07/31/2022 ~ Eighth Sunday after Pentecost ~ Proper 13 ~ Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7960701/video/735469590
Life or Death?
Jesus is recorded as speaking these words in the work known as Luke: “…God said to the farmer, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be required of you.’” — Luke 12:20.
As I have said here before, for the most part pastors in Main Line churches have both a Bachelor’s Degree and a 90 credit Master of Divinity Degree. For what it is worth, my Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and since I did make my living for a time as a writer that degree seems to make sense.
However, I sometimes say the first school from which I graduated was the school of hard knocks. Getting into the prestigious school of hard knocks was easy.
How easy? The first time I went to college I dropped out after one semester. Dropping out of school qualifies anyone to enter the school of hard knocks.
As I have also said and as happened to many of us in that era, I promptly got drafted and sent to Vietnam. When I got back to these shores I decided to follow my heart and take a crack at writing for professional theater.
Like many theater folks I did all kinds of work in theater from being a business manager for a children’s theater to working for the theatrical charity the Actors’ Fund of America, to being a stage manager off-off Broadway. On the writing end of things the list is long so I’ll just mention a few. I wrote material for and directed numerous club acts.
I wrote a number of plays and musicals most of which did not get produced and also wrote something in the neighborhood of three hundred songs with different composers. But I did get some serious professional credits as I contributed material to an off-Broadway Musical which starred Kaye Ballard, for those of you who might remember Kaye. And two of my plays were performed in very prestigious venues.
A comedy— New Face of the Year— was presented at the Manhattan Theater Club. Another, a musical version of Much Ado About Nothing— which with great and good perversity was called, All’s Well That Ends Well— was done at The Lambs Club, the oldest theatrical social club in the United States.
In the course of my work I was invited— you need to audition and then be invited— I was invited to be a member of the ASCAP Musical Comedy Workshop. The workshop is essentially a master class for composers, lyricists and librettists which at that point in time the workshop was run by Charles Strouse, the composer of Annie.
Of course, and as is true of a lot of theater professionals, I also did all kinds of other jobs outside of theater to keep food on the table. These are some of the highlights from that list. I was a tour guide at South Street Seaport Museum. I worked in computer operations when computers were the size of this room. I worked as a store manager.
I also worked in back office operations on Wall Street. I am sure all this experience was worth at least a graduate degree from the aforementioned school of hard knocks. Now, that last job I mentioned— back office operations on Wall Street— I want to connect that with the fact that I served in Vietnam.
To be clear, I don’t want to overstate what I saw in Southeast Asia. As these things go, I was in relatively safe places. On the other hand, no place is really safe. I got blown out of bed a couple of times by incoming.
My point is, when you daily live with the tangible possibility of death for fourteen months it does change your outlook on life. So, what happened on Wall Street that I might connect with Army life? (Slight pause.)
One job I had in a brokerage was to dispatch messengers who delivered stock and bond certificates against a deadline to other brokerages. Certificates had to be delivered by certain times in the course of the day or they would be rejected.
Once a vice-president type came into my office with a stack of certificates and demanded they be delivered right away. But this was way after any deadline had past.
I time stamped the delivery sheet and said, “I’ll get them out as soon as I can. The deadlines are past and all the messengers are out making on time deliveries.”
He shouted at the top of his lungs, “I will have your job! I will have you fired!”
I smiled and said, “Good luck with that.” His face got very red. He turned and, clearly on a mission, quickly scurried out of the office. The next voice I heard was that of the senior vice-president in charge of my area.
“O.K. What happened?” I calmly explained I had received a stack of certificates for delivery way past any deadline, time stamped the delivery sheet and would attempt delivery A.S.A.P. My guy smiled, shook his head, turned around and left. (Slight pause.)
You see, when you’ve served for fourteen months in a war zone a threat which says, ‘you’re fired’ has very little meaning. You’re reaction is, “I know what a real threat is. So, go ahead. Fire me. Big deal.” And that, my friends, is a lesson from the school of hard knocks well learned and put into action. (Slight pause.)
