Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Drifting Toward Idolatry

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 12:13-21
August 1, 2010
Pentecost 10--Proper 13C

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

Jesus said, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And I doubt that anyone here today would argue with that. “A man’s life [certainly] does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Possessions can be a blessing and, at the same time, a curse. Many of you, I know, lost a fair share of your things in the flood ten days ago. Possessions that were securely stowed in basements a few weeks ago—those same possessions are now piled high at the curb—soggy, and moldy and ruined.

Our lives often become intertwined with our possessions. Many of our things are invested with meaning and emotion: a wedding dress, a photo album, a gift from a loved one. It is painful—it hurts—to lose those kinds of possessions. They are, in a sense, reminders—tokens—of God’s goodness and mercy. But that is all they are, just reminders and tokens. Those things themselves have nothing to do with who you are in Jesus Christ. Your God treasures you and loves you no matter how much or how little you have. You were a child of God, holy and dearly loved, before the flash flood came; and your status in that respect is unchanged—come hell or high water.

But possessions can also be perilous. There is always the danger—always the temptation—to draw our meaning and security and identity from the people and things around us, rather than from the God who created us, redeemed us, and makes us holy. And when this happens—when our deepest sense of identity comes from the things and the people around us—the problem runs far deeper than simple greed. Greed, we learned from Colossians today, is really idolatry—having another god.

The drift toward idolatry always happens slowly and gradually. Nobody (at least no Christian) wakes up in the morning and says, “I think I’m going to start committing idolatry today. Starting today, I’m going to draw my security, my identity and my very life from the people and possessions around me. I’m going to stop setting my mind on things above, and start setting my mind squarely on earthly things.” Of course, that’s not the way it happens. But how does it happen? How do greed and idolatry take over?

The parable we heard from Jesus today is a case study on greed and the drift toward idolatry. It’s often called the parable of the rich fool; but I think that title makes it far too easy to dismiss the main character as someone that most of us could never identify with. I think he’s not so different from us. For instance, please notice that the rich man got rich, not through scheming or stealing or gambling or real estate or playing the stock market. No, Jesus reports that the man was a farmer, and that his land produced a good crop—a bumper harvest. It was God who provided the seeds, the sun, the soil and the rain. It was God who gave the growth. It was God who gave the man his wealth.

Do you believe that about your wealth and your possessions? Do you believe that it is God who has placed these things into your hands? Or perhaps it’s not a black and white issue? Perhaps your possessions and wealth are 50 percent your accomplishment and 50 percent God’s doing. Or is it 70-30 or 80-20? Is all that you have a gift from God; or would you be more inclined to say, “I worked for it. I earned it. I bought it. It’s mine?” How you view your possessions says as much about you as it says about your God.

As for the man in the parable, we don’t know exactly how he viewed his spectacular harvest. His plan to build bigger barns was probably a rather prudent thing to do. Without barns to store it, his crop would just pile up on the ground and eventually become rotten. Nor do I think we can find fault with the man’s decision to “take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” Those words don’t sound much different from what King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes about how “a man can do nothing better than eat, drink and find satisfaction in his work.” There’s no crime in enjoying God’s good gifts. Would you honestly have done anything differently if you had been in this man’s shoes?

Then why—why does God eventually call the man a “fool?” How was it that this man quietly, slowly, almost imperceptibly drifted into idolatry? Well, judging from the words of the parable (which is all we have to go on) perhaps the man started to drift when he called the crops “my” crops. Perhaps he drifted a little further when he called the barns “my” barns. Perhaps he drifted further still when he called the grain and the goods “my” grain and “my” goods. And although it’s not reflected in the translation you heard today, at one point the man refers to his very soul as “my soul.” It’s just a tiny, two-letter word—a possessive pronoun that can’t even stand alone. But where you place your possessive pronouns can make all the difference between being wise men and women—or being a faithless fool. Perhaps the road to idolatry is paved—not so much with money—but with misplaced possessive pronouns.

There’s only one remedy for those who have drifted into idolatry—those who sinfully refuse to acknowledge God as the giver of every good and perfect gift. The remedy we need to reverse course is contentment. “Godliness with contentment is great gain,” the Scriptures say (1 Tim. 6:6). I love the way that an old King Solomon describes contentment in today’s reading from Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing better for a person than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without Him, who can find enjoyment?” Being satisfied with what we have—being content with what God so graciously gives us—that itself is a gift from God. This is the gift of contentment. This is the remedy for idolatry. Do you have this gift?

There was one man who was perfectly content—a man who found perfect fulfillment in the work He was given to do. His work, He said, was to do the will of the Father. And the work He did, He did for you and for your salvation. As a true man like you, Jesus toiled and labored under the same hot sun that shines down on us in these dog days of summer. With all knowledge, wisdom and skill Jesus set out to do the work appointed for Him. His work reached its climax on Good Friday. It was a labor of pain and grief. And all that Jesus accomplished at that placed called “Golgotha”—the forgiveness of sins, opening the kingdom of heaven to all believers—these precious gifts Jesus gives away—gives away to those who follow Him in faith. You didn’t work for it. You didn’t earn it. You don’t even deserve it. And that’s why we call it “grace.” (Amazing grace!)

In your baptism Jesus filled the empty void inside you—that same empty void that always wants to name and claim everything as “my” and “mine.” Jesus has filled that void with His Holy Spirit, who daily and richly forgives you all of your sins. And in place of those sins, Jesus gives you His perfect record of obedience. His perfect work record belongs to you, and your future is now tied to Jesus. “You died,” Paul wrote, “and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col 3). In that resurrection promise you have contentment. You don’t have to run on empty. You don’t have to run the rat race for more and better and bigger. You can be content with what you have because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).

So let it begin today. Give up on chasing after the wind. A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. Watch out when you find yourself attaching the word “my” and “mine” to the people and things of this world. Rather, like Thomas, you can lay claim to something better. You can lay claim to the resurrected Christ as “my Lord and my God” (Jn. 20) “Our Savior!” (That’s a great way to use your possessive pronouns!) Count the blessings He so richly gives. Rejoice in your work. And you will learn to enjoy life through God’s gift of contentment. Amen.

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