A sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, July 31st 2022
What is life about? One day, someone asked Jesus to settle a family dispute over an inheritance (12:13) – not the first time, or the last, that families have had that sort of argument. Jesus declined to get into the detail of the dispute, but issued a warning that poses a question for you and me to think about. Jesus said, ‘Take care! … one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ (12:15)
So here’s the question: if our lives do not consist in abundance of possessions, what do our lives consist in? What’s life about? If it’s not possessions – your house, your car, your clothes, your furnishings, your season ticket, your laptop, tablet or smart phone, and the like – what is it that gives your life meaning? ‘What’s life about?’ That’s a good question to ask any day of the week. It’s particularly so today when we have baptised Nicolas.
At some point, after he has learned to talk, Nicolas is going to ask that question: ‘What’s life about?’ It would be good if we had thought about our answer in advance. That’s especially true for his parents and godparents, but not just for them. It would be good for all of us to have a response ready for when someone asks, ‘what’s life about?’ Who knows, we might even be the ones asking the question: what’s life about?
Jesus seldom gave a straight answer to a straight question. Instead, often, he responded with another question, or an enigmatic saying, or, sometimes, with a story. His stories are designed to help us respond to life’s big questions. On this occasion Jesus told a story about a rich (some would say ‘greedy’) landowner. Let’s listen to that once again. Then I’ll tell you what it says to me, and what I think it should say to you. After the service you can waylay me and tell me how I got it right or wrong … or something else.
The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 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. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 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?’
What’s life about? Life is about being good to ourselves; life is about being good to others; life is about being ‘good with God’ … but all of that in reverse order. Of course, you would expect a church minister to say, ‘put God first, not last in the line..’ True enough, but there’s more to it than that. Jesus’s story is an is the extreme example of what happens when you only start with yourself.
In the story …
He thought to himself.
What should I do?
I will pull down … I will build … I will store …
My grain … my goods …
I will say to my soul …
But God said to him, ‘You fool!’
The rich landowner started and finished with himself. Never once, in the entire story, does he mention either his neighbours or God. And the mountain of grain and other goods he built up with just himself in mind he never gets to enjoy anyway, because that very night his life is demanded of him. His possessions do him no good.
I’m not against possessions. I enjoy my car, my clothes, my books, my food and wine, my new phone, and if a season ticket at St James’s Park floated down from heaven I would probably enjoy the use of it. Even if it turned out to be a season ticket for the Stadium of Light I wouldn’t let it go to waste, but if I don’t appreciate where things come from they will not provide me with a full life.
We like to think that we have earned everything that we receive. To some extent that’s true. But the physical and mental qualities, and the early life experiences that formed and equipped us to be able to earn and acquire, came to us as a gift. I’m sure the landowner worked hard to get those barns filled, but I’ll bet he inherited something to begin with, and that he didn’t do all the work himself. Nor did he create the grain species, generate the soil, or provide the rain to water it. Yet, if you believed him, he was the only one involved. He even thought he owned his own soul: ‘and I will say to my soul.’ (12:19)
So what’s life about? Life is about recognising that your existence and the good things you accumulate are, at root, not possessions but gifts. They are gifts from God. In fact each breath we take, each beat of our hearts, the working of our brains, our senses, such as touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing – they all come to us as gifts from God. The landowner can’t experience the joy of receiving a gift because he spares no thought for God, the gift-giver.
Nor does the landowner spare a thought for other people. He never mentions those who till the fields and bring in the harvest. To listen to him, you would think that bigger barns build themselves. No neighbour is named. He lived in a pre-industrial society where crops were heavily weather-dependent, and a bad harvest would leave some people with little or no food to eat. Does the rich landowner care? Does he heck! He couldn’t give a **** for other people. So he ends up eating and drinking alone, and when death comes there is no one there to hold his hand. He gets from others what he has given them – nothing. What a life.
What’s life about? It’s about sharing with other people the God-gifted things that we have received, as well as enjoying them for ourselves. They say it’s more blessed to give than to receive (actually, it was Jesus that said that first (Acts 20:35), but let’s not go there today). Still, let me tell you, I enjoy receiving, particularly at Christmas and on my birthday. That said, if I only ever receive, if I only see others in terms of what they can give me, then my life is well short of what it should be. Where I grew up, the term for that would “a greedy gorb.” And that’s not meant as a compliment.
Just imagine if the rich landowner had reversed his priorities. What if he had begun by recognising how all these good things in his life, including his life itself, had come to him as gifts from God? “God has gifted me mountains of grain and other goods. What will I do with them? I know, I’ll be God-like, and gift a load of them to my neighbours who need them. Then, we can eat, drink and be merry together, enjoying each other’s company. And when the day comes that I have to hand back my life to God, my friends will be there to support me, and God will welcome me as one who has recognised what life is about.”
So, for Nicolas’s sake, and for your own sake, recognise what life is all about: that all the things we possess are gifts from God; that these God-given gifts are meant for sharing with others, as well as for our own enjoyment; that when we put God and other first we will actually benefit ourselves. For this gives life meaning. This is what it’s all about.