Proper 13 (18), Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
31 July 2022
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Please note: This service was held outdoors and there is no video available for this service.
The conference Jackie and I attended was hosted by a church in a poorer part of Indianapolis. I mentioned last week that the tag line of the Ekklesia Project, the group that puts on these conferences and gathers yearly, is to discover friends we never knew we had. Those who started the group wrote a little more than 20 years ago, “… discovering friends we did not know we had … is possible because most of us … have discovered that we do not just ‘happen’ to be Christian, but being Christian makes our lives possible.”
BTW, ekklesia is the ancient Greek word for ‘gathering’ or for ‘church’.
On the first night of the conference attendees were invited to porch parties on the porches of church members who lived just a block from the church. A great way to make new friends. It was a beautiful evening and many of us were visiting the porches of Oxford Street. The homes reminded Jackie and me of our first home in Winnipeg, built in 1912, the same era.
Porches are different from garages. Garages are the dominating architectural feature of many homes built in the nineties. Porches get you out of your house and kind of into the neighbourhood. Garages get you out of the neighbourhood and into your house.
At the end of August our church is hosting a neighbourhood celebration, a celebration of the neighbourhood, and for many it may be a first opportunity to meet their neightbours, I am speaking of not just of people meeting us (and us meeting them) but also of people meeting their actual neighbours. The City has given us a grant for the event and we have no goal other than to bring people together.
When our children were young, it was easy to meet people, when your children are gone it becomes more challenging. Add to that challenges of language, culture, shift work, and who knows what else, we can become lonely. Six years ago, between the two interviews with the call committee of our church I came to Richmond to explore the church’s neighbourhood with my roller blades and what I remember most vividly is how many townhouse complexes had ‘no trespassing signs’, likely expression of the fear of liability but also of the fear of the other.
In our Gospel reading a man asks Jesus to adjudicate between him and his brother regarding the family inheritance. Anyone who has had experience with families being divided over issues of property, whether up close or from afar, would think that Jesus would be the perfect person to resolve such conflict, as rabbis routinely did.
Instead of adjudicating the conflict Jesus warns the petitioner of greed, which, I think, has always made us think of this episode and the story that follows it as being about wealth and the obscenity of wealth, which is something we have come to expect to hear in church and most of us find difficult to reconcile with our lives, for in the grand scheme of things, most of us are very wealthy.
Though wealth is a problem, it seems Jesus’ refusal to arbitrate has more to do with the recognition that relationships, as those between siblings or neighbours, are more important than the objects we desire. In fact, when Jesus says that life does not consist of an abundance of possessions, he suggests that life consists of something else that is more worthy of our pursuit than possessions. And if you think of families that have been so divided, you may very much agree.
We know the story of the rich man man whose greatest worry was to find barns in which to store his bumper crop, and whose priorities, it turns out were all wrong. Sam Wells says that this is a story not so much about money as about scarcity and abundance, and about which things are good to have a lot of and which things are good to have little of.1
The man clearly has a lot of wealth but it turns out that that is not what he needs, but because it is what he thinks he needs he is deemed a fool. His storerooms of wealth do not give him life, nor do they buy him favour with God.
When you listen to the story and put aside your prejudice that this is a story about making us feel guilty about our possessions instead of showing us what truly matters, you will see that this rich man is very lonely.
You see when he faces what he believes is his greatest problem, namely how to store his bumper crop, he has no one to talk to but himself. There is no one whose wisdom he seeks out, no one with whom he would share, and no one to whom he feels accountable. It is all about him. The only conversation he has is with himself. This is illustrated by the fact that the first person voice is used 11 times in three verses. Me, myself, and I.
Perhaps his wealth has isolated him. He does not see his poverty which consists of not seeing how dependent and interdependent we are on God, on creation, and on others. And if we deny our dependence and interdependence we end up alone, isolated, and lonely.
This, I think, is often described with the phrase of “first world problems.” I recently listened to a conversation – I don’t think it was here – about someone’s pool cover that repeatedly got destroyed by their dog and how much it cost to replace the pool cover. There is no denying that this is a bummer and potentially very costly, but it also shows our detachment from the existential problems people face, our pool covers become more important than our neighbour’s meal, or housing, or loneliness.
We have long defined quality of life as a life in which I am independent and able to to all things for myself. But this is an illusion. We are not able to do all things for ourselves without depending on others – e.g. none of us grow enough if any of our own food, and many other things we need daily.
The idea of having such independence has isolated us from others and some of us are not even interested in knowing our neighbour, even though in the story of the Good Samaritan we learn that we are to be a neighbour.
Living this illusion of independence also denies that we have any responsibility toward one another, that we in fact are each other’s keepers. And that is one of the questions missing in the story that Jesus tells. The man who had the bumper crop which he obviously does not need because he is already wealthy, never asks whether there is anyone going hungry in his community, whether what is given to him may not be given to him alone.
The illusion of our independence leads to a poverty of relationships, which includes for many the judgment that a life in which we have to rely on the help of others to a large extent is a life no longer worth living, forgetting that it is our relationships – not our independence – that gives our lives meaning and makes it beautiful.
We give thanks for the God who longs for relationship with us and who created us for relationship. May our talking to ourselves (for most of us probably do talk to ourselves) never be to the exclusion of our neighbours, the rejection of being answerable to people other than ourselves, or the denial of the value and dignity of life lived in dependence and interdependence. And may God bless our neighbourhood celebration.
1 Samuel Wells, Incarnational Ministry – Being With the Church, London, UK: Canterbury Press 2017, page 46