Proper 13C 2004 Luke 12:13-21
“This very night your life is being demanded of you.”
Harsh words indeed toward someone all of us would think was only being sensible in providing for the future. Surely we
think someone responsible enough to work toward NOT becoming a burden to society ought to be commended rather than being chastised,
threatened, destroyed, or killed.
What about all of us sensible and responsible and hard working people who have our pensions, and health insurance, and
investment and financial plans in place to sustain us? Aren’t we just doing what we have been taught from our youngest
For people like us the story of the grasshopper and the ant has been the modern parable that has instructed our financial
lives. You remember the story – I think it was a Disney cartoon segment. The ant is toiling away through the hot
summer and the grasshopper is playing, eating, drinking, and being merry. The ant continues working hard, storing things
away for the winter it knows is coming. The grasshopper continues to play, laughing at the industrious ant. On the last
day of good weather the ant continues to work away, even as the grasshopper laughs at him.
Snow blankets the landscape the next morning and icicles hang from the trees. The ant is snug in his well-stocked, well-prepared
house, sitting before the fire with his feet up, ready to eat, drink, and be merry during the long harsh winter. Then there
is a knock on his door. The ant opens it and sees the starving, freezing, dying grasshopper collapsing on his doorstep.
What would we do if we were the ant and knew that if we didn’t help the grasshopper would be dead by nightfall?
What do you think Jesus would do?
Even more, this parable Jesus told to the person in the crowd presents us with an even more fundamental, more serious
question. What if you only had one day? What if you had only one day to do anything you wanted? If you had only one day
to do anything you wanted, what would that be?
Leo Tolstoy wrote a story entitled “How much land does a man need?” The main character in the story
is a peasant named Pahom. Pahom decided that he needed more land to farm than just the few acres he was able to rent from
the owner of the estate to which he was attached. So Pahom started an investment program, saving his money and borrowing
some until he could buy some land – forty acres at first. It was very fertile land and Pahom prospered and he was
But Pahom fell out with his neighbors over some of the neighbors’ stray cattle and they began to quarrel. So
Pahom was no longer so content. A passerby one day told him of a place 300 miles beyond the Volga River where even richer
farmland could be had for the asking. So Pahom makes the trip, acquires 125 acres of the richest farmland he had ever seen,
and moves his family there. For a year or two Pahom prospered and was quite content. But then he heard of a place where
he could acquire 1300 acres of even richer farmland for one thousand rubles. And so Pahom set out to buy it, almost clinching
But then Pahom heard of another place where for a few gifts to the nomadic tribe of the area, he could acquire vast tracts
of land for practically nothing. And so Pahom sets out once again.
He finds the place and the nomads, and they agree to give him land.
“And what will be the price?” asked Pahom.
“Our price is always the same,” answered the chief of the nomads. “One thousand rubles
Pahom did not understand. “A day? What measure is that?” How many acres would that be.”
“We do not know how to reckon it out,” said the Chief. We sell it by the day. As much as you can
go round on your feet in a day is yours, and the price is one thousand rubles a day.”
Pahom was surprised. “But in a day you can get round a large tract of land,” he said.
“The Chief laughed. “It will all be yours!” said he. But there is one condition: if you
don’t return on the same day to the spot whence you started, your money is lost….You may make as large
a circuit as you please, but before the sun sets you must return to the place you started from. All the land you cover will
Pahom and the nomads arrived at the starting point just before dawn and as soon as the sun appeared, Pahom started out.
Back in the days when TV was black and white and worth watching, Rod Serling on the Twilight Zone produced a version
of Pahom’s walk. As the peasant struck out he was tempted to include stands of forest, stretches of rivers, the
entirety of lakes and ponds until be noon Pahom realized that he would have to start jogging to get back to the start point.
Still he was tempted into circuitous route to include desirable sections until he realized that by late afternoon he was going
to have to run faster to get back.
“What shall I do?” he thought again. I have grasped too much and ruined the whole affair. I can’t
get there before the sun sets.”
And this fear made him still more breathless. Pahom went on running, his soaking shirt and trousers stuck to him and
his mouth was parched. His lungs were working like a blacksmith’s bellows, his heart was beating like a hammer,
and his legs were giving away as if they did not belong to him.”
