July 31, 2016

Pentecost Proper – 13

Luke 12:13-21


In August of 2014 Roxanne Roberts wrote an article for the Style section of the New York Times titled, “Why the super-rich aren’t leaving much of their fortunes to their kids.”  In the article the popular music artist, Sting, is reported to be leaving little of his $300 million fortune to his five kids. Bill and Melinda Gates are said to have a plan to leave a mere $10 million to each of their three children.  This does not sound meager to us, but it is a small slice of the Gates’ total worth of $76 billion. Gloria Vanderbilt at that time had designated not one penny for her son, Anderson Cooper.  And Warren Buffet and his wife were quoted as follows:  “[T]he perfect amount to leave children is ‘enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.’”

The article highlighted the fear that these parents have had of leaving their children so much money that they become impotent or incapacitated. A prevailing theme in their remarks was a concern that their children might not live up to the American ethic of hard work.  For people of faith we might express our concern as not wanting to deprive our children of seeking their spiritual purpose. This is what Parker Palmer calls “the birthright gift of self,” or whatFrederick Buechner describes as the journey to "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need." The heart of the concern expressed by these exceptionally wealthy parents was one about vocation and formation of character.

In Luke’s gospel today, a man comes to Jesus with his own concern about inheritance. “Hey, Jesus!  Tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” Jesus refuses to be seduced into playing the role of public arbitrator, and instantly proves himself to be instead the judge of the heart. “Watch your greed,” he warns. Jesus then tells the parable we all know by heart about the man whose crops were so successful that he pledged to build new barns to preserve his goods as if that might  somehow preserve his life.  But barns of any size can burn. Food stores can be spoiled. Wine can go sour. You and I might die before we can manage to eat everything in the refrigerator, freezer and pantry. There is no immunization from worry, and there is no immunization from death.

The question that preachers take up time and again related to this parable is this. Is Jesus teaching us about the goods and the stuff? Or is he teaching us about the attachment to the goods and the stuff? Most likely he teaches us about both. But the attachment can be as paralyzing as maintaining the stuff. The Venerable Zen Master Miao Tsan helps to make this clear in his recent book, living truth: the path of light.  When we identify a certain thing or worldview as our security, we form attachments to those versions of reality in a way that our minds become less flexible. He explains it this way.  People in one country may think they have the right to govern a particular piece of land outside their legal border.  People in a neighboring country may also feel they have the same entitlement. The danger is that war can erupt between the countries over the piece of disputed land, even if neither country really needs it. The Zen master writes, “The desire for happiness is universal, but it cannot be obtained through external means.”

When we hear Jesus’ words, we can see a certain pattern. Focus on earthly treasures for the self has an inflowing direction. Focus on being “rich toward God” has an outgoing direction. It is as if we are told to spend less time pulling all of creation unto ourselves, and more time pushing our all toward God. That is the purpose and nature of zakat, tzedakah, the tithe, the collection plate, and the ancient Jewish tradition of leaving a corner of the field from which the poor may glean and feed.

A living example that I will never forget came in a Bill Moyers interview of Farmer Worker Organizer, Baldemar Velasquez, in 2013.  Velasquez is a career-long organizer of migrant farm workers in the U.S. Toward the end of the interview, Moyers inquired if it were true that Velasquez had no pension; no retirement plan. Velasquez non-anxiously confirmed. As Moyers sat stunned, Velasquez stated the profoundly obvious. “No, I don’t.  And neither do the farm workers.” This kind of faithfulness and detachment is almost inconceivable in our culture.

Our effort as Jesus teaches should not go toward constantly approximating our life savings and sources of earthly security, but rather toward unceasingly approximating the one who in the book of Acts is said to know everyone’s heart.

The goal, brothers and sisters, is not the barn. The goal is to be rich toward God.