Faithful Jews are buried in pine boxes. No frills. No metal hinges. The body is wrapped in a simple white garment with no pockets, a reminder that you can’t carry anything with you from this world to the next. No matter who you were, what you had in life, billionaire or pauper, the ritual is the same. The shroud is the same. The box is the same.
“But God said to [the rich man], ‘you fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” Jesus’ story this morning is often called the parable of the “rich fool.” It can be tempting to think of Jesus as unilaterally against the rich. Especially in our day with such disparity between the super-wealthy and those who are making an un-livable minimum wage. The overall arc of the Gospels however, tells a more complex story of Jesus’ relationship to wealth. Jesus has some rich followers; among them are Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea. Jesus also has disciples who started out as impoverished fishermen. The text we have today, of the “rich fool” is one of the more nuanced texts in the Gospels about wealth. The rich man is not condemned for his money. Rather he is called a fool for his attitude toward his possessions.
I’m not sure it figured into the creation of the preaching schedule, but a few weeks ago, as we were first proofreading this bulletin, Luis declared, “I really don’t like this reading.” He went on, “I don’t like this reading because it makes me think about my wine cellar, and I like my wine cellar.” Luis is about to head off on vacation, which is usually a sign that the wine cellar is going to grow more abundant.
I don’t have a wine cellar, but I have bookshelves. I love my library. I have an abundant library. I can do some damage in a bookstore. Most of us, I would venture, have some possessions that we enjoy possessing in abundance: cars, musical instruments, vintage furniture. I knew a guy in San Diego who collected vintage taxidermy. He paid top dollar for old stuffed squirrels, deer heads, and pigeons, to each his own. The danger, in this particular parable does not come from the possessions themselves. The trouble comes when the man says to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years, relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
The man in the story has invested in his barns. He has invested in his possessions, but he has made more than a simple monetary investment. The rich fool has invested his soul, his life, his sense of self. That’s the danger. The man has tied his soul to his possessions. He made his investment and withdraws his sense of self from what he owns. But I want to move on from wealth for a moment.
Jesus says, be on guard against all kinds of greed. Paul expounds upon the very same word Jesus uses here, greed, pleonexia, Paul in his letter to the Colossians says greed is idolatry. You cannot serve God and mammon. Invest your identity somewhere other than God, and you get in trouble. Last week I read a quote from the writer David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College, and I want to share it again. Foster Wallace said to the graduates of Kenyon college, “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”
Foster Wallace goes on to list several other forms of worship. He finishes with this sentence: “the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”
Be on guard Jesus says, because it is easy to fall into one of the defaults of our society. In Washington money presents a temptation. So does sex. Sure. But Washington is famous for a certain form of worship, a certain greed, that is particularly pernicious. You know the old joke, “you know someone is from Washington because when he shakes your hand, he’s looking over your shoulder to see if someone more important than you is in the room.” We build storehouses, barns, to hoard influence in Washington. And Washington sells influence, and it don’t come cheap.
A friend recently leant me a copy of Mark Leibovich’s new book “This Town.” Have you seen it yet? The book is sort of a 400 page Beltway insider version of “US Weekly” magazine, full of Washington gossip. I haven’t gotten far in the book. I actually find Washington gossip a little boring, but I love the disclaimer on the back cover. WARNING (it reads): “This Town does not contain an index. Those players wishing to know how they came out will have to read the book.” Of course the Washington Post has already published an unauthorized index, because people in This Town have to know how they’re mentioned, if they’re mentioned.
It’s fun to parody, but there is an inherent danger in “This Town,” a danger of becoming invested, personally invested, spiritually invested, in building influence. We can get greedy. Jesus warns his followers to be on guard against all forms of greed.
But there is good news in these lessons today, even for Washington. Even though we live in the most influential, most prosperous city in the wealthiest country in the world, there is hope in these lessons for us. The hope doesn’t require us to sell our possessions if we’re wealthy. The hope doesn’t require us to accumulate a certain amount of wealth or influence before we can enter the club. The hope of these lessons is an invitation to invest our lives, our selves, our souls in God. Jesus rebuke of his fictional character is an invitation, to “be rich toward God.”
What does investing in God look like? How does it work exactly? I can’t tell you I have it worked out entirely, but I have known some people who have had a good start. A year ago yesterday, a good friend from seminary’s father died. I had gotten to know Tony Wright pretty well in the years I was at Virginia Seminary with his son Matthew. Tony wasn’t a wealthy man. His home was pretty simple, but it had a great front porch.
My image of Tony will always be sitting with him on that front porch in Murphy North Carolina, drinking a cup of coffee while watching the purple martins, beautiful birds that swoop speeding, wings folded, into their nesting sites. Tony explained to me that the white painted gourds that hung from posts in his front yard were the only nests that the purple martin would accept, and so he had hung a score within easy viewing from his front porch. Tony loved to sit there in the morning, watching the birds, laughing at Rudy, the Wrights’ pudgy dachshund. The dog looks like an over-stuffed ottoman. Rudy’s tummy drags on the ground as he waddles around. Tony loved that dog.
What I remember about Tony Wright most was his easy laughter, the sort of gentle grace he had about him. Maybe you’ve known someone like Tony Wright. Sitting with Tony, you never felt like he was trying to get a word in to the conversation. When he spoke, at least around us seminarians, he often worked to round out some of the hard edges of our conversations. “Don’t you think? I wonder if? I don’t know about that.” He would use these phrases to ease us out of quick judgments. Tony had grown up Pentecostal, and he was resistant to faith that had too many answers. Tony had more questions about God than religion had answers. But still, there was an assuredness to Tony. I always got the sense that Tony understood, on some fundamental level, that he was loved.
Tony Wright would have been embarrassed to hear me say it, but Tony is one of the people who showed me what faith, what investing yourself, your soul, in God can look like: that easy grace, his quick smile. In Tony’s quiet confidence, you knew that Tony didn’t get his sense of self from his money, or his influence, or what other people thought of him. Tony drew his assuredness not from himself or his possessions, but from God. Tony drew on his faith in God even while asking a lot of questions about religion.
As I said, Tony died a year ago yesterday. He had spent his career working highway crews for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. He was killed by an out of control driver on the side of the road. No warning. No preparation. I travelled to Murphy soon after Tony died to be with my friend Matthew and his family for Matthew’s ordination to the priesthood. Tony’s family and friends were still dealing with the shock of his sudden death. They were still telling a lot of Tony stories.
At one point in today’s parable, Jesus has God ask the rich fool, “these things you have prepared, whose will they be?” I can’t answer that for Jesus’ character, but I can answer the question for Tony. Tony’s laughter was infectious and he left it to us. As we sat on his front porch last summer, we were still laughing with Tony as friends and relatives dropped by to tell stories about him. Tony’s faith, Tony’s confidence inspired more people than just me. I can see Tony’s faith in his son, in his family. Have you known someone like Tony? Someone who inspired your faith? Someone whose quiet confidence breathed life into your own trust in God?
We leave this world with no pockets. We carry nothing physical with us into the next life, no matter how fancy the box they put us in, or how simple the urn. But today Jesus invites us to live richly, to love richly, to laugh richly. Today Jesus invites us to entrust our lives to God, as my friend Tony did, even with all our questions. The return on investment won’t just pay in the future. Investing with God pays dividends in the life to come, I am sure, but trusting God can also pay out in this life, helping us to be a little more graceful, a little more confident, not in our selves, not in our influence, not in our wealth. But entrusting our souls to God can grant us the blessed assurance that can never come from greed, trust that we draw our lives from a God whose best name is love, and who loves us better than we can love ourselves.