An Embarrassment of Riches
Lectionary Texts: Luke 12: 13-21
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, July 31, 2016
- Where is Your Barn?
So, where is that place where you have everything stashed? Where do you store those things that you might need later or those things that you just can’t quite let go or perhaps those things that you just don’t want to deal with right now? Where is your barn? Or your extra closet? Or your store room? Or your rented storage unit somewhere? In other words, where is your clutter? You KNOW what I’m talking about. We all have it. Most of us in fact get a little sheepish when we start having to talk about it or admit it because, truthfully, when compared to the rest of the world, every one of us here has a true embarrassment of riches.
Now this is probably not a good thing for me to be up here talking about when you look at the number of boxes that I still have to unpack. I could blame it on the fact that I have a lot to do. I could blame it on the fact that sometimes I stay here and work too late and I’m too tired when I get home. But the truth is that the real reason is that I have too much stuff. And so God must have a colossal sense of humor in handing me this.
Years ago, I moved from a parsonage that was actually over 4,000 square feet into a 2-bedroom bungalow in the Heights that was just over 1,000 square feet. Going through my things that I had accumulated and being honest with myself about what I really needed and what I really had room for was quite the experience. I sort of put everything in either a “keep” pile, a “throw away” pile, and, probably the most dangerous, that “pile of stuff that I don’t need and for which I don’t have room but with which I just can’t bear to part.” You know the one. You’re all thinking…yeah, mine’s in the closet or the attic or the store room or the barn.
See, there’s nothing wrong with having things. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying things. It’s just a matter of realizing what’s important. William Morris once advised us to “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” I love that quote. I think of it often when I’m sorting through all this accumulated stuff. It is not a directive to live a life devoid of things that you enjoy; it is a call to live a life where everything that you do, everything that you have, in some way gives you life. It is a way of putting it all in perspective.
- Facing the Rich Fool
So…enter the rich fool…Jesus has been standing there preaching justice and mercy to an ever-increasing crowd for a while when, somewhat randomly, a man steps out of the crowd and asks this question about inheritance law. Now this is not as far-fetched as it may sound. The question regarding inheritance was well-known in the Hebrew tradition and it was not improper for a rabbi to render an opinion on the issue as an interpretation of the law. Presumably, the person making the request is a younger brother. In Hebrew society of that time, the oldest brother would inherit the lion’s share of his father’s estate. That was the way that the law was traditionally interpreted. But this younger brother thought he could push the envelope a bit and seems to presume that Jesus would decide in his favor. Perhaps the man has been listening to Jesus’ egalitarian sermons that preached justice for all and supposes that family inheritances should be treated in a similar way. Instead Jesus tells the familiar parable.
He tells of a man who had reaped abundantly and gives us the impression that he had much, much more than he really needed. He was showered in abundance. But it never occurs to him to do anything but stash it away—just acquire more real estate to keep all of his stuff. And in order to do that, he had to get bigger and bigger and bigger. He doesn’t think beyond himself. Everything is about “I” or “my” or “mine”. In fact, he actually has a conversation with himself in an effort to convince his deepest self what he should do. Richard Byrd said that “half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.” You see this sort of hoarding of abundance wasn’t the norm; the confused little man had to convince himself that it was what he should do.
And so God calls him a fool, a sort of nitwit. After all, when this life is all said and done, what is it all, really? What good is everything that he has amassed going to do him? It is interesting that this is the only New Testament parable in which God is an actor. Perhaps God intervenes because the man has shut everyone else out of his life and is only left with a conversation with himself. Perhaps God has to talk to the man because he has quit talking to God.
III. Everybody Plays the Fool
This is a hard passage for us, the ones who live in one of the richest nations in the world even in a down economy. Even those of us who are financially struggling are better off than most of the world. In fact, 95% of Americans would be classified in the middle income, upper middle income, and high income when compared with the global economy. And sadly, a lot of the income has been converted to stuff and bigger places to hold it.
So much of our life is about amassing wealth and collecting stuff, either for prosperity or security or both. Sometimes we do it when we don’t even mean to do it. So we build barn after barn, or closet after closet or storage facility after storage facility. When I began thinking about what to say today, I googled “clutter control” on the computer. It offered me a choice of 2,730,000 results, including one that offered 1,001 timely tips to combat it. 1,001? I don’t have time for that. Can you just give me the top ten?
I googled the words “getting rid of junk” and came up with over a million choices. In fact, I found 2,850,000 offerings of something called a “clutter consultant”. (Now notice that that’s more than the clutter control itself, so apparently we’ve given up and hired people to organize it for us!) And the clincher: Google “storage units in the United States” and you get 8.2 million choices. There are 133 million housing units in our country and we have storage space (for our stuff) encompassing 1.875 billion square feet. What are we storing? How do we make sure that we keep it all in perspective? Why do we think we need so much stuff? Sadly, I think everybody plays the fool.
And the clincher. Remember that we have a specialty retail chain called The Container Store. We have an entire store for the purpose of holding our “stuff”. As much as I love that store, isn’t that a little odd?
- So, What Would Jesus Do?
And yet, I don’t think this was Jesus’ way of depicting money or stuff as evil or wealth as bad. The parable is a reminder to keep it all in perspective, to not get pulled into putting our trust in something other than God. The thing is, when those things cross over into being idols, something that we cannot do without, then, probably without us realizing it, they have begun to seep into that holy space between us and God. When we look to the wealth we have or the stuff we desire for our salvation or our redemption or our life, we have missed the mark. When we think that we cannot live without it, when we think our lives will be better “when” we have something or when we reach a certain point in our earnings, and when we find ourselves holding on to more than we really need in spite of the need around us, we have probably lost perspective. Greed is sneaky. Stuff is sneaky. Sometimes we don’t even realize what’s happened. In other words, we may be the rich fool, building more and more barns to house things that we don’t even need.
