Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
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Starfish are strange creatures. I can’t figure out for the life of me what God was thinking. I mean, we don’t eat them. They aren’t especially beautiful. As near as I can tell, they serve no purpose. They are just there. And we wouldn’t even know they were there if they didn’t occasionally wash up on the shore, where they perish because they don’t have enough brains to stay in the water. In fact, they don’t have brains at all. Go figure. We’ll come back to starfish later. Maybe.
Most mainline ministers preach from the Revised Common Lectionary—a list of Bible verses suggested for each Sunday morning of the year. I am not one of those ministers, although I always read the suggested texts, and occasionally choose to shape my message around the suggested readings.
For August, the lectionary is based mostly on Luke’s Gospel, and I decided it would be good for us all to spend a few weeks with Luke. Luke is hard on folks like you and me. Luke’s is the social gospel—the gospel that constantly reminds us of our duties and obligations to the poor and oppressed of the world. And let’s be honest. There aren’t a whole lot of oppressed people at University Congregational Church. If the world is separated into the haves and the have-nots, we are most definitely the haves.
But that is probably all the more reason to spend a little time with Luke. Some hold that the Gospel of Luke insists we give away every last cent and become one of the blessed poor. It is in Luke, remember, that Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Frankly, I don’t want to be blessed in that way. I don’t want to be poor. I like having food in the fridge and some money in the bank. And as I’ve said many times, if any one of us really were to give away everything we have to the poor of this world, in a couple of days nothing would have changed, except for the fact the rest of us would have one more poor person to take care of.
And honestly, if the Christian message is that each of us must give away everything we have, then I will never be able to truly call myself a Christian, and neither will many of you. But I don’t think that is Jesus’ message—not even his message as portrayed in the Gospel of Luke. Let’s revisit that parable we heard read from the lectern this morning, expanding it a bit, and putting it in context.
This is called the “Parable of the Rich Fool.” This parable does not occur in a vacuum. Jesus has been teaching the crowds, and his topics preceding this parable include the hypocrisy of many religious leaders, God’s ultimate authority over all things, and the promise of God’s grace and mercy. Jesus then tells people to trust the Holy Spirit of God in their lives—that those who are faithful will never be abandoned by God. Taken as a whole, this series of teachings reminds people to devote their lives to God unconditionally, having complete confidence in God, and in God’s purposes.
It is right in the middle of all this that somebody asks Jesus to intervene in a family situation. Before I read this passage, I should mention that the text makes more sense if we understand the inheritance laws in first century Palestine. The oldest son received a double share of the family’s wealth, the intention being to carry on the family name, and maintain any power the family had acquired as a result of its wealth. This probably seemed a bit unfair to the other children in the family.
In all likelihood, the person who confronts Jesus in this passage has just been on the receiving end of an unfair inheritance, and would like the great teacher and sage from Nazareth to put things right. This is Luke 12:13-21:
Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 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.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
First, let me say that I know there are rich fools in this world. But let me hasten to say I do not think this parable applies to anybody at University Congregational Church. I chose to preach on this parable this morning not to make anybody feel guilty, but rather to lift the guilt some may be carrying around as a result of harsh or narrow readings of Luke’s gospel.
We should look closely at this rich fool in the parable. We should notice that he is not condemned for having wealth. It isn’t the fact that he has lots of possessions that makes him a fool; rather, it is the fact that he seems to measure his life through his possessions. He has been blessed with an abundance of possessions, but his only concern seems to be with keeping what he has and acquiring even more, hopefully without having to break a sweat in the process.
One of the joys of my life is being able to devote some of my time to the community of Wichita. It keeps me in touch with the needs that are all around us, but which often go unnoticed by most people. I tell you with all honesty that I am constantly amazed at the good work being done by the people of this church. I’ll be talking to the director of a non-profit organization that operates local homeless shelters, and will discover that some of the people of this church are that organization’s primary contributors.
I’ll be visiting another non-profit that works with at-risk children, and discover the home in which they live was donated by members of this church. I will be in another venue and learn that there are countless college scholarships being sponsored by the members and families of University Congregational Church.
I learn these things on my own! People don’t come up to me tell me what wonderful things they are doing with their money. They just do them. I know that not all people are like that, whether they are rich by American standards, or rich by world standards—and every person here this morning is wealthy by the standards of the world.
It has something to do with the type of people who are drawn to a faith community. They know there is something…something big going on here. Life is not all about me me me. Our needs, our desires, our hopes are not the center of the universe. It is that understanding that draws us to worship, to open ourselves to the mystery of life, to seek ways to make this planet a better place for all who live upon it.
And that means we have turned away from one of the primary messages that is shaping our culture. To come to this place—to say yes to the call of the spirit, and to open our hearts to the mystery—this means we are saying no to something else. It means we are saying no to some of the powers that are driving our culture.
Some modern theologians claim homo-sapiens have evolved, and that future generations will look back on the creatures we have now become, and call us homo-economus, or homo-consumerus. We are economic beings. We exist in the world differently than human beings of the past. And our culture encourages us from our earliest days not to love; not to care for the planet; not to give out of our abundance; but rather to acquire, to hoard, to spend our days trying to have more more more.
