Starting Places: When only the truth will do
Morning Service led by our Minister
This sermon is taken from Luke 12, verses 13-21
Starting Points: When Only The Truth Will Do.
I don’t much like this story, do you? To me it speaks of the kind of god I call “the slap-in-the-face god.” Here is a man who seems to have done nothing worse than work hard all his life, take good care of his land, invest his money carefully and look forward to a comfortable retirement, only to have this “god” appear at his bedside and metaphorically slap his face, calling him a fool and telling him he is about to die.
There is nothing in the story to suggest that this man had ever been dishonest or corrupt; that he had exploited other people to make his money; or that he had avoided contributing the ten percent of his income Jewish men were obliged to pay for the upkeep of religion and the welfare of the poor.
This rather nasty god, who takes a grim satisfaction in catching up with men and women who think they are OK and inflicts disaster upon them, leaves you perpetually anxious and unsure of yourself. He does not bring out the best in you and does not help you to give of your best to others. To be fair, this is not the God of our Bible. The God taught in both the Old and New Testaments is the God who gives life and who is delighted to see us delighting in life. He is a God who warns but who also teaches; a God who grieves when we run into trouble but who also forgives and renews; a God who will bear the weight of our mistakes and wrong doing himself in the hopes of saving us from total disaster.
The “slap-in-the-face god” is more like the gods of ancient Greece, as depicted in their dramatic tragedies- where these gods take delight in picking on innocent men and women, leading them into all kinds of destruction purely, it seems, to show off their own superior powers. There are signs of this influence in the Gospels because the people who wrote them were living in a multi-cultural society but generally speaking the Christian message is one of love, hope and forgiveness. It is not a “tragedy.”
So, what do you think Jesus is really getting at in this story?
It is true to say that life does have a way of confronting us with the challenge of who we really are and what we really want. We jog along in our own routine so far but then something happens which forces us to re-evaluate.
One way is, the crisis way. Life can throw some nasty stuff at us. Every day, hard-working, good living people suddenly have their lives turned upside down by serious illness, by bereavement, by redundancy, by betrayal. They ask, “why has this happened to me?” I for one cannot bring myself to suggest that the God I worship has done this to them deliberately. (You Fool!) But life, sadly and inexplicably, is like that.
And your crisis may well lead you to think again about your priorities in life. What is really important to you? What do you most regret? What might you do differently if you are given a second chance? There was a film called Silence like Glass made in 1989 in which a young ballerina called Eva Martin was struck down by a potentially terminal cancer. Eva’s life had been totally focussed on the ballet ever since she was about five years old. With the support of her parents she had worked and trained until she had become the prima ballerina of her company. Now this cancer was spreading through her body and even if, by a remote chance, she lived, she would never dance to that same standard again. Denial, anger, alienation of other people came out in abundance. This is not “smiling bravely through your pain” story. This is freaking out and giving everyone-including-yourself hell and who can blame her. But in one of her calmer moments Eva says that, although she has loved the ballet and regrets nothing she worked for, what she does regret are all the things she did not do; the places she never saw; the people she fought with rather than related to. And her bucket list for if she ever gets out of hospital is all about travel, exploration and relationships. She has acquired a wider set of priorities.
Another re-evaluation might be more of our own making. I think it is true to say that most of us tend to be swept along to a certain extent by the expectations of our families and our culture. When I was a child, I was blessed with two sets of the most loving grandparents any child could wish for. But once I reached the age of about fourteen, I used to dread going to visit one Granny and Grandad. They were still as kind as ever, but I knew that this grandmother would at some point in the day turn to me and ask, in front of everyone else, “have you got a boyfriend yet, Jennifer?” And I would be forced to admit that no, I had not. You would not believe the agony that caused me. It was not that I, personally, felt the need for a boyfriend at that time. My life was very full, and I was enjoying what I was doing. But there was this cultural expectation that attractive, popular, socially successful young women would always have a boyfriend and any girl who did not, was a miserable failure. A lot of girls ended up in the most appalling relationships rather than suffer the stigma of feeling ‘unwanted’ and ‘unchosen.’
There are subtle pressures put upon us as we grow up- to do well at school; to excel at sport; to end up in a good, well-paying job; to find a partner and create a family. And there is nothing wrong with any of these things. It is just that a lot of us, at some point in our lives, stop, look at where we are and ask, perhaps for the first time, ‘is this really what I want? Is this really where I most need to be? Is this IT?”
A third re-evaluation point comes as a result of new knowledge. We can be pursuing a lifestyle which to us looks totally harmless, only to discover that in fact it is seriously harm-full. The obvious example of this is the climate change crisis. In the Western world we have happily enjoyed a lavish consumer lifestyle and, so long as we give some of our abundance to relieve the needy, we are free to “eat, drink and be merry.” But now we are being shown the devastating effects this lifestyle has had and will continue to have on our planet. We are being urged to STOP; re-prioritise our lives- what we eat, what we wear, how we travel, how we farm, how we invest our money, in the hope of saving our world and its future inhabitants from annihilation.
