Sermon preached at Newcastle Cathedral on Sunday 4th August 2019.
Texts: Ecclesiastes 1.2,12-14 – Colossians 3.1-11 – Luke 12.13-21.
Today’s Gospel is not about people who failed to lay up treasure in heaven because they were rich. Today’s readings urge us to trust not in our own strength, but to know the love of God which is wisdom, to burn brightly with the love of God, to live that love in our lives, and to let God’s love be our hope, now and for ever.
Once upon a time, I asked a foolish question. I asked a Franciscan brother to teach me how to pray. He smiled, and gave me a book. The book taught me many things about prayer. How to sit, how to stand, how to breathe, what to think… and I followed its instructions to the letter. Again and again… I sat, I stood, I breathed, I thought… I huffed and I puffed, and I blew myself heavenward… and the house of God was barely touched. I was left standing outside – hungry, tired and frustrated.
I huffed and I puffed… and I began to realise that maybe this wasn’t the way to get into the house of God. Sitting, standing, breathing, thinking. I went back to the brother, rather annoyed. He smiled and took the book back. And said, “Now, sit… and just listen.” I was not going to learn how to pray… by my own effort. That wretched book had taught me that. Sitting, standing, breathing, thinking… prayer wasn’t something I could work towards like that.
This morning’s Gospel is a dangerous one for Christians… because we read it and with not too much reflection the message seems relatively obvious.
A man who wants Jesus to help him get an inheritance. Fair enough. But Jesus tells him a parable. The rich man who has so many crops he tears down his barns to build bigger barns. He’s made it. His moneybags are literally bursting at the seams. Soul, he says to himself, relax, eat, drink, be merry!
But he doesn’t realise that even as he plans to enjoy his riches… his life is drawing to its close… and he hasn’t made the investment that really counts. So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.
The meaning seems clear. Don’t spend your life working just for wealth, which others will enjoy when you die. Spend your life working for God. Lay up treasure in a heavenly storehouse. Earn your angelic platinum max card with the bank of heavenly righteousness.
And the letter to the Colossians offers a very handy investors’ guide for those who set their minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
How to earn your credit? Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed. Get rid of anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language. Do not lie! Do all this and you will get access to the first class lounge, for the best of the best… with the free drinks and the complimentary meals that are always slightly smaller than you’d have liked.
Work hard… do this… and you’re brilliant!!!! You’ve made it!!!
But into this glossy brochure for the aspiring pharisee… pulling himself up to his feet as if he is about five pounds heavier than he actually is, making what an outside observer would have thought was a heroic effort to cross the room… lollops the Bible’s Eeyore.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Shut up, Ecclesiastes! We’ve almost got them to sign the dotted line. // Come this way, people of God. Be better than everyone else. Work hard for your place in heaven!
What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation. Even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
People of God… do you want to sign up and begin investing, to be the best and earn your place in heaven! Or do you want to hear what old Eeyore Ecclesiastes has to say?
The teacher, gloomy old Eeyore, in Ecclesiastes wants his treasure house to be in the right place, and filled with good and lasting treasure. Almost as if he has read today’s Gospel, he doesn’t set out to make money or build an empire. He tries to store up something a bit more spiritual. I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. He seeks to know, to be the best travelled, the best read, the best argued… he seeks to understand all things on earth.
And when he understood them, he saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind. His learning has taught him this, that everything we do, even our learning and our understanding, will pass with us. Even the most learned brain, the strongest hands, will die. And then another will have to start learning, start building… all over again.
But is his time wasted? Has his learning about humanity been for nothing? No. Even as he learned that his study was ultimately vanity, his own pride, his own desire to know everything… he learned something better.
He learned WISDOM.
Now, Wisdom is a strange thing. It seems to be something we are meant to chase after. It’s a good thing to be wise. And yet the moment we think we’ve got it… is always the moment we are farthest from it. The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
And yet wisdom for Christians and Jews is a very particular thing. Wisdom is not a general air of always having the right thing to say. Wisdom isn’t about having big bushy eyebrows, a knowing smile and an air of mystery.
