Monday, September 13, 2010

Psalm 49.1-10, Colossians 3.1-5, Luke 12.13-21

Suppose you had a wealthy Aunt and one day she rang you up, or wrote you a letter, or even sent you a text, and said she was going to give you a thousand pounds? What would you do with the money?

Let’s make the choice a bit more difficult. You’ve been thinking for a long time of redecorating your living room, but – on the other hand – the church needs help to fund an important new community project. Do you keep all of your Aunt’s gift for yourself, or do you give some to the church?

Or how about this? For the first time ever, you have been chosen to play in the school’s netball team, or football team, but the match happens to be on the same day as your best friend’s birthday party. Do you go to the party or do you play in the match?

Or you need to practise the piano before a music exam, but your friends want you to go out with them, to play outdoors or to go into town. What do you choose to do? We have to make these decisions like these every day, don’t we?

Consider this choice – which perhaps none of us will ever have to make? Your family is short of money and you all agree to sell some of your possessions on ebay. What would you choose to manage without – your MP3 player, perhaps, or your games’ console, or a piece of jewellery without too much sentimental value?

One of my jobs is to get ready to run a post office and I’ve been learning about the Post Office’s award winning life insurance products. If you’re over fifty, you can buy insurance to cover the cost of your funeral and to leave your family a small legacy. And whether you’re young or old, you can open a savings account – there are all sorts to choose from.

What would Jesus’ attitude have been to all of these choices? He seemed to think that saving too much money, or planning too far ahead, or putting too much reliance on possessions or personal achievements, was a mistake – that it meant getting our priorities wrong.

And yet all of us think that possessions and achievements matter, don’t we? Have times changed since Jesus told the story of the foolish farmer? Is life no longer as simple as it was then? Do we all deserve nicer homes, the chance to excel at games, or to learn to play a musical instrument, the opportunity to own a few small luxuries and to plan for our future? Or are there more important things? What about friendship, loyalty, love and compassion?

When I was a child the Beetles sang,

Say you don't need no diamond ring and I'll be satisfied
Tell me that you want the kind of thing that money just can't buy I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love.

Is that what we believe?

The Psalmist asks what use money is in troubled times. It’s a question we might also want to ask Tony Hayward, the man who used to be the chief executive of BP. For three years he was considered a safe pair of hands, someone who was putting right BP’s accident prone record. And then BP hit troubled times again. What use was all of its wealth and abundance of riches then? We can’t trust in these things, can we? Even if you’re the head of a huge multinational company! They have a tendency to slip through your fingers.

Suddenly BP’s fortunes have plummeted and Mr Hayward has gone just as quickly from being a highly respected business leader to being a liability surrounded by persecutors. And now he’s being packed off to Siberia to look for oil there.

In any case, says the Psalmist, even when we make a great success of our life here and now there is no price that we can pay to escape from death. However wealthy or wise we might be, however much we may have learned or earned, there is no escape from the inevitable and we can’t take our wealth or our experience with us. It’s a sombre note which continues throughout the rest of the psalm, although he writer does say that God has the power to rescue us and save us from oblivion.

Paul speaks in the passage from Colossians about the need to let go of many of the things which people normally think add value and spice to life – sex, passion, desire, even the pursuit of wealth. There’s an advert for BMW cars which says, ‘They say you always want what you can’t have until you’ve got it.’ That’s pretty much the attitude which Paul appears to be condemning and he likens it to feeling angry, malicious or wrathful, or being slanderous and abusive.

These are all ultimately ways of living and being which are negative and life denying, and owning a BMW car won’t put us back on track. Even apparently solid distinctions such as our race, or religion, or nationality, even freedom itself, is transitory and of no lasting account. What matters, says Paul, is to let go of all these things – to put them to death, in fact – and to be reborn into a new life in Jesus Christ.

And so we come to the words of Jesus himself, ‘One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ All the rich farmer wanted to do was to plan for his retirement. Isn’t that what any of us aspire to do? And having had a lucky run of good harvests the farmer’s dream came true. At last he had enough product stored in his barns to retire and spend the rest of his life eating, drinking and being merry. But his predicament was exactly the opposite of the modern pensioner’s. Instead of living so long that he emptied his pension fund, his retirement was very short indeed. It’s better therefore, suggests Jesus, ‘to be rich towards God.’

Where does that leave us? Do we need to reorder our priorities? In this age of longevity do we put too much store by financial security? Do we allow ourselves to be seduced by property and possessions? Should we live more by faith and less by plans and calculation? Are we too risk averse? And should we see Paul’s attitude to sex and personal relationships as the standard which we should all aspire too, as a higher aim for an elite cadre of spiritual leaders only, or as a complete aberration?

The Church has had mixed feelings about Paul’s rather negative attitude towards passion. The New International Version avoids the issue completely by translating the original Greek word as ‘lust’, making it much easier to compare to the other things which Paul condemns in this passage. But even if we stick with the more neutral word ‘passion’, preferred by other modern translations, we need to remind ourselves that Paul himself admitted - elsewhere in his letters - that his fairly puritanical attitude to personal relationships was just his own opinion and not a word from the Lord.

Not only is it sometimes difficult to translate the Bible into English, it’s also sometimes very difficult to translate the Bible into practical action or even into everyday aspiration. What we can say for certain, however, is that – when it comes to the values we live by – we do need to get our priorities right: compassion must come before profit, love before self-centeredness, generosity before greed, sharing before acquisition.

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