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The Man Who Had Too Much Stuff

August 1, 2016

“The Man Who Had Too Much Stuff” Ecclesiastes 3:9-22; Luke 12:13-34 © 7.31.16 Ordinary 18C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The late George Carlin was one of the greatest comedians and social commentators of the 20th century and the early years of this one. Comparable figures today might be Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Carlin particularly liked to comment on the English language. Why, for example, do “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing? And isn’t there an inherent contradiction in “jumbo shrimp”? Back in the day, he was famous or infamous, depending on your point of view, for his “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.” More recently, about four years prior to his death, he published When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? in which he continued to muse about our language, particularly euphemisms. Here’s a taste: “[E]uphemisms….dress up existing phrases that sound too negative. Nonprofit became not-for-profit because nonprofit sounded too much as though someone didn’t know what they were doing. Not-for-profit makes it clear that there was never any intention of making a profit in the first place.” He goes on to note how “complimentary” has replaced “free.” “Complimentary continental breakfast” sounds better than “free donuts.” Euphemisms, Carlin said, are “The New Language” (7,8).

The comedian also had some ideas about American acquisitiveness. The reason we have houses, he said, is so we will have a place to put our “stuff.” But because we keep getting more “stuff,” pretty soon our closets are jammed to overflowing, our rooms close in on us, and we have to build or buy a new house in which to put all our new “stuff” that we have accumulated in addition to our old “stuff.”

That’s what happened to the rich man in our Lord’s story. He’d had an extraordinarily successful year. The land had yielded a bounty beyond the capacity of any of his current structures to handle. The only solution he could see was to tear down the current barns and silos and sheds and build bigger ones. With so much surplus, he could quit work, stop worrying, and live a life of leisure. He could finally fulfill all his dreams, get all the things he had been putting off buying, or in the words of the text, eat, drink, and be merry. His world was a closed system with himself at the center. No one could control his fate except himself. Life would go on pretty much as it always had, at least for the foreseeable future. The rich man took for granted that he would live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his labor and that all his plans would work out. But, of course, we can never take anything for granted.

Centuries before Jesus, the author of the book commonly called “Ecclesiastes” told the story of one who got great possessions and all the trappings of what we might call “success”: “I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.”

But then this man with everything he ever wanted decided that everything he had, even his great wisdom, let him empty and feeling unsatisfied. Heaping up possessions in a effort to fulfill one’s longings was as futile as trying to catch the wind. Useless. Senseless. Vain.

One of the main things that bothered the author of Ecclesiastes was that no matter how much wisdom or land or money he got, his fate would be the same as the poor slob in the shack down the road. He was going to die, and some idiot who couldn’t handle the challenge would be left in charge of his estate or his children might squander the wealth or fail to learn from his mistakes.

But then, if we were to read on, we would find that in good wisdom teacher fashion, he says something entirely contradictory. If you know you’re going to die and fools will be left in charge, you might as well enjoy yourself while you can! Perhaps what’s he’s saying is that wisdom or pleasure or possessions are morally neutral—neither good nor bad—and are not ends in themselves. You don’t or shouldn’t merely “possess” wisdom or wealth. You have them to make life better.

I think it’s interesting how Ecclesiastes describes people who are “sinners.” The author isn’t interested in whether you believe the right doctrine or whether you’ve got some moral failing. Instead, a sinner is somebody who doesn’t get what life is all about; it’s a person who misses out on the meaning of life. The sinner is always “gathering and heaping,” so preoccupied with stuff that the whole point of life is lost. Literally, in Hebrew, a sinner misses the mark.

On the other hand, the person who pleases God is the one who can and does take life as it comes and enjoys it. He or she is the one who can and does let go and relax in God’s care. To please God, Ecclesiastes insists, is to treat life as a gift of God, to stop worrying about salvation, to know that if we are to find our lives, we must lose them. All of us have to make a living, but Ecclesiastes reminds us that it’s folly, silliness, emptiness to undertake unnecessary labors in the hope of achieving fame and lasting profit. The only thing we’ll get from that, he says, is pain, vexation, and so much stress that we can’t sleep at night.

Jesus in his parable picks up on exactly the same theme as the preacher of Ecclesiastes. The rich man in the story got more and more, so much in fact that he had nowhere to store it. As we’ve noted, the only solution he could think of was to hoard it, build bigger barns, and then take a long vacation. But God has other plans for this one he brands “a fool.” The very night his storage barn is finished, he will die like the homeless, penniless beggar at his front gates. He thought he was prepared for the future. His accountant, broker, lawyer, and banker are all happy. But the problem is something is going to take this man out in the middle of the night. Then who will get all the wealth? The estate will be tied up in court, the kids will be feuding, and somebody without a lick of business sense will bring the company and the farm to the brink of bankruptcy.

