I am preaching this Sunday at the Parish of North Essa while the rector there takes some well deserved vacation. This two-point parish in the Diocese of Toronto is a gem of rural ministry and I am looking forward to being with their people again.
Texts this Sunday, Proper 13C, 11th Sunday After Pentecost: Hosea 11:1-11 or Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12: 13-21
A story from Saturday’s New York Times made helped me understand today’s Gospel reading from Luke in terms of how God expects a good accounting of our lives, and what that good accounting might look like.
In 1994, doormen working at a posh apartment building on Manhattan’s East Side befriended an elderly man. They first noticed him because as he walked he would often bend down and pick up scraps of trash, doing his bit to keep the neighbourhood tidy. His first words to the doormen were written on a scrap of paper: “Hi, my name is Bernhardt but call me Ben. I can’t take, but I can hear.” Over years of friendship, Ben would bring the doormen coffee and Spanish newspapers, and teach them, via his written notes, how to improve their English. Like others on the block, the doormen learned that Ben lived on social security in a small one-room apartment that cost ten dollars a day, and had almost no possessions. Nevertheless he was unfailingly happy, loved talking to people and would stop to pet their dogs. In return people showered him with shoes and clothes, and even tickets to the opera, which he loved.
Ben’s doormen friends would arrange Ben’s appointments for his many medical issues, and when he died of prostate cancer earlier this month, they raised the money for his funeral. Because Ben had served in the military during the Korean War, they arranged for a military honour guard to be at his funeral. One of his doormen friends, Mr.Jorge Grisales, kept the US flag presented at the funeral and plans to frame it and display it in his house. Mr. Griasales told the New York Times that his friend “always smiled. He never complained. He was just wonderful. “ His colleague, Mr. Arias, said that Ben “had plenty of reasons to be unhappy. But I never saw him unhappy.”
One could see Ben’s story as the polar opposite of the story of the wealthy man in today’s gospel from Luke. While Ben had no wealth, he was rich in spirit and rich in his connections with other people. His kindness, his interest in others, and the generosity he inspired are all important values in Luke’s gospel, as we have heard if we have been following the lectionary these last few weeks. From the parable of the Good Samaritan to the story of Martha and Mary welcoming Jesus and his disciples (possibly a great number) into their house, this part of Luke’s gospel stresses hospitality, the generosity, love, and attention fo those around us that are demanded of those who wish to love and follow God.
By contrast, the prosperous farmer in Luke’s gospel may have abundant crops, but he seems impoverished in human relationships. As Jesus tells the parable, we hear nothing of the man’s connections with others. When he thinks about how he will cope with all his harvest, he doesn’t take counsel of family or friends. All we hear is that he “thought to himself”. His conversation with himself — “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Lk 11:19) also has a solitary quality to it. There is no of any others that he wishes to share his wealth with, which is not surprising, considering that if he shared his abundant crops with others, he would not have the problem of needing to build bigger barns.
Of course, it doesn’t work out sa the rich man planned, because he dies suddenly in the night. Jesus finishes with the ironic comment, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ (Lk 11:20). That comment reminds me of the end of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and the scene which horrifies Scrooge so much, of his possessions being haggled over by others. Jesus’ final comments may be addressed to the man in the crowd who asks him to intervene in a dispute over an inheritance. Perhaps Jesus is saying to the man, do you not realize that just as you want your share of someone’s estate, so one day, perhaps soon, after your death others will want what you have?
I was thinking of this last week, when I helped a friend take home a piece of furniture she had bought at an estate auction. As I walked through the warehouse and saw all of the small things of someone’s life being carted off by others - tables, spoons, plates - I found it impossible not to think of my own things one day being divided among strangers. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with estate sales, indeed, I would like my things to be enjoyed by others when I am gone, but there is a certain healthy awareness of our mortality that comes from attending an estate sale. The knowledge that we can’t take our things with us should be healthy reminder that God judges us by what we do in life, rather than what we leave behind at our death.
As Christians, we believe that however long our lives may be, and however much we are blessed in life, we should live with the knowledge that on some day we will have to give an accounting to God for how we have lived. Today’s gospel makes that point indirectly. Jesus states this idea much more clearly in the Parable of the Talents, where three servants are judged by a king for how they have used the money he has entrusted to them (Matthew 25:14-30; see also Luke 19:12-28). Later in Luke 12, Jesus makes the point another way, when he speaks of servants who must be ready at any time for their Master’s return (Lk 12: 35-39). In all of these passages, Jesus reminds us that an accounting may be asked of us at any time, and warns us to be spiritually ready for that day.
At the beginning of July I learned of the death of a dear friend, whom I had met in the Army. My friend had retired five years ago, returned to his home time, and was building a successful second career. He had a lovely and loving family, and at age 49, should have had many happy years ahead of him, but on a Saturday morning he died suddenly on a golf course. My friend’s funeral was amazing and showed a life that was truly, as Jesus said, “rich towards God”. His wife and children showed the resilience of a marriage and family built on love and strength. Army friends, all senior officers in middle age, carried his casket. Family and friends spoke of a man man who gave freely to others as a father, a friend, a soldier and a colleague. While everyone who filled that large church was shocked and saddened by this untimely death, we all knew that this was a life lived well, a life lived for God and for others, and we all knew that we were blessed by that life in so many ways.
It’s natural to want a long and healthy life, one that we can live to the full measure. However, we also know that we are mortal. Indeed, the church reminds us of that each year, on Ash Wednesday, when we are told to remember that we are to dust, and to dust we shall return. Any congregation that worships beside a cemetery, like Christ Church St Jude’s where we were last week, knows this. Our lives come from God, and at some point, perhaps sooner, perhaps later, we will be accountable to God for them. My Army friend was very different from Ben, the man in my opening story. Some would say that my friend could count more blessings, in that he had a comfortable life, a nice house, a family, a rewarding career. Sometimes it is easy to mistake these things are goods in and of themselves, and to believe that blessings are things we should hold tightly, for feat that we lose them. In fact, both men, my friend and Ben in New York City, both lived good lives with good priorities. For these two men, if the words of their friends and loved ones are any indication, and I believe that they are, then they gave a good accounting to God. May the same be said of us at our passing. Amen.