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Rich Fool

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Aug 04

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 12: 13-21

Talk about a parable for our time! As I began to consider this passage from Luke, the so-called Parable of the Rich Fool, my mind was soon flooded with recent news stories and headlines about our nation’s economic woes. Mind you, I haven’t preached in a few weeks so maybe I maybe feeling particularly empowered this morning by the theologian Karl Barth’s sage advice to preachers: take the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. You’ve been warned.

As our passage attests, anxiety about money and inheritance is age old. A brother is asking Rabbi Jesus to intervene in a family argument about how to divvy up his family’s wealth. Instead, Jesus takes the opportunity to ask something that resonates 2000 years later: how do we better share the abundance of our heritage in ways that reflect or build up a richness toward God. The news these days seems to be asking us the same question.

Take the story about fast food workers going on strike this past week to double their wages to $15/hour. Or the recent report that Federal student loan debt has topped 1 trillion dollars, with interest rates up 6.8 percent. Even before all this, Obama two weeks ago had begun to call America out for our widening income gap. Gaping is actually more like it, and its not only tearing our economy apart but its fraying our social fabric as well. At the heart of his comments was a recognition of the legitimate fear and increasing reality of long term financial instability that is being faced by the poor and middle class. Just a few days after his powerfully personal speech on race following the Zimmerman verdict, he added in this speech about the economy that “Racial tensions”, and with them struggles around immigration, “won’t get better, they may get worse, because people will feel as they’ve got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pot.” Are we even thinking of sharing the abundance of our heritage before God?

These issues came home to me on Friday as Nancy and I made our way out to Springfield to attend the third of five public hearings on pending statewide gun control legislation. We took a chartered bus from Roxbury with 18 youth and young adult volunteers from the Boston chapter of the NAACP. The NRA and Massachusetts gun lobby were out in full force, as usual, along with about 400 employees from the Springfield based gun manufacturer, Smith & Wesson. State Representative Naughton, and the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Safety moderated and heard over 7 hours of alternating testimony. On the one side, there were heart-wrenching stories told by gun shot survivors, families of homicide victims, mental health leaders and clergy, many demanding universal background checks and curbs on the production of high capacity magazines and assault weapons. On the other side, there was impassioned discussion of government infringement on second amendment rights. And that particular hearing, many testified to the important role that Smith and Wesson plays in the local economy, employing over 1500 workers. Smith and Wesson CEO, P. James Debney was among the first to speak. We arrived just as he was receiving a standing ovation from most of the crowd. At least he took some of his employees with him when he left, opening up enough seats for us. We sat for the next 3 and ½ hours waiting patiently for the kids to have their turn to speak, to share their fears and grief over lost loved ones. They bookended their collective testimony with an NAACP rallying cry. A leader chanted: Fired Up? And the kids responded: Ready to Go! They nailed their pieces, and were nothing but respectful participants throughout the day even in the face of several gun rights advocates suggesting that the reason why gun violence is running rampant has do with poor parenting and a culture that accepts gang violence. You should have the looks on the kids faces.

I confess my own being fired up was somewhat tempered because I was seated right next to a Smith and Wesson employee. We would literally rub shoulders each time one of us added applause to our respective side. Not once did we clap at the same time. And then I wondered about our reading for today. There we were, two children of God, two brothers, with two seemingly opposing ideas about the futures we should inherit as a result of these pending laws. Had I asked Jesus to take my side, would he have said “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over your inheritance?”

Though my brother next to me did not share a testimony himself, I got the sense that he was presumably there to represent his own economic self-interests, to ensure that he could prepare and provide for his family and for all I know his church and his community. I can’t blame him for that, nor for feeling anxious or threatened. His life may well have richness toward God that I can’t begin to imagine. But we weren’t there for his job or his rights though you wouldn’t know it from the vast amount of testimony we heard. We were there, fighting with and for those kids and their kids to have safer streets and a longer life expectancy. Some fighting for their lives and others for their livelihoods but sadly far too little recognition of common ground given what was more broadly at stake! You see…while the economic self-interests of the Smith and Wesson employees were clearly on display throughout the day -- a Peter Pan bus shuttled them back and forth from the plant we passed by on our way out -- there was virtually no recognition of the economically self-interested corporate partnership between the gun industry, including Smith and Wesson, and NRA which has been exerting enormous and exceedingly well-financed pressure on state and federal lawmakers. I was reminded of a line by my colleague Rev. Ray Hammond who once asked us to pray, and organize and advocate and lobby against unholy trinity of ideology, fear and profit that continues to fuel the mayhem in our streets and puts a headlock on our political process. Ultimately, the reason why there aren’t better gun laws has less to do with infringement on second amendment right and far more to do with infringement on gun manufacturers profit margins. As you can by now imagine, my mind was racing as I was sitting there, and still is now, stewing with a mix of compassion for my neighbor trying to provide for his family and judgment of gun industry leaders and NRA execs who are in my opinion, knowingly stoking fear and second amendment ideology for profit. Some gun stocks are up more than 400% since Obama took office and the NRA trumped up accusations that Obama “would take away our guns”.

