Psalm 49:1-12/Luke 12:13-21
When I was a little boy, before the earth cooled, we used to play marbles. In my neighborhood, we took it very seriously, and we played for keeps. I didn’t even feel bad when I bested one of my playmates and took one of their favorite marbles. I put it into my cloth bag, knowing full well that, tomorrow, they just might take mine.
At home each night, I would spread all my marbles across my bed, after I washed them, of course. There, with all my sparkling clean marbles spread before me, I felt like I was rich.
Which brings me to the fool in Jesus’ story.
I’ve always thought of him as being rich in gold and land, and that was what came between him and his soul. I wonder, though, if it might not have been marbles, or a stamp collection, or Instagram followers …
My point is I doubt any of us in this room consider ourselves to be financially rich, but we still might do well to ask, “What it is we value too much?” This rich fool in the Gospel lesson wasn’t accumulating things simply to have them; they were a hedge against death.
That is Jesus’ point. Too much of what we do in life is an effort to dull our awareness that we are going to die. The day will come for us all when our souls will be required of us.
Now, you have every right to sit there thinking, “Sheesh, this is the topic he picked for his first sermon?!? I can’t wait to see what he talks about on Good Friday.” Well, in my defense, this scripture was assigned to me by the common lectionary, which I try to follow because, well, I might otherwise avoid passages like this and topics such as death. I guess I could have talked about money, which would have been just about as popular. Death and money were common topics for Jesus. So, do not fear; we will get to deal with both.
We deal with money every day, but we do our best to avoid death because, as Woody Allen said, “We aren’t afraid of death, we just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
We have lots of ways to avoid death. Look at how talk about it. We say that someone has “passed on,” or “passed away,” or just “passed.” We speak of “resting in peace” or “kicking the bucket.” Death is the one thing we all have in common, but we somehow cannot bring ourselves to talk about it.
I don’t know how long it has been since you attended an old-fashioned funeral, but, with all the makeup and mood lighting, the deceased is often the healthiest looking person in the room. We call funerals or memorials “Celebrations of Life,” which is fine, but I’m not sure it is healthy that we can’t acknowledge that the person we knew and loved is dead and gone and someday we will be too.
Several years ago, I was asked to address a conference for death educators and grief counselors at their gathering in Albuquerque. I couldn’t really imagine what I had to say to them, but it was winter, and New Mexico sounded like a good escape.
As I began to try to put some thoughts together, I realized that I had survived pastoring a church where more than 1,500 young men died of HIV/AIDS. I thought perhaps I really had become an accidental expert in death and dying. I loved many of those guys. We all were about the same age back then, and I knew that wasn’t how life was supposed to work for any of us.
I suppose my talk was adequate because they have invited me back a couple of times, though it has never worked out for me to go. Then, about three years ago, on the night of my birthday in the middle of July, I discovered how little I actually knew about death and grief.
That night, the love of my life died. During the past three years, I have paid dearly for my education in this subject. When Bill died, I felt anger and shame. I felt anger at the church because it never taught me about death.
Oh, the church loves to talk about resurrection and eternal life, but preachers gloss all too quickly over the dying. My shame rests in the fact that I had been one of those preachers.
I don’t want to make the same mistake with you.
Now, before you think, “This is depressing,” let me explain that what I am learning is dealing with death, and facing the fact that we all are dying, may be the most meaningful and liberating experience for living.
So long as death remains the unseen, unacknowledged specter haunting our lives, we will, like the fool in Jesus’ story, continue to do things and accumulate things that we subconsciously believe will exempt us from death.
Which brings me to the other reason I thought this might be a good first sermon.
Like any project, life is best done with the end in mind.
Back where I come from, preachers talk a lot about where you are going when you die. The threat of hell or the allure of heaven seemed to be at the heart of what motivated every Christian. Well, you can decide what you believe about all of that, but, as for me, it isn’t very motivational.
Rather, what keeps me trying to run the race faithfully is my concern about who I am becoming along the way, and who I will become by the time my race is run.
Death reminds me that I have only so many days in which to make that determination. The finite nature of life makes each day precious and every action significant. With each word, with every action we express the shaping values of our lives.
That is the trouble with this rich fool. Jesus doesn’t say that he got his money through greed or exploitation. He isn’t described as a person who got rich by paying his workers substandard wages. No, he worked hard, and the earth produced abundantly.
His values are expressed, however, in how he dealt with that abundance. Notice he said to his soul, not his partner or his financial advisor. His wealth was his soul’s value, the part of him that is eternal. As Jesus points out, the part of him which ultimately will leave all he valued behind.
Listen to what he said:
I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, there I will store all my grain and goods, And I will say to my Soul …
I, I, I … ay, yay, yay!
He had wrapped his life in a very small package and lost the larger perspective on what was ultimately of importance, what endured forever. He had forgotten to be rich toward God or, in other words, to invest in that which is eternal.
So, how will you invest the limited time that is yours? What about you will live on after your soul is required of you?
Leontine Kelly was a hero of mine. She was the first African-American woman elected as a bishop by the United Methodist Church or by any mainline denomination for that matter. Bishop Kelly tells of a time when, as a little girl, her father, who also was a Methodist preacher, was assigned to an inner-city church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
It had been a white church, but the neighborhood had changed and became mostly African-American. Bishop Kelly said it was an awe-inspiring Gothic structure with stained glass windows and a huge crystal chandelier.
The parsonage was just as inspiring. Each child had their own bedroom, and there was a huge cellar that had not been opened for many, many years. One day, she and her brothers went down into the cellar to explore, and they happened upon a hidden passage that led to a tunnel. She ran to find her father to tell him, and he joined them in their exploration.
They discovered that the tunnel ran under the church and then led toward the Ohio River, which flowed just five blocks away.
Around the dinner table that night, Bishop Kelly's father explained, in reverent tones, that the tunnel once had been a part of the Underground Railroad that helped to smuggle the slaves escaping to freedom.
Then he said to them:
Children, I want you to remember as long as you live, that the greatness of this church is not this huge gothic building, but those tunnels. We are on sacred ground because these people risked their lives to do something great for God and good for our people.
That's exactly what God calls us all to do: something great for God and good for other people. My prayer is that the awareness of our own death will keep us from losing our souls while we yet live.