August 4, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Luke 12.13-21 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 4th August 2019, Trinity 7.
You may not have noticed this, but it’s unusual for the cathedral to have the same preacher at the same service two weeks running. Maybe I’m wrong: perhaps the collective prayer has already gone up, ‘O God, not him again!’
For better for worse, it is me again, but I’d like to take advantage of this to develop one of last week’s themes. Last Sunday we were exploring the relationship between science and religion, and I suggested that the contribution of religion lay in the development of the soul, that is, our innermost self in relation to God, others and the environment. And I proposed that our future prosperity and wellbeing lay with science-with-soul, humanities-with-soul and arts-with-soul.
Today we’re still in Luke’s Gospel – one chapter further on from last week – with Luke continuing to probe who we really are and what we can become as we pray. Today he offers a salutary tale from Jesus about a man whose whole life becomes a project of acquisition.
It would be easy enough to launch into a tirade against consumerism, but most of us already know how stuff can clog up our homes and lives, how we can end up anxious about losing and damaging things, or how things can separate us from each other by envy or covetousness. Let’s not waste time by reinventing that moral wheel. Let’s think instead about the underlying issue, the fear of diminishment.
Ignatius of Loyola, one of the saints of the Counter Reformation, proposed an important spiritual exercise to liberate the will from what he called ‘inordinate attachments’, that is, anything that prevents a soul from seeking the greater glory of God. If you want to be really free of the lure of wealth and riches, he said, pray actively that God will make you poor. If you find that difficult, then you’ll know that in some way, you are stuck, attached to something, someone or some situation that makes your allegiance to God limited and conditional.
Diminishment – that state of having less, and of being less – is not something we like to contemplate. Indeed, it is something we fear. But the opposite of acquisition is diminishment, so if we want to be truly free of the desire to acquire, then we should actively welcome diminishment.
This is never easy. Today’s fraught political landscape is a dialogue about diminishment, a dialogue between those who want to prevent the diminishment of the democratic process, by not setting aside the referendum result of 2016 and the subsequent manifesto commitments of the main parties, and those who want to avoid a diminishment of the economy and of the authority of Parliament, which has voted consistently against no-deal. The whole debate can be read as an argument about which diminishment we would prefer to swallow as our chosen poison.
But diminishment is also hard for us as souls. As I’ve said, souls cannot exist in isolation, only in relationship. A few months ago I was talking to someone in an abusive relationship. She couldn’t leave that harmful relationship because, she said, serving the needs of her partner was the only thing that gave her life purpose. She knew she was trapped, but the option of having no significant relationship at all horrified her even more.
Similarly, if we build our lives in relation to what we can acquire, we are still searching for relationship – we talk about loving a new book or new bag – though we know that these are not the relationships that can ground our soul solidly. More often, we love the things we have because of their associations for us.
A woman who had been briefly allowed back into her home in Whaley Bridge, under the threat of deluge, said to a reporter that she could replace her furniture, CDs and books, but she couldn’t bear to think of her grandmother’s ring being carried off in a torrent. It’s not the monetary value of the object that counts, but the traditions and memories they bear.
Nonetheless, it’s a folly to rely on any thing to bring us life. The man in Jesus’ story developed a fairly crass reliance on the sheer quantity of his assets. None of it could help him a jot as he faced death. The parable reminds us not to let death catch us out, to live before God and with God as if we were mortal:
We blossom and flourish, like leaves on a tree,
And whither and perish, but nought changeth thee.
There is a time for acquisition, when we are growing a home and family, developing a career or occupation, when we are making space for others and developing our talents; and there is a time for diminishment, when we are moving towards death. Both of those movements are part of what it means to be human, but neither is the whole picture.
Sometimes psychologists talk of the first and second half of life to identify these stages, but actually at every stage of life we only grow by allowing things once important for us to die. A baby can learn to crawl around at top speed on all fours, but has to set this aside to become a toddler. And if we have once been in an important job, used to being in the limelight and supported by staff, we have to set all this aside to enjoy a productive and contented retirement.
Most importantly for our wellbeing, we have to become used to the weakening of our faculties and bodies: we can take nothing for granted, for every aspect of our lives is gift.
Given all this, what would Jesus’ parable be like if it stressed wisdom rather than foolishness?
The land of a rich man produced abundantly.
And he thought to himself. ‘What shall I do, for I have more than I need? I shall share my prosperity with others. I’ll invite others to work my land and share my business and manage it sustainably. Then the land will not groan from exploitation and others will benefit from its produce; and what is more we will be able to offer to others grain at fair prices and tithe our profits to the poor, so that they too will be blessed.’
I know that one day my soul will be required of me, perhaps even tonight; but whenever the time comes, others can take responsibility for what I began, and I will leave this world content that I have done some good with the opportunities I’ve been granted, and I can leave behind my estate, barns, grain and even my body, knowing that all was gift and all for the greater glory of God.
If we want to become less attached to acquisition, only one thing is necessary, that we learn to place our trust in the hands of God, much more than we trust in what we can clutch in our own. It’s not for nothing that Jesus, at the end of his life, when he was stripped of everything, prayed, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’.
Christ there showed no fear of diminishment; he was content to let go of life itself, in order to find his place in the kingdom of God. And for us also, faith in Christ means refusing to believe that the things we let go of for the sake of the gospel simply fall into the abyss of non-being. When we let go of whatever we treasure, God has his barns, in which he can store a growing harvest of righteousness.
Just think of this good crop being gathered moment by moment till the end of time, and don’t despair when you’re called to give up something precious. Nothing of worth will be lost and all in the end is harvest.