This Night Your Soul is Required of You
The keen-eyed among you, while you were waiting for the service to start - perhaps - took a break from admiring the decorations around the altar and listening to the nimble fingers of Gabriele Catalucci on the organ. For extra house points, you skimmed the Gospel reading and so you know what’s coming next. You noticed already that there are six uses of the personal pronoun “I” in the rich man’s conversation with himself.
What should “I” do…
“I” have no place to store my crops…
“I” will do this…
“I” will pull down my barns and build larger ones.
There “I” will store all my grain…
“I” will say to my soul ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry
He’s having a conversation with himself. At the end he even addresses himself as if he were standing in front of a mirror.
When my mother would iron clothes in the little laundry room off our kitchen in Victoria, B.C. she used to talk to herself. She was good at it. As I would stand in the kitchen dripping a little carnation milk into my coffee, it was never a question of “what are you saying, mum?” the question I really wanted to ask was “Mum, who are you saying it to?” I sometimes suspected that she was able to take two parts of a dialogue. Like i said, she was good.
I am married to a woman who does the same thing and I have inherited the same genes and I don’t mean a predisposition towards the company of women who talk to themselves but the genes for intense and almost troubling interior conversation, myself. I am that soldier as well. I talk to myself a lot. I talk to myself while I’m shaving in the morning. I talk to myself in front of my computer screen. I talk to myself as I’m walking along in the street as well, sometimes to the point where people turn their heads and notice and look vaguely concerned or bemused. When I notice them noticing me, that’s when I panic. I bite my lip. I put my head down, pull on the dogs’ leashes, pretend to be talking to them and consciously try to get to the end of the block without attracting any additional attention.
Rarely, however, does anybody identify the self we are speaking to quite as directly and self-consciously as the rich man does in the parable at the end of his little speech. We don’t often imagine our own self - our own little homunculus - standing at a distance being addressed. We speak to the air; we speak to an imagined other person - some version of our spouse or one of our colleagues. We imagine what we should have said and didn’t and then rehearse it in our heads over and over to make ourselves feel better and remind ourselves of what we will say next time we are in a similar situation.
Our parable this morning is introduced by words which you don’t have in front of you – by three verses which precede the reading in your bulletin. I will read them for you:
One of the multitude said to (Jesus), “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.
And so, the subject heading is riches – abundance and overabundance but more importantly, desire covetousness and envy Today is our Harvest Festival where we give thanks to God for the myriad ways in which we have been cared for: By God, who has cared for us in ways of which we may not even be aware. By the Earth – its cultivated fields and forests and seas. By our family who tolerates us. We are thankful for the relative peace of our land and the city in which we live. We might even give thanks for the unknown person, for the stranger who collects our bins, teaches our children, farms our fields, transports our food by land or by sea or who cares for us when we are sick. We thank God that we have enough. That it is sufficient.
In every Harvest Thanksgiving congregation – amongst the altar party in the chancel, for instance, or perhaps in the nave –four rows from the back - there is somebody who sings loudly that “All good gifts around us are sent from Heaven above” but who is largely paying lip service to the idea of harvest and thanksgiving because, frankly, they could see it far enough. They were never preferred among their siblings. There were folk with a duty of care towards them – mentors and line managers who let it be known that, in spite of their ability to stick to a task, they were perhaps too thick or too plain, too old and others were promoted around them. You retired and the fortunes of your company were placed in the hands of somebody eminently less qualified than yourself and now you don’t know what to do. You’re bored to tears and your autumn years don’t appear like much of a gift to you. Your children moved away and formed their own new alliances, and you are no longer mother or father in the way you want to be. You moved to Western Europe from somewhere else and your skills and education have no automatic outlet or legal equivalency here and you find yourself working far below your ability. We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground. Yeah – you’ve had a bellyful of ploughing and scattering. You’ve not seen the harvest yet. You think it might be hokum.
For the individual speaking to Jesus, the one who is embittered because he does not think he is getting all he deserves, Jesus, in Luke’s telling of the story, recounts a parable about a landowner – a landowner with more grain than he has barn space. He’s done well. He has a surplus. Mehrvert – as Karl Marx would call it – more worth - added value. The value of the product minus the cost of labour and materials and maintenance. You could argue, as Karl might well have, that what is sitting around in baskets waiting to be appropriately stored in barns represents the undervalued labour of tenant farmers whose labour could be intentionally undervalued because they do not control the means of production but this particular moral and economic problem doesn’t figure weightily in the parable other than, perhaps, a wealthy man coming to a nasty end gives an audience from the more modest end of town a little frisson. For all we know the landowner treats his tenants well and builds play areas and funds scholarships for their children. How he gets his grain is immaterial here in Luke 12. No, the issue is the conversation one might have – anyone – you – me – the landowner - with one’s self about what sort of surplus is necessary to keep one safe and comfortable and blessed by abundance. The issue is this person in the mirror who the man addresses as his “soul” – the health and ease and joy of whom the landowner ties to the existence of a whole lot of stuff.
