Harvest Sermon – Rev Dr Phil Wall
Readings: Ecclesiastes 8:14-15; Luke 12:13-21
So, we’ve had just over a year to get to know each other now and there are more opportunities coming up soon – like the pudding parties mentioned earlier – but I think that you’re probably beginning to get used to me now – my strengths and sense of humour, my flaws and foibles. Yet, as hard as it might be to believe, I haven’t always been the cheerful, smiling…and dare I say, dashing…man that you’ve gotten to know and put up with.
Oh no! For much of my teenage years, I listened to the depressing songs of Radiohead, grew some shameful curtains and shared a more nihilistic view of the universe. General adolescent apathy combined with childhood bereavement led to a sardonic outlook on a seemingly meaningless life and I was attracted to music, films and books which shared my cynical worldview. And, at the time, had you asked me what was my favourite book of the Bible…for I still held on to some belief in God…I would have said ‘Ecclesiastes’, that wonderful book supposedly written by King Solomon and which begins ‘Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!’ It is a perennial favourite for all pretentious pubescents and for the more mature thinker too, for, as the Four Tops used to their advantage, Ecclesiastes contains much wisdom within its pages. This morning, we heard just a snippet of its message as the writer shrugged his shoulders at the injustice of the world and concluded that the only thing to do is to eat, drink and be merry…advice that might seem very tempting at times and which the rich man in today’s gospel parable seems to have fully taken on board.
But perhaps I’m getting a little ahead of myself. In our gospel reading from Luke, we find Jesus surrounded by masses of people, teaching and preaching to the crowds when some guy pipes up about family inheritance. Do you have one of those friends who always bangs on about the same issue – you know, the type who, no matter what you might be talking about, from quantum physics to Strictly, always has the capacity to bring it back to their current crisis, whatever it might be? Well, I imagine the guy who prompts Jesus’ latest parable is one of those types for he interrupts a section about religious hypocrisy, the nature of God, redemption and damnation by telling tales on his older brother.
“Teacher,” he says, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me”.
Well we are told that Jesus refrains from this request and instead goes into story-telling mode…“The land of a rich man produced abundantly,” he says and there begins the story of a wealthy landowner who had a bumper harvest, built bigger barns and bought into the Ecclesiastes view of things, planning to eat, drink and be merry when God comes along with other ideas.
It’s a short parable – just 6 sentences long but my issue with it isn’t it’s brevity but its apparently mundane message. “You can’t take it with you,” it seems to be saying – a truism which has oft been repeated down the years. As the ballad of John and Yoko puts it “Last night the wife said, ‘O boy’, when you’re dead, you don’t take nothing with you but your soul”. It’s a perfectly fine message to give. Only, Jesus’ parables weren’t ‘perfectly fine’. They were shocking, sometimes offensive stories. They contained tales of generous kings and lavish feasts, twists where the Samaritan was the good guy, the mustard seed grew exponentially, the Father ran to greet his prodigal son. Yet here, with our twentieth century glasses on, the story of the rich fool sounds a little prosaic. Rich man gets comeuppance – hardly world-changing.
All of which leads me to think that perhaps we’re not hearing the story correctly. That perhaps the story is more shocking than we think….perhaps the message is more than ‘you can’t take it with you’, so why don’t we have a closer look…
“The land of a rich man produced abundantly,” Jesus begins. So far, so good. We learn that a rich man owns land which yields a good harvest. In Jesus’ time, a good harvest was generally understood to be a blessing from God – a sign that you had pleased God. So perhaps this guy deserved such a blessing. Perhaps he was hard working, honest or religiously observant. Jesus continues…
“The man thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.”
Well…hard working, honest and now seemingly wise. He couldn’t store all the crops he had and he didn’t want his crops to rot so he planned to build bigger barns to store them in to use at a later date. It’s all very ant & grasshopper, isn’t it – storing food up because you don’t know what’s around the next corner. It’s even reminiscent of one Joseph, he with the bad taste in coats, for when Egypt was enjoying a bumper harvest a few centuries previous, Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, leading them to store up the excess crops and save thousands from future famine and death. So what’s not to like about this rich man?
“And I will say to my soul,” says the rich man. “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry”.
