Being Rich Toward God

July 31, 2016 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 12.13-21

Last year it was reported that there are more self-storage facilities in this country than there are McDonalds and Starbucks stores combined.[1] Perhaps you did not know that “the self-storage industry is the fastest-growing segment of the commercial real estate industry” or that “one in every ten people in the US has a storage unit somewhere.”[2] I did not know that there also exists what you might call valet self-storage. Companies send you a box (or two or four), you fill it with your stuff and then the company picks it up and stores it. They will also deliver it back to you when and if you ever need it again. All for a fee, of course.[3]

Stuff. Personal Belongings. Effects. Equipment. Junk. Objects. Things. Trappings. Possessions.

It goes by a lot of names.

Jesus wades right into the middle of it.

Picture the scene, a crowd has gathered around Jesus. The text says there are thousands of people there. Jesus is speaking to his disciples when someone from the crowd yells out, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me!”

Most likely this is the younger brother complaining about his older brother who has yet to divide up the family estate after the death of their father. In the Jewish tradition of the first century, the older brother would get 2/3 of the inheritance and the younger brother would get 1/3 of the inheritance. (Daughters got nothing.) Jesus refuses to take sides in this family dispute. Instead, he speaks about a deeper issue at the heart of the matter. “Be on your guard,” Jesus says, “about all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And then he tells a parable.

It’s a parable about a man whose land yields an abundance. The harvest is so big he doesn’t have enough space to store it all.

To many observers, then and now, the man is a picture of success. He made a sizeable return on his investment. His gain allows him to build bigger and bigger. He has everything he needs now and for the future.

But remember what Jesus said at the start of the parable? “Be on your guard about all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Now you might say, what about saving up for a rainy day? The man will not always have an abundant harvest. And we could look at the story of Joseph and Pharaoh in Genesis. Joseph listened to God and then advised the Pharaoh to build bigger and bigger storehouses to store up grain for years of famine that would strike Egypt. And Pharaoh did that and the people of Egypt and others, including Joseph’s family, survived the famine because of the stored grain.[4]

But what about greed? One writer defines greed as “‘enough’ is never enough; ‘more’ is only to be hoarded; ‘I, me and mine” matter more than anybody else.”[5]

Did you hear the conversation the man had with himself? Did you hear the pronoun he used the most? He says: What should I do? I have no place to store my crops. I will do this. I will pull down my barns. I will build larger ones. I will store all my grain and my goods. There is so much “I” and “my” it is as if the man is saying, “I alone can do this.”

The man is so focused on himself and his possessions he has forgotten that it is God who sends the sun and the rain to make the crops grow. It is divine providence that provides the harvest.

The man is so distracted by the need to provide for his possessions that he also loses sight of the community he is part of. Chances are he didn’t do all the planting or the harvesting himself. He probably didn’t build his barns all by hi self. There were other workers who made this possible: field hands, neighbors, along with his wife and children. He did not get all this on his own. Nor was the harvest all his own. The law said when a farmer gathered the harvest of the field they were to leave the edges of the field unharvested so that the poor and the immigrants could gather the produce of the edges of the field.[6] And I am reminded of what the Rev. William Barber said this week at the Democratic National Convention: “The watchword of democracy and of faith is ‘We.’”[7]

But the man has lost sight of this. In the first century, this abundant harvest “would have been regarded as a generous blessing from God.”[8] but for the man it’s a dilemma—where will I store it all?

The idolatry of our culture says that life is measured by the abundance of our possessions. The parable says that is a fool’s dream. And of course the man who is going to build bigger and bigger dies in the night. And then what becomes of all his possessions? What benefit are they to him? What good have they served?

Jesus calls us away from storing up treasure for ourselves and calls us to be rich toward God. Jesus has been showing us in the stories that proceed this conversation in the crowd about it means to be rich toward God. (If you’ve been here this month you’ve heard these stories as the basis of our preaching.) “Being rich toward God [means] using our resources for the benefit of our neighbor as the Samaritan did. Being rich toward God [means] intentionally listening to Jesus’ word as Mary did” when Jesus came to her and Martha’s home. “Being rich toward God [means] prayerfully trusting that God will provide for the needs of life.”[9] “Give us each day our daily bread” we pray, and as Mark reminded us last week, there is enough for all of us.

Jesus said earlier in Luke’s gospel, “What does it profit [people] if they gain the whole world, but lose…themselves?”[10] We lose ourselves when we forget what it is to be fully human. To be fully human is to be connected to God and to be connected to others. To lose either of those connections is to lose ourselves.

