It is good to be back with you after a few weeks of holiday. And it is good to be back for a few weeks before the regular activities of the congregation begin again for the fall season.
This is an active and busy congregation, filled with many good and worthwhile events in any given week. But in the midst of those enjoyable and meaningful activities and events, we are also a community that comes together in times of loss – and there can be no doubt that the past few months, in our congregation, have been marked by an unusually significant degree of loss.
Over the past year, we have mourned the loss of a large number of longstanding and faithful servants of the church, friends who have played important roles in our lives and in our community. Maureen Boyd, Maggie Kong, Christine Featherstone, Grant Farrow, Remmelt Hummelen, Lorraine Irvine’s mother and father, Susan Goodwin’s mother, Iain Nicol, Shauna Brown, Donald Guthrie, Christine Buske and this coming Tuesday morning, we will gather to remember and give thanks for the life of Eric Reynolds.
Each of these individuals have touched and deepened our lives, and the lives of members of our community of faith, in profound and powerful ways.
In some cases, their deaths did not come as a surprise or a shock, but rather after long periods of decline and struggle. In other cases, death was not preceded by a prolonged period of difficulty, which added a degree of unanticipated rawness to the sadness.
What is always fascinating, when a loved one dies, and in times of preparing for their funerals or memorial services, are the stories and memories that emerge. Without doubt, loved ones recount challenges and struggles that the dearly departed had to endure, but what also comes through are the good memories – the joyful moments, the cherished times, the qualities and virtues that marked the person’s life, the stories that bring laughter as well as tears to the eyes. It is this breadth and diversity of life’s experiences — the joys, the challenges, the shared experiences, the good qualities, the hurdles overcome — that shape the words and thoughts and memories when life has drawn to a close. Such words and memories help to remind us about what the true measure of a well-lived life actually is, they help to remind us of what a good life consists of.
And I think that is what Jesus was talking about in today’s suggested Gospel lesson.
Today’s Gospel lesson, at least at first glance, seems to be a screed against materialism, focusing our attention on the foolishness of greedily seeking to amass huge amounts of wealth. The parable that Jesus tells, of a farmer who was blessed with abundant and fertile crops, and who built larger and larger barns in order to store his goods, thinking that such storehouses would safeguard and preserve his enjoyment of life, indefinitely, seems to be a story disparaging the piling up of material goods.
Such a reading has much to commend it. But there seems to be a deeper significance to the story – and one that reveals the insights that Christ can offer to us about how to keep perspective on what is truly important in life. Maybe this story is not simply a parable about the foolishness of focusing entirely on storing up one’s wealth, and instead a story about what is necessary and good for the flourishing of the human soul.
Consider, after all, the words that are placed on the lips of the farmer which reveal his strange assumption that the successful accumulation of vast wealth was going to guarantee peace and joy to his own soul. “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry.’”
But, unexpectedly, that night, the man’s life drew to a close. What he had worked hard to accumulate and store up for himself, what he was counting on to bring peace, joy, relaxation to the very depths of his soul, was rendered useless to him. His futile – and foolish – assumption that his soul would enjoy a long and enduring satisfaction simply because he had some extra crops piled up in a barn was revealed to be a foolish assumption and a waste of the last hours of his life.
And the prelude to Jesus’ story was reminds us, as readers, that Jesus was inviting his readers to remember and to ponder the foolishness of spending one’s life preoccupied with amassing wealth that could neither satisfy nor endure. “And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’
One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
What, then, were more accurate measures of what life should consist of?
At least one dimension of the answer to such a question is hinted at in the setting for today’s reading. That is, Jesus’ words were offered in response to a question that had been brought to him by an unnamed individual in the crowd. We read, “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’” Such a question was not unique to that man’s life, nor to that period of time in human history. Lawyers and judges, even in our age, continue to be sought out to help family members, and often siblings, to settle difficult disputes related to family inheritances and divisions of property. One might even assume that the person wanted Jesus to intervene, to weigh in on his behalf, appealing to Jesus to help him win a family battle.
But Jesus did not weigh in. He would not play the judge or the arbiter. Because he knew that whatever amount of money that the man stood to inherit or to share was not going to add real value or meaning or worth to the man’s life – and, in fact, Jesus knew that such winning such disputes often come at the cost of sacrificing a relationship with a member of his own family. As such, even if he won the dispute, the man’s soul would be no more at peace, his life would be no better off if he got a share of the inheritance but damaged his relationship in the process.
Was the inheritance situation fair? Probably not. But Jesus was not there to judge the fairness or unfairness of a situation in which what was at stake was how much money the man would stand to gain if he “won”. Jesus was there to safeguard and to save the man’s soul, to lift from him the assumption that winning the dispute with his brother would bring him peace or joy or enduring satisfaction. Jesus was there to restore him to the fullness and blessing of a life that would rise above, and triumph over, and outlast, any fleeting benefit that he might gain from winning some little portion of the family pie. There was a bigger issue at stake, and Jesus knew the bigger picture.
Jesus’ response to the man, and to the situation, can be good for us to ponder in every part of our lives. Jesus, after all, had not come to guarantee that life would always be fair, or perfect, or even easy – a fact that we are reminded of when we gather together to remember the life of a loved one – life has difficulties. And Jesus had not come to be an arbiter or advocate who would help us to win in every situation as long as we call on him for help.
Rather, he had come to safeguard and to save our souls, to help us to discover, and to discern, and to realize what is important in life. He had come to give life, and to give it in abundance. He came to help us to remember what life – real life, blessed life, true life – consists of.
So what does the good life consist of? What is the consistency of a life lived in response to the good news of God in Jesus Christ?
Well, it does not consist in the amount of crops in a barn or the amount of money in the bank or in the degree of ease and comfort that we have built for our future well-being. Working to provide for our lives, and planning for the future are not wrong in themselves – but if we place our trust in those accumulations of stuff, we are as foolish as the man in this parable. Rather, the real stuff of life, the real consistency of a well-lived existence, is whether we seek to live with love for God, for our neighbor, even for our enemy. It is a life set free from the delusion that wealth and security are commodities to be hoarded and piled up, but rather that true wealth and true security are discovered in the degree of generosity, compassion and neighbourliness that we are able to demonstrate in actions that actually bring satisfaction to the human soul. It is a life in which we live in an honest and humble awareness of our own brokenness, but also in a confident embrace of the forgiveness that God so freely offers to us and that covers all our sins. It is a life in which we – unlike the landowner in Jesus’ parable — face every day in the awareness of our human limitations, our frailties, our finitude, our mortality – but nonetheless undaunted in our desire to live every day with a grateful and trusting awareness of the abundance, the love, the grace that surrounds us and bathes each and every one of us at each and every moment of our existence.
As we have been reminded in this community on so many occasions, over the past year, there will come a time, for each and every one of us, when time in this world will be no more, when all of life’s joys and sorrows, all of life’s accomplishments and struggles, all of life’s achievements and failures, will be behind us. But until that moment comes, we have lives to live, in fullness, in peace, in joy. We have gifts, resource, talents, opportunities and abilities that are meant to be cultivated and shared generously and well, as so many of these departed friends have done. As they did, each one of us has love to offer to one another and to a world that desperately needs it. Each one of us has a soul that will never be satisfied – as the farmer in Jesus’ story assumed — by the size of our barns and storehouses, but only by the size of hearts and lives offered in love.
And, thanks be to God, we have One who not only told us some great stories, a long time ago, about how to live well, but also gave his life to show us, once and for all, that not even death has the power to swallow up a life lived with that perfect love.
And for that, all that we can say is, thanks be to God.