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Dave Johnson

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Episcopal Church of the Resurrection
“Generous Love” (Luke 12:13-21)
July 31, 2022
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel passage is only found in Luke, and it is one of the most sobering of all his parables. It certainly resonates on a deep level in our consumerist culture in which enough is never enough. We think we need more and more, and newer and newer, and the latest and greatest—and our consumerist appetite is never satisfied. You are probably familiar with the famous oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) one of the wealthiest Americans who ever lived. The street where I grew up was named after him—I literally grew up on Rockefeller Lane in Springfield, Virginia. When asked “How much is enough?” Rockefeller famously answered, “Just a little bit more.” He is not alone.

Many of us do not realize how much stuff we have until we move to a new home—and you are boxing your stuff or deciding what to take or leave. Perhaps you have pondered that uncomfortable question, “Do I own my possessions or do my possessions own me?” Not a fun question but a needful one, because the more we acquire, the more worry it creates—because some possessions need to be maintained and insured and stored and then bequeathed to someone when you die.

Perhaps you have seen the arguing and jockeying that can take place as the death of a wealthy person approaches, and members of their family scramble for the pole position in the will—or who is included or excluded in their will, or who gets what or who gets how much and whether it is “fair” or not—such toxic conflict always leaves deep wounds in its wake. I have seen this dynamic up close and personal. And we have all heard of scenarios where a hard-working person left a fortune for their children, who in turn squandered it. This is nothing new, as the writer of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes put it:

I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19).

Regarding my stuff, when I die perhaps my kids will argue about who will get my books, or my Shakespeare and Jane Austen action figures, or my bike or truck, or my vestments, or my Star Wars Millennium Falcon PEZ set…but I doubt it.
Who’s going to get what when someone dies…that is the setting of today’s gospel lesson as someone had died, and it was unclear who would get the inheritance: “Someone in the crowd said to (Jesus), ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me’”—but Jesus responds, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” But while Jesus stays out of that family squabble, he then addresses the incessant pull that consumerism and greed have on all of us: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:13-15). You may remember the bumper sticker, “The one who dies with the most toys wins” which reveals the absurdity of consumerism, a truth Jesus unpacks in the unsettling parable he then tells the crowd:

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 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. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21).

In our day and age, we may not build bigger barns for all our extra stuff, but we may rent storage units. Did you know that there are about 60,000 storage unit facilities in the United States that take up about 1.7 billion square feet and generate about $40 million a year? Granted, many are used for business purposes, but the majority fulfill the same function as the bigger barns of the rich man in Jesus’ parable: simply places to horde their stuff. The popular television show Hoarders shows how unhealthy this behavior is, but Jesus says it’s more than unhealthy; it is dangerous—“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” and going a step further, it is deadly—“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you…all the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Yikes!

This parable reminds me of a famous animated cartoon. Remember Looney Tunes? As a kid, I loved watching Looney Tunes cartoons on television, especially those featuring Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. But one of these cartoons made me uncomfortable even as a little boy. The 1957 cartoon Ali Baba Bunny featured Bugs and Daffy finding a cave in the Arabian Desert that was filled with the massive treasure of a sultan—a huge pile of jewels and gold. Daffy wants it all for himself and stomps Bugs into the ground while shouting, “It’s mine, you understand? Mine, all mine! Get back in there—down, down, down—go, go, go—mine, mine, mine!” Later a genie shrinks Daffy down into a tiny Daffy Duck.

At the end of the cartoon Bugs Bunny is relaxing at a beach and finds an oyster. Inside the oyster is a pearl. Out of nowhere the tiny Daffy Duck sprints across the beach and into the oyster, “It’s mine, you understand? Mine, Mine, mine—do you hear me?” And as Daffy Duck clings to the oyster he keeps shouting, “Out, out, out—go, go, go—mine, mine, mine!” “Oh brother, close sesame,” Bugs sighs. He slowly closes the oyster Daffy as continues, “I’m rich! I’m a happy miser!” and Daffy Duck is shut inside the oyster, and the cartoon ends and the credits roll.

The rich man in Jesus’ parable was just like Daffy Duck—“my barns…my grain…my goods”—“mine, mine, mine!” Moreover, the rich man put his trust in that stuff— “You have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” In essence the rich man’s sentiment was the exact same as Daffy Duck’s, “I’m rich! I’m a happy miser!” Both Daffy Duck and the rich man had to have it all for themselves, and both got what they wanted, and yet both ended up alone and in the dark—Daffy Duck closed up in the oyster and the rich man closed up in a grave—“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you…all the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” And that is one way the Gospel According to Luke and Looney Tunes are connected—who knew?

In all the many, many death bed visits I have done as a priest, not one time have I ever had anyone tell me they wished they had made more money or acquired more stuff, not once, ever. So if the one who has the most toys when he dies wins, what exactly is it that he wins? You know the answer to that. “Take care!” Jesus warns, “Be on your guard against all kids of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” So, if your life does not consist of the abundance of your possessions, if it’s not your stuff, what is it?” What really matters in life?

Biblically, life consists of something infinitely more important than the abundance of your possessions; life consists of generous love—and true love is always generous, never stingy. In other words, biblically your life is not about what you get; it’s about what you give away. And when you die, love is the one thing you can take with you. The iconic Irish rock band U2 had it right when they sang, “Love is the only baggage you can bring…love is all that you can’t leave behind” (from “Walk On” on their 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind).

“I’m rich!” Daffy Duck proclaimed, “I’m a happy miser!” It’s funny because there’s no such thing as a happy miser—have you ever met one? Biblically, happiness and generosity go hand in hand—which is why Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35) and why scripture describes the early church as being full of people with “glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).

“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Jesus preached that and showed what it looks like. Instead of building bigger barns for his stuff Jesus built a room for you in his Father’s house in heaven. Instead of his life being “mine, mine, mine…out, out, out” Jesus’ life was “your, yours, yours…welcome, welcome, welcome.” Jesus’ life consisted not of what he got, but of what he gave away, even giving his life on the cross. His entire life consisted of generous love.
God’s love is generous love. This is good news for those who perhaps have been like the rich fool in today’s parable and put their trust in their possessions, and especially good news for those who have squandered their inheritance—for this parable connects with another parable also only found in Luke: the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You know the story—a different rich man had two sons, the dutiful firstborn and the slacker younger brother who demanded his inheritance before his father even died. The father’s life was never about his possessions; it was about generous love, expressed by freely giving his slacker son his inheritance with no strings attached. And when the younger son “squandered his property in dissolute living” (Luke 15:13) and came home hungry and broke and sick, his father still greeted him with generous love—and hugs and kisses and a party to end all parties.

Real life consists of generous love. Nothing could change the father’s generous love for his prodigal son—and nothing can change God’s generous love for you.


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