Monthly Archives

August 2019

Standing Straight

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Standing Straight”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 25, 2019


Luke 13:10-17

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.


Wilma Rudolph was a legendary American track and field star.  Rudolph was widely recognized after winning three gold medals in sprinting events at the 1960 Summer Olympics held in Rome.  Because these games were the first Olympics televised live, her accomplishments were seen by many and she quickly became one of the most highly visible African-American athletes in the country.

While her athletic triumphs were noted, Wilma Rudolph’s personal story was also celebrated.  She was born prematurely, weighing 4 pounds 5 ounces in what is now Clarksville, TN, the twentieth of twenty-two children.  Her father worked as a railway porter and in odd jobs and her mother was a maid in many Clarksville homes.  Rudolph suffered from many childhood illnesses, including pneumonia and scarlet fever.  But her biggest obstacle came when at the age of 5 she was diagnosed with infantile paralysis caused by the polio virus.  She recovered from the polio but she lost most of the strength in her left leg and foot and was forced to wear a leg brace until she was 12 years old.  She was told that she would never walk normally and certainly would not be able to run like the other children.  One doctor noted, “I am sorry but you were born this way and it will always be this way.”

Rudolph’s family did what they could to help.  They sought treatment for Wilma at the historically black Meharry Medical College in Nashville.  For two years Wilma and her mother made the weekly bus trip for treatment.  At home, her siblings gave her legs four daily massages.  She was given an orthopedic shoe to aid in her walking.  And Wilma’s grandmother became her biggest cheerleader.  She refused to accept the bleak diagnosis and took the lead in prayer.  Grandma had a simple philosophy, one that stuck with Wilma all through her life.  It was this:  “Your condition does not have to be your conclusion.”  What you are today is not the finished product of you.

Martin Luther once described the human condition with the Latin phrase, “homo incurvatus in se.”  Even those of us who don’t know Latin might be able to figure this one out.  The phrase roughly translates into “human curved in on oneself.”  Luther taught that basically we live in a sinful state, unable to see or to reach out beyond ourselves.  We are trapped in the broken condition of seeing only what is us and ours because we are literally “curved in on ourselves.”  Salvation then, according to Luther, was an act of God which straightens our back, lifts our shoulders, picks up our head, opens our eyes, and spreads our arms out wide.  The curve of salvation is an awareness of something that has happened outside of ourselves that makes us better and whole.

This morning’s Scripture lesson features Jesus teaching in the synagogue again.  It is the Sabbath, the traditional day of rest in the Jewish tradition.  As Jesus taught, a nameless woman appeared, identified only by her disability.  She could not stand straight.  And it had been that way for over 18 years.  We don’t know what caused her condition.  It could have been something physical or psychological or spiritual.  But she was bent over.

In C.S. Lewis’ science fiction book Out of the Silent Planet, the main character tries to describe the concept of sin to beings from a different world who do not understand human concepts and motivations.  The man attempts to explain why some humans are virtuous and others function from selfish motives.  Eventually he settles on the word “bent” to meet the task of defining sin.  By “bent”, the character meant misshapen, separated from God, missing a creative purpose, or not functioning in the way we were made to be.

The woman who entered the synagogue was bent over.  The writer of Luke says that it was a spirit that crippled her.  Whatever controlled her was a burden.  It bent her over double.  It blocked her vision.  It narrowed her horizon.  She couldn’t look people in the eyes but rather in the knees.  She had suffered a loss of human dignity and freedom for 18 years.

Jesus noticed her and called her over.  She was right there, front and center. Suddenly the teaching the congregation received that day was not the Torah or the words of the prophets.  This bent over woman was the sermon illustration.  Jesus laid his hands on her and immediately she stood up straight.  The bent over and crooked body of the woman was released, set free, to look out and up and onward.  She held her hands up straight and began to praise God.

