What’s In Your Barn? July 31, 2016 Laura Bachmann
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
This reading from Hosea reminds us that we worship a God who will not let us go. In the midst of our turning away, the Holy One of Israel cries out to us “how can I give you up?” In our troubled and tumultuous times, these words offer us comfort and hope. We can cling to them, resting in the passage’s final promise: I will return them to their homes, says the Lord. And which of us does not long for our true home – that place where we are accepted, faults and all, taken in, cared for, loved, secure.
It is tempting this morning to spend our time reflecting on Hosea’s words. Sinking into their promise offers balm for our weary souls and many of us could benefit from that any day of the week.
But, we have another option today which stands in sharp contrast to Hosea – our reading from Luke, usually described as the parable of the rich fool. Far from offering comfort, this story makes us uncomfortable. We are not quite sure what to make of it and so we avoid it.
In fact, when I began consulting worship resources for this Sunday, I noticed immediately that the majority steered clear of Luke’s reading altogether in favor of preaching about Hosea. Of course, this just made me curious about what we might find if we sat with our discomfort a little bit and reflected on the story.
These last few weeks, as I have been pondering what the Holy Spirit wants to reveal to us in today’s gospel reading, I have found myself returning repeatedly to a series of experiences the boys and I have had as we’ve been spending time at the Eastman Community Music School. While I have encountered plenty of hungry men and women since I moved to Rochester, I met them mostly during the year I volunteered regularly at a feeding ministry downtown or through our own hosting of the RAIHN families. This summer marked the first time I was approached by someone on the street in Rochester asking for food or money. I found myself initially feeling surprised and uncomfortable. I guess I had been spending more time focused on carrying instruments and corralling boys than gazing into the faces of the people around me. I long ago decided that I would not give people cash but would always buy food directly when asked and I have followed that practice this month as well. Twice, I have ventured outside my comfort zone to accompany someone down the road to their preferred restaurant so I can buy them a slice of pizza or their favorite sandwich. The first time, distracted by the boys and totally unprepared, I did not talk much to the woman I was helping. But the second time, I felt more comfortable and I began to talk to the man as we walked. He was remarkably cheerful, with a wide smile that showed two missing front teeth. He had been a marine and served in Japan as a cook. He told me he was sixty years old, but he looked much older to me. Although I still felt uncomfortable, I was better able to notice and appreciate his unique personhood.
After each encounter, as I continued on my way, I found myself wondering if I had done enough. Should I have bought a big pizza for several people to share, should I start bringing a bag of sandwiches when we came down for lessons? Would that cause a problem? What was my level of responsibility here? I felt uncomfortable as I relaxed with a coffee and bought a treat for one of my children. I kept wondering, What does my faith call me to do? Be careful, as they say, about what you wish for though, because, just as I was pondering these questions, here came Bruce with his innocent question about whether I would like to offer the message here today – accompanied (when I looked it up) by this parable of the rich fool. I could almost hear God chuckling – do not ask questions, my friends, if you do not want to hear the answers! Obviously, God wanted me to tackle the Rich Fool. I was just hoping the parable wasn’t going to be about me.
Our passage opens with someone in the crowd approaching Jesus. “Teacher,’ he says, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Now in those days, Jewish communities often asked their leaders to mediate their disputes. So this man likely expected Jesus to take him seriously and solve his dilemma. Perhaps after hearing Jesus tell the parable of the Good Samaritan or after witnessing the feeding of the five thousand, this man thought Jesus might insist that his brother hand over half the property instead of retaining a double portion for himself as was the custom for the oldest son. Instead, Jesus refuses to engage in the question, asking instead, “Friend, who set me to be judge or arbiter over you?
I, myself, felt surprised by this answer. I can only imagine how the rabbis listening that day responded to Jesus’ words. In the verses leading up to this morning’s passage, Jesus has repeatedly challenged the traditional beliefs of the Pharisees and the Temple community. He claims authority for himself, speaks against the community’s leaders, performs miracles on the Sabbath and generally ignores large parts of the law. Jesus seems to oppose everything these men hold sacred. Now, when given a chance to actually follow tradition and act as many rabbis of his day routinely did, he refuses, implying he has no such authority. These leaders already feel bruised, confused and upset by Jesus’ claim that he has come to fulfill the law and his subsequent flouting of that very law at every turn. He does not show them respect, acknowledge their authority, or follow the accepted rules of behavior. Now he seems to be condemning them as greedy. I think we are not the first ones to feel a little uncomfortable with this parable.
