In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Since I have been on holiday, the news seems to be dominated with stories of sudden, unexpected deaths. Shootings, stabbings, an attempted in kidnaping in England, even driving a truck into a crowd- terrorism has been seen in many forms in Europe in recent weeks, and it is unsettling for us.
I had just returned from holiday when I and every other minister received an email from the Church of Scotland, responding to the murder of 85 year old Father Jacques Hamel as he led worship in his church near Rouen, northern France. The church’s response in that email was twofold- solidarity with the Roman Catholic Church over this horrible, cowardly attack. And information for those of us who are Church of Scotland clergy on security matters.
Of course, there is not much we can do as churches to prevent this kind of thing. We cannot shut the doors- we must remain welcoming in God’s name to all. Ultimately, it is up to the police and the security experts in the state to try to spot when something like that might happen. But what we can, and must do, is not to do what the attackers would like us to do. For by attacking a church in the West, the attackers want to make it look like there is a war between Islam and Christianity. But of course, it is nothing of the sort.
Just a few days before Father Hamel’s murder, some 80 people were murdered by ISIS in an attack in the Afghan capital, Kabul. They were members of an ethnic minority who were taking part in a political demonstration. It was a stark reminder that the vast majority of the victims of the Islamist terrorists are Muslims, in places like Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Nor should we forget that clergy and other Christians continue to face violence for the sake of their faith across the world. Often they are killed for political or religious motives. But clergy are also dealing with all kinds of people- the last clergyman to be killed as he did is work in the UK was the Reverend John Suddards. He had said that he felt he could help others more effectively as a priest than in his previous job as a barrister. He was killed in his Gloucestershire vicarage in 2012 by someone he was trying to help.
Our task, as Christians, is to continue to preach the Gospel of peace, to pray for and to stand alongside all who are victims of violence, regardless of religion, race or nationality. We must keep the faith, keep the doors open, keep the dialogue going with all those, of all faiths, who, like us, abhor violence. Christians have to say that we are not at war with anyone. We do not do violence in God’s name.
Sudden death is unusual. But it is much more likely to be caused by illness or accident that by terrorism or any other kind of crime. Yet whenever it does happen, for whatever reason, it is always shocking (though the killing of innocents takes our shock to a new level, as it ought to).
I came back from holiday to be reminded that our Gospel reading today deals with sudden death. But it is a sudden death which happens in a parable- a story which contains a lesson. But the point of the story is not why sudden death happens, or how to respond to it. Because before we hear the story, we hear why Jesus told the story. And that ‘frame’ for the story makes it clear that this is a story about greed.
A man asks Jesus to sort out his inheritance. There is nothing more unseemly than a family quarrelling over an inheritance. (Recall that the most famous parable of all, the Prodigal Son can’t wait for his father to die to receive his share of the inheritance). In this case, it’s a family squabbling over the inheritance. The man demands that Jesus makes sure that he gets his share of the inheritance.
As often happens, Jesus responds with a question: ‘Who gave me the right to judge between you two?’ There is a note of irritation here. Jesus has come to bring salvation to the world- why is this man bothering him with this? For the man is simply selfish- he’s demanding that he gets what he feels he’s entitled to. And so Jesus tells a story about greed.
It’s a very simple parable, and needs hardly any explanation. A rich man is lucky enough to own land which produces a bumper harvest. He builds barns to store it in, and decides he is going to live easy and enjoy himself. But God has other plans- sudden death enters the story as the man unexpectedly, he dies in the night. Now he will never enjoy his wealth.
Jesus explains, ‘This is how it is with those who pile up riches from themselves but are not rich in God’s sight’. He doesn’t mean that those who save and invest are going to die suddenly. Nor is it merely a moral tale- ‘You cannae take it with you’, as you Scottish granny might say.
Instead, this is a story about our attitude to God. Do we really God, and depend on God? Or do we put our trust elsewhere? Are we rich in the things of this world, but are not, as Jesus puts it here, ‘rich in God’s sight’? This is a story about the nature of faith. Where do we put ultimately put our trust? For as Jesus reminds us a few verses later, ‘Your heart will always be where your riches are’.
The passage from Colossians fleshes this out for us. Paul is also concerned to remind the Colossians that their faith is to be in Christ alone. In the run-up to this passage, he says things like ‘Since you have accepted Christ Jesus as Lord, live in union with him’ (2.6); ‘You have died with Christ and are set free from the ruling spirits of the universe (2.20). And now he says, ‘You have been raised to life with Christ, so set your hearts on the things that are in heaven’ (3.1).
