St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

The Rich Man and His Barns

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, November 19, 2006

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Gospel reading each week offers essential instructions for us in the spiritual life that can lead to the transformation of life as we live it each and every day. I am hoping to lay them out as best I can so that we as persons and together as a community will grow in our richness towards God. I always say, when asked where my sermons come from, that I am preaching to myself. I preach the things that are deeply effecting my life at present. This week we learn about a theme that transcends religious boundaries and shows up in the mystical teachings of all the major religions. It is something we find difficult to understand: the need to make remembrance of death.

Most of us are afraid of death. We do not want to die. A great Zen master lay on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples who were eager to hear what his last words of wisdom would be When they asked him what he had to say he answered, “I don't want to die.” Thinking that surely he had some life-changing and amazing lesson to teach at this momentous moment, they asked again, “Master, what words of wisdom do you have for us?” He replied, “I really don't want to die.”

We know death is inevitable and yet fear encourages us to deny it. American culture worships life and youth and does everything it can to keep us from thinking about death. So what does our culture offer us as an antidote to death? Botox and beer! That's about it! But we know, everyone and everything around us is dying including ourselves. Everyone and everything around us is changing. Everything in life is impermanent. We change skin every few years, our bodies grow weak, our relationships change or disintegrate, sooner or later we will be separated from the people we love. We know this, but we don't want to think about it. It is a tenant of our Orthodox Faith that God did not intend this to be and yet here we are and we must accept it.

Strangely enough it is in the acceptance of things as they are that we find peace. The denial of death does not bring freedom and peace. Repression only drives the fear deeper into the subconscious. Freedom and peace come in embracing the truth and remembering that life is fragile and unpredictable and short. But there is another truth! Christ has made for us a way through death, not around it.

The first two rungs of St. John's LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT are, first, renunciation of the world and, second, detachment from the world. What is the difference? Renunciation of the world is when you recognize that one cannot find life by grasping on to that which is changing and fading away. Detachment is letting go of grasping on to things that cannot do what we hope they can do. The Rich Man thought that he could cheat death by forgetting about it and by gathering up as much wealth as he could. The lesson of the Gospel is that his plan (and ours) will not work and is based on the fantasy that somehow we can find a way to escape death.

The Rich Man was afraid of death and his fear affected the way he lived. The mystic poet Rumi points out in one of his poems that “Fear is an attribute of the slave to lust and appetite.” This describes the Rich Man well. He was afraid and had become a slave to his own appetites, blinded by his own “self-indulgent preoccupations”. In another poem Rumi seems to be speaking about the Rich Man (and us) again when he writes: “You've carved a wooden horse, riding and calling it real, fooling yourself in life...you've never really listened to what God was trying to tell you, yet you keep hoping, after your mock prayers, salvation will arrive.”

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume,” the Lord tells us, “but seek first the kingdom.” Every other goal is bound to death and decay.

Thus, an important step on the road to detachment is the remembrance of death, that is, the acceptance of things as they really are. From a Medieval book called THE CRAFT OF THE ART OF DYING we read, “Learn to die and you shall live, for there shall be none who learn to truly live who have not learned to die.” The Sufis say, “Die before you die and you shall never die.” Jesus puts it this way, “Deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.”

We are not speaking of physical death, which comes in its own time, but a kind of dying before physical death. We are talking about the death of the ego, the “old man” as St. Paul puts it, the thing we have created from the debris of life and called “myself”. It is this that grasps hold of fantasies and refuses to admit the truth. It is this in us that grasps for power above all and does not recognize that it is weak and perishing. If we allow our fragile ego to die, then along with it goes the fear of death. Along with the death of ego comes the “peace that passes understanding.”

The reason is simple and Jesus teaches it plainly, “The truth shall set you free.” The remembrance of death makes life real. Denying death keeps us in delusion. Death loses its power when we “meditate on the brevity of life” as St. John of Damascus tells us and we learn the truth that “it is in the dying that we discover life.” Through this practice the truth that every moment in life is precious begins to come alive and joy is not far behind. It is through the Cross that we are made alive.

Let me end with a quote the great Scottish writer Muriel Spark:

If I had my life to live over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.