But Jesus does not stop there. Not only does he refuse to get involved in this argument over material possessions, he now adds fuel to the fire by immediately leaping into a warning, “Take Care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he tells this parable about the rich fool.
And here is where some of us begin to feel uncomfortable too. We wonder if Jesus is pointing a finger at us. Many of us here probably have barns of our own. Maybe your barns bear similar labels to mine – basic necessities, emergency fund, retirement, children’s college tuition. We also build barns as a community – buildings like the milking shed in Kenya and the Habitat House our team is helping to construct this summer. We lend our time and expertise. We pray and we try to live out our faith in active ways. But like me as I ponder my experiences down on Gibbs Street, we continue to wonder, How much is enough? Is Jesus really calling me greedy? At this point, perhaps we are tempted to stop listening. But Jesus being Jesus, the message does not end there, it contains other layers to uncover and ponder. It is easy to get distracted by that confronting word: greed – and forget to take in the rest of the story.
But here’s what I’ve noticed. If we slow down and look at what the story actually contains, another picture emerges. Here are the facts. The farmer had a bumper crop. His barns were not big enough to hold everything. He had to figure out how to solve that problem. He decided to build bigger barns. He imagined sitting with his Soul, relaxing, eating and drinking in celebration that he had enough laid up for many years. At that very moment, his life is demanded of him and God wonders aloud, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
I think preachers steer away from this passage because in its simple condemnation of abundance we immediately imagine a condemnation of our own hard work and careful investing. We read it as a demonization of the well off and it makes us uncomfortable. But look more closely – there is actually no valuative language here. The parable does not itself mention the word greed, which so caught out attention in the opening verses. It simply says, a farmer had more food than he could store. In itself, this does not represent a negative circumstance. In fact, back in the days of the patriarchs, Joseph, speaking with God’s divine guidance, directs Pharaoh to save extra crops to be used in years to come when a famine descends on the land. Apparently, saving your extra crops does not always indicate a bad or greedy choice. God’s abundance is actually celebrated throughout the new and old testaments. So, if the abundance itself does not present the problem. What does? Why does God call this farmer a rich fool?
One of the first things I noticed about this story upon closer examination, something that I had missed entirely on the first reading, was the complete absence of any other person in the parable. Did you notice that too? The rich man exists, apparently, in a splendid isolation that almost shouts its emptiness into the story. Even when discussing how to remedy the problem of having too many crops for his available storage space, the man addresses himself with the question of what to do. He comes up with an answer that he apparently also implements himself – I will build bigger barns – and then, even when finished, he speaks only to his own soul about the rest and leisure they will enjoy together. The more I thought about it, the more significant this absence seemed to me. Someone with so many resources must have been surrounded by slaves and servants and probably family, friends and community too, but none are mentioned in this story. It seems that our rich fool remained so focused on his wealth that he cut himself off from all his relationships. And just as he imagines he will settle down with all he has stored up, his life is demanded of him. You have to wonder what would go through his mind at such a time. Such a huge effort he made and now he will just be gone and his barns will remain, stuffed full and waiting for no one. Has he simply been foolish about his abundance or is there something more going on here?
What was this rich man really putting in his barns? When he has packed each shed to the brim, the farmer says to his soul, “you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” I believe these crops represent far more than just bodily sustenance for many years to come, they represent that most fleeting of concepts: security. In a land where the rains do not always come and food security presents a real threat, the food stored up represents more than just abundance; it represents life. Now there is a concept we can relate to today. Our national life focuses a great deal right now on security. It feels like a necessity for us. Filling our metaphorical barns with whatever offers that security does not feel greedy, it feels responsible and right-minded. We feel we have a duty to protect our nation, our children, our values and our way of life. But I wonder, does there come a point when we are so focused on acquiring this security that we lose sight of the people around us? Do we forget who, and whose, we are?
