Whose Is It?

A sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on July 31, 2016.

Luke 12:13-21

Let’s set the scene. If we look back to the beginning of Chapter 12, we learn that Jesus is speaking to thousands of people, people who are said to be trampling on each other in their excitement or even desperation to see Jesus.

It is from this crowd of thousands that one man steps forward and doesn’t ask, but demands that Jesus tell his brother to divide the family fortune with him. We might assume that the offending brother is also standing right there in front. The one speaking is, in effect, pointing to his brother, saying Jesus, tell “him” to divide the inheritance with me.” Awkward. It would be as if, Frank Gould here (pointing to Frank) were to interrupt this sermon to demand, “Pastor George, my wife Louise and I are having a fight about our will. Tell her, I’m right!” Can you imagine? Thousands gathered to hear Jesus’ teachings, a word of hope, maybe hoping to be healed of some physical or mental illness, and this guy has the gall to ask Jesus to intervene in a family conflict about money. Before even hearing Jesus’ response to this man, we have learned something important. This story begins with broken relationship. There is a lot of conflict and pain represented in the man’s plea.

Perhaps some of you have been involved in just such a dispute over an inheritance. I remember years ago, when I was a kid, my great grandmother died, my father’s grandmother, and there was some stipulation in her will that the grandchildren would take turns choosing items from her estate. My father had hoped to select a particular clock but before he could take his rightful turn, an uncle swooped in to snatch the clock away. In the privacy of our Harris household, that uncle was forever known as Uncle Ben Who Steals Clocks. Despite the hard feelings, the clock stealing was pretty minor, but such things can be genuinely hurtful and can and do divide families.

Well, Jesus is having none of it. What, you think this is the People’s Court? Do I look like Judge Judy? He identifies greed as the source of the conflict. Life, Jesus tells the brothers, is not all about possessions.

Among the four gospels, Luke is particularly critical of wealth, specifically as it interferes with relationships with God and neighbor.

Jesus then tells the story of a rich man, a land owner, whose farm produced a great big harvest. Notice that Jesus doesn’t criticize the abundance, doesn’t condemn the farmer for his success. So it is not the wealth itself that is the problem here.

The rich man then has a conversation with himself that goes something like this:

“Self, I don’t have enough room for all my stuff? What should I do?”

“I know, Self, let’s build bigger buildings.”

“Self, that’s a grand idea, if I do say so myself, and I do say so myself!”

“Oh my soul, I’ll be set for life! No more stress, no more worry, I can eat drink and be merry forever!”

If Jesus isn’t criticizing the man for having a lot, what is the farmer’s sin? It’s that he thinks only of himself, he doesn’t include anyone else, God or neighbor, in his conversation about his abundant crop.

His farm exists in a community. He no doubt has family and extended family, farmhands, those who provide supplies for him and those who purchase his crops. There would have been neighboring farms, merchants, religious leaders, and of course those trapped in poverty, some of whom would have held off starvation by gleaning fallen grain from around the edges of the rich man’s fields.

But the farmer doesn’t invite any of these into the conversation. He was entirely focused on himself, working to make his farm, his home, an island. He assumes that possessions will assuage all his anxiety and fear, protect him from the world around him, but instead his efforts only isolate him from God and neighbor, leaving him utterly alone.

Many of you know that about a month ago Rev. Kev led 25 youth, me and three other adult leaders from First Church on a week-long poverty simulation in Louisville, Kentucky. The details of this trip have been explained elsewhere, but suffice it to say we experienced some of the real hardships associated with poverty and homelessness, including sleeping on hard floors and eating very little over five days.

This was a profound experience, in fact I had two epiphanies over the course of that week.

Many of you know that my family and I have now moved to Simsbury. The movers delivered our household goods to our new home on a Thursday and Abby and I left on the mission trip early on Saturday morning, leaving Lourdes to unpack.

Our Simsbury home is significantly bigger than our New Britain house. One of the ways the size has changed our life is that our new house is too big to communicate with my daughter by yelling. In New Britain I could stand at the foot of the stairs and yell loudly enough to get Abby’s attention in her bedroom. If yelling didn’t work I could bang on the wall. Well Abby has moved into a third floor loft and yelling is now futile, meaning Abby can remain incommunicado in her room for hours, possibly days.

