be left to those who come after him as he wrote about those who inherited his wealth, and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish.

For Paul, the writer of the epistle this morning, there is no doubt as to which way we must look and direct our thoughts and beings.  In the epistle to the Christian community at Colossae he writes seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. It is a a reminder to us all to have our concerns on the ‘above’ and not to the below. Paul must have known well the words of the psalmist in psalm 121 bidding us to Lift up our eyes unto the hills. Paul in his writings sees the central figure in heaven is Christ whose authority is emphasised  by his position at God’s right hand echoing psalm 110 v 1 The Lord said unto my Lords, sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies my footstool.

For so many of us, as with the man speaking to Jesus about his inheritance, and as with that pair of farmer brothers in my past, we worry too much about what we have and what we need or would like materially. Jesus was clear in his answer to that man in today’s gospel you fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you, And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?

May we always be thankful always for what we have. May I suggest that at the moment when the consecrated bread and consecrated wine during  this Eucharist (the Greek word meaning thanksgiving) are raised to heaven by the priest and the bell is rung, we may offer ourselves and souls to God’s service in thanksgiving and heed Paul’s words seek the things that are above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
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