Sermon for Pentecost 8 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

At coffee hour this morning I’ll be making a presentation on our recent trip to Europe, focusing particularly on the animating principle of our travels, which was religious in nature. This is not to say every element of our trip was spiritually edifying, so I’d like to speak briefly now about an element which was quite the opposite but was, nonetheless instructive.

As you may know, London is a famously expensive city. One of us had read somewhere on the internet (so it had to be true, right!?) that a relatively inexpensive way to get a relatively elegant meal in London was to visit the food hall of one of the city’s impressive department stores. So, naturally, we went to Harrod’s, and we found the online claims of affordability greatly overstated. As it happened, we were able to get perfectly adequate meat pies at the Nag’s Head Pub down the street, which was the putative setting of a four-hundred-year-old ecclesiastical urban legend I can tell you about after church.

Anyway, we did spend some time wandering around Harrod’s before realizing this was not the place for us. Yet I confessed to Annie as we were leaving, that it awakened in me (in my fallen nature which has, thank God, been redeemed in Baptism) something that I’m not proud of. Looking at the $5,000 suits and $1,500 fountain pens and $1,200 coffee table books, that wickedest part of me started thinking how much I’d love to be able to own these sorts of things and, more generally, to have the sort of lifestyle which would make possessing such luxuries “no big deal.”

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher. Granted, I don’t hate my toil, as apparently the writer of Ecclesiastes hated his; in fact, most of the time I rather enjoy my work. Even so, the Preacher makes a point which we could all stand to hear- viz., a life whose chief goal is the accumulation of wealth is a life wasted. It’s vanity, a puff of wind, nothingness. Yet, that evening in Harrod’s department store, I found that vanity somewhat appealing.

Likewise, in this morning’s Gospel Jesus tells a parable of a man who had done well for himself and secured enough wealth to live comfortably indefinitely. Just as the man sits back to enjoy the fruit of his labors he has a bit of bad luck. Not to put to fine a point on it, he kicks the bucket then and there. All work and no play doesn’t just make Jack a dull boy. In this instance, it made Jack a rather dumb boy.

How do we define ourselves? How does society define each of us? Well, what’s the first question we ask upon meeting a stranger? Usually it’s “what do you do?” and the implicit predicate to that question is “for money.” It’s not a bad question to ask, necessarily, but it’s symptomatic of what our culture values above all else, namely work and compensation. It’s how we define ourselves because it’s what we spend the vast majority of our time doing.

In preparation for this sermon, I looked at several studies of working hours and happiness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people in countries where the average citizen worked fewer hours there was greater overall satisfaction with life. Also unsurprisingly, Americans tended to work more and be less happy on average than citizens of nearly every other developed country. This is, of course, a complex issue and how to address it from a policy perspective is well beyond me. It is, however, an example of how endless striving to the end of wealth accumulation is not the key to happiness. I hope this is not a surprise to anybody, yet, as my experience suggests, even those of us who know it can forget it when surrounded by the lure of mammon.

So how do we address this as individuals and as a community? At the end of this morning’s Gospel, Jesus says “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” But what does it mean to be rich toward God?

I don’t think that it just means giving of our wealth to charity and to the church, though that is certainly part of it. I think it’s also about spending our time in pursuits which are godly. It’s about not being so caught up in work that we fail to support our families with our loving presence. It’s taking time out of our day to pray. It might even be recognizing when that lucrative career is getting in the way of our other obligations so much that we’ve got to make a change, and maybe make a little less money.

I don’t mean to be grim or trite, but I can’t imagine many people on their deathbed thinking back and saying “thank God I spent all that extra time in the office and made a bundle.” When we get to that point, we’re more likely to be grateful for the relationships we nurtured and the difference, however small, we might have made in the lives of our fellow pilgrims. In other words, we’ll never regret the time we spent being rich toward God, because while everything else is vanity, a puff of wind, a passing thing, it is our love and generosity which will endure into the ages of ages.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.