Wisdom is a very practical thing. A wise person is one who sees things as they really are. A wise person is one who has had the scales fall from their eyes. And that wisdom, that seeing things as they actually are… enables us to live as we really need to live.
Proverbs tells us that The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It doesn’t mean that to be wise we need to be terrified! And to be terrified of God is not what Jesus or the Old Testament Law are getting at. In fact, quite the opposite.
But for the Old Testament, wisdom starts with knowing God, everyday and in everything… seeing God’s hand in all that is done under heaven. It isn’t airy fairy. It is gut wrenchingly practical. When you see God in everything, God loving his children in everything… then the world becomes a very different place to live in. For the wise person, their whole world has been shattered by one thing… the knowledge of the love of God, shining like sun dust as it breathes through all that is.
And it changes us, this new way of seeing ourselves and the world. When St Paul gives the Colossians a new way of behaving, it isn’t for the sake of their being better people, or earning more heavenly reward points. Set you minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, he says, for you have died with Christ in your baptism, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. And one day, when Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him, shining in glory.
So treat each other well, grow in holiness, do not do what is evil to one another and yourself… because in the renewal God has worked in you, there are no longer differences among us… but Christ is all and in all!
If you knew how much you are loved, Paul says, and what God has done for you and is doing for you still… and for all those around you… your life would look very different. Your life would shine.
He writes to the church in Ephesus, and listen carefully for the new way we are to see the world as Christians, I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…’ (1.17)
Wisdom is something we know… when we know the love of what God has done for us in Jesus… we see it in the eyes of our heart… and we have a new hope… a hope built on love, and on the promise of our loving God.
The man who asks Jesus for help to get his inheritance does not lack wisdom because he is too focussed on wealth. He lacks wisdom because he can’t see the love that God has for him, standing right in front of him in the person of Jesus.
The man who stores up his wealth in great barns does not lack wisdom just because he stores up wealth. But because he thinks that is what will make his soul happy, what will give his soul hope.
Neither of these people see the love that God has for them. Neither of them know the God who is love… and so neither of them has wisdom.
And so they are enslaved.
They are enslaved to the things of this world. Not that the things of this world are bad or dirty or wrong… but the things of this world can never really give us hope.
Money, food, clothing… Consider the lily, or consider the birds, how they neither toil nor spin, and yet God feeds them. And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
No, worrying (enslaving worry) won’t get us anywhere. Loving will.
Knowing God’s love for us is the most wonderful thing that can happen to any of us.
It’s a wonderful treasure stored up for eternity, yes, but it’s a wonderful treasure for each of us to enjoy now as well.
When I really fell in love for the first time, it was like being plugged into a deeper part of myself, a part I’d never really known I lacked.
And when I began to know God’s love for me and all that is… that was like being plugged into all of reality. Spine-tingling. Bright-burning. Life-changing reality.
For Christ is all-in-all. And we who believe are in Christ.
I couldn’t be taught how to pray. I couldn’t work at the mechanics and get there by my own effort, by my own self-improvement. Prayer only became real for me… when I began to learn just a little taste of wisdom. When my eyes were opened, and my heart began to shine with the love of God.
We Christians are called to live differently, to look different, to seem different to those around us. Not because we fear an angry God who lays down rules for us. But because we have had a taste of the love of God. And that taste burns on our tongues and down deep within us.
This is the treasure stored up for us by God within our hearts.
This is the fire the Spirit of God lights up within us.
This is the love, the life God feeds his people.
Shine, let your light shine before those you meet. Let that love burn brightly, and let it out as often as you can.
But remember, this treasure you have burning within you, you have in a fragile, clay jar. Don’t beat yourself up when you fail to burn brightly with that love.
Let God’s love for you be your hope, who sent his only Son, that all who believe in him may never die, but will have the light of life, to the end of ages, and for ever. Amen.