Perhaps intentionally, the writer of Luke described a second scene at the synagogue that day.  One of the leaders of the temple was furious with Jesus because he had broken a religious law by healing on the Sabbath.  The Jewish Sabbath commemorates the seventh day on which God rested hence regulations against work on the Sabbath were originally intended to give everyone access to life in the Lord.  But Jesus understood that such Sabbath regulations were no longer providing spiritual renewal but were used by the righteous to make difficult judgements that made life even more difficult for other.  There was little in those judgements that revealed God’s love.  Even though there might have been many in the crowd that day in need of healing, like that bent over woman, the synagogue’s important people believed that they should all come back on Monday, when the timing of healing would be more appropriate.

This wasn’t the first time that Jesus healed on the Sabbath.  It wasn’t the first time that he annoyed or provoked the religious leaders.  But perhaps these two incidents are in the same story for an important reason.  Just as the woman’s bent over stature severely affected her line of vision, the so-called religious leaders are blinded by their rigid and lifeless interpretation of scripture and the law.  While the woman could stand up and see salvation in the person of Jesus, and while the crowd around them was able to see the hand of God at work in the healing power of Jesus, it was the so-called religious experts, those certain in their beliefs, those who thought they knew the answers based on their easy judgements and law, they were the ones who seemed least able to see the truth right in front of their eyes.

I remember attending many baseball games at Tiger Stadium at Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit.  It was one of my favorite places in the entire world and I have nothing but fond recollections of any time spent there.  For me, it was the greatest ballpark ever- better than Wrigley or Fenway or any other that I have visited.  But I have to admit that there were a few things about Tiger Stadium that perhaps weren’t so customer friendly.  I’m not talking about the bathrooms or the concourses.  I’m talking about the stadium pillars or poles that supported the upper deck.  Many times these poles blocked your vision of the game.  In some cases, seats surrounding the poles were labeled as “obstructed view” and were not sold unless the demand of the game called for it.  I recall one day purchasing one of those seats.  Obstructed view was stamped clearly on my ticket.  I was right behind a large pole.  With every pitch and every swing I had to move back and forth just to keep an eye on the action.

In the story of the bent over woman, there seemed to be at least two people with obstructed views of life.  They were not seeing all that there was to see.  They were missed the very presence of God’s salvation, the clear and present sign of God’s rule in the world and in their lives.  The first was the woman with the physical condition, something that blocked her and controlled her and prevented her from seeing the future and from providing her hope.  The second was the synagogue leader who wasn’t happy with the healing.  He tried to drown out her salvation and her praises to God with his black and white textbook judgements, pointing out that the healing was not done appropriately and that she never should have entered the synagogue in the first place.

There is a good chance that the purpose behind Luke’s account of this story is an invitation- an invitation for us to stand up straight.  Jesus wants us to be set loose from our obstructed views and our bent over ways to experience God’s joy and to have a view of how God is working in all of reality.  The good news is that salvation is here in the presence of Jesus the Christ.  While the powers of darkness and the world’s expectations seem to reign, we can stand up straight and empowered.  We can live without the burden of rules and the obligations of expectations and standards and set our eyes forward to possibilities and hope.  We can let go of the infirmities of spirit that we’ve been dragging around and experience the transforming power of Christ in our lives.  God’s power is that which straightens, which heals, and which inspires.




By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church


Rev. Art Ritter

August 18, 2019


Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?


My wife Laura has recently started a new job, working as a dietitian at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor.  Part of her responsibilities include having some expertise in plant-based diets.  Because of this and certainly because of some her strong personal feelings, a few months ago, Laura decided to become a vegetarian.  When she first told me of her decision I was a bit frightened.  Many vegetarians I know can be a bit zealous in their behavior, challenging the logic of meat eaters, preaching about the righteousness of their choices, and attempting to convert everyone to their way of life.  So initially I wasn’t certain that her decision would make me feel uncomfortable or cause contention in our marriage.  I was also concerned about the extra complications a vegetarian diet would bring to our weekly and nightly routine.  There would now be different grocery lists and different food preparation and I don’t know much about cooking vegetables other than putting them in the microwave.  And what about the times we eat out, or at family gathering, or community meals?   Will she find menu options or will she make our hosts feel badly when they don’t have a vegetarian option?  So, when I first heard of her decision I have to admit, I thought only of the trouble it was going to cause.