Re-evaluation then, is a challenge that comes to us all for different reasons in the course of our lives. It can be a difficult, complicated process, often involving a lot of regret, fear and self-doubt. I wonder then if what Jesus is trying to offer here in this story is some help. The Greek language in which the New Testament is written can sometimes come across as very stark and harsh when translated into English and when I read again the nasty way in which God speaks to the man in the story, I wondered whether maybe it should not come across so much as a “slap in the face- You Fool!” Maybe more of a sad shaking of the head- “you poor, silly man?”
Because the one thing we do pick up from the story is that this man is alone. He is talking to himself all the time, not to someone he loves or with whom he has shared his life. The point is made that he has no-one he really cares about to inherit his money. Susan Durber, when studying this parable, wrote that it made her feel sad. “I don’t despise or criticise (this man). I just feel sorry for him- and for the part of me that I see reflected in him.” In one respect this man had had a highly successful life but perhaps the price he had paid for it was too high?
Jesus had a way of confronting people with the challenge of who they really were and what they really wanted. Sometimes through stories-like this one, told to a man whose family was in danger of falling apart over an inheritance; sometimes through teaching; sometimes by helping people; sometimes by challenging them. Jesus confronted rich people and poor; the physically fit and the physically frail; the religious and the non-religious; those who pushed themselves to the front of the crowd and those who tried to keep out of sight. He was not in the business of producing ‘clones.” Each person who engaged with him found something different, almost as though Jesus were holding up a mirror in which they could see themselves for what they really were. Many people found themselves re-prioritising their lives as a result of meeting Jesus.
You see, when we get to that point when we admit our need to re-evaluate, then only the truth will do. We do not want any more mistakes. We cannot afford to waste our time and effort on things which will not satisfy us, or which could cause harm to others. We want to discover what is real.
Through encountering Jesus, men and women came to understand that real life is not one-dimensional. If we live only for money, our lives will be unbalanced. If we live only for one relationship, only for one professional success, only for purely physical fitness, even if only for religion, our lives will be unbalanced, and we shall lose a great deal that is precious.
First, because we are creatures with minds and bodies, hearts and souls, all of which need nurturing. And second, because we are creatures who share the world with others and with other forms of life. As we heard in the old nursery story, we are part of a team, whether we like it or not and to live only for ourselves will leave us unbalanced and dissatisfied.
I don’t know whether any of you saw the television documentary this week about the conjoined twins, aged about two and a half and the agonising decision needing to be made about whether to attempt to separate them. If they are not separated, then their life expectancy is very short. If they are separated, one will certainly die. And I had not realised that Great Ormond Street Hospital has an “Ethics Committee,” formed of people from all different branches of the medical and caring professions who debate cases like this, looking at the decision not only in terms of physical wellbeing but also emotional and spiritual. They have an impossible and heart-wrenching task, but I did admire them for the way in which they addressed “quality of life” as multi-dimensional. Because that is the truth.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” It is a bold claim but, if he is who we say he is-the Son of God, God himself, then it is a claim he is entitled to make. Because God has always engaged with men and women in every dimension of their lives. The Psalm we read together (107) shows people calling on God for help in all kinds of situations and in every situation, God reached out to them and brought them to a better place. The first and greatest commandment in both the Old and New Testaments is that you shall “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” We are multi-dimensional creatures, and this can make our lives complex and confusing to handle. But in Jesus Christ many found and continue to find the truth which makes us and keeps us whole.
He does not present us with a list of rules and resolutions. He does not expect us to pass exams in theology and doctrine. He does not expect us to spend all day and every day in church. He invites us to be still, to look to him and to ask “what is it that I really need? What is that I want Jesus Christ to do for me? Who am I?”
And because he is the truth, we shall learn the truth as we walk with him.
Because he is the way, we shall make the right choices and set the true priorities.
Because he is the life, we shall never get totally lost, no matter how many mistakes we make. He will be there to reach out and save us.
The man in the story is a sad case because he is so totally alone. He is not a bad man for being rich. His life is just unbalanced and huge aspects of it are completely empty. Susan Durber said that the story always makes her want to reach out and phone a friend. It makes me regret all the anxieties I have piled up and the time I have not spent with God and enjoying life to the full. Life is precious and only the truth will do. Why not give He who called himself the Truth, the chance to prove this to us?
Susan Durber wrote this prayer after reading the story of the Rich Man.
God who, in Jesus, encouraged us to lose our selves, save me from myself.
When I am self-conscious, give me the ability to forget myself and give attention to others.
When I am self-absorbed, give me the capacity to turn from myself and to become immersed in something else.
When I am self-critical, give me a spirit of mercy that I might be forgiving and merciful even to me.
When I am self-contained, give me a true knowledge or my dependence on others and a delight in being part of humankind.
And, being saved from myself, let my self be remade in Christ, who gave himself for me. Amen.