10th Sunday After Trinity
"One's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions"
In Bach's Cantata 82, the bass soloist repeats the haunting refrain that gives the song its title: "Ich habe genug." I have enough. Composed for the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary in 1727, the cantata expands on Simeon’s words as he holds the infant Jesus, the words Christians still say as the Nunc Dimittis at evening prayer: "Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace: your word has been fulfilled."
In the cantata, we hear: "I have enough, for I have taken the Saviour into my arms. I have enough; I have seen him, my faith has held Jesus to my heart. I have enough!"
And at that point, as in Simeon’s original praise, the singer is happy to die. Music critics call this a gloomy song, a description some might add to today's readings but I think they are perhaps missing the point?
We enter the scene – Jesus had been teaching the crowd when he was interrupted. The parable Jesus tells of the rich fool and his barns arises out of a sad situation, a family row after the death of a parent. It is amazing how many people have fallen out over a piece of furniture or an ornament. At least one of the brothers was being greedy and as people today resort to the law, one of the rowing brothers asks Jesus to sort it out for them.
Jesus replies first with a rhetorical question: "Who set me to be judge over you? Then he cautioned his listeners to shun greed of any kind, Jesus reminds them life is more than possessions: life is a about a loving relationship with God. Then he tells a story which we can see in three acts.
Act one is a bumper harvest. The land produced abundantly. The barns are full and bursting at the seams. Carpenters are at work building bigger and better barns. Lucky rich man - he deserves this reward for hard work. God must love him. Most would admire him and some would envy him.
Act two and the farmer is in his den totting up his accounts. Haven't I done well? I can take it easy now. I have enough for many years. I can eat, drink and be merry. I can relax and look after myself. Lucky rich man - many people would not mind swapping places with him.
Act three. If you don’t like unhappy endings, you had better switch off now. If you don’t want a challenge, do not watch the third act. The rich man has died - poor rich man. He has left behind his farm, his barns, his leisure time. All that he possessed and counted upon has gone, poor rich man. He stands in the presence of God who says, 'You fool!' In no way was he prepared for this. He was rich to human eyes but poor in the eyes of God - poor rich man. He had cared about possessions but not about other people or God. He was rich in things but poor in the important relationships - poor rich man.
Notice in this story how in three verses the word ‘I’ appears six times. This was someone who was full of himself. God does not measure by what we have as much as by what we share. Riches are measured by what we can give away; the rest are possessions, and many are possessed by their possessions. Riches are to be shared with the community and in this way the poor and the marginalised are cared for. When John Wesley was at Oxford he lived by a rule that he set himself: 'Save what you can and give away what you can. At first Wesley had an income of £30 a year. He then lived off £28 and gave £2 away each year. When his income rose to £60 a year he lived on £28 and gave away £32. As his income rose to £60 and then to £120 a year, he still lived on £28 and gave the rest away.
The Accountant General for Household Plate (a sort of tax collector in his time) asked for a return from Wesley supposing he should have a good deal to show. Wesley replied, 'I have two silver teaspoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate which I have at present; and will not buy any more, while so many people around me want bread.'
Jesus isn't saying that we should have no material possessions and shouldn't enjoy the good things God has given us. The rich fool had enough, and to spare, of material possessions. Specifically, he had food - so much that he couldn't store it all. Did others around him have enough food? Did he bother to find out? Did he call to mind God's frequent insistence through the prophets that we should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give to the poor?
We do not know what life holds for us or the time of Christ's coming again in glory, so any carefully laid plans for increasing our material wealth in this world may come to nothing.
Jesus urges us to look at the needs of others, and be prepared to give of our own abundance to those who do not have enough: to give our time, our talents, our money to help those in need; to share our faith with those who have yet to recognise God's love.
Paul’s words to the Colossians about their new life in Christ seem to complement perfectly the message of the parable of the rich fool. “The world is too much with us,” Paul suggests, and the Colossians must “seek the things that are above” – setting their minds on things above not on things that are on the earth. They must “put to death” whatever in them is earthly and be renewed in the image of God.
Here is the paradox at the heart of the Christian faith. Christians are called to be in the world but not of the world – to live life with a different set of values, to march to the beat of a different drum. Enough, is said to be as good as a feast. And the feast we have come together to share today is a reminder of God's all-sufficient love and a foretaste of the feast we will share in heaven. We come to worship the God of ‘enough’ and as you will be urged in the invitation to receive communion - Feed on him in your hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving. For if we have faith, we will be like Simeon in the Bach Cantata as he held Jesus in his arms – ‘Ich habe genug’ I have enough.