Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Barns and bigger barns
August 1, 2010, 8:15 pm
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Sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, 1st August 2010

When my girls were at school, every year we went down to the Cathedral for the Founder’s Day  service. And every year we heard read out an extract from the Founder’s will, John Whitson, sometime Lord Mayor of Bristol. One phrase has always stuck in my mind: in referring to his worldly prosperity, Whitson wrote of “the goods which in this life God had been pleased to lend him.” To lend him. Although he was a rich man, with four ships bringing back merchandise from around the world; although he had a big house and a respected position in the City: John Whitson recognised that all these things had merely been lent to him by God. He did not even call them gifts. God remained the owner, and he was merely the administrator of God’s property.

What a lot of trouble is caused when people forget that God has only lent them the things they enjoy, and think of themselves as the real owners. In the Book of Acts, St Luke depicts the first Christians in Jerusalem as calling nothing their own, but having everything in common. What he describes is not a legal system of joint ownership, but an attitude of mind in which everyone understood that they were stewards or trustees, to whom God had lent whatever they had to be used for the common good. Our Lord himself painted a picture of his kingdom, in which no-one squabbled over material goods, but if someone took your  jacket you gave him your overcoat as well.

In today’s Gospel, someone asked Jesus to settle a family quarrel. It reminds me of when my children were young. “Dad, tell him…” “Mum, tell her…” Jesus is not going to take sides, because he does not want us to have sides. Possessiveness is a kind of greed, marking out what we want as “mine”, and by that very fact not “yours”. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” says our Lord, because there are many kinds of greed, and some of them are so well-disguised that we don’t recognise them. “That is my seat (not yours).” “That was my idea (not yours).” “I have a right to that (so don’t you go taking it).” If we find ourselves getting annoyed because someone else has got something, there is a bit of greed in there somewhere.

Jesus told a story of a rich man, who had lots of possessions- so much, he had nowhere to store them all. He thought up a grandiose plan, to demolish his warehouses and build bigger ones. (I am almost tempted to say, pull down his stadium and build a bigger one.) Then he could relax and rake in even bigger profits, and enjoy it all. But he did not know that he was destined to die that very night, and leave it all behind for goodness-knows-who. The whole enterprise was (for him) a complete waste of time- vanity!

Several centuries before our Lord, an unknown Jewish thinker wrote the book we call Ecclesiastes. The book reeks of disillusionment. He has lived long, and the only lesson he has learned is that everything is a complete waste of time- vanity of vanities! People strive and strain in this world, but in the long run they are all dead. What is the point?

Scholars have wondered why such a negative book is found in the Bible, but I suspect it is because we all need to ask the question, “What’s the point of it all?” and see no natural answer, in order to lift up our eyes from the dust we walk on and seek an answer beyond the world, in God. God is the point, he is the Creator, the Artist, the Giver of all good things. St Francis got the point, a long time ago. When you renounce possessions, you possess everything: or, more accurately, when you renounce possessiveness, you discover that the world is yours.

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