Rev. Teri Peterson
1 August 2010, Ordinary 18C
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘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 told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “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.” But 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?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
Okay, be honest: who’s uncomfortable already, before I even start talking?
It just seems like we should get that little fact out of the way—we’re uncomfortable when it comes to talking about money, material goods, and all that other stuff that we all really like to have and some of which we even need…and we’re especially uncomfortable talking about it in church.
Unfortunately, Jesus doesn’t seem to be uncomfortable. He talks more about money and possessions than about any other topic, and basically nothing he says about it makes us feel any more comfortable—“sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.” “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Today’s is probably the least offensive of the bunch: “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions…beware of storing up treasures for yourself but not being rich toward God.”
I’ll never forget my first experience in a Presbyterian church—I’ve told the story before, I think, of being hired to play the special music and hearing my very first sermon, which was about that story where Jesus tells the man to sell everything and come follow him…and the pastor said, “Jesus doesn’t mean that WE have to sell all our possessions and give away all our money.”
In my literal teenage mind, I wrote off the church then and there…it was obviously full of hypocrites who were more concerned about maintaining their own wealth than about following Jesus. God obviously has a sense of humor, since 15 years later I’m standing here, trying to think of ways I can make the story easier without resorting to the same words I heard that pastor say.
The thing is, Jesus does say those things. And they do matter, and they are just as important now as they were 2,000 years ago, and they DO apply to us, whether we want to think they do or not. And the other thing is: the church IS full of sinners, people who struggle with what it means to follow Jesus in the midst of all the other things of life. That’s what it means to be human, and a big part of what it means to be a Christian—that we work together to try to figure all this stuff out, we hold each other accountable when we fail, and we support each other in good and bad times.
Here, I think, is a way for us to think about the story Jesus tells. For the most part, actually, this doesn’t seem like a story of a foolish man, it seems like the story of a wise and practical man who wants to be a good steward of the bounty his land has produced, storing up for the winter or for a lean year, preparing so he can be self-sufficient, providing for his needs in the future.
Did you notice anyone else in the story?
I didn’t. The man uses exclusively “I” language—11 times—and never once mentions anyone else—whether a family, a community, a synagogue, a village, or even a friend.
Here is where the trouble comes—not with the bounty itself, nor even in the idea of storing things for the future, but in the fact that he kept it to himself. He didn’t share his joy with his village, he didn’t ask for suggestions in what to do with the excess, he didn’t make an offering or leave part for the poor, he didn’t turn to his community for accountability and sharing and challenge and joy and hope. He turns instead to himself and decides that because he has all this wealth, he is self-sufficient.
Well…newsflash. No one is self-sufficient. No matter how much money you have, no matter how big your harvest, no matter how big a storage unit you have, no one is self-sufficient. And when we start to believe that—when we believe we can store up our lives, when what or how much we have becomes a defining factor in who we are—then we are in danger of being full of plenty of things, but not rich toward God, the provider, the giver of every good gift. We’ll have so filled up with the good life that we miss out on Abundant Life.
The thing about Abundant Life is that it happens in community—God did not create people to be alone, but to be part of a community as vibrant and filled with love and challenge as the Trinity is. When we try to go it alone, when we believe we can be self-sufficient, when we put more trust in our cultural dream of a big house and lots of toys, then we are acting more like the rich fool and less like people who follow Christ. When we have storage unit companies called “Life Storage” alongside people who live on the streets and children who go to bed hungry, then we are as a culture and as a church acting more like the rich fool and less like people who follow Christ. And, dare I say it, when we bristle at these stories and the conversations about money and stewardship, and we go home fuming that Jesus would dare to talk about something so personal and so private…we may be acting more like the rich fool and less like people who follow Christ. We forget, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that we are dependent on God for everything—breath and life and everything else, none of it is truly “ours.”
There is actually a term for this—for those of us (and yes, sometimes I’m one of these people too!) who are perfectly willing and able to claim belief and love and all that stuff…as long as it doesn’t have anything to do with what we do and how we live outside of our church personas. The term is “practical atheism”—we may believe all we want, but in practice we often act like God has no claim on who we are and how we go about our lives and, in the case of this story, what we do with our stuff and how we use our resources.
Just as the love of God penetrates into everything we are and everything we do, so the challenge of Jesus worms its way into every nook and cranny of our lives—from how we manage our money to how we treat each other to how we vote to how we handle accountability and joy and sharing. The good news for us is that the strength of the Holy Spirit also blows its way through every aspect of our lives, empowering us to live as followers of Christ in every moment, every decision, every action. The Spirit forms us for community and moves among us so we can be the people God has called us to be. At the risk of sounding a little like that pastor I remember from years ago, I’ll even suggest that we are called not to merely become poor, but to become Generous…and so find ourselves rich toward God.
May it be so.