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Sunday 4 August 2019

Where do we put our trust?

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21


By Raewynne Whiteley

Discipleship and Vocations Missioner in the Church of England Diocese of Southwark, former parish priest and sometime lecturer in homiletics


Context: Suburban parish with a mix of ages and backgrounds

Aim: to challenge people about where they put their trust


It was almost unbelievable. Just after peak hour, a huge road bridge began to crumple and fall, big segments dropping 60 or more feet, cars plunging into the river. Amazingly, most people survived. What might have been a tragedy, with deaths in the hundreds, was still a tragedy, but one laced with grace, as story after story emerged of escapes from sinking cars and rescues from fragilely balanced vehicles. But not everyone survived.

Reading the obituaries, you realise that these people could have been any of us: consultant, construction worker, dance teacher. Just ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives.

But one person caught my attention. She’d just talked with her husband on the phone, and headed down the highway, a route she didn’t normally take because there always seemed to be construction delays. She was driving in her new Mercedes 280. ‘It was her dream car,’ her husband said.

That story caught my attention because it’s so similar to the story that Jesus tells in our gospel today. It’s of a man who is doing so well that he decides that the barns he has aren’t quite big enough to hold his crops, let alone all the other things he has bought.

And so, he decides to rebuild. Get rid of the old buildings and put up some new ones, with plenty of space. And although Jesus doesn’t say it, I wonder if he also thinks that if he builds new buildings, everyone will notice how prosperous he is and accord him appropriate honour.

But just when the man is getting into his building project, he dies. He’ll never get the benefit of those wonderful buildings. And there is nothing in the buildings that could save him.

When tragedy strikes, our usual response is to ask questions. ‘Why did this happen?’ And the answer is, all too often, that we know why. Because bridges weren’t maintained, because buildings were built in flood plains, because someone drank too much and got behind the wheel of a car.

But, Jesus suggests, there is another question to ask, ‘So what should I do?’

There are simple answers: spend on infrastructure; don’t buy a house in a flood plain; be careful what you drink before driving home.

But another question lies beneath that one: ‘what do I trust?’ Do I trust in the skills of engineers to save me? Do I trust in my decision-making skills? Do I trust in what I own?

Most of us put our energy into the things we trust, the things that we believe will make life safer or better and live our lives accordingly.

When we hear Jesus talking about greed, we think, ‘I’m not greedy; I don’t really want more than my fair share; I’ve worked hard for it.’

But then he turns the conversation toward something far more substantial, far more uncomfortable: death. Because trusting in money or possessions or anything else physical can’t, in the end, save us.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to sell up everything, give it to the poor, and abandon ourselves to others’ generosity to survive. But it does mean that we need to be critical of our own spending and the things we own. Is this something I need? Or am I using it as a substitute, to fill a hole, to make me feel better, to trust in? It’s about being wise about the things that we own, and not imbuing them with power that they do not have.

In the grand scheme of things, what we earn, what we own, are secondary to our faith and trust in God. Therefore, Jesus suggests, our faith and trust in God should guide our use of them. We should make decisions about how we spend our money and where we allocate it on the basis of our love of God and our Christian faith: living with generosity rather than greed, making choices that don’t just benefit ourselves, but honour God.

That’s the practical side of Jesus’ story. But there’s another part to it. As I was talking with some parishioners about the bridge collapse, someone asked, ‘If I were to die, would my husband talk about my car?’

How we live with money isn’t entirely private. People make conclusions about us based on the choices they see us making. When they see us focusing on our own benefit, they may conclude that we are wisely preparing for the future or that we are greedy. When they see us focusing on the others’ needs, they may think we’re stupid or that we are generous and the sort of people they want to know.

And if they know we are Christians, they will make conclusions about the Church, and about God. As people who are called to live out our faith, to be salt and light to the world, to draw others to Christ, how we live with money in a society that places an awful lot of importance on it is one of the most significant acts of witness that we do.

Somehow, we’ve found our way from the collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis to living wisely with money. It’s quite a way. But what binds it together is the knowledge that death brings life into perspective.

And part of that life is how we live with money. What we earn and what we own can’t save us. Only God can.

And to remember that everything we do, every choice we make, we do as people claimed as God’s own, and witnesses to the gospel.

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