But I have listened to Laura and I have done some research and thinking myself.  No, I am not ready to become a vegetarian.  I still don’t find many vegetable dishes to be especially tasty or visually appealing. Yet I am willing to take the blinders off and listen and try to understand.  Vegetarians have made a choice which sets them apart because of what they believe to be an important priority in their healthy living.  Some have also done so for the benefit of the future of the planet, believing that the production of meat drains more of the earth’s resources.  For some, such a choice may speak to their choice about supporting the care of God’s creatures.  I am at least willing to admit that I need to have a greater understanding about how the choices I make about the food I consume say something about me and my view of creation.

I think that most of us have some type of blinders that keep us from having balanced opinion about certain issues.  In some cases those blinders keep us from seeing the real world around us.  We might think that we have our eyes wide open, that we aren’t hiding from any kernel of truth, that we have a realistic view of life.  But in reality we all use some kind of tunnel vision.  We interpret the world through the lens of our own experience.  There are factors such as education, race, gender, and geographic location that profoundly affect the way we interpret our world.  Those factors can determine what we see and what we don’t see.

Thus, when someone around us has the nerve or the courage to look honestly and openly at the way things are, when someone sincerely questions why things have to be that way, or when someone challenges us as to why we do things the way we do, there is always a bit of uneasiness that seep into us.  There is potential for conflict or division.  If we are one who benefit from the way things are, from the status quo, we will fight tooth and nail to oppose anyone who tries to change things.  And we will keep our blinders firmly in place just to avoid having to look at things differently or having to understand an opposing point of view.

In the 12th chapter of Luke, Jesus is continuing with his ministry in Galilee on his way to Jerusalem.  Crowds have gathered.  Great sermons have been preached.  People have been healed.  Demons have been cast out.  Jesus is a pretty popular guy and everyone seems enamored with him.  Then we hear the words of this morning’s Scripture lesson.  “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and oh how I wish it were already blazing!  Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No!  I have come for division.”  Jesus goes on to preach about how the choice to follow him will separate followers from their loved ones.  He speaks about the faithful being able to recognize the signs of God’s Kingdom and the importance of acting quickly and decisively to bring that Kingdom into being.

Meghan Feldmeyer writes that when we first read this passage we might think that Jesus was having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.  The gospel of Luke, the same gospel that describes the sleeping baby Jesus and the calm shepherds and the beautiful angels, has Jesus speaking these words of fire and brimstone.  Scott Hoezee writes that “Jesus seems to lose it a bit here, going on quite the verbal tear.  We practically need asbestos gloves or very thick oven mitts just to pick these verses up.  This thing is white hot!”

What prompted these strong words from Jesus?  Perhaps there were some in his group of followers who were urging him to avoid controversy.  They wanted him to “play nice” and try to get along with the rulers of the empire, the authorities of the Temple, and the chief priests and scribes.  Maybe they saw the stir that he was creating and they wanted him to put the blinders on and not make anyone angry.  Please Jesus, see things our way and just get along with the rest of the world!

But Jesus did not come to prop up the old ways.  Within the community of faith we often talk about Jesus as one who endorses what we think and what we believe.  We act as if Jesus came to validate the best and brightest parts of us and is pleased with how we do things.  Yet an honest reading of the Gospels tells us that Jesus did not come to continue the policies of the status quo.  His kingdom did not fit in with the kingdoms of the world, and he knew that if he were to be faithful to God’s intention, a strong measure of disruption had to be expected.  Jesus was not representing business as usual.  He was representing a world that was turned upside down.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean adopting new beliefs but seeking a new way of living.  To be a follower of one who ate with sinners and accepted those dishonored by society means we must take off the blinders about our own judgments and our invitations.  To be a follower of one who preaches love and acceptance and forgiveness is to practice love and acceptance and forgiveness.  And Jesus warned his followers as well as us that if we act like he did- the rest of the world, including those whose opinions matter most to us, might not like it.