Jesus is recorded as speaking these words in the work known as Luke: “…God said to the farmer, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be required of you.’” (Slight pause.)
Some might suggest “You’re fired” is not just a catch phrase but a way of life, an ever constant threat common in our culture today. Equally, there are those who, because of that very same culture in which we live, might take these words of Jesus as a threat that effectively says, ‘I threaten you with death. Therefore, be good, be generous.’
But is that the case? Are these words a threat? (Slight pause.) I think seeing this text as a threat is very Twenty-first Century outlook. If we do see it that way, that’s our culture informing us, not the text.
In fact, I don’t think death or any kind of threat is a part of the equation. What is a part of the equation is obvious questions are being asked: ‘What is meaningful in life?’ and ‘Do possessions give life meaning?’ (Slight pause.)
I think freedom from greed is the real focus of this reading. And greed is a difficult issue in our culture. Indeed, many would insist to be free from greed is to deny the freedom to possess things. And yes, possessions are important to us. After all, we do live in a material world— to quote another cultural catch phrase.
And yes, we do live in a culture that thrives on the profit motive. We do live in a culture that puts a high premium on expansion, growth. And this is a reality we need to acknowledge: for some materialism is a religion; profit is a religion; acquisition is a religion.
And yes, there are things we need. And because of that need it is not always easy to separate greed from profit. But separating need from greed has to be done. Let me reiterate that: separating need from greed has to be done. (Slight pause.)
This brings me back to how each of us thinks about life. Yes, my time in the service, overseas, changed me. So when I got back to these shores I decided to follow my heart, to take a crack at being a writer for professional theater. And I did a lot of that.
What I sometimes have said is what my time in the service really did was empower the idea that I had to follow my heart. But I am not sure saying that I followed my heart is quite accurate, either. I think I can better describe my state of mind by mentioning the two questions I raised for myself when I returned.
These were the two questions I asked myself. ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Why did I survive?’ (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to the words of Jesus we heard at the end of the reading (quote:) “…this is the way it works for those who store up treasures, riches, for themselves but are not rich in God.” For me this is clear: God is not vengeful. God is a God of love. God does not regale us with threats.
I think the message contained in these words is clear. Life is not about how well you live. Life is about how to live well. Life is not about how well you live. Life is about how to live well.
So, the choices we make can be and sometimes are about life and death. But what really brings us life and what really brings us to life is listening for the call of God and listening to our neighbors and loving our neighbors. Listening for the call of God and listening to our neighbors and loving our neighbors— that’s not about well living. That is about living well.
I also believe this to be true: when we listen to the call of God and when we listen to our neighbor, help our neighbor, our own outlook on life will not be overwhelmed by threats or by materialism or by possessions or by acquisitions. Our own outlook on life will be one which embraces the freedom to live by the discipline called love.
So this passage is not about any kind of threat, although I’m sure some read it that way. This passage is about the freedom to live— freedom to live well. Freedom to live well is a freedom to live with and to live into and live in the grace God offers each of us. That grace, God’s grace, includes an invitation from God to live and to love to the fullness of our ability.
Why should this passage be read as an invitation to live and to love? Because God is not a vengeful God. God is a God of love. And the love of God is obviously not a threat. That God loves us is a promise— a promise from God to us. Amen.
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “What I shared today was, obviously, a part of my personal story. But each of us has a unique personal story. Therefore, I think each of us needs to ask how does my own, unique, wonderful, personal story help you understand how you relate to the world, how you relate to the people around you and to then ask yourself how do I relate to God because of that story? And perhaps one way to live well would be for each of us to share our, individual, personal story with one another.”
BENEDICTION: Let us never fear to seek the truth God reveals. Let us live as a resurrection people. Let us understand every day as a new adventure in faith as the Creator draws us into community. So, go now, go in safety— for you cannot go where God is not. Go now— go in love— for love alone endures. Go now— go with purpose and God will honor your dedication. And last, go in peace— for it is a gift from God to those whose hearts and minds are in Christ, Jesus. Amen.