Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 18 Year C [RCL Resources Index] | DBHome |

Peace and Prosperity

[Note: This is an extensively revived version of the sermon that was preached on a special occasion, on 6 August 1995, exactly 50 years after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. (See the notes for Hiroshima Day). Hiroshima happens also to be a city I had visited for an academic conference a few years earlier when the events of 1945 were clearly recalled, and I learned a thing or two from my Japanese hosts and other Asian researchers, and I still make some reference here to that experience, but the focus has shifted now in 2013 to a more reflective treatment of the gospel reading for Ordinary 18]

As I indicated last Sunday, I will be making a reference today to Hiroshima, reflecting upon a little on what I learned when visiting that Japanese city some years ago. I will be linking the terrible threat of nuclear war, however remote it might seem, with the selfish and materialistic attitude of the rich fool in the Gospel reading for today, who built bigger barns, and said to himself, "You have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry." I wonder how often it is that when people use that phrase, "Eat, drink and be merry", they realize that it came from this parable of Jesus. But many people do see that it is possible to argue that a selfish and materistic attitude can leave others disadvantaged, envious, and possibly ready to strike back, demanding a bigger share of the goods, and hence to promote conflict. Plenty of wars have been fought for such reasons - indeed, the Japanese claimed before the Second World War that they were being shut out of the prosperity enjoyed by Western countries. There is a relationship between peace and justice, and we do need to think about that. There are enormous pressures building up in international relations today in which violence is being justified as a defence against unfair global economic exploitation. One could even warn against the judgment of God coming upon materialistic and selfish interests.

There might well be a real threat there: selfishness and materialism could to lead some kind of future destruction of those who now enjoy the wealth of nations, but I don't want to make too much of that possibly, for three reasons:

1) There is always the possibility of repentance, of unforeseen developments, even that some of the changes now taking place in developing nations and their external relations could lead to a fairer distribution; and I do not have the wisdom to see clearly how political and international economic relations will unfold in the future - I think it is very much better for people to learn how to act by living out the faith in the ordinary course of their lives than for those of us with theological knowledge to attempt to make a direct application of biblical teaching to present day circumstances, although there are extreme conditions such as those that existed in Nazi Germany when there was a compelling case for people like Bonhoeffer and Niemoller to speak out - I don't think we have those condition now - people can work things out for themselves, perhaps with a little encouragement;

2) It is too easy to justify violence with a claim of injustice when the possibility of peace is still before us - it was what the Japanese military government tried to do, it is what some Muslim leaders have been doing recently, and it should be recognized that aguments for a just war in reponse to injustice have also been made by Western leaders - it is too easy to justify war on the basis of fear, exploitation and injustice generally - peace is precious; and

3) The Gospel story of the rich fool does not point to such earthly consequences of greed, but to its pointlessness. As Jesus told the story, God said the man who was prepared to relax and enjoy his wealth, "'You fool! This very night your life will be required of you. And the things that you have prepared, whose will they be.'" "So", Jesus said, "it is with those who store up treatures for themselves but are not rich towards towards God." (Luke 12:19-21).

Matthew records a different version of this teaching by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:19-21)

Is it then about what you have to do to go heaven? Be in a right relationship with God. Put God first. Is that the message: Invest for a heavenly kind of interest, with what you store up in heaven. We remember how Jesus spoke of our not being able to serve two masters, God and money. So we might conclude, we should "Seek first the Kingdom of God," and even that we will have all these things as well. There are some who preach that prosperity comes to people of faith - put God first and God will bless you with earthly goods. What do you think, is that a good idea?

In any case it is clear that Jesus taught people to sit lightly on their possessions and to put heavenly treasure before earthly treasure. These things are worth thinking about, but the point Jesus was making is simpler, and more direct. In the eternal scheme of things, building bigger barns is quite pointless: when your life is required of you, you will not be the one who enjoys your riches. You are a fool to rely upon what you have stored in your barns. That is not so much a moral injunction against greed, materialism and selfishness. It does not even refer to the needs of others. It is a call to consider first where we stand in relation to God. That is the main point, but it is by no means all.

The fruits of injustice

If we are to put first the Kingdom of God, remember that is it not all about heaven, that we pray to God "Your Kingdom come." We know enough of what it means for the Kingdom to come on earth to think seriously about it. We know at least something of what we pray for- that there is a relationship between the Kingdom of God and justice and peace on the earth; and it does raise questions about wealth.

There is a strong passage in the Epistle of James that is seldom studied these days, if it ever was. I can hardly remember ever having heard these words in church, but there they are, in James Chapter 5:-

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. {2} Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. {3} Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. {4} Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. {5}You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. {6} You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

Do these words of warning apply to us? "Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you." That is a long way from the prosperity gospel of how the faithful will be rewarded with earthly goods, like the minister in a recent TV propram who was told by an evangelist that he should show more signs of being blessed by God. The evangelist said he was disppointed to so see so few Mercedes and Volvos in the church park park. So if he really had faith he told the minister he should aim to own a Mercedies before the end of the year - and he did! I don't think it did him much good. Do we need to be ready the receive the blessings of wealth or should we "weep and wail for the miseries that are coming". We must each answer for ourselves. Whether the warning to the rich applies to nations, so that the memory of Hiroshima reminds us of real dangers, is something to think about. The warning from James does contrast with the reading recommended for the commemoration of the victims of Hiroshima. That reading is about the Prince of Peace.