C. S. Lewis once observed that Christians sometimes think of themselves a race horse, a horse that can be trained through prayer and study and discipline to run faster in maintaining a successful life of faith. In reality, Lewis said, Jesus doesn’t want a race horse that runs faster, but he wants to give the horse wings to fly.  Jesus doesn’t want to move into your house and repaint and change the curtains.  When Jesus moves in he brings a wrecking ball to tear down the walls, to gut the rooms down to the studs, and to rebuild in a different manner

I read a commentary this week that talked about the fad of a few years ago: the WW JD bracelet.  What would Jesus do?  While the originators of the idea probably had wonderful intentions,  Jesus probably had something more serious in mind- perhaps something to place around the heart to remember to take his words and teachings more seriously.  What might the world look like if we took off our blinders and followed Jesus’ words, at home, at work, at school, at church?  What would happen if we were able to step away from our need for security and consumption and certainty and step toward the needs of others?  What kind of conflict and stress would we find if we advocated caring for others ahead of institutional maintenance?  How would the world change if we carried Jesus’ intention for us into our priorities of time, our consumer choices, our support of political candidates and issues, and the way we treat our planet and our environment?

Taking off the blinders is frightening!  Bringing change to the way we view others and live life is hard.  We want to baptize our actions and our world with clear, safe refreshing water.  Jesus comes to us with a baptism of fire that burns up the old and starts all over.  When we resist his call to change and challenge, he has to remind us that it won’t be easy.  We can’t expect everyone to like us.  Disagreements will arise.  Those who like the way things are will have sharp things to say about us.   But we can know that even in the times in which the way of God doesn’t feel easy, it is grounded in love, and offered with hope for building us up and healing the world.


Where Your Treasure Is

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Where Your Treasure Is”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 11, 2019


Luke 12:32-40

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”


My daughter Amelia called me this week to share some news.  She told me that her friend Emily Weibel was expecting a baby early next year.  While we were living in Salt Lake City, Emily was almost like a member of our family.  She and Amelia were constantly together.  It seems that Emily was always at our house or I was always driving Amelia to Emily’s house.  When we watch videos of any birthday celebration while we lived in Utah, Emily is right there with us, singing “Happy Birthday” and eating the cake.  The Weibels attended our church and our families shared in many social activities.  I went to a lot of minor league baseball games with Emily’s father and her brothers.  I think that all of the Weibels, with the exception of Emily, have visited us a couple of times since we returned to Michigan.

My first reaction to the news that Emily was pregnant was that it was quite impossible.  Emily is twelve years old, or at least in my mind she is still twelve years old.  When I mentioned this to Amelia she quickly assured me that Emily was now 28 years old and that she had been married for nearly five years.  It really is hard for me to get my mind wrapped around the fact that Emily is that old and is in such a place in her life.  My experience with her is that of the childhood friend of Amelia and it is frozen in time.  While my rational mind tells me that my memories are over 15 years old, such logic doesn’t change the strength and reality of those recollections.  But Emily’s news also reminds me again of the fleeting nature of life and of the opportunities to create other important memories that might be moving by even now.

Asked about the difficulty of playing left field in Yankee Stadium in the bright sun of early autumn, Yogi Berra replied, “It gets late early there.”  As usual, Yogi’s wisdom was unintentionally most profound.  It gets late early in our lives.  Everyone knows that life is short and that we are to treasure each and every moment but perhaps it is just part of our human nature to act as if we will always have plenty of days left to spend.  We look forward to some things: vacations, graduations, weddings, retirement- and we often look past other things.  We sometimes think that the best part of our life is yet to come, once we get some bills paid, some business concluded, some projects finished.  We are guilty of throwing time away, minute by minute or hour by hour- even as we understand the precious nature of each moment and how quickly the late afternoon hours of life arrive.

