Rich in the Things of God
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
“Thus it is with everyone who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God.” — Luke 12:21
Jesus knows where we really live emotionally and that is why the record of his teaching has so much about money in it. Today we have one of the memorable items on this topic, the story of the successful man who built ever bigger barns to store his wealth, and then, just as he relaxed with a sigh of contentment, heard the Grim Reaper’s knock at his paneled door and had to go off leaving all this loot, the record of his whole life, to others. The story rightly calls him a fool.
His foolishness was to become rich in the wrong things and poor in the right things. He confused his priorities and in the crisis had nothing worthwhile to offer, only massive storehouses of wasted time. ” And God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night you must hand over your life. Who is going to get all this stuff you have stashed away?’ Thus it is with everyone who lays up treasure for himself and it not rich towards God.” (12: 20-21).
What is it to be rich before God? It is simply to have found the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44-46). Our Epistle lesson makes this point powerfully and gives it content: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God. Think of heavenly not earthly things, for you have already died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you too shall appear in glory with him (Colossians 3: 1-4).”
To be in a loving relationship with Jesus Christ is to be rich towards God and to enjoy the fullness of life of which the epistle speaks. This life we now live hidden with Christ in God – it is our hidden life – and it will become evident when we meet him again, either upon his return to earth or on our advent in heaven.
So this is the central and simple message to us today: you live life on two levels, one public and superficial the other private and profound, and the profound life is hidden with Christ in God and will become evident when we see him again. Let us look more closely at these two options.
At the public level we live for the approval of our fellow human beings. Nothing is more satisfying than having people admire you, and tell you that they do. I know this satisfaction well from two recent testimonial dinners where my friends told me they loved me and thanked me for the good I had done them. Let me assure you: in this world there are very few satisfactions to compare with that. After all, what we live and strive for is precisely this praise of our peers, which, when we get it is balm for our souls, (if we are able to recognize and accept it).
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with life on this superficial level, but in fact it often goes badly wrong and succumbs to the “will to power” in the form of greed. Jesus speaks much of money because he knows the power of greed. Greed makes the quest for appreciation irrational. We pile up wealth and achievement as if they could coerce the admiration of others and secure our life against death. Greed can become a disease. In 1849 here in California they spoke of “gold fever,” and some of us saw and even experienced its modern outbreak in the tech bubble of the late 90’s. Greed is like an addiction, causing one to behave recklessly, and filling the horizon of ones attention and concern. In its grip we can sacrifice relationships and narrow our attention to one overwhelming obsession. Greed coarsens the personality, paralyses morality and makes one capable of great cruelty.
Let me give you a current example. As we speak corporations are making good profits and sitting on unprecedented piles of cash. Much of this profit comes because they have reduced their labor forces dramatically. As a result more and more active people are sidelined and idled in unemployment. Common decency would require that businesses that could afford it, hire people, but greed dictates that the corporations hoard cash and continue to cut jobs, regardless of the humanity of the workers. They are serving the shareholders rather than the workers, but mostly they are serving themselves, as they give their executives obscenely excessive rewards. This spirit of greed is destroying the lives of millions of our fellow Americans and the fabric of our politics, as people become more and more angry and lash out and lash back.
The tragedy in this drama of winners and losers is in the fact there are no winners. All are losers. Those who sit with their barns full and build ever bigger ones are the ever bigger losers, as they will discover, and those who sit watching their lives diminish are losers too, as more and more of them succumb to the strident politics of fear.
It is not my part as a preacher of the Gospel to propose political solutions or give economic advice. My task is far, far more important. I must tell all who will listen the only really good news there is, that long after all this ugliness is past you will have to face emptiness, unless you have found the pearl of great price, and, here it is, that there is such a pearl to find, Jesus Christ, who is God for us and eternal life, he is the pearl.
You remember Cardinal Wolsey’s remark as he mounted Henry’s scaffold: “If I had served my God half as well as I have served my king, He would not have left me now bereft.” What do you think the man in our story said when he heard that knock at his paneled door? Could it have been something like this: “I wish I had not spent so much of the time of my life and the substance of my soul collecting baggage and building barns”? I think so. So thank God we have been told the truth and can avoid such terminal regret. This Gospel about Jesus is the gateway to our immortality, hidden for now in God, but soon to be revealed.
This may be the last time I preach to you here (Whether it is, depends on the real estate market). For almost 40 years, from the spring of 1974 until now, I have preached this Gospel in these parts. This Gospel has been my life, and I shall continue to preach it until I pass away. It is the only truth I really know, the only thing I have to say, and the joy of my life. Thanks for hearing me and thus making it possible for me to live this life. All things in this world pass away and that is why our lesson is so appropriate today: Seek the things that are above where Christ is at God’s right hand; be rich in the things of God, that is, dwell in the love of Jesus always. It is the only thing that lasts forever, and does not pass away.