The Prince of Peace

Today, in remembrance of the victims of nuclear holocaust, we are reminded, again, as we commonly are at Christmas, by the reading from Isaiah, of the Prince of Peace.

The one whose coming had been promised by ancient prophets, did indeed come when a child was born and the angels sang of peace on earth.

This child, when he had grown up, taught and healed people, and after he had been killed and had risen again he became known as the Prince of Peace. Yet as the manner of his death made clear, he lived in a hostile world, in which there are many enemies of peace. It is interesting that, Prince of Peace though he was, he had very little to say directly about peace and war. As far as we know, when he talked with soldiers, he talked of faith in God and not about war. He probably shared in John the Baptist's teaching for soldiers about not bullying people and being satisfied with their pay:

Rather than deal with the difficult theoretical questions which Christians and people of many faiths have discussed through the ages, Jesus taught mainly about the Kingdom of God, and in very personal terms about loving God and loving our neighbours. It was in this way, in helping people to confront reality in their own lives about their relationship with God, that Jesus told the parable of the rich fool. Someone had asked him to settle a dispute about a will. He refused to act as judge or arbitrator, and expressed concern about the man's eternal destiny.

Then he reminded anyone who thought about it of the foolishness of building bigger barns to store his wealth if he was going to die that night. He went on to talk about treasure with God.


Today [Tuesday, or whatever] is the anniversary of the beginning of nuclear terror with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Those of us who can remember it will perhaps recall the sense of relief we had that the war may be ending sooner than people had hoped, and yet how that hope was mixed with a strange new sense of excitement and fear. I was only twelve then, and I suppose my reaction reflected the attitudes of my parents, the local community and media at the time; but I do remember a mixture of wonder and excitement as, over the coming days and weeks, the mystery of this great new atomic power was revealed. We thought such a great power could be used for good as well as evil.

After the war a new vocabulary entered our language. Things that were big, bright, powerful or shocking were called atomic, and a new rather daring kind of swimsuit for women was named after the atoll in the Pacific where atomic tests were held -- Bikini. We had the excitement too of the British testing atomic weapons in Australia. It took some time for the effects of radioactivity, and fall-out (another of the new terms now in common use) to become clear and I do not think we had any idea in 1945 how the sense of dread would develop over the coming decade as the cold war tightened its grip on the minds of people in East and West, and the testing of bigger and bigger nuclear weapons contributed to an enormous arms race. It was not long before hydrogen bombs were produced with an explosive power up to a thousand times the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and the superpowers, US and the Soviet Union, were known to posses thousands of these bombs, enough to destroy the whole world many times over.

When I went to America to study in the late fifties the tension was so great that the US used to keep a portion of its fleet of long range bombers constantly in the air armed with nuclear weapons. We used to look up and see their vapour trials cris-crossing the sky. That was before civilian jet liners were in general use. One day as I was travelling along a relatively lonely part of the Coast of Maine, a good way north of Boston where we were then living, a friend suddenly said out of the blue, `Well, if they are going to drop a bomb on Boston, now is the time'. You see, the threat was always on peoples minds, but they almost never said anything about it. Somehow I think people got used to it, although there were strong campaigns for nuclear disarmament; later, tensions eased and then, after more than forty years, the cold war ended, and it has been agreed to dismantle tens of thousands of nuclear weapons -- but even when ninety per cent are disposed of there will still be thousands left -- still more than enough to destroy the world -- a world that is in some ways more unstable than it was when communism collapsed.

When I went to Hiroshima for an international conference some years ago I was struck by several things. It is quite a nice city, something like Adelaide. It was, of course, rebuilt after being almost completely flattened, except for one damaged building which was deliberately left as a feature in the `Peace Park'. I found the peaceful old garden with its Buddhist shrine that mentioned I last week, which had survived behind a hill, a better symbol of peace than the official Peace Park; the Park itself, and the Museum, displayed some horrifying images of death, pain, and destruction; I saw tears in the eyes of children as one bus load after another were ushered past the displays showing pictures and models of people with their skin falling off. I remember a display of consisting of a fused mixture of roof tiles and human bones. I met a survivor: a man about my age or a little younger who was in school when the bomb went off, who saw his friends die and people with their skin falling off coming to see his father who was a doctor. However, the public memorials still tended to appeal to national pride and shame, and I remember the Chinese and Indonesian delegates at the conference in their negative reaction; I also remember a very generous word of reconciliation and friendship spoken by the Philippines delegate.

We are all a bit mixed up when our own sense of pride and worth is in question. The true message of peace, comes not from striving and dominance but from humble acceptance of the gifts of God, which include brotherhood and sisterhood. It is not to be found without humble submission and gratitude; ultimately by accepting the victory Christ won over the powers of evil.

The Prince of Peace came to put things right between us and God. When that is right, relationships between people will be peaceful. It might mean setting aside or sitting loosely on our possessions, for they have the power to claim our warmest devotion that really should be directed towards God. The kind of human pride and greed which separates us from God, also separates us from others, and when that pride is challenged the passion for war rises. Real prosperity, by contrast, comes when we are growing together in our knowledge of God and service of one another. It is quite literally a matter of life and death; and Christ, the Prince of Peace, offers us the way of life. All glory be to him.

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