Okay, the speaking to his soul thing is a little odd, I grant you, but the sentiment isn’t too weird. Following the example of numerous passages in the Bible that see good harvests as a divine blessing and great excuse for a party, the landowner echoes the words of the great King Solomon, seeing this as his time to now relax and take things a bit easier – to eat, drink and be merry.
So what do we have then? A man who seems to have earned God’s favour…a man whom we have no reason to believe was criminal or corrupt, a man who may well have been hardworking and honest, who made wise business decisions and echoed the actions of great Biblical heroes, is then visited by God who greets him as ‘You fool!’ –never the first thing you want to hear when having an encounter with God! So maybe this is quite shocking after all. Is it possible that, to the listeners of Jesus’ day, the rich man would have looked to everyone as though he was a favoured child of God…only for God to call him an idiot as his life comes to an end. This was no dodgy tax collector who received his just desserts but a potentially respectable, wise businessman who was blessed one minute and rebuked the next.
In the current climate, where suspicion of bankers and satisfaction when the privileged lose face runs rife, it would be easy to lose the shock of this parable – to reduce it to ‘rich man loses all’ but I don’t think that this parable is about wealth at heart. I don’t think this story should be used to simply denounce the hedge fund bankers and city brokers. No, sadly for us, I think this parable is one to challenge us all – whatever our payslip or bank balance, for I believe it speaks about attitude and gratitude.
We noted earlier how the parable is just six sentences long yet in the three lines of dialogue that the landowner has, he says ‘I’ or ‘my’ eleven times. The man is completely self-absorbed. He may be a wise, honest businessman, he may have even been respectable and religiously observant…but his attitude was still one of self-interest. He thinks nothing of anyone else and this bears fruit in two significant ways.
Firstly, the rich man speaks only to himself and not with God. He is doing well financially; his land then produces a bumper crop…and yet no praise is given; no word of thanks offered. He thinks of the consequences of such a harvest but not of its causes; he thinks nothing of the generous God whose awesome creation yielded such a harvest…but only of how such a harvest will benefit him. It’s like he’s got stuck on some bumper sticker Ecclesiastes theology without working through the rest of the book, without getting to the end where it’s no longer about eating, drinking and being merry but about respecting God and following God’s ways.
And how many of us fall foul of this? How many here have been quietly satisfied with our bank balances, or looked to buy a bigger house, or even just simply enjoyed a hearty meal with friends without being thankful for all that we have? All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above – so the harvest hymn reminds us – so thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his love. In the midst of our busy, hectic lives, harvest offers all of us the opportunity to say thanks. Thanks for the colours of creation and the wonders of this world. Thanks for the gifts of education, employment and opportunity. Thanks for a bountiful harvest, a good meal and an overabundance of blessing. Without pausing to give thanks we might delude ourselves that we have earned our blessings, that we’re self-reliant and independent, when the truth is that we are vulnerable and dependent on God’s creation, blessing and amazing grace.
And in his monologue, the rich man makes no mention, bears no consideration of his fellow sisters and brothers either. He is only concerned for himself – not for his neighbours, for those who have no land to produce their own crops, for the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, for the most vulnerable in society. And this me-shaped attitude seems fairly prevalent today. It’s this ‘me’-shaped attitude that provokes us to worry about what helping Syrian refugees might do to our council taxes…whilst women, men and children drown in the ocean. It’s this me-shaped attitude that makes us complain about house prices when a new hostel comes to town whilst vulnerable young people simply want shelter. It’s this me-shaped attitude that encourages us to build bigger barns and fences, bigger barriers to others, for its often easier, safer to be self-reliant and contained. And it’s this me-shaped attitude that the son of God begged us to let go of when he told parables to surprise us, when he reminded us to love friends and neighbours, strangers and even enemies, when he walked the path of love to a cross on a hill and a garden of resurrection.
The parable of the rich man is not, then, really about money after all. It’s a call to check out our attitude and sense of gratitude. It’s a reminder that even the wealthy, wise and religiously observant can fall foul be a me-shaped outlook. It’s a challenge to love God with all our heart and mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
So this harvest-time, may we take the time to count our many blessings. May we try to let go of our me-shaped attitude and instead look to love and serve the last and the least. And may we give thanks to the glorious God of the harvest – Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.