As I read this parable today, I hear a warning to us about the idols of work and imagined security, which, when we focus too strongly on them, separate us from each other and from the God who invites us into relationship with God’s very self. The point here is not the abundance in and of itself; it is how we use that abundance and, perhaps even more importantly, how our focus on that abundance affects our relationships with each other and with our God.
Sadly, the rich fool of our parable did not know this. He was so focused on how to store his abundance that he missed the richness of life found in being in relationship with the people around him and with his God. When God asks, “whose will these things be?” the question is not just rhetorical. In fact, it points out the lonely isolation of this man’s existence. No one exists to inherit his wealth. His life is barren of anything that provides real meaning. He has allowed his focus on crops and the barns to crowd everything else out of his life. Jesus sums it up for us, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Circling back to his opening comment, Jesus reminds us that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
But what does it mean to be rich toward God? God invites us, longs for us, to be in relationship with our Creator. But we have to make room for that relationship – just as Carrie reminded us last week about the power of prayer – we must create space to receive God’s presence. God is already there – just as Hosea reminded us today – we just have to make sure we are not distracted by earthly concerns that prevent us from entering the Holy presence.
The fact is, we can choose what kind of sheds to build and the purposes for which we want to build them. We can decide what to put in the sheds and how and when to use those resources. I wonder what we would list as our most important investments, the things we most want to pass along to our children? For me the roster includes financial security, yes, but also, and more importantly, resilience of spirit and kindness of heart; creativity in leadership, humility in service, compassion in community. In our parable the rich fool has no one to receive the many riches he has to pass on. His legacy simply becomes a pile of abandoned crops. The problem is, when we hold too tightly to the things of this world, things that give us the illusion of security, we deny ourselves the ability to lift our open hands up to our God to grasp the riches our Creator has in store for us.
The truth is, in the deepest moments of our lives, our material possessions mean nothing. Our souls do not feed on goods we acquire or the investments we store up; like the Grinch’s heart [remember how it grew three sizes that day] our souls expand with the application of joyful, generous experiences. Think back to the most challenging, most joyful, most painful moments of your life – what role did possessions play in those moments? For me, I think of the exhaustion and satisfaction of completing a long building day while on a PDA mission trip; the joy of flying down a hill on my bike; the awesome power of a worship service filled with the Holy Spirit; the challenge and reward of moving my family half way around the world; the birth of my children, the death of my sister, the day of my wedding. What do you think of?
God invites us into something so much more than material security. God invites us to let go of that idol of control, that idol of work, and lean into the uncertainty of God’s steadfast love, the joy of God’s eternal presence, the beauty of God’s abundant fruits of the Spirit. My friends, this parable is about so much more than remembering to share our resources with others. It is about turning away from the imagined security of possessions to rely solely on the power of the Holy Spirit to pull us through. It is about inviting God to set our agendas and determine our priorities and then gratefully receiving the joy that comes from following along that path. The apostle Paul likes to comment that suffering for the sake of Jesus offers unsurpassed joy. Maybe worrying less about material matters and more about the true wellbeing of our souls, and those of the people around us, will result in increased physical suffering from time to time, but for those of us who cling to the steadfast presence of our Creator, that suffering comes in the context of the tight embrace of our faithful God – an embrace delivered in the arms of our family and friends who comfort and care for us; and in the community of believers who gather around to travel with us through whatever challenges we face. Our faith involves both the death and the resurrection of our brother Jesus. Likewise our lives will contain both loss and the great joy of God’s redeeming presence. We cannot receive one without the other. It is the beauty and cost of our belief.
My friends, hear the good news – this parable of the rich fool is not about wagging a finger at those who possess “too much” – however we may define that – it is about inviting us into the richness of a relationship with the Most High God, the Holy One of Israel who was and is and is to come. It is an invitation to lean into that transformative power, that joyful abundance of the Spirit that Jesus offers every one of us as the appropriate possession to fill our barns. Let us be about making room for the gifts God has prepared for us. Let us accept the invitation to receive the true spiritual riches of the Creator who loves us beyond our wildest imaginings. Let us free our hands of material possessions so that we can lift them up to be filled with the bounty and steadfast love Hosea reminds us about. Let us welcome the God who will not let us go.