This was a man who spent all his time gathering and heaping. He was not rich toward God, as Jesus put it, because he laid up treasure for himself. One commentator observes that it never entered the man’s mind to give anything away when he had more than enough. “Instead of denying himself, he aggressively affirmed himself; instead of finding his happiness in giving, he tried to conserve it by keeping.” He had missed the mark, the whole point of life.

We are perhaps tempted to believe that the musings of the preacher of Ecclesiastes and the parable of Jesus really don’t apply to us. After all, none of us have ever experienced the sort of windfall that will allow us to live a life of total ease, able to afford anything we want anytime we want it or at least not have to worry about any of our bills. But a closer look at the story Jesus tells reveals that it is not really about how much money or possessions we have, but about what we do with the gifts of God. The rich man is not condemned because he is rich or has a surplus of goods. We’re not to think he’s gotten too much stuff through dishonest or unjust dealings. He’s a fool because he has hoarded his goods and thus ignored a significant dimension of life. Concerned only for himself, he actually fails himself.

Matt Damon is now a famous and sought-after actor, known for his role recently in The Martian and his return to portraying Jason Bourne, the Robert Ludlum character. But early on he had to struggle. Prior to his big break in Good Will Hunting, he was cast in the Meg Ryan/Denzel Washington movie Courage Under Fire. For the role, he had to lose 60 pounds to play a drug addict. But then critics didn’t even notice him. When he did achieve fame, he said that the media blitz and frenzy “freaked [him] out.” He looked inside to see if he wanted to continue acting, and he found that the most important thing he had to learn was that there is another way to live. Not sure what to do, he turned to his dad for advice. Damon’s father was helpful: “You’ve gotten all this stuff, Matt. You’ve made a name for yourself. You now have a voice in the world. It would be absolutely irresponsible for you not to do something good with it.” (Parade Magazine, 11/30/2003: 7).

Damon took his father’s advice. A decade ago, he associated himself with the ONE Campaign founded by rock star Bono, using his fame and wealth to draw attention to the plight of people in Africa stricken with AIDS and struggling in extreme poverty. "The world I leave to my daughter is going to be affected by what I do or what I don’t do," he said. "The best way to honor and love her is to do what I can, here and now” (online interview, http://www.one.org/news/101.html).

My good friend Gerald Stephens, Jr. has long been retired from ministry. But once he was a missionary to the Congo. During that experience, he wrote: “…nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives not at the level of the U.S. or Japan or western Europe, but rather at the level I see when I walk home from the market [in my village].”

“The more I see, the more convinced I become that Christ does not wish for us to become content in our bastions of relative wealth and comfort. In Matthew 25 he promises his presence among those who struggle day-to-day in poverty, in chains, and in despair…. I pray the church will understand that it will not meet Christ by way of prevailing in theological arguments. It will rather meet Christ when it rededicates itself to serving ‘the least.’”

Gerald and his then-wife Bonnie served for three years in a part of the world where the things we take for granted like good health care or electricity or transportation are not at all certain. Indeed, Bonnie almost died in what Gerald called a “putrid African hospital.” My conversations with him after his return from service reminded me that everyone of us is wealthy, if wealth is having more than enough to live adequately. We are given gifts by God, whether we are speaking of the beauty of the created world, the talents and abilities we have, the opportunities for education and enrichment we are afforded or the possessions we enjoy which make life more than a struggle for survival. The question posed by our Lord is what we do with our wealth, whatever form it may take, and especially with those things we are driven to possess, to amass, to hoard. What is the point of our quest for knowledge or power or popularity or notoriety or cars or clothes or homes or electronics or musical instruments or money? If we had everything we always wanted, if our fantasies were fulfilled, would we then finally be truly human? Or is there always something beyond ourselves that is a necessary component of a full and abundant life? Must we not, in order to experience real life, abandon the view of the universe that puts ourselves at the center?

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting and having and enjoying things, acquiring an education or making our lives better. But the parable of the man who had too much stuff reminds us that things cannot carry the weight of the meaning of life. If we get them just to have them or just to be able to congratulate ourselves and say “I did it, I got it,” and then forget the call of a sovereign God to share, we rob ourselves of life. Matt Damon’s father told him to do something good with all his stuff and his fame, and he did. Our heavenly Father invites us to do something good with our stuff, too. Winston Churchill said it: “We make a living by what we get; but we make a life by what we give.”

Next Sunday we will celebrate together a meal called, among other things, “Communion,” which comes from the same root as “community” and “communication.” It reminds us that life is truly human when it’s concerned not only with getting and having, but with giving and sharing. We have truly begun to live when in our relationships we no longer hoard and hide our resources, our love, our service, our very selves. Isn’t this what we learned from One long ago who did not consider even his life his own to cling to, but with utmost trust in God, gave it up for us? He was the richest of all, but became poor, so that by his giving of his treasure, we might be rich toward God.

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