Do remember that this parable is introduced by an issue of inheritance where one brother is blessed and another is not and where the absence of blessing is undoubtedly going to be felt for – and you here this morning will have some your own experience of this within families – for how long?
Always. Forever and ever. Unto several generations.
The absence of expected stuff. It will dominate every exchange, be spoken about with grudge and bitterness to third parties, become part of family lore and will become the stated reason every bad thing ever happened to the aggrieved person, to his children, to his grandchildren and what Jesus would do here is to turn the aggrieved party at the outset, before the bitterness has had a chance to trash his insides, towards a Parable Person – a caricature, perhaps, of a wealthy individual upon whom the sun has shone with all its glorious rays. There he is. Daddy Warbucks, J.P. Gotrocks. Thaddeus Q. Vanderfella the 3rd. His name got pulled out of the envelope, not yours. He has what you don’t. And to make things worse, he is talking to himself about it.
I think of conversations which Jakob and I had in November and December – when we had taken a firmer position with the folks using the church for concerts and with our tenant in the shop on matters of income and the church wardens had reached consensus that we should so proceed and we made a modicum of progress on income. On the other side of the page, we rationalized a number of our expenditures – grouped them sensibly - and, looking even at a relatively conservative estimate of our incomings and our outgoings for the year 2020, we saw – miraculously – a small surplus remaining to us in a basket at the end of the year. Wonderful treasurer, I said to myself – out loud on Via del Babuino – and somebody said “Scusi?”. Capable and determined church wardens, I said to myself, a little more quietly. Superior Vicar, I whispered discreetly to myself, standing there in the full-length mirror. That’s him, striding boldly down Via del Babuino in his well-appointed suit like a clerical Apollo. On the news there were a few stories about folks were getting sick in China. We’d heard that. Then came February. Then came March. And it all went to hell in the handcart where it remains, by the way, quite well lodged. Nothing to show of the surplus, the Mehrvert, the fruits of our discussions and our self-confidence. Back to square one and worrying again about the future.
Which is not unlike the turning point in our parable. Everything in order. Everything well. And then a voice which suddenly makes an entrance and is not my voice – and is something else - not the voice of the rich fool – not the voice of anybody with all her ducks in a row.
“Fool! This night your soul is required of you”.
Defining the soul and describing its edges would be the sort of metaphysical sermon which I dare not start this late in a sermon, but we know something here about what it is not. If you can make a claim to stuff and to achievements know this: Your achievements will be forgotten. Your stuff will degrade or be given away.
What is that patch of ground which is your soul when you clear it (or when it gets cleared) of the overburden of heavy headed wheat which causes you to talk to your self about all you that have and all that you’ve done and you forget who you are. Or, on the other hand, when you clear away the sour tangle of weeds which cause you to talk to yourself and to anybody who’ll listen about how badly you’ve been treated and you forget who you are and that you are not merely the product of a series of unfortunate circumstances at somebody else’s hands.
The necessity of preserving your gains or the constantly rehearsed pain of grieving their absence conditions – if not poisons – the relationships you have with an “other” – with whatever stands on the far side of the personal pronoun “I” and it is this second case and not the first which Jesus is primarily concerned about. Envy. Pain. Covetousness – the belief that you would be better if you had that person’s life, that person’s wife, his donkey, his this, his that. Who is the I whom God addresses – treasures – loves – questions – requires?
For the third time, remember that this is not a parable about the appropriate use of wealth it is a parable meant to encourage the foreswearing of envy and bitterness because you do not have what you believe you deserve.
What does the person, who loves you, witnessing your fistfight in Piazza Navona scream from the side lines?
Leave off. Stop. You’re better than that!
Both the fictional rich man and the very real aggrieved younger brother are offered a moment of clarity. If having or not having, being lucky or unlucky is the litmus test of life then you are the product of an accident of geography – because you did not choose where to be born – or an accident of temporal history because you did not choose a time of war or a time of peace to utter your first wailing cry. You are of greater value than your circumstances. You are better than that.
And its worth not hiding behind your goods or hiding behind your grudges. None of them tells the story of who you are. Look beyond yourselves – even at the birds and the flowers who exhibit God’s glory with their scant resources – at folks and communities far less well placed than you who are nonetheless happier than you and more focussed.
Like all “exigent messages” (and I recognize that this morning's sermon is perhaps more exigent than you might have expected at a Harvest service):
- this sermon comes to you today from a tradition which places a high stock in the ability of men and women to change course in the midst of life. Our Bible is full of such encounters and transformations.
- It comes from a Church which takes it as "given" that God would take up ordinary things and transform them into something magnificent.
- It comes from a clergyman who knows he is speaking to the living and to the mostly well. Those who still have choices to make – those who, because of circumstance or even just habit, might think there is only one door to walk through and one appointed path to take but who, in fact, have before them different manners of living.
He speaks to you as Jesus spoke to an aggrieved younger brother.
He asks: at long last, are you not tired of listening to your own voice?