Sermons & services
Published Sunday 4th Oct. 2020, at 5:43 p.m.
The man described in the parable at the centre of today’s gospel may be uncomfortably familiar. He certainly is to me. He is dreamer, who builds castles in the air where happiness can be found. Where in his words he can “take his ease, eat, drink and be merry”. I’m often very tempted to such construction projects in the mind, typically fuelled by whichever part of the world I’ve last visited. My visit to Edinburgh last month has given me endless bricks, cement and wood to build my next phantom castle perched happily on the latest passing cumulus cloud.
If I take as evidence the pensions industry and its clever advertising, I may not be alone in being so tempted into phantom castle building. These adverts scratch that familiar itch for a place to rest a weary head, “take ones ease, eat, drink and be merry”. But such castles in the air, of course mean the need for much planning and an invitation to grow one’s pension pot to a suitably large size.
Now prudence is numbered as one of the 4 cardinal virtues. Having the foresight and wisdom to plan rightly for the future is no bad thing, especially if that planning involves the welfare of others. But the rich man of the parable shows no such wisdom. His motives are not those of prudence. Today is harvest festival, the day we thank God for his gracious provision of all our needs. But there is no sign of such thanks from the rich man. His land has produced a bumper crop. The first thing to note is that it is his land. It is his crop. They are his barns. It is his grain. They are his goods. It is his ease. So why give thanks for what is already his? His name is also an interesting clue as to his motives. He doesn’t have a name. He is just the “Rich Man”. His wealth is his defining characteristic. Now the name we give things or activities are so closely linked to their purpose as to almost be the same thing.
A Nurse’s purpose is to nurse, a teacher’s purpose is to teach, a policeman’s purpose is to police. And so here what is the purpose of the rich man? The purpose of his life seems to be wealth, and he has proved so successful that we don’t know anything about the name which his parents gave him in love when he was born. His wealth and success have come to define him and obliterated his name.
But was his purpose really just to be rich? Not exactly, rather his wealth was a means to finding happiness. To “take his ease, eat, drink and be merry” That is why he is so familiar, because in that desire to seek ultimate happiness he is like all of us, for the simple reason that in that quest for ultimate bliss he is responding to something which is part of his make up as a human being, like all of us.
We all seek ultimate happiness, complete bliss. That is our ultimate purpose. All our actions are ultimately driven by that desire in our heart. And desire is linked to that ultimate purpose for a human life of complete happiness. And there is nothing wrong with that, for it is a God-given desire. It is a purpose for which God has made us.
Looking forward in time, as the rich man does, to when this desire for complete happiness is fulfilled, is also a deeply human trait and God-given. For we are in time. Time looks forward to when “the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; and he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away”.
Our natural human tendency to look forward in hope to the future, points us to these end times described in the book of Revelation. Hoping in the future is a natural human impulse implanted in the human heart by God. As Saint Augustine famously says “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until it finds its rest in thee”.
No, there is nothing wrong with looking forward to a time of future bliss. So where does the rich man go wrong? The rich man has gone wrong because he is blind. And he has been blinded by a lie. The lie that ever larger barns, an ever bigger pension pot, an ever larger house, are the ways to rest, peace and bliss. He’s been hypnotised by this barn- fest vision of groaning sacks of corn and can’t see those around him whose only castle in the air is the dream of a decent meal, a job in the middle of a pandemic or better health.
He can’t even see that his barns, his goods, his land were never his in the first place, but a gift from God, like the air he breathes in every second of the day which God will ask an account for that very night. He craves for peace. He craves for ease. One last heave. One last set of ever larger barns and I will grasp what I have sought my whole life: Peace. That vision has driven him on always. That vision of peace finally found, just over the horizon, and so he is blind. And he has no peace. Only anxiety. That is a word which in its original Greek also means “to choke”. He can’t see that this vision of immense wealth, this immense wealth which is HIS, has choked him of all peace, all sympathy for his neighbour, all life. He is blind to the reality that what he has most sought after his whole life, was just there at the tip of his tongue. It starts with those 2 words which are at the heart of this harvest festival. “Thank you”. We thank God today for the simplest necessities of life. For the food which we harvest for our daily needs. And in these thanks we recognise that we depend on God for absolutely everything, simply because he is the God who created the universe out of nothing.
That simple “thank you” brings peace. That brings sight to blind eyes. That “thank you” connects our present and our future. Saying “Thank you” opens our eyes to all that is around us. All our senses open us to the world God has made and on which we depend. By taking the time to look at the simplest things around us as Jesus asks us to later in this passage “ Consider the ravens…. Consider the lillies of the fields…’ the natural world God has made teaches us about the beauty, the truth and goodness of its maker. But it also teaches us about ourselves. A grateful heart teaches us of our utter dependence on God’s gifts every second of the day. Reflecting on such dependence teaches us that peace is not found in barns filled to the brim.
There is no barn big enough in the universe to fill our desire. An infinite desire can only be filled by an infinite God of Love. As I said in my last sermon, we are on a pilgrimage to God. If the rich man had only know, that pilgrimage starts with those two words: