Proper 13C Sermon (1998)

Proper 13 (July 31-Aug 6)
Texts: Luke 12:13-21;
Col 3:1-11; Ecc 1-2


What is Paradise? We are quite familiar with the word, but what is it? Is it the same as heaven? Where is it? Is it a far-away place? A place on the other side of death? What is Paradise?

This week I think that a lot of people might have answered that question, “Paradise is winning a $295 million Powerball lottery.” Be honest. Did you ever find yourself daydreaming about winning it this week? Mine went something like this: pay-off our debts, put away a fund for each of the boys college education, sock away some more for retirement, and then start giving it away. I’d pay-off Emmaus’ debt, I’d give to other funds in the church, and give to my college and seminary. In any case, it feels nice to dream about such financial security. It also feels good to think about myself as a generous person. I congratulate myself that, given the chance, I would know how to put such money to good use.

Well, such daydreams seem harmless enough, right? Harmless until you read today’s gospel lesson, that is. What unbelievable timing that the biggest lottery in history should come along the week that we are confronted with Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Fool. Talk about spoiling our fun! For, do you notice a certain similarity between the kind of daydream I had this week and the rich fool in the parable? I can fool myself into thinking that I’m different from the rich fool by telling myself that I’m not greedy: “Look how much I would plan to give away, after all.” That’s what I would tell myself. But this is fooling myself, playing myself as the fool. For I am the same as that rich fool in one very important respect: I was talking to myself this week when dreaming about that Powerball fortune. I was talking to myself.

Did you notice that in the parable? The rich man is quite a conversationalist in this parable, all to himself. He even addresses himself! “Soul,” he calls himself. The only other voice to enter into this parable is finally God’s, and then it is too late to have a dialogue. God simply tells this man the facts. He has built up all these possessions, but now it is his time to die. So whose are they now? This man has lived a life in monologue, talking with himself, rather than living a life in dialogue, talking to God.

This, then, brings us to my suggestion about Paradise. Paradise means having the right dialogue partner. This rich fool’s world may have looked like Paradise to him: Big new barns, plenty of possessions to be able to eat, drink, and be merry to his heart’s content. But that’s not what Paradise is. And we may fool ourselves about winning the lottery, what a Paradise life would be, how well we could make use of that money. But that’s not what Paradise is, either. I submit to you that Paradise is living a life with God as your #1 dialogue partner. And Paradise lost means choosing someone else as a dialogue partner before God, even if it’s yourself.

Let’s check out a couple of other biblical stories about Paradise. There is another parable that makes this same point, one we are very familiar with. It is the parable of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. The setting is Paradise, a garden called Eden. We generally consider this paradise to have been lost forever. But I’m not so sure that is true. What made it a paradise? Was it some special spot on earth that we’ve never found again? No. In fact, the description places it somewhere in the river plain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which would be somewhere in modern Iraq. Obviously, it is no longer a paradise. What happened? How was paradise lost?

Well, the writer of Genesis tells us a parable about greed and about having the right dialogue partner — a parable similar to the one Jesus tells, I think, but even more basic. Adam and Eve, as the story begins, live in a land that has brought forth plentifully, just like the rich man. But theirs is a paradise because they also — at the outset of the story, anyway — have the right dialogue partner: God, the one who created them. God is depicted as regularly strolling in the garden with them, talking with them. And God has apparently placed only one restriction on their desires: out of this abundant garden, there is only one tree at the center from which they are not to eat. Everything is fine as long as God their Creator remains their main dialogue partner, the one from whom they gain their desires. And that is the key here: that they followed the desires of God, the one who had created them in perfect love.

