Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
As a child, if I couldn’t find anything I wanted to spend money on in Woolworths, or Bobby White’s, the local toy shop, I would go the post office with my modest job earnings and buy a few saving stamps. If I remember correctly, they cost 2/- each and you’d stick them in a little book in rows of five, two rows to a page, so that each page added up to a pound. It was really motivating to see the pages filling up. However, it was totally devastating to lose your book of stamps, as you might imagine, but that’s what happened one day when I got home and realised the book wasn’t with me. I looked everywhere and re-traced my steps, but it never did turn up. It took me ages to save those few pounds and ages to get over it: it sounds daft and very small scale now, but something of my future plans disappeared with that book. Mind you, somebody else’s plans probably received a boost! An early lesson, perhaps, that good intentions of securing the future come to nothing if the events of the present take them away. But planning financially for the future, while sensible in so many ways, has always been precarious. In recent years, the failure of businesses and threats to – even collapse of – pension schemes, and plummeting value of stocks and shares, have left even the most devout piggy bank shakers feeling, often justifiably, cheated, deceived and deprived of all they had so carefully planned and saved for. Perhaps it’s partly in response to that that we’ve seen the growth of the ‘buy now, and pay later’ culture, with all the bitter irony that lies hidden in that statement. The irony is compounded by the parable of the rich fool coming up in a week which has seen scathing criticism of Sir Philip Green, apparently sailing his £300 million yacht around the Greek Islands as BHS shut their doors and employees walked into an uncertain future.
Of course, it’s not only planning for the future financially that concerns us. The national upheaval of the past five weeks has called into question almost every kind of security. Political leadership and financial markets change by the day, while future funding for research, trade relationships, and the right to live, work and travel freely where we choose have ceased to be certainties. A deeply introspective trend in news coverage is entirely understandable in these circumstances. Nonetheless, the disappearance from the headlines and front pages of the many people in the world who have learned the meaning of insecurity through far greater hardship and terrible loss is striking, notwithstanding the horrors recently visited on Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany and France, to name only a few.
Given global warming and climate change, how do we plan for a future of rising sea levels, devastating droughts and brutal heatwaves, and balance that against the need to enable the people most affected to survive? Here at home, how we do manage the resources of our health service when a generation of obese children points to a whole host of future health problems? Internationally, with vast numbers of people on the move, how do we sensibly respond to the pressures of migration and countless refugees fleeing conflict, devastation and poverty? On these and any number of other issues, we, individually and communally, are constantly holding in tension the need to live as fully as possible in the present while trying to plan as wisely as possible for a future which is nearly always unpredictable.
As our readings today show, this is not a problem unique to modern times. They are a bit depressing on a bright, sunny morning, I’m afraid, partly because the image of the virtuous life they present is so obviously unattainable, and partly because they seem to epitomise the world-hating morality that religion has so often been accused of. The writer of Ecclesiastes can see no point at all in life. Everything for him is nullified by the unavoidable fact of death, and nothing is worth enjoying because it cannot be enjoyed for ever. So you might as well concentrate on the superficial and ephemeral, because everything is, ultimately, superficial and ephemeral. What’s more, he assumes this state of affairs is God’s doing, so even the thought of God’s eternity is no consolation. All is vanity, he moans (albeit quite poetically!) – a chasing after wind.
Jesus’s words in Luke seem to endorse this gloomy viewpoint. Here again, the emphasis is on death as the ultimate goal that creeps up on you and makes all your efforts worthless. Given that, you might just as well relax, eat, drink and be merry, because there’s no point in planning for a tomorrow you may well not get to see: You fool! the rich man is told, this very night your life is being demanded of you.
The remedy the Letter to the Colossians suggests for this state of affairs is hardly more cheering than the ailment. There is a long list of vices we somehow have to get rid of, or otherwise risk the wrath of God. Unfortunately, although we may not have done all the things on that list, we will certainly have done some, and we can’t be certain we will never again feel anger or greed. So, it appears our future is potentially blighted because stripping away the old self and clothing ourselves with the new self – renewed according to the image of our creator – while great in theory, seems impossible to achieve in practice.
That renewal, as well as Jesus’ parable, encourage us towards a serious process of accountability that raises some important questions: What really, really, matters to us? If our life were to be demanded of us this day, what would we count as our riches? What are the things that give real value to our existence? And what do we value above all else? Perhaps a central point of today’s Gospel story is to urge us to find some meaningful responses to those questions.
It is all too easy to put ourselves at the centre of our own universe, so that everything has to revolve around us. But it seems to me the story’s purpose is to shift the centre of importance elsewhere. It points up the folly of false security, enticing though that may be in its many attractive forms. The contrast between worldly wealth and spiritual poverty is heavily underscored, not because having possessions is intrinsically wrong, but because the management of even quite modest earthly belongings can become a preoccupation that pushes God to the margins.
The classic response to this Gospel is to conclude that Jesus is calling us to spurn worldly riches in favour of the eternal riches of God. True wealth means finding in God the most dependable source of love, provision and security. But that can sometimes come across as clichéd, overly pious or other worldly. So what might it look like in concrete terms? Where do we find the riches of God here and now? Well, in the Christian understanding, it is in the very human – yet mysteriously divine – life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we encounter all we need to know of God. The consequence of the incarnation is that divinity is forever to be discovered in our humanity. In two pastoral conversations recently, people have said to me that they have found that what mattered most to them, especially in times of adversity and challenge, but also more broadly, were the human relationships that sustain their lives. It is something we will celebrate with Nicholas and Novita in a few minutes, though it isn’t, of course, confined to marriage, or blood relatives, or those who happen to live closest to us.
The Jesus we meet in Luke’s Gospel persuades us we will be most rich in God when we are rich in all our human relationships in the universal family, made in the divine image – and not least with those who feel, for one reason or another, that they don’t belong. So let us not give in to the cynicism, negativity and despair of the writer of Ecclesiastes, and let us not be tempted to build bigger barns to store yet more transient treasures in. And – this is hard – let us not give up on anyone in the human family, because, in the Christian understanding, that would mean giving up on God. Instead, let us try to put on that new nature, and secure a more hopeful future and a lasting treasure by enlarging our universe.
Last sentence: we do well to recall that the Jesus story ends not with despair and death, but with hope and with life – all the limitless possibilities of an empty tomb.