It’s what makes the world go around, or so we are told. The economy would be great if everybody would just work a little harder so they could buy a little more. But when is enough enough? Do we ever reach a point where we say, “I have all the money, all the possessions I need.”?
I don’t think so. I’ve certainly not gotten there myself! And I will be the first to admit that when I see those new 350 horsepower cars that can go from zero to sixty in just a few seconds, I picture myself behind the wheel—me, the guy who is constantly accused by my family of driving like a little old man. And when I see those new houses that have all the modern conveniences and space for 10 kids, I somehow forget that my kids are grown—that I’m at a time in life when I need less space, not more.
But like most of you, I’m a product of our culture. I am homo-consumerus, and if I start feeling the blues, nothing brings me out of it like going out and buying something—a book, a Swiss army knife, a pool table, a car—it all depends on the severity of my blues attack. I know some people out there are looking at me and thinking that it was only their spouses who try to spend their way out of depression. No, homo-consumerus crosses all boundaries of sex, age, and background, and I have the pool table, mini-fridge, electronic talking dartboard, closet packed with clothes, and two lawn mowers to prove it.
Of course, we have to be careful not to turn all manner of commerce into some sort of damnable sin. I’m happy for the guy who sold me my first lawn mower—it’s the guy who sold me the second one I could do without! Why I was convinced I would never achieve true happiness if I didn’t have both a rear-bagger and a mulching mower I’ll never know. But they sit side by side in my garage, and in all honesty, that second mower has not significantly improved my quality of life.
Jesus, by all accounts, worked as a carpenter. He and his father had every right to make an honest living, and I’m certain the profit motive was involved somewhere in their business. The Apostle Paul worked as a tentmaker, or a crafter of leather goods. Paul brags in his letters about how he earned his own money when he traveled around starting churches, selling leather goods in the town markets, and being a financial burden to no one. I think it’s safe to say he did not sell his crafts at cost.
There is nothing wrong, and everything right, about making an honest living. And that is why it is sad to twist the Gospel of Luke into some sort of manifesto that insists only the poorest of the poor stand in God’s favor. Still, it is necessary, at some point, for those of us who are the haves in this world, to not only reach out with assistance to the poor, but to examine our own complicity in the systems that keep the oppressed oppressed. And there has never been of shortage of people, in the ancient world or in the modern world, who are willing to take advantage of the poorest of the poor.
The Prophet Amos was not exactly a barrel of laughs, but he made some good points when he stopped screaming long enough to be understood. Listen to his words, from the 8th chapter of Amos:
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah (EE-faw) small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’
In that passage, the greedier merchants are lamenting that they cannot sell their wares on the Sabbath. Let me explain what it means when it reads, “We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances.” An ephah was a unit of measurement—about a half bushel. It was common practice to use faulty scales to measure out food, so people would be paying for more than what they actually received—especially the poor, who were in no position to argue with the wealthy merchants. Likewise, when it reads “selling the sweepings of the wheat,” it refers to the dusty leftovers from a bushel of wheat. It can’t be sold to the elite of the city, so sell it to the poor, and charge them a pretty penny for it.
The modern world has its many equivalents. I spent a month this summer in Chicago, mostly in Hyde Park, which is a cultural enclave six miles south of downtown, surrounded by a terribly blighted urban area. I couldn’t help but notice the gasoline prices were higher in south Chicago. After all, the justification goes, there is a lot of crime in that area—the cost of doing business if higher. The groceries were more expensive. The liquor was more expensive (I was just looking at the ads, mind you!) Even the clothing cost more in the poorest part of Chicago than it did when you traveled to the more upscale suburbs.
And that’s the case everywhere, including Wichita. About a year ago I was trying to help a person who had gone through some really tough times get a car so he could drive back and forth to work. Nobody would give him normal credit, and his only chance was to go to a car lot that specialized in selling to people who had gone through financial difficulties. We could not even get the salesman to tell us how much his cars cost. The answer was, “Well, this car costs $192 a month.” Okay, but what is the actual selling price? We never did get a straight answer. And while math has never been my forte, I was able to crunch the numbers well enough to realize my friend was going to end up paying at least double the book value of the car.
The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And maybe that’s just the way it is. Maybe that’s the way it has always been and will always be. Maybe in God’s grand design the poor have been placed on this planet as a sort of test for us. Out of our abundance we can either ease their suffering and work against the powers that oppress them; or we can do what so many have done ever since the time of Amos—take advantage of the situation.
Either way, I know on which side of that equation the people of this congregation reside. I’m reminded time and again as I go about my work in the community. And you really are changing the world for the better. Remember the story of the little boy walking along the beach? He is shocked as he discovers thousand and thousands of starfish washed upon the shore, all dying. He picks one up and throws it back into the ocean, saving its life. He takes a few steps, picks up another starfish, and also throws it back into the ocean. And a man comes up beside him and says, “You silly child. Don’t you see all those starfish? There’s nothing you can do to change things. They are going to die.”
And the boy picks up yet another starfish and, throwing it into the sea, says, “That one isn’t.” I am so proud, and humbled, by the people of this church, as I learn of all the starfish you are throwing back into the sea. smf