Proper 13C 2019
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Kelly
Grace Episcopal Church, Radford, Virginia
One of the foundational elements of the Harry Potter series is the Boggart. I’d be interested to know how many of us remember the Boggart from the series.
Here’s a definition from a fan page: “A Boggart is an amortal shape-shifting non-being that takes on the form of the viewer's worst fear. Translation for non-Harry Potter fans, it’s like a ghost which when you encounter it becomes your worst fear. So, if I encountered a Boggart on a normal Sunday morning it would probably become the bishop saying he was here for confirmation and I forgot.”
(But don’t anybody tell the bishop I said he is my worst fear!)
“The charm that combats a Boggart is to say, with the right flick of your wand, Riddikulus. (If the charm works the Boggart turns into your favorite funny thing, like a clown or Professor Snape in drag!) Boggarts are defeated by laughter, so forcing them to assume an amusing form is the first step to defeating them. The intention is to force the Boggart to assume a less-threatening and hopefully comical form.”
I love that part of J. K. Rowling’s fantastical world of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The defensive charm against your worst fear is laughter and the word used for the charm is Riddikulus.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about prayer and Jon and I have both been preaching about and discussing prayer. We feel the Holy Spirit is leading us all to consider our prayer practices. In light of today’s readings I am wondering about praying through fear, and laughter as a God given anecdote to fear.
Jerry Seinfeld has a show on Netflix called “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” And that is just what it is, comedians in cars getting coffee. With each episode you get some background on a classic car or a luxury car which Seinfeld rents and fills with cameras, and a camera crew following in other vehicles, and the viewer gets to ride along through the camera lens. Jerry drives through LA or New York and picks up his guest, usually a friend, always another comedian. They drive and talk about the craft of comedy, especially stand up comedy. Then they go to a coffee shop and sit at a table with coffee and food and continue the conversation. These conversations are, naturally, very funny.
So the viewer is entertained and informed and the car maker and the coffee shop both get good advertisement. Everyone goes home happy. My favorite part is that these episodes are each only about 20 minutes long.
Kate and I watched a few of these the other night and a couple of things stood out for me. One was when one of the comedy writers described how a comedy TV show is written. He used The Office as an example. He told of one formula where one of the characters, for ridiculous reasons, decides to do something outside of his or her given abilities. The character usually looks at the camera to include the viewer in this plan and then goes on trying essentially, back flips or whatever the crazy, overdone, act is and makes a fool of him or herself. So, it’s funny because we relate to our own failures but it’s also easier to watch someone else be the fool.
One comedian told Seinfeld this joke. (And before I tell it I’ll warn you, it is not funny. It is not meant to be funny.) So a Jewish guy, a Holocaust survivor dies and goes to heaven and meets God. God says, “Welcome.” The Jewish guy says, “Let me tell you joke" (so now this is a joke inside a joke). So he tells God about the Holocaust. And God says, “I don’t get it.” And the Jewish guy says, “Yeah. I guess you had to be there.”
It’s not funny. Not in the least. But it catches your attention and takes us all to that difficult place of questioning the answer to prayer. Like, we prayed for rescue from the Nazis and God seemed very silent.
We pray for comfort and action from God when we are afraid of such evils and God seems absent still.
There is a larger story, however. God isn’t a magician. And God is always there. Wherever there is. We don’t just ask for a raise in our allowance or to not get grounded when we have misbehaved. God is compared to a good and stern father in the Bible, like in this section of Hosea which we’ve been reading for a couple of weeks. But, God is more than that. God wants us to be in constant, deep relationship, not a “tit-for-tat” deal making type of relationship or a reward and punishment relationship. God wants us to walk daily in deep relationship. And that takes, as Jon said in last week’s sermon, “being quiet, waiting and listening.”
Some say that if the German Church and the German people had been in such a relationship with God in the late 19th century, Hitler might not have risen to the level of evil power he did and we may have been spared the Holocaust. But it’s really not that simple. The problem of evil would still exist. We would have to go back to original sin, the original Fall of (hu)man in the Garden of Eden in order to avoid evil, to avoid sin. But we can’t.
We are faced with the human condition of being fallible, finite, limited creatures who struggle for a lifetime, trying to accept what we can’t have or do.
We are in the middle of the summer lessons, Ordinary Time. We will hear lot’s of stories and lots of parables this summer. In today’s Gospel lesson we have an argument between family members over an inheritance. And then we have Jesus relocate the argument to this parable. The man whose biggest struggle in life is to find a place to store the abundance of his crops is the prototype of wealth. If the resources are plentiful, planning for the future becomes easy. The illusion of control over one’s life becomes second nature. Only God’s intervention can save us from that grand illusion. We never know what tomorrow will bring - if we will get to spend our inheritance or build that storage barn.