The Colossians were confused because some of them thought that there were other spiritual powers which Christians ought to worship alongside the God of Jesus Christ. And we, too, are often confused, because, like the rich man in the parable, we are tempted to worship money and wealth. But when we put our trust in anything else, in anyone else, other than Jesus Christ, we are failing to be Christians. We are worshipping the wrong things.
Jesus use of sudden death in the parable is meant to shock us. He spends a lot of time telling us about how well-off the farmer is, how he is investing in new barns, how he’s looking forward to an early retirement to enjoy good food and wine… and suddenly—bam! He’s gone. It’s like killing off a character in a novel whom we thought was finally finding happiness. Jesus is using death for dramatic, rhetorical effect. Death is the end- there is no way that our farmer can enjoy his happy retirement now. There is not coming back from this.
And St Paul, too, uses images of life and death to that there can be no mistaking the points he is making. We die to the world when we become Christians. That’s an aspect of the sacrament of baptism which we often overlook. We tend to think of the water as representing cleansing and new life. But coming through the waters of baptism is a kind of death. We are, as Paul puts, putting to death and old life. For just as it was for Jesus, we cannot know the new life until we put to death the old. So: ‘You must put to death… the earthly desires at work in you’, says Paul. He knows full well that Christians continue to live with the temptation to go back to the old life. Paul lists those things of the old life which constantly call us back, call us away from Christ: ‘sexual immorality, indecency, lust, evil passions, and greed (for greed is a form of idolatry)’.
Christians are meant to live a different kind of life. Sexual immorality- just giving way thoughtlessly to lust and sexual passions as the fancy takes us- is not an option for Christians. For we are called to love one another, not to hurt one another (and often we do hurt other people if we don’t keep our sexual passions under control). Quite often, Christians are accused of being obsess with keeping sex under control. But it is interesting, isn’t it, that Paul doesn’t just mean sexual immorality. He also talks about what we might call financial immorality. If we’ve to keep our sex drive under control, we’re also required to keep greed under control.
Put to death the earthly desires which can tear us away from God, says Paul- and he includes not just sexual immorality, but greed as well. And he says, ‘greed is a form of idolatry’. Idolatry is where you set up something else to worship- something other than God. An idol is a false God. Clearly Paul believes that greed is something which can draw us away from God. Just as sexual lust can lead us astray, so too can the lust for wealth- greed leads us to worship something other the God of Jesus Christ. Greed is a serious a problem as a misdirected sex drive.
It’s been said that there were more sins committed in the boardroom than in the bedroom. For greed is warps our vision, and damages our relationships, damages other people. Sir Philip Green may be a very nice man, but thanks to his greed, he will only now be remembered as the man who destroyed the retirements of the staff of BHS. I wonder if he still thinks it was worth it?
While we might well want to ensure we have enough to live on, putting all our efforts into becoming richer will inevitably draw us away from God. Greed is a prime force for making us forget heaven. As Jesus put it succinctly, ‘You cannot serve both God and money’ (Matthew 6.24b). We are to put the Kingdom of God first, and to trust God to provide the rest (Luke 12.31).
The man in the parable died, and because he had put all his hope in the contents of his barn, we was left with nothing. Christians are offered a different kind of life. We should live out our baptism- putting to death daily the old life, the earthly passions, the lust and the greed- and instead living a new life. The new life is marked with commitment, truth, and generosity. We are called, says Paul, to take off ‘the old self with his habits and… put on the new self’. For God in Christ is renewing us, remaking us, bringing us to a fuller knowledge of himself. For the members of the Church, ‘Christ is all, Christ is in all’ if we truly pursue the things of heaven, if we are serious about the new life Christ offers us.
Father Jacques Hamel is not the first Christian to die for his faith this year, and nor will he be that last. Martyrdom is an occupation hazard for all Christians, not just the clergy. For we still live in the old world- the world which worships money, lust and violence. Christians, in our new life, are, however, people of generosity, honest, and, above all peace. The earthly and the heavenly are at war- in our world and within each of us.
But that is, perhaps, the secret of martyrdom. For Father Hamel, for anyone who dies for Christ- well, they have already died to the world. And they die for the sake of the one whose death makes our death meaningful, and whose life is a model for our lives as Christians. Any death by violence is abhorrent, and of course it is an attack on us all when someone is killed for the Christian faith. But the rewards of faithfulness are riches in heaven, besides which all the treasures of the earth are of nothing. As St Paul puts it, ‘Your real life is Christ, and when he appears, then you too will appear with him and share his glory!’ (Colossian 3.4). That is worth far more than anything this life, this world, can give us.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2016 Peter W Nimmo