But, of course, we know the story, and that’s not how things remain. Paradise is lost. The serpent — a fellow creature, the craftiest one in the garden — becomes Eve’s dialogue partner. And he convinces her that the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden is desirable. Eve listens to the desire of the serpent. And then Eve convinces Adam…well, you know the rest of the story. Having listened to their fellow creatures above their Creator, they no longer had God as their primary dialogue partner — and so they no longer found themselves living in paradise. The consequences of their desire is death — not that God punishes them by killing them. No. But what happens in the very next parable? Adam and Eve’s two sons, Cain and Abel, are caught up in the same rivalrous desire as their parents, and one kills the other. Yes, the consequences of their desire having become envious is death, violent death, the kind of violence that humankind has lived with since the beginning of time. It is a violence born of desire that turns into envy and rivalry; and, I submit to you, it is a rivalrous desire born of having the wrong primary dialogue partner. Eve chose listening to the serpent, and Adam to Eve, fellow creatures, rather than listening to God, their creator. The most basic result is to come into rivalry against God; the serpent convinces the man and woman that they will know what God knows, that they can be in control of their own lives. They can talk to themselves like the rich fool, in other words, since they are in charge of their own lives. And that rivalry with God turns into a rivalry among themselves until, one day, one son kills another son. Paradise is long gone.

I’d like for us to consider one more story this morning: Compare God’s words to the rich fool in Jesus’ parable with the words of Christ to the criminal next to him on the cross. They are similar situations in that both men are about to die. To the rich man, God says “Fool!” To the criminal on the cross, Christ says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” In Paradise! That’s what we have lost ever since Adam and Eve chose to listen to the serpent ahead of God! And it is to this criminal that Jesus promises Paradise, today! Please take note: a rich man blessed with abundance and a criminal condemned to die. One is called fool and the other promised Paradise.

These three stories lay out a choice for us, and the prize is Paradise. We can continue to make the same choices as Adam and Eve and the Rich Fool. We can listen to Madison Avenue and watch the Joneses down the street. We can get caught up in lotto-mania. In other words, we can get caught up in the rivalrous desire because we follow the desires of other creatures more than we do the Creator. We can choose the wrong dialogue partner in life — other people, ourselves — and the murderous desire breaks out all around us, sometimes even within us.

Or we can make the choice of that criminal next to Jesus and choose to follow him. Yes, it’s never too late to choose the right dialogue partner. Even as he died on the cross, that criminal who hung next to Jesus chose to open his life to God through Christ, through the one who perfectly lived his life in dialogue with God. He became Jesus’ disciple, even at that late hour. And immediately he was in Paradise. Why? Because Jesus is the one who can put our lives back in dialogue with God.

That’s what we mean, I think, when we proclaim faith in a Trinitarian God. We proclaim faith in that perfect relationship between the Son and the Father. Jesus lived his life completely in open dialogue with God. Jesus got right what every person since Adam and Eve have gotten wrong. Jesus lived his life in Paradise, even in the midst of this sinful world. He brought Paradise back into this world for all those who choose to follow him, because he lived his life in perfect dialogue with his heavenly Father. The Father’s desire and the Son’s desire were one. They so loved the world that the Father was willing to give the Son, and the Son was willing to die for it. And through the Holy Spirit that relationship is now available to us, too. It is promised to us in baptism when die to the old way of living and rise to the new way of living. We rise to a life of dialogue with God. We are able to put those fallen desires behind us. St. Paul names them in our second lesson: “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” It’s like taking off old clothes and putting on new clothes says St. Paul to put on a “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” The image of the creator. We can once again imitate God’s desire, God’s Love. That’s what being a disciple of Jesus does for us.

What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? Well, that’s the daily question we need to answer. We’re excited that our emphasis this fall will be a seven-week study on discipleship, that it involves, first of all, prayer, in other words, life in dialogue with God. I don’t want to jump ahead an do the whole seven weeks now. But we have laid the groundwork for understanding why discipleship is so important: because Jesus got right what the rest of us have gotten wrong. Jesus perfectly lived by God’s desire, God’s love. He brought Paradise among us once again. Forget the Powerball. Don’t waste your money or your daydreams. Be a disciple of Jesus, and you will find Paradise opening up for you once again. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 1-2, 1998

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