Sunday, 4 August 2019 10:00
But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. (Luke 12:20)
The first time I encountered Dad’s Army, I think was in my grandparents’ house - my Mum’s parents. My Grandad was a big fan and still today it has a huge fan following and it seems to be a fixture on BBC on one channel or another. One of the reasons for its success is the collection of characters. For those of us north of the border there is, perhaps, a special place in our affections for Private Fraser and his morose phrase, “Doomed! We’re all doomed. Doomed, I tell ye!”
Of course, he was the town’s undertaker, so perhaps we can forgive him. In a sense he’s right. As far as this life goes, as far as the time we have to live here in this world is concerned, we are all doomed. As someone once pointed out to me, an undertaker is someone who’s never going to run out of business. One way or another we all wind up as his clients. None of us is guaranteed the years, or even the days, ahead. Which is what Jesus is getting at in this parable.
You’ve got this wealthy guy. And he is wealthy. There’s no indication that if he doesn’t carry out this barn reconstruction that he’s going to go hungry. Jesus starts the parable by saying that this is a rich man. But he wants more. It’s his driving ambition, to get as much as he can for himself - that’s why, in addressing himself, he starts, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years”. This is his sense of who he is, what his purpose in life is. This desire to get as much as he can for himself lies at his very heart; at his very soul.
Then he’s gone and somebody else - probably a number of somebody elses - are going to have all his stuff. When I was reading this passage over preparing this service I was reminded of two things. One was the first time I had adult responsibilities associated with death, when I helped my father clear out his father’s flat after he’d died. The other was a passage in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” You’ll know the story of how Scrooge is haunted by three ghosts. The last one - the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come - takes Scrooge to a time after he has died. There are strangers clearing out his house and taking Scrooge’s bedcurtains. They’ll wind up who knows where - the folk clearing out the house don’t care. What hits Scrooge hardest, though, is that they speak of him in a dismissive way - as if he is as unimportant and as irrelevant as the bedcurtains.
We are all, like bedcurtains, passing through. We all have our time on this Earth and then we are gone. So is that it? Is that what all our strivings come to? Where is the point in life if that is the case? That’s what the writer of Ecclesiastes was struggling with. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” is the refrain that runs through the book. The word hakal in Hebrew means something like a puff of air - something insubstantial as air; like a breath that is exhaled and then is gone. The question the writer of Ecclesiastes is struggling with - and the one Jesus is pointing to in this parable - is, what’s the point of amassing wealth and possessions if, one day, most of it will wind up in a charity shop?
The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with having nice things and with working to get them. If there were I’d have to ask why I went up to Glasgow on Thursday and bought myself a Fender Stratocaster when I already have a lovely Gretsch and a number of other guitars. The problem comes when you start to define yourself by the things you own; when being wealthy is the point to to your life; when you want more and more stuff solely for the purpose of having more stuff. I wonder, sometimes, what incredibly wealthy people actually do with the money. “I already own seventeen thousand Stratocasters, but I need another”; “The ashtray in the Rolls is full. Get me another.”
I’m exaggerating, but isn’t that, in some ways, the kind of society we’ve become? Where the people we’re taught to look up to, to envy, to aspire to be are exactly like the rich man in this parable. Where enough is never enough. Isn’t this the kind of society we’ve become? Where we define the success of our country or whatever by how much stuff people buy and how much wealth we generate? Not in terms of how generous we are to one another. Not in terms of how well we look after the weakest and the most vulnerable among us. Not in terms of of the things we might describe as being ‘rich toward God’.
But then again, if we are but a breath of air - Scrooge’s bedcurtains - why not? Why not just eat, drink and be merry and care only for ourselves? Because we’re not just a breath of air. We are rather more than that. We are God’s children and, through the Cross we have the promise of eternal life; that the end of this life is a beginning, not an end. But that still doesn’t answer the writer of Ecclesiastes’s questions.
When we were clearing out my Grandad’s flat there were things I kept. Looking back they were unimportant things in themselves - a multimeter, a rack of cups - stupid things, but I kept them because they belonged to him. When I made a cup of coffee in one of the cups it reminded me of him. When I use the multimeter it reminds me of him. It reminds me of the time I sat on his lap and listened to his pocket watch. It reminds me of the welcomes we received in that little flat in Glenrothes. It reminds me that he loved us.
That’s what survives of us in this world - the love we spread. That’s the difference we make in this world. You can be the wealthiest person in the world, but one day you’re going to be gone and who would want to know that their passing will be like Scrooge’s - forgotten even as his bedcurtains are taken down?
When I take funerals I talk of them as celebrations of people’s lives. That’s what they should be - if we’ve lived our lives well. If we are just puffs of breath in this world then let them be memorable ones. Let them be ones that our friends and our families and our communities remember with fondness and love that reflects the kindness and generosity of spirit we have displayed in our lives.
Let our lives count for something. Let them voice an idea that seems so strange in our society - that generosity is better than greed; that forgiveness is better than grievance; that compassion is better than coldness of heart; that love trounces hate hands down. When people remember us, let it be because we lived that idea and, in doing so, pointed to a generous, forgiving, compassionate, loving God.
Let us live in the hope that, when we are gone from this world, and we are gathered together again in the presence of God, we can look back on the days we have spent here and think, “You know what? That was life well lived.” A life that those we have loved will look back on when we are gone and think, “You know what? That was a life well lived.” A life that God will look on and say, “Well done, my servant.”
Lord, we are here, in this world, only for a while. May we always speak with your compassion, may we always act in accordance with your love and may we be remembered as a refelecton of you in the world
Preached at Gretna Old parish church