Harvest Festival - Sharing God's Gifts

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Fr James Heard, 5 October 2014

I noticed a link at the bottom of an email I received to a website which showed how wealthy you were compared to the rest of the world. It asked you to insert your salary, which I did. And even on a meagerly priest’s stipend, I was in something like the top 55 million in a world of over 6 billion people. Of course, it wasn’t particularly accurate because the cost of living in London is very high compared to living in Lucknow, India. But it got me thinking.

Today’s Gospel reading about the rich fool made me feel rather uncomfortable. I quite like my ipad – and it’s rather difficult to resist the allure of the newly arrived iphone 6. What might the Gospel teach us about wealth? In the verses before today’s passage, there is a dispute about the inheritance between two brothers. Jesus refuses to be a judge and rebuffs the petitioner. And he responds with a wisdom saying, with a question that goes behind the issue of legal rights, to the motivation that drives the questioner.

Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions (v.15).

Jesus describes how desire, a covetousness for material things will prove insatiable. That the dreams of abundant life will never be achieved through the acquisition of possessions. Jesus challenged the idea that the more stuff we own the more we will experience life to the full. This is a particular challenge to our consumerist culture – which is the new religion of the 21st century, with shopping malls as its cathedrals and with pilgrims travelling many miles to bow their heads and pay.
Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool. This was a man who was already rich and with no extra effort he has a gift of a bumper crop. And so his problem was what to do with this surplus. There is no thought of giving thanks to God for this. His only concern seems to be how to preserve his wealth. One early church father, Bishop Ambrose, aptly observes that ‘the rich man has storage available in the mouths of the needy’.

But this man is determined that he alone will consume God’s gifts. The ‘rich man’ speaks some very revealing words. He refers to ‘my crops, my grain, my goods’, as though he owned everything. And he builds larger facilities to deposit his goods. This wealthy, self-confident man has made it in life. All that he has longed for has been realised. So, with whom does he celebrate this success? Who’s available? In a closely knit community there is bound to be someone. Family? Friends? Servants and their families? Village elders? Fellow landowners? It seems no one but himself. Verse 19, ‘And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’
It is a pitiful scene. He thinks that the total needs of a person can be met by material surplus, reserved for his exclusive use. His wealth gives him the illusion that he’s in control of his life, of his future. Into this scene comes the thundering voice of God. God speaks and calls the man a fool. ‘This night your soul is required of you’ (v.20). The phrase ‘is required’ is used for the return of a loan. In other words, his soul was on loan. And the owner (God) wants the loan returned. At the beginning of the parable the goods, the bumper harvest, were a gift. It’s now clear that his life also is not his own. The sting in the parable is not so much that the man must die, but rather the real poverty of his life, and the fact is that he is lonely and friendless in the midst of wealth.

As is often the case with Jesus’ parables, it ends open ended. There’s no tidy and happy resolution. No dramatic conversion story. We’re not told the rich man’s response. His silence leaves each listener to think about their own situation. Then Jesus concludes with another wisdom saying: ‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.’

Jesus is saying, ‘don’t be like the rich man trying to enrich himself rather than in service to God’, but store up treasure in heaven (Lk 12.33). True wealth is being rich, being generous, towards God and towards others.

The Gospel passage offers various challenges to us. It raises important questions as to the excessive profits in a capitalist society. Is it simply to make the rich richer? Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that the gap between rich and poor in the UK is as wide as it has been for 40 years. And it’s growing wider every year. This problem isn’t just out there somewhere – but in this very RBK&C, between the south and the north of the borough. The gap is deeply uncomfortable and we long to do something about it – which is why we’re collecting food for the Upper Room and our collection will go to support St Mungo Broadway.

The antidote to an unrestricted consumerism is to open the granaries and to feed others as we have been fed. It’s not particularly how wealthy we are or perceived ourselves to be; it’s how generous we are with what we have. It’s about being generous towards others. And this isn’t purely restricted to money. It can be much easier to throw money at a ‘problem’ rather than actually give one of the most precious commodities in London – time. Giving of our precious time to help a person who might have difficulty changing a light bulb, or to spend time with those in distress, or attentively listening to someone. This might be the most valuable, expensive thing you can give.

Giving in such a way changes us. It changes us from inward-focussed people to outward-focussed ones. Abundant life does not consist in the accumulation of more and more material stuff… abundant life, being rich towards God, is living a life of generosity towards others.
Holland Park Benefice