Pahom did not slow down. He ran up the hill to the start point and even as he reached the start point his legs gave way
beneath him as he fell forward and touched the start point with his hands.
Pahom was dead. His life had been required of him that night. His servant picked up a shovel and dug a grave and buried
him in it. How much land does a man need? Six feet from his head to his heels was all this one needed. (1)
But beyond the question of what would you do if you had only one day in which you could do what ever you wanted, is a
deeper one: What would you do if you knew you had only one day to live?
About ten years ago, a member of this parish was afflicted with recurrent metastasized breast cancer. Her daughter was
a nurse and on one of her visits to her mother she cornered me and said, “Why don’t you have a support
group for all the people on the Northern Neck who have cancer. You really need one.” I talked to the nurses at
the Cancer Center who said that they had begun thinking about it themselves.
Of the first group, there is no one who is a member now. Some have been cured and no longer felt a need to come. Most
died. Of those who most followed at least some of the Kubler-Ross pattern of stages of death and dying: Denial and Isolation,
Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. (2) In the last stage, some were fatalistic about it all, as if it were meant
to be somehow. Others were different. They began to think more about other people: their spouses, children, parents, friends.
Many traveled extensively to places they had always wanted to see. Into their last day or days they crammed as much life
as possible. Many never lost their sense of purpose and direction. Most seemed to draw closer to God. These folks became
quite remarkable people as they entered their last day.
It is, of course, a little different for everyone. I remember OJ and Ginny Earle. Shortly before they had to move into
the Lancashire, Ginny Told me that she was tired and only intended to hang on to take care of OJ – who was some
years older than she – until he died. She meant it. OJ died of a heart attack only several weeks after they moved
into the nursing home and when I saw her the next day, she said. ”I can’t believe the old goat is dead,
and I’m checking out, too!” And she did, thirteen days later.
A last story: it’s the story told by Bishop Gallagher of Southern Virginia about an older woman, a widow,
who, over the course of her life, had accumulated a large number of quilts. She had about 25 quilts, most of which had been
handed down to her through her husband's and her own family. A few of the quilts she had made herself. Several of these quilts
were very old, dating back as far as 1800.
To this woman each quilt told a story. They were treasures, not because of their value in money, but because each reminded
her of someone she loved. She was a very faithful Christian woman and the church had been the center of her life, as it had
been at the center of the lives in preceding generations of both families. Each quilt echoed the stories of her childhood,
of the long generations of faithful people, who sewed and prayed and lived together as a family. Although these people are
now gone from her sight, they are, to her, still visible in what she calls, "God sight." They live with God but
are also living and present in the old fabrics, the care, the patience, the tenderness, in the love that they passed along.
We can see them, as God sees them, in that love.
As part of her town's historical celebration, the woman was asked to display her quilts and other family heirlooms.
She was very honored to have been asked and she chose the neighborhood chapel, where she had served faithfully over the years,
for the display area. She worked a whole week in preparation, getting the quilts and heirlooms out of storage, cleaning them
as best she could, displaying them and marking carefully their origin and pattern type. On the day of the celebration, people
came from all over to see these treasured quilts. She enjoyed telling people the different stories and helping them see, with
"God sight," the different people who so lovingly made them.
At the end of the day, one of her last visitors took her by surprise. The visitor, an antiques dealer, offered the woman
a great sum of money for all of the quilts. The woman was shocked and hurt. She said, "How can I sell these quilts, which
are as much my story as the story of the people who made them?
When the widow displayed her quilts, it was a reminder to herself and to others, that Christ had touched and blessed her
from her baptism throughout her life. She have been loved, taught and nurtured by so many Christian people in her family and
her larger church family. Her display was to be a witness to the faithfulness of the many generations that came before, and
a sign of God's nearness and blessing in her life. The antiques dealer failed to look up and see where she was and who was
present with her. Present with her was a great cloud of witnesses to the loving and real presence of Christ Jesus in their
lives. And she couldn’t see them. (3)
On our last day, what will we see? And what will we do?
1. Leo Tolstoy, “How much land does a man need,” in John Bayley, ed., The Portable Tolstoy, Viking
Penguin, 1978, pp. 506-522.
2. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying, Macmillan, 1969, p. ix.
3. Carol Joy Gallagher, Selected Sermon for Proper 13C 1998, at dfms.org.