Paula Northwood November 17, 2019
Scripture Luke 12:16–21
Have you ever had too much of something? Some of you will remember George Carlin, the comedian who had a knack for taking ordinary parts of life and poking fun. He also used language that got him censored. In one comedy sketch, he captured the essence of our focus on accumulating things. Here is an adaptation of that monologue:
That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all your house is . . . your house is just a place for your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff . . . you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. That’s all your house is, it’s a pile of stuff . . . with a cover on it. You see that when you take off in an airplane and you look down . . . and you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. Everybody’s got their own pile of stuff. And when you leave your stuff, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They don’t bother with that crap you’re saving. Ain’t nobody interested in your fourth-grade arithmetic papers. They’re looking, they’re looking for the good stuff. That’s all your house is, it’s a place to keep your stuff . . . while you go out and get more stuff. Now, sometimes, sometimes you gotta move . . . you gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff. You’ve gotta move all your stuff . . . and maybe put some of your stuff in storage. Imagine that, there’s a whole industry based on keeping an eye on your stuff.
At first glance that is what this morning’s parable seems to be about, accumulating more, building something bigger to hold the excesses of life. Then, like all parables, there is a twist. Something is said that is unsettling. The parable starts off fine. There is a man, a farmer with fertile land. Nothing wrong with that. His land has produced so much he must build bigger grain bins to store it. Again, there is nothing wrong with that. That’s just good business sense.
Isn’t this what we are encouraged to strive for? Isn’t it wise and responsible to save for the future? The farmer would probably be a good financial advisor. He seems to have things figured out. He has worked hard and saved wisely. Now he can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of his labor, right?
Apparently, not. Because Jesus says something disturbing. He brings God into the parable in a most unsettling way. God calls the farmer a fool! That grabs our attention! And then God tells him that his life will be demanded of him. That he needs to be rich toward God. “Rich toward God” is an interesting phrase—almost makes God sound greedy.
We know that no amount of wealth can secure our lives with God. It just does not work that way. Of course, Jesus repeatedly warns that wealth can get in the way of our relationship with God. We understand this to mean that if all your energy is spent toward making money, you might not have time for God. So we make sure we make time for God. In the verse prior to our text this morning, it says, “‘Take care!’ Jesus warns. ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’” We know we should not be greedy, but what does it mean to be rich toward God? Does it mean we are to be generous to God?
It is not that God doesn’t want us to save for retirement or future needs. It is not that God doesn’t want us to “eat, drink, and be merry” and enjoy what God has given us. We know from the Gospels that Jesus spent time eating and drinking with people and enjoying life. But he was also clear about where his true security lay.
God wants our attention. Being rich or generous toward God seems to be about turning our face toward God. It’s about cultivating trust in God. We understand that God is responsible for all the gifts we receive, so pay attention to how God wants them used. Another peculiar and telling facet of this parable is the farmer’s interior dialogue, a sign of his closed and isolated life. Commentators have observed the farmer has limited perspective because he listens only to himself. The internal dialogue of the farmer sounds especially ridiculous when in some translations; he addresses himself as “Soul.”
“I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” Because the farmer listens only to himself, never consults another human or God, he misses the gift of varied perspective. He has closed himself off and only hears his inner dialogue. We can lose perceptive if we only talk to ourselves. We can lose perspective if we only talk with people who think like us. Those who are rich toward God involve others in spiritual discernment. They are open to the voice of God through diverse and trusted voices who might offer a new perspective, might shift their attention, might even help them see that a problem is really a blessing, and they might learn from someone with a larger view. It’s all about accountability. To be generous toward God involves participating in community with accountability.
Evelyn Underhill, writer and spiritual teacher, said: “We spend most of our lives conjugating three verbs: to want, to have and to do . . . craving, clutching and fussing . . . we are kept in perpetual unrest: forgetting that none of these verbs has any ultimate significance except so far as they are included in the fundamental verb, to be, and that being, not wanting, having, and doing, is the exercise of the spiritual life.”
To be rich toward God is a spiritual request. It is about alignment. We have so many things asking for our loyalty. This parable invites us to stop and think about how we invest our attention and time. It is about how our lives are fundamentally aligned. Is our purpose on this earth to acquire more, more of anything? Or is it to share all that we have, including ourselves?
I have heard many different regrets expressed by people nearing the end of life, but there is one regret I have never heard expressed. I have never heard anyone say, “I wish I hadn’t given so much away. I wish I had kept more for myself. I wish I would have spent more time alone with my stuff.” Death has a way of clarifying what really matters.
I have heard of a minister who preached a sermon on “love of money is the root of all evil,” and one of her congregants shook her hand as she was leaving and said, “If you don’t think money can buy happiness, you’re shopping at the wrong store!” They both got a laugh about it, but it is not true. It’s funny, but not true. And we know this at least intellectually. The challenge is to find the balance between what we have and what we let go, so that we have all we need and need all that we have.
The spiritual paradox in this parable it is not only about the individual or community relationships or about abundance and greed. The paradox also involves how we must die to ego in order to live. God was not threatening the farmer with the literal end of his life. I think Jesus was speaking metaphorically. Death can open us to the blessings of new life. The farmer’s grain must die and be buried in the ground before it can bring forth new life. Or crushed and ground into flour and baked into bread before it can nourish a body. That is the enduring spiritual truth of the God we serve.
There are seasons for all sorts of deaths. When we cling tightly to our pursuits, we can strangle the life out of even the worthiest of vocations and pursuits and relationships. According to the parable, we are fools, or at least not being wise, if we do not learn the difficult spiritual art of losing things, even very dear and good things. By trustfully, yet often tearfully, letting go, we become rich and generous toward that which is ultimate. We come to know who we are without the objects and titles and places we claim as “ours.” What are all those things that have claim on us? When we align ourselves with God, we are being generous toward God. This parable asks this question: “Where is your attention, your accountability and your alignment?”
This morning, we are also highlighting the work of our Immigrant Welcoming Working Group. The image on the cover of our bulletin is a stark reminder that many are still being treated in inhumane ways at our border. How might we, who have so much, respond to this need? One way is to get involved with the Immigrant Welcoming Group and their actions. In February, Beth Faeth and a group from Plymouth will be volunteering with a nonprofit organization on the border in Arizona. You might consider joining them.
I think we all know somewhere deep inside that our true value is more than what we do, how much we make or how many things we own. Our true value is who we are as children of God. This parable invites us to examine who and what is truly God in our lives. How do we invest our lives and the use of the gifts that God has given us? How are our lives aligned: toward ourselves and our passing desires, or toward God and our neighbor? Toward accumulation or God’s mission to bless and redeem the world?
On this Stewardship Sunday, let us be rich toward God. We all can share out of our abundance whether through financial wealth, energy, skills, time and relationship building, because all are needed and all are blessed. May it be so. Amen.