Dr. Seuss wrote this poem, “How did it get so late so soon?  It’s night before it’s afternoon.  December is here before it’s June.  My goodness how the time has flewn.  How did it get so late so soon?”

Dr. Brett Younger, pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn NY and Bible lecturer at our last national meeting in Cleveland tells of a trip that he and his wife took to Washington DC.  They only had one day left in their visit and it was an extremely hot and humid afternoon.  They had finished a tour of the Capitol building and they had walked about ten miles along the national mall.  Brett said to his wife, “What should we do next?  We could go to the National Archives and be moved by the sight of the Declaration of Independence.  Or we could go to the National Portrait Gallery and gain some inspiration through paintings of great Americans.  Or we could walk over to McDonald’s and buy a couple of Cokes.”  Younger concludes the story by saying, “Those Cokes were really cold!”

We know that feeling don’t we?  Figuring we will have plenty of time and plenty of opportunities, we made poor choices of how we have used both.  Younger continues by saying that “Life is too short to skip the Declaration of Independence.  Life is too short for fantasy baseball, computer solitaire, or The Bachelor.  Life is too short for microwave pizza, bad novels, or having the cleanest gutters on the block.  Life is too short to keep waiting for a vacation, a special occasion, or a better day.  Life is too short to be bitter over things you can’t change, want to go back to what was, or always do the same thing.  Life is too short to be bored, to always blend in, or to sit in the corner while the band is playing.  Life is too short to intend to live a new life, but never get around to it.  We shouldn’t give ourselves to things that are less than God’s best or surrender ourselves to the worldly values, because life is too short.”

As the movie character Ferris Bueller said, “Life goes by pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

In the 12th chapter of Luke, Jesus continued to teach his followers about the nature of discipleship.  Last week his lesson was about stewardship of possession, of sharing from our bounty instead of hoarding or accumulating for tomorrow.  This morning’s lesson is also about stewardship but stewardship of a different kind.  Jesus’ teaching seems to be on the stewardship of time.  The disciples treated time much like we do.  They acted as if life’s opportunities are endless.  They worried about the wrong priorities.  They chased after unimportant things.  In the day to day problems they faced and issues they encountered, the disciples seemed to forget why they were doing what they were doing in the first place.

Jesus, on the other hand, was focused.  A couple of chapters earlier in the gospel the author tells us that “his face was set upon Jerusalem.”  Jesus was probably aware of the fate that awaited him in Jerusalem.  He knew that this time was short.  He knew that he and his followers had to concentrate on what was important in the building of the Kingdom of God.  He and they had to use God’s gift of time very well.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid.  It is God’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.  You don’t have to be frightened and worry about what is coming tomorrow and if you are adequately prepared for it.  Live in God’s day, and in God’s way.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  Jesus urged his followers to celebrate what God had given them in each moment, living with generosity and with grace, rather than with anxiety and regret, attitudes that waste the precious gifts placed in front of us each day.  It is God’s pleasure to offer us God’s presence, a gift to be celebrated each and every moment, through trials and celebrations, through sorrows and success.  Do not live waiting for tomorrow or fretting over wealth and security or how we appear to look to others.  The value of our lives is found simply in God’s loving us enough to bring us opportunities for joy in each and every moment.

Then Jesus told a short parable about those who kept their lamps lit waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet.  They were ready to open the door for him when he knocked.  They were alert to the meaning in each and every moment of time.  Jesus used them as an illustration of those who were awake to God’s presence in each moment of time and those able to understand that each and every minute of life is filled with the possibilities of God.

Dale Miller tells the story of a wealthy family from Massachusetts who took a month’s vacation each summer at the coast of Maine.  They brought their housekeeper with them.  She had a ritual for the beach.  She wore an old-fashioned bathing suit, complete with white hat.  She would bring along an umbrella, a chair, shoes, and a wrap.  She would then journey down to the edge of the ocean, take a few deep breaths, and then extend one foot very daintily and slowly, putting her big toe partially in the water.  Then she repeated the act with the other foot.  Then, having satisfied her urge to swim, she would retreat to the chair with her umbrella and shoes and spend the rest of the vacation curled around a book.