In the end life is fleeting. As we obsess over the accumulation of shoes, clothes, gadgets, antiques, homes, cars - add to the list your temptation - as we obsess over these possessions, Jesus simply points out that this cannot be the focus of our lives. At any moment our lives can be cut short. We need to focus on the eternal; we need to focus on God. (Ian Markham)
The story of The Rich Fool is a joke of sorts. This character is ridiculous. We want to laugh at him for being a hoarder. We want to point out his folly, his mistake. We assume he is isolated and lonely in his miserly ways. Some would assume he is destined for hell. He is just a joke.
George Carlin captures this human dilemma when he muses on our attachment to stuff. Do you remember that monologue? Those who do just perked up and are worried I’m going to quote him word for word. That would include a great deal of profanity. But, editing the profanity out, here’s the gist: Carlin said,
You know how important that is, that’s the whole . . . that’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all you house is . . . you’re house is just a place for you stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff . . . you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. That’s all you house is, it’s a pile of stuff . . . with a cover on it. You see that when you take off in an airplane and you look down . . . and yo see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff Everybody’s got their own pile of stuff. And when you leave your stuff, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff . . . That’s all your house is, it’s a place to keep your stuff . . . while you go out an dget more stuff. Now, sometimes, sometimes you gotta move . . . you gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff. You’ve gotta move all you stuff . . . and maybe put some of your stuff in storage. Imagine that, there’s a whole industry based on keeping . . . an eye on your stuff.
One scholar says this of the parable of the rich fool: “This inordinate craving to hoard as a guarantee against insecurity is not only an act of disregard for those in need but puts goods in the place of God. Luke calls this not being ‘rich toward God.’ Paul calls it worshipping and serving ‘the creature rather than the Creator.’” (Fred Craddock)
Another scholar put it this way:
“Many who hear this parable, especially in a North American context, may wonder: Why is the rich farmer called a fool? One could easily argue that the rich man is a wise and responsible person. He has a thriving farming business. His land has produced so abundantly that he doesn’t have enough storage space in his barns. So he plans to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store all his grain and goods. Then he will have ample savings set aside for the future and will be all set to enjoy his golden years. Isn’t this what we are encouraged to strive for? Isn’t it wise and responsible to save for the future? The rich farmer would probably be a good financial advisor. He seems to have things figured out. He has worked hard and saved wisely. Now he can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of his labor, right? Not exactly. There is one very important thing the rich fool has not planned for -- his reckoning with God. And God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20) That’s a fancy way of saying “you can’t take it with you.”
The rich farmer is a fool not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he appears to live only for himself, and because he believes that he can secure his life with his abundant possessions.
When the rich man talks in this parable, he talks only to himself, and the only person he refers to is himself: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’” (Luke 12:17-19). That sounds like the “me generation.”
I appreciated Deacon Jon’s sermon last week on prayer. The text he was preaching on was The Lord’s Prayer and he reminded us how much we need to work on Silent Prayer, or at least quiet time spent on the intention of our relationship with God. If we can increase our practice of prayer, we can increase our deep relationship with God. And most importantly we can increase our clarity in discernment. What to do about wealth or need becomes more clear when we enter into prayer.
Fear subsides when we pray this way, not when we use prayer as a bargaining tool. When we pray with words we think we can just tell God to get us out of a bad situation. When we show up late in the story and proclaim what we want from God we miss the opportunity to be in relationship with God. We need to re-learn how to pray, and not really use words at all.
Because if we are already in daily and constant prayer then we are practicing a deep relationship with God. This is what Paul meant when he said to “pray unceasingly.” (1 Thess 5:17) This is not to pray, necessarily with words though. It’s not a practice of walking around in a wordy conversation with God all day. That sounds exhausting!
That would be like this foolish farmer: “I want this, and so I need to do that, and I think I should go there, and then I need to buy some of that, and then I need to sell this and, oh yeah, Dear God, give me all this stuff because I know you love me and want me to be prosperous.” Whew! Where’s the resting, waiting and listening type of relationship in that?!
No, this type of prayer practice is a state of being which becomes more clear and brings us to a more whole and balanced way of living in our hearts. It is a becoming that takes setting aside time each day to step away from the noise and the clutter and “wait and listen.”
And laughter? That will come not in our ridicule of others nor in our ridicule of that which we fear but through the shear delight of all the beauty and love and joy of this life in Christ. And we can best see that when we move away from the clutter and quietly enter into the loving fold of being with God.