However we may rightly or wrongly judge particular individuals or even industries, our parable stands nonetheless as a sharp indictment of our collective economy. The land of the rich man called America has produced abundantly. And so we continue to build larger barns and houses and garages, larger banks, larger hedge funds, larger gun safes and larger capacity magazines to protect and defend it all. The ultimate spoils remain for those at the top of the payscale, for those who can pay for their own protection as a neighboring town’s police Commissioner told me the CEO of Smith and Wesson does. Meanwhile our economy, social fabric and political process are becoming increasingly walled off from those left anxious and struggling in the middle class and those in poverty. Why else was that CEO who did not ravel nearly as far allowed to speak 3 and ½ hours before the kids from Roxbury, and why does that CEO automatically get a meeting with the committee chair when it takes organizing and advocacy for the kids to do so. The system is in every possible way stacked against them! Prophets, teachers, climate activistis, progressive business owners and McDonald’s hamburger flippers are all crying out the same thing: “you fool, America, this very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”. Urban youth cry out “you fool, America, this very night our lives are being demanded of us?” 83 deaths a day to senseless gun violence! And the things we have stored up and prepared, whose will they be?

We are losing our sense of a shared inheritance in this country such that the only ones who seem to be benefitting from it are the wealthy, and the children of the wealthy, or the high level employees and stockholders of the wealthy. Even contemporary philanthropy is becoming suspect as evidenced by a great article in last week Sunday times by Peter Buffet, son of Warren, titled the Charitable-Industrial Complex. What of our shared inheritance? What of an abundant life together that is rich and loving towards our God, towards our neighbors and so towards ourselves? What matters in the end is not what we earn and save and leave behind, not that we are rich and not that we are poor. What matters is that we are not fools! The man in our parable is called a fool because he has not lived his life in way that has been mindful of the eternal God from whom all his blessings and abundance has flowed in the first place. He has not been mindful of God who commands us to love our neighbors as our selves, and as our own. He’s been a fool to forget that God’s vision of a rich and abundant life is not just for him, his family, his stockholders but for all people who have an equal share in the richness of God. As Dr King rightly said, “our lives are an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in one garment of destiny”. The haves and have nots are both part of this one garment but now more than ever, that garment is being ripped asunder. Those with the trend-setting and policy making power to care for the fabric and to mend it are consciously or unconsciously pulling out the threads, tearing apart the seams of us and them, have and have not, in a persistent denial of the reality that our life together is the only life we have. For thirty years, we’ve been storing wealth in the hands of a few instead of believing in and enacting a vision of abundance for all, at least enough food, and jobs and safety to go around.

In the end, its easy for us to think--strike that-- its easy for me to think and to be woefully confused about the fact that reading the papers and being informed is enough! It’s not! It’s easy for me to close my doors at night, feel that my family and I are relatively safe and secure thinking I’m doing enough. I’m not! I know this not because we have yet to realize a collective vision of God’s abundance for all and ways to share in a richness toward God. I know this because I’m still trying to discover in my heart and bones what it means to live my life with a richness toward God! I know because at the end of the day, I’m thinking far more about my life, about the often relative petty dramas and anxieties, than I am the life or death realities of my young brothers and sisters in Roxbury, or about the McDonalds worker that goes home hungry. No doubt what we do with our resources, questions of how much of our time and money we spend to create and manifest a genuine life together, who is part of that life and future inheritance, weigh heavily on all our minds and wallets. Are we spending too much or are we saving too much? Are we giving too much or hoarding too much? Our scripture for today practically pokes us in the eye with these questions that are never far from our minds. But with these questions comes a deeper exhortation! Watch out, and take care against thinking too much about your life! Ask what is an abundant life and know you will find it only as you share it, more it more, in love and genuine relationship with people outside our proverbial barns. The message of the parable is that there is no such thing as living richly towards God when we live solely or even mostly for our selves. Abundant life only comes into clearer focus when we prepare for and take responsibility for and truly invest in our life together! I’m still left to wonder – what does this abundant life together look like, really? I trust I’m not wondering alone. Maybe if we can start by owning our foolishness together, we can yet find out. By God’s grace, may we too begin to claim and share in that true abundance, that common inheritance, such that those things we and our nation have prepared can be enjoyed by more than the rich fools. Amen.

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