Don’t get me wrong, I love our new house. We are already settled in and are very comfortable and happy there. But the size could be isolating for our little family of three if we let it.

I thought about our big ol’ Simsbury house as I looked out upon a sea of thirty sleeping bags laid out on the tile floor of our “bedroom” for our week in Louisville. The hour before lights out was one of the best times in the day, one of the few times we could all just relax and enjoy each other’s company, trade stories of our day, play cards, crack jokes.

And that’s when I had my first epiphany. For all the challenges of Louisville, the closeness of our living arrangement made for a very strong, intimate sense of community. As I lay sleepless on the hard floor thinking about our big new Simsbury home I realized that it isn’t that it is too big, it’s that it doesn’t have enough people in it… yet.

For years Lourdes has wanted to explore becoming foster parents. I have been less than enthusiastic because… well just because. Well now we have all this room, so I came home committed to at least explore the possibility of fostering a child.

Then on Friday we entertained friends in our home for the first time and the house filled with storytelling and loud laughter. Now our house is the perfect size, we just need more people.

And this is the first lessons of the parable. Our stuff can be insolating if we don’t invite God and neighbors in to share it.

So, in Louisville, we slept on hard floors and we also ate very little. Though constantly hungry, we learned that we could function very well on a fraction of the calories we ate back home.

I realized just how much I typically eat, not because I am hungry, but for all manner of other reasons. Often I eat in response to stress and anxiety, and sometimes I eat out of pure greed. If one slice of cake is good, two must be better and three better still.

My second epiphany came to me over a lunch of 7 Saltines spread with peanut butter. We had so little, but I realized that despite my hunger, it was enough.

So when I returned home, 12 pounds lighter than when I left, I committed to change my relationship with food. Having had the experience of being very hungry while still having a very full and rewarding week, I decided I would allow myself to be hungry, sit with my hunger before thoughtlessly scarfing down snacks.

Have you ever seen those commercials for Dos Equis beer featuring The Most Interesting Man in the World? His tag line is, “Stay thirsty, my friends.” Well, since returning from Louisville I have decided to “Stay hungry, my friends.” I haven’t turned into an ascetic. I still take pleasure in good food, but I am allowing myself to be hungry and not freak out. If I’m anxious, I just sit with my anxiety instead of reaching for a cookie.

And instead of loading up my plate with a second or third helping, I take a breath and remind myself that it’s not all about me and my hunger, I am part of a larger community, a larger conversation; there are others at the table, both literally and figuratively. I find that my self-imposed and rather mild hunger provides an important reminder of the poverty that inflicts a much more significant hunger upon millions.

And that’s the second lesson from the parable, our stuff will not protect us from anxiety and fear. In fact our fear of things “out there” will be compounded by a fear of never having enough. Cultivating a certain hunger for justice may lead us into relationships with neighbors in poverty and teach us that there is indeed enough for everyone.

After the rich man had the conversation with himself, and talked himself into building bigger barns, and reassured himself that by isolating himself and filling up with second and third helpings he could be free of anxiety and fear, God weighs in, revealing the rich man’s foolishness. “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you!” Fat lot of good all your stuff will do. It won’t keep you from suffering and it won’t keep you from dying! All you will succeed in doing is closing yourself off from God and neighbor assuring that you will remain alone.

So, it appears, that God doesn’t condemn prosperity or plenty itself, but instead asks us, whose is it?

In the end, this is a parable about relationship and community. It begins with a breakdown in community because of two brothers’ greed, a fear that there is not enough to be shared.

Jesus teaches that our stuff can be isolating unless we invite others in to share in its enjoyment. But we are afraid there won’t be enough for us.

Seminary professor David Lose writes, “There is, right now, a profound and increasingly shared message out and about that we should not and cannot trust each other; that the world is increasingly dangerous and we should therefore be increasingly afraid. That kind of fear will not lead us forward. The regular and relentless biblical injunction “do not be afraid” is not offered simply to bolster our individual courage but to make it easier for us to turn to one another with our fears and hopes and dreams and needs in order to form a community. The Bible warns us against fear because it’s really hard to care for your neighbor and create a community when you are afraid.”

When we allow ourselves to let go of our fear, allow ourselves a certain hunger, we will learn that there is not just enough, but plenty.

So, let us “Stay hungry, my friends,” inviting the world in trusting that all we have belongs to God, and that when we do, there will always be enough for everyone.

 

 

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