In Scripture, the word “fool” is usually used to mean someone who lives their life as if God did not exist and as if God did not create us for something more. You see, there’s another piece to this story. Not only did the fool not realize that he had placed his greed and his wealth ahead of his relationship with God, but he also neglected his own calling to be a part of building the Kingdom of God. You see, wealth is a gift, much like the gifts of healing or teaching or service. We cannot keep it to ourselves. Wealth can be holy when it is used to make the world a better place, just as using any gifts that God gives us moves us into an encounter with the Divine. But when we spend time building barns, there’s not a lot of time left to love God’s people or build God’s Kingdom or become who God calls us to be.
William Sloane Coffin wrote that “there are two ways to be rich: one is to have a lot of money; the other is to have few needs.” So, how much, then, is enough for you? How much do you need before you are willing to share your gifts with the world? And, perhaps the hardest question of all, how much is enough for God? In the first century, the Roman philosopher Seneca said that “a great fortune is a great servitude.” In other words, it’s not given to us to put in barns but it rather instills in us a responsibility to those around us. Wealth is not just a personal issue. It gives us the power and the resources to do good, to do what God calls us to do, and to become rich in the things of God. But we have to remember from whom it comes.
- What Was That Thing About Manna?
After all, the things that God gives us are to be used. Do you remember that thing about manna? We read it in Exodus. Do you remember the way God showered abundance upon God’s people? It came when they needed it most, raining down upon them with blessings from heaven. But the caveat was that it didn’t last. It was impossible to save it up or store it away. It would ruin, would become inedible, unusable, not what it was meant to be at all. But it would come again. I think it was the lesson that we were supposed to learn. God is generous beyond measure. But God’s generosity is not ours to hold but ours to use to be a part of bringing in the Kingdom of God.
We are not called to store it away; we are not called to build bigger barns. Now surely this doesn’t apply to our pensions or our holdings for the future. I don’t think God calls us all to a life of poverty. God just wants us to remember from whom it came. God wants us to keep it in perspective. God doesn’t deny us beauty or nice things. But when they stand in the way of who we are called to be, when they stand in the way of our being a part of justice and compassion, we have lost our way. Whether we want to admit it or not, for whatever reason—fear or the need for security or whatever it is—we have replaced our worship of God with greed. We have switched our focus so that what we hold is more important than what we let go.
- So, Can We Let Ourselves Follow Jesus?
So, what do we need to do to let ourselves follow Jesus? When we read the words, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” it’s easy to claim that they must be culturally bound. I mean, that’s really different from what we hear today. Because after all, they didn’t have our life expectancy. They didn’t have to worry about pensions and saving for our future. They didn’t have health care costs and long term care worries. And our world tells us that we will never have enough stuff. You see that everyday on the TV. So, can we take the words of Jesus seriously? Are things that different?
Do you remember the 1987 movie, “Wall Street”? Gordon Gekko, played by a very young Michael Douglas addressed the corporate stockholders with these words: “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed—for lack of a better word is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed—you mark my words—will save us.”
As much as we hate to admit it, we still live that way. We store it and we hold it and we save it for a rainy day. We fall back on the proverbial scripture, “God helps those who help themselves.” The problem is, that’s not really in the Bible. God instead calls us to trust completely in God, to let go of what we are holding and open ourselves to God. GOD is the one that will redeem us; GOD is the one that will save us. And God WILL provide what we need—maybe not what we think we want, but what we need. So, can we let ourselves follow Jesus? We have to—it’s who we are.
VII. Keep Unpacking
So, back to the man that wanted a larger share of inheritance…he’s just like us. It would provide a security for the future. There was sort of a safety net to it. That’s probably all he wanted. And after all, why should his brother have more than he does? But Jesus stopped him in his tracks. It wasn’t that Jesus was advocating that he needed to embrace poverty or something. Jesus was reminding him where his focus needed to be.
God is never glorifying poverty; God is calling us to make room in our lives. And all this stuff and all these barns get us in the way of doing that.
When clergy are ordained in the United Methodist Church, one of the questions that we are asked is if we are in debt enough to embarrass ourselves. You are essentially asked the same question when you apply for a loan or sometimes even when you apply for a job. But I wonder what would happen if any of us here were ever asked the question, “Compared to all the people on the earth, are you wealthy enough so as to embarrass yourself?” Because every single one of us here is wealthier and has more stuff in more barns than 95% of the rest of the world.
We surround ourselves with what defines us. So, what defines you? Are you holding things in barns and wanting more? Or are you trusting that God will give you what you need just as the manna rained from the sky? Wealth and stuff is not bad, but it anchors us to this world, rather than the Kingdom that God has waiting for us. The story is told that at the funeral of the wealthy magnate, Aristotle Onassis, one of the mourners turned to another and said, “How much did he leave?” And his friend replied. “Everything. He left everything.”
So, what we do? We recognize the veritable embarrassment of riches that God has provided us and we keep it in perspective. They are ours to use as children of God, as co-builders of God’s Kingdom. So what is it we are called to do? Be thankful. Remember whose they are and from whom they came. Don’t hold them so tightly. You came into the world with no possessions and you will leave with none. We don’t need to build another barn. And there’s always a little bit more unpacking that we need to do. Amen.