Brett Younger concludes with this advice, “Life is short, so live each day as if it were your last, because some day you’ll be right.  Life is short, so wake up, stay alert, be prepared, light the lamps, get ready.  Listen for the knock, answer the call, serve where you are sent.  Life is short, so do what you love to do and give it your best.  Life is short, so recognize that today is the only day you have, eat dessert first, read good books, go to church and worship, stay awake and sing, tell the truth and dance.  Life is short, so listen to the people you love and tell them how much they mean to you.  Life is short, so surround yourself with gracious people, hug your friends, care for someone you haven’t cared for.  Life is short, so be courageous, take a chance, live so that when your life flashes before your eyes, you’ll have plenty to watch.  Life is short, so embrace the possibilities, try something new, see that every day is an opportunity, dream but don’t just dream, follow those dreams.  Life is short, so celebrate God’s eternity, make time for the things that matter, don’t leave yourself regretting things you didn’t do.  Life is short, tell others how God’s love has changed your life, be a person who talks about the good news of Christ.

Celebrate time.  How you spend each moment will tell the world where your heart is and where your heart is, there is your treasure.  As God takes pleasure in sharing God’s presence with us, let us take pleasure in finding God’s presence in each and every moment.


Supersize Me

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Supersize Me”

Rev. Art Ritter

August 4, 2019


Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 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.” Then he told them a parable: “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?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”


The New York Times has a column entitled “Metropolitan Diary” that features about a half dozen brief letters sent in by readers that describe what it is like to live in New York City.  Many of the stories speak of kindness and warmth.  Other relate the quirks found in some of the city residents.  Still others point to the outrageous wealth that many New Yorkers possess and what people tend to do with that wealth.  Calvin Seminary professor Scott Hoezee tells of a diary entry written by a couple visiting the Big Apple from their Midwest home.  It was in the middle of January, during a particularly brutal cold wave.  As they walked up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the woman’s ears started to get painfully cold.  They decided to check out a small boutique to purchase a hat for her.  The woman quickly found a lovely cashmere knit hat and was about to buy it when she noticed the price tag: $350.  She put it back quickly and left the store.  As soon as they made their way back to the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue however, the woman they saw a woman passing by, carrying a little poodle dog.  The dog was wearing the very same cashmere knit hat.

The ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca once said, “If what you have seems insufficient to you, then though you possess the world, you will yet be miserable.”  I like to pair Seneca’s words up with those of one of my favorite philosophers, deadpan comedian Steven Wright.  Wright once said, “You can’t have everything.  Where would you put it?”

Laura and I are currently in the midst of a kitchen remodel.  I know that many of you have endured this experience before and have survived.  But I would appreciate any words of encouragement!  The kitchen remodel includes some painting and floor maintenance in other rooms so it has turned our entire house into some rooms which resemble a war zone and other rooms which are acting as storage closets.  What I have learned from this project is that there is an industry out there based on providing storage boxes and containers to put your extra stuff into.  You want to make certain you have enough boxes to hold all of the stuff you really don’t need.  And I have also learned how much stuff Laura and I actually have.  Perhaps you never really appreciate how many possessions you have until you have to move them to a different place.  We have things that we never use and things we really don’t need.  I have discovered that we have many things I didn’t even know we had.  As I look around my house I see trinkets and memorabilia that were at one time important to me but as the years have passed grew less and less important.  Where at one time I was eagerly seeking to add to my collection, now it seems that I am in a search for ways to reduce it.

We used to have a bumper sticker on our refrigerator door that said, “Live so that the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.”  I am moving toward a different goal in life I think, one that a very wise person once told me.  “Live so that your children will not be embarrassed when they have to clean out your home and basement and attics and closets when you die.”

