Taking it with you
2 Chronicles 31:2-10
Hezekiah appointed the divisions of the priests and of the Levites, division by division, everyone according to his service, the priests and the Levites, for burnt offerings and offerings of well-being, to minister in the gates of the camp of the LORD and to give thanks and praise. 3 The contribution of the king from his own possessions was for the burnt offerings: the burnt offerings of morning and evening, and the burnt offerings for the sabbaths, the new moons, and the appointed festivals, as it is written in the law of the LORD. 4 He commanded the people who lived in Jerusalem to give the portion due to the priests and the Levites, so that they might devote themselves to the law of the LORD. 5 As soon as the word spread, the people of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything. 6 The people of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of the dedicated things that had been consecrated to the LORD their God, and laid them in heaps. 7 In the third month they began to pile up the heaps, and finished them in the seventh month. 8 When Hezekiah and the officials came and saw the heaps, they blessed the LORD and his people Israel. 9 Hezekiah questioned the priests and the Levites about the heaps. 10 The chief priest Azariah, who was of the house of Zadok, answered him, “Since they began to bring the contributions into the house of the LORD, we have had enough to eat and have plenty to spare; for the LORD has blessed his people, so that we have this great supply left over.”
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 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.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 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. 19 And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 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?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
The end of October here in Lower Alabama means the cotton is white in the fields, and the leaves are just starting to turn. When I see one of those early transitioning trees, its orange and red surrounded by the green of its neighbors, I want to stop and take a picture. Its fantastically beautiful, that’s why there are so many millions of pictures of leaves in full, fall color; but neither mine, nor any of the pictures captures the beauty of the real thing.
There is something about a tree in full color that a photo cannot capture. When we see the changing tree for ourselves, it means that it is the end of October in yet another year of our
lives. Would turning leaves captivate us the same way in the middle of May when winter is so far off? Perhaps so, but maybe what we experience in October is poignancy; that unique combination beauty and pain; October a time of transition; it’s an ending, a death. The beautifully colored leaves will soon fall. The branches will go bare. The grass will turn brown. Winter will come. We too we will have gone, once more, around the wheel of another year. One rotation closer to our natural end.
Halloween, All Saints, Reformation Sunday, combined
Many moments converge on this last weekend in October. The kids are conscious of Halloween because of the candy. Halloween for adults means the eve of all Hallows, or All Saints Day when we remember those to whom we have said goodbye this past year. In Croatia and all over Europe, this is the time when families go out to the cemeteries to clean and tidy the grounds around the graves. They leave flowers and candles in red glass containers that glow so beautifully, sadly, after sunset.
The Protestant Reformation: October 1517
It was on the eve of all Hallows nearly 500 years ago when Martin Luther marked the end of an era when he nailed his 95 theses upon the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. He was an academic; a theology professor. He wanted a public debate. He got it, and much more besides. The Protestant Reformation was born on that late October day in Germany in 1517, and Christianity in the Western World changed. We here today are the sons and daughters of that Reformation.
What did that mean for the people in those days? A brand new intensity about being Reformed as a Christian was born all across Europe. The printing press had been invented not too long before, and so now, people – common people, not just rich ones – could own and read their own books, including (maybe primarily) the bible.
Not to idealized it, but a change did happen. Many Protestants were people who read their bibles and knew the stories. Our spiritual ancestors were people who tried diligently to work out, in practical daily ways, what it meant to live a life in congruence with the bible’s teaching. They believed in keeping the Sabbath which, for them, meant no work on Sundays, even if the grain was ripe for harvest.
They believed in tithing the firstfruits of their income, so the new Protestant churches were supported, even without the great landholdings whose income financed the Roman church through the middle ages. Reformed churches were marked by their simplicity. The Reformers shunned the ostentation of the cathedrals. Their services of worship were not medieval pageants, but rather times of gathering around the praise of God, hearing the gospel proclaimed in Word and Sacrament, and responding through creed and songs of praise.
“Ad fontes” back to the fountainhead, the source
If there was one phrase that summed up the spirit of the Reformation it was “back to the fountainhead” or “back to the original sources” (in the Latin of scholarship of that day, “ad fontes”). They wanted to learn, not from layers and layers of church dogma, but from the bible itself; from Moses, from Isaiah, from Jesus and from the epistles of Paul, James, and John.
We are following the path they marked out as we read our own bibles at home each day, as we open up the scriptures together in group bible study, and as we do what we are doing in this moment: gathering to hear from scripture. Reformed Christians believe that the Spirit who inspired the scriptures also actively makes the scriptures meaningful in new, relevant ways each time they are opened with sincerity and faith. This is our quest as well. We share the same confidence that the Spirit is at work here and now as we read the words of scripture.
