Leo Tolstoy wrote a wonderful short story entitled "How Much Land Does A Man Need?" in 1886, a story which author James Joyce called "the greatest short story ever written." In the story, a Russian peasant farmer named Pahom says to himself, "If I had plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the Devil himself!"
It should go without saying, of course, that in the course of the story, fear and greed drove Pahom to greater and greater lengths to find happiness and security in his land. Pahom certainly isn't the only literary figure to chase a treasure. Captain Ahab had his Moby Dick. Lord Voldemort had his Harry Potter.
Me? I've got my running shoes.
When it comes to shoes, many of us runners are shopaholics. We compare websites, we email one another, we spend lots of time looking for the perfect shoe, preferably at a low price. I bought this pair a few months ago, because I found them on sale at an online retailer. I ordered two pairs, one for now and one for six months from now when I need another pair.
In the grand scheme of the running life, this is the moment when I’m satisfied. This is the moment when I'm holding the box, inhaling the intoxicating scent of new shoes, and I think, "Now I'm okay. Now I'm set." This is the moment of real trouble for us – and Jesus hit that moment right on the head when he told this parable to the crowd around him. The fact that it has something to say to us today just proves that God’s Word is always doing something, doesn’t it?
First we need to understand this isn’t about bad people suffering the consequences of their sin. Grain that isn't stored properly is ruined, and it was common for rabbis to adjudicate inheritance disputes in Jesus‘ time. The characters in this story weren’t necessarily doing anything wrong. What’s wrong is not their actions, but the trust and faith driving their actions. Mistakes were made at the level of heart and soul, which is more often than not the very place our struggles begin.
The mistake of the rich man had nothing to do with grain. The mistake of the brother had nothing to do with inheritances. Their mistakes were made long before this stuff was ever part of the problem. Their mistakes were their misplaced treasures. The possessions they treasured held them captive, while the freedom in which God created them was buried under fear.
But what is it that drives this fear? What causes such great fear in us, that we should put all our trust in possessions or money or stuff? Is it a fear of inconvenience? I don't think so: inconvenience isn't pleasant, but it is definitely survivable. Is it a fear of discomfort? Again, no, for the same reason. Are we afraid of a loss of social standing? This might be nearer the mark, but again, a loss of social standing or reputation might be unpleasant, even painful, but we can survive such things. Even a fear of poverty, which can certainly be painful and even harmful to us and to our families, is not what drives our misplaced trust in things and possessions.
Our need for stored treasure has to do with one great, overwhelming fear: the fear of losing control. We are afraid that we are not in control of our world. We are afraid of the random, the uncertain. We are afraid of what we cannot control – and we fool ourselves into thinking that the things we can control are the things that matter, that they are, in fact, the things that will save and preserve us.
Our fear can lead us into all sorts of sins and trouble. Think of some of the commandments we break in our lust for treasures we think we can control. Our fear of commitment, vulnerability and authenticity us into superficial relationships a mile wide and an inch deep. Our fear of not being compared favorably to our neighbors leads us to covet our neigbor's possessions – "keeping up with the Joneses" is an expensive sin, but it is also one of the most common among us. Our fear of speaking the truth leads us to gossip and false witness, and not only that: fear leads us to think that the only way we can improve our own reputation is to bring down our neighbor's reputation. Our fear of risking peace, which makes us vulnerable but also makes us more completely God's children, leads us into thinking that harming our neighbor physically, even killing him, is justified if the circumstances can be defended adequately. And our fear of poverty, chaos and loss of control, as we've already seen, leads us into satisfying our greed and hoarding treasures, stealing those treasures if necessary.
Now, of course, we all fall into different places when it comes to fear and what it can do to us. But no matter how close or far away we may be from that which causes us to fear, we are all afraid, and deep down it comes back to our fear of losing control, of what may happen to us.
Friends, we need only look around us to see how little control we have of the world around us. Do you remember when the I35 bridge collapsed in 2007? My brother-in-law crossed that bridge less than two hours before it collapsed: it could have very easily been our family on the news, grieving a loss we couldn’t control. For nearly nine years we’ve been living under a cloud of fear that formed when the World Trade Center was destroyed on a normal, ordinary Tuesday morning. Floods sweep away dams; economies crash; accidents happen. Where we can, we try to stay in control, because so much of life is beyond our control.
Here’s the thing: control is not the primary value in the life of a Christian. Jesus told the parable of the rich fool to teach us that control is not our problem – fear is our problem. The primary value in the life of a Christian is faith. The opposite of faith? Fear. Fear leads to greed, to envy, to lust, to violence; fear leads us astray in many, many ways. Jesus brings the treasures which destroy the power of fear: faith, and out of faith, love.
It would be easy to think that managing our possessions better is the teaching point of this parable, but it’s not. The Teacher was absolutely right in our reading from Ecclesiastes today: possessions are meaningless; they are, after all, just stuff. What Jesus wants his disciples to understand is the fear that drives us to treasure such meaningless things. Learning to manage things better doesn’t solve the problem of our fear – only faith and love can do that, and faith and love are what Christ comes to give.
Here are the treasures of faith and love: to believe that God is always present, that even in the worst of circumstances God is there: that is a treasure worth treasuring! To believe that our lives consist of the presence of a creating, redeeming and sanctifying God: that is a treasure worth treasuring! To believe that our souls are far more important than our possessions, that each of us bears the breath of a loving Creator within us: that is a treasure worth treasuring! To know that out of love God did not withhold himself from us, but came in the person of Jesus Christ and lived among us, living in love even when it cost him his own life: that is a treasure worth treasuring! It is faith, and love, and far more, that Jesus puts in place of the treasures we have stored up for ourselves in our possessions. Our lives are created for the treasures of faith and love, and without them “all is vanity, a chasing after the wind.”
I have one more prop to show you: this marshmallow roaster. My Grandma Johnson died in January 2005, and over the next few months, we cousins watched our parents divide their inheritance amongst themselves, and they invited us to request anything we’d like to have from Grandma & Grandpa’s house in town and also the farm. Among the list of things I requested were these marshmallow roasters (we have four of them). They’re pretty ingenious, if you ask me: the handle extends. They can be short when you load them up and long when you want to roast stuff in the fire. Looking at these roasters the other night, while we were sitting by our own fire, I realized that as inconsequential as they may be, these roasters have now outlived my grandparents. Properly maintained, they will outlive me. But they’re roasters! They are not a treasure – they are things. Our family’s treasure is wrapped up in the faith my grandparents handed down to their children and then to us grandchildren. Faith, and love, cast out fear; the treasure worth treasuring frees us from our misplaced trust in shoes, grain bins and marshmallow roasters.
Brothers and sisters, what you have is not nearly as important as what you believe and in whom you trust. Martin Luther once wrote “to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart.”
Your life is meant for faith, and love, the treasures worth treasuring, and with joy Christ offers them to you freely. Put your trust in God, not your things. Treasure what you’ve been given in the love, grace and peace of Jesus Christ, and behold: all things are yours in Christ, now and forever more. Amen.