Jesus was in the middle of encouraging his disciples to hold true to faith, even under duress when he was interrupted by a man in the crowd who wanted Jesus to settle a financial dispute between siblings.  Jesus refused to enter into the family squabble but instead used the situation to teach about the seduction of wealth and possessions.  He told the man a parable of a rich man, who after a good year of harvest had an abundance of crops.  Concerned about what might happen in the future, the rich man tore down his existing barns and built bigger ones to store his more than adequate harvest.  The rich man’s words expressed his desire to continue on his present course of action, accumulating more resources without sharing them.  His expectation was that his comfortable life, lived without consideration of the suffering of others, would continue with a more organized and prepared future.

It is important to note that unlike some other parables, there is nothing really wrong going on here.  There is no stealing, no padding of financial accounts, nor taking advantage of employees.  On the surface, the rich farmer seems to be preparing for his retirement much as any of us do.  He saw an opportunity to supersize.  He looked forward to the time when he could stop his labors and eat and drink and be merry.  His goals resonate with our own when we reflect upon our IRAs and 401Ks.

Yet Jesus said that he was a fool!  His folly wasn’t that he wanted bigger barns.  Farmers need storage space.  He was a fool because he believed that his ample goods would safeguard his future.  He believed that he could safely and successfully manage all that might come his way.  He considered no one but himself as he contemplated the problems of his expanding wealth.  His sin was clearly illustrated in the conversation he had with himself:  “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?  I will do this- I will put 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…David Lose writes that the rich farmer had fallen prey to worshipping the most popular of gods, the “Unholy Trinity of Me, Myself, and I.” The rich farmer doesn’t not consult with anyone.  He does not consider the needs of his neighbors.  He does not consider what benefit might come with sharing his bounty.  His vision extends only to himself and how he can acquire and secure even more.

The rich farmer was living the good life.  He was wise in his own eyes.  Yet he was in Jesus’ words, “a fool.”  He clung to the priorities that he had chosen in life and missed what Jesus might call the “blessed life.”  The rich farmer’s future was well planned but it brought insecurity and anxiety because he missed the very presence of God in the blessings of seed and harvest.  The rich man was prepared for success in life but his preparation was not life-giving or life-sharing.

Jesus taught that finding a treasure is fine.  It is not a sin to be rich in things.  However we all must realize that our accumulation of stuff and our obsession with the control of material things tends to lead us to neglect our relationship with God.  We begin to identify ourselves with what we own.  We begin to think that we alone, through adequate preparation, are responsible for our future.  We begin to worry about whether or not we will have enough or whether or not someone else will take what we deserve.  It is as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Things are in the saddle and they ride mankind.” We drift toward greed, a sin that Thomas Aquinas said is a self-absorption which is absent of the experience of love.  We fail to understand that it is far more important to be rich in God.  It is God’s good pleasure to give us what we need for each day.  It is God’s good pleasure to secure our souls.  Only as we recognize that the gifts of ultimate worth, dignity, meaning, and relationship are gifts freely offered by God, can we hope to place our relative wealth in perspective and be generous with it toward others.  When we comprehend what God’s gifts in life truly are, than the harvest can become what it truly was meant to be- not a possession to hoard, but the blessings by which God cares for all of creation.

In a sermon on this passage from 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of how much of the wealth of our nation was built on the backs of those who suffer and struggle.  Dr. King wondered about the life of the rich farmer.  “He may have had great books in his library, but he never read them.  He may have had recordings of great music of the ages, but he never listened to it.  He probably gave his wife mink coats, a convertible automobile, but he didn’t give her what she needed most, love and affection.  He probably provided bread for his children, but he didn’t give them any attention; he didn’t really love them.  Somehow he looked up at the beauty of the stars, but he wasn’t moved by them.  He had heard the glad tidings of philosophy and poetry, but he really didn’t read it or comprehend it, or want to understand it.  And so this man justly deserved his title.  He was an eternal fool.  He allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived.  And he was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others.

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that “if you have to be greedy, then be greedy for love.  Be greedy for justice and wisdom and significance.  That way, when it comes time to show God what is in your treasure chest, there won’t be any doubt in your minds that you are rich.”