That world, This world: distance
We are also aware of how remarkably odd the scriptures can seem as we read them in the 21st century. How far removed we feel that we are today from the world of king Hezekiah. Can you picture those piles of tithes that grew for four months? We don’t live in a world where piles like that would last long, undisturbed. Neither do we live in a world in which very many people practice tithing ten percent of their incomes – despite the enormous increase in the prosperity of our days.
Nor do we feel close to the world of the New Testament, do we? Take the parable we just read: to us, the most natural, responsible thing a successful farmer should do is to make sure he has adequate barn space for his produce so that he can bring it to market in good time. In our times, it is hard to see what this poor man in Jesus’ parable did that was wrong. If we could figure that out, then the larger question would be, “What does that have to do with us, who are not farmers and who live in such different times?”
So, we feel the distance. Nevertheless, we are Reformed Christians; we want to go back to the fountainhead, the source, the bible, because we want to hear from the Spirit, speaking in a new way to our days. So on Reformation Sunday, let us celebrate the Reformation by returning to this odd text from Luke’s gospel.
The Problem to the Answer
We notice first that the parable of “the rich fool” that Jesus told was a response. It was the answer; what was the question?
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
Someone in the crowd? Who? A younger brother? A sister? We are not told – that cannot be the point. Rather the point is that people are starting to look at Jesus like the new Moses. Probably many of our Reformed ancestors would recognize the connection with the story from the book of Numbers. Because we live in different times now, let me remind us: During Israel’s wilderness years, the five daughters of Zelophehad came to Moses, after their father died, to ask him to allow them to inherit their father’s land, even though no male heir was born to the family (Numb 27). Now Jesus is being cast into the role of Moses, making inheritance law decisions.
“Adventures inmissing the point” (a nod to McLaren & Campolo’s book)
For Jesus, this was an “adventure in missing the point.” Moses’ role was all about taking the liberated Israelite slaves from Egypt to the Promised Land. Jesus’ role was about liberating the mentally and spiritually land-locked, land-obsessed people of Palestine for the borderless Kingdom of God. It wasn’t about physical assets. The issue of material resources is crucially important in the Kingdom of God, only it is important in a different way. It’s importance is not in accumulation, its importance is in mission. Jesus is difficult on this subject; almost embarrassingly so. His words are tough and direct as they can possibly be. To people who think that the main goal in life is to acquire and acquire and acquire, Jesus says,
15 “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Hearing it today
How do we hear this today? Jesus’ words may be the fountainhead, but can we drink from it anymore? It seems that our culture is committed to exactly the opposite view. We get the message a million times a day in a million ways that our lives indeed do consist in the abundance of possessions. We have been called “consumers” so many times, we don’t even notice how scandalous that name should be – as if consumption defined our being, our self, or in the words of Jesus’ times, our “soul.” That is exactly the one single defining characteristic we know about the main character in the parable Jesus tells next – it’s about a “rich fool,” who said,
17 ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 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. 19 And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’
The danger of folly in late October
Believing that his life consisted in the abundance of his possessions made him a fool. Why? Because, it was already late October in his life; the end was near. He had not calculated the value of his life on the right scale. The parable continues:
20 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?’
“Whose will they be?” is the question, because he isn’t taking any of it with him. The point Jesus comes to is this:
21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
He is not taking anything that he hoarded. What could he have taken with him? Only those things that would have have made him “rich toward God”? What would those things be? Clearly, they are the things given away in love, in compassion, and in generous mission for others. Those demonstrate where the heart is and make a person “rich toward God.”
A message for the “church militant” from the “church triumphant”
This is the perfect text for late October; for All Saints Day, and for Reformation Sunday, all together. On this day we remember with gratitude those who have left, as they used to call this life, the “church militant” – the living church, which is still engaged in the epic battle with evil, and who have joined the “church triumphant” whose victory is won, whose race is finished, who now rest from their labors. What would they tell us today about the things they took with them? Would they not tell us about the compassion they showed, the acts of kindness and generosity, would they not mention their faithful stewardship of their abundance, as they listed how they were “rich toward God”? It is late October for many of us – for some much nearer the end than we know. As the 90th Psalm prays, so our prayer is:
“So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (90:12)
So that we might not end up as those who believed the mythology of the 21st century, the mantra of consumerism: that life consists in the abundance of possessions. In other words, that we might not end up as as rich fools.