Our possessions can distract us. Our desire for possessions can distract us. Distract us from the truth that our life is not about what we have. Distract us from using what we have for the well-being of our neighbor. Distract us from listening to Jesus. Distract us from prayerfully trusting that God will provide what we need.

Grace Winn Ellis, the daughter of a former president of Louisville Seminary, wrote about a medical mission trip she took to Haiti a few years ago. The day’s distribution of medicine was shortened because a stream was quickly rising that the medical team had to cross in order to return to where they were staying. The crowd waiting for the medicine—desperate for the medicine—started pushing and shoving and yelling. She wrote this experience gave her a new perspective on the stories of Jesus healing and the crowd of people, who had next to nothing, who gather and push against Jesus and cry out for help. The experience also awakened her to “the behavior of those of us who have enough. Although we have plenty, we constantly worry about keeping what we’ve got. Thinking about this,” she wrote, “I felt a spotlight shining on many of Jesus’ teachings. Stop trying so hard to hold onto your stuff, he keeps saying. When you’re obsessed with what you have, you can’t leave your nets beside the lake, walk away, and follow me. You can’t accept the invitation to the banquet. And you’ll waste your energy building bigger barns to hold your bounty.”[11]

Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, says Jesus. Life does consist of being rich toward God. Caring for our neighbors, listening to Jesus, prayerfully trusting God to provide our daily bread. It sounds easy but we all know it isn’t. So much around us, and so much in us, resists. But it is the way to life. The way to true life. The way to being fully human.

Maybe we need to empty out the storage units in our lives. Let go of the stuff that distracts us from being rich toward God and generous toward our neighbor.

In a minute we’re going to sing a hymn whose text was written to celebrate the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. The words celebrate the many blessings we receive from God and each stanza ends with a translation of Calvin’s personal motto: “Sincerely and completely I offer you my heart.”[12] Calvin had a seal that showed a hand holding out a heart. It was the emblem of his motto. It’s difficult to offer our heart when our hands are holding on to all our stuff. May God give us grace to release our hold on our possessions so that we too may offer our hearts to God and to one another.

* * * * *

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/21/self-storage-mcdonalds_n_7107822.html, access 28 July 2016.

[2] http://www.rejournals.com/2015/04/17/think-theres-a-mcdonalds-on-every-corner-try-counting-the-number-of-self-storage-facilities-dotting-the-country/, accessed 30 July 2016.

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/02/self-storage-startups_n_5631538.html, accessed 30 July 2016.

[4] Audrey West, “Theological Perspective: Luke 12.13-21,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, eds., David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 312.

[5] Ibid., 310.

[6] Leviticus 19.9; cf Deuteronomy 24.19.

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gARt1GGM7d4, accessed July 30, 2016.

[8] Richard P. Carlson, “Exegetical Perspective: Luke 12.13-21,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, eds., David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 313.

[9] Ibid., 315.

[10] Luke 9.25

[11] http://www.lpts.edu/about/our-leadership/president/thinking-out-loud/thinking-out-loud/2016/07/12/shedding-greed, accessed July 21, 2016.

[12] David Gambrell, “Great God of Every Blessing,” © 2009, in Glory to God, #694.

The Elusive Neighbor

July 10, 2016 – 8th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10.25-37; Psalm 82

On Wednesday, like many of you, I went to bed knowing Alton Sterling had been shot and killed in Baton Rouge. On Thursday morning when I sat down to work on my sermon I read the news that Philando Castile had also been shot and killed. God, have mercy, I thought. On Friday morning, like all of you, I heard the news that five police officers, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens had been shot and killed in what had been a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest march. A nonviolent protest about legitimate grievances that black Americans face—hijacked by violence.[1] Christ, have mercy.

How does one find words to say in a week like this one? Like you there are a cascade of thoughts and feelings in my mind and heart.

As I thought about the familiar story of the Samaritan and the man who had been robbed and beaten and left for dead on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, I was also thinking about a black man driving his car—it doesn’t matter where, really—just driving his car. He was approached by others and was shot and left for dead.

The minutes passed by. His son wailed in grief by his father’s body with no one to comfort him. His four-year old daughter, still buckled in her car seat, started to cry. In their sorrow we hear the words of the psalmist,

“Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Several hours went by. But no Samaritan arrived. The man died. Where was the Samaritan?

 

In the biblical story, we can assume the man who is robbed, beaten and left for dead is a Jew. While he’s lying wounded in the ditch. Two other Jews—a priest and then a Levite (a person who served alongside the priests in the Temple) came down the same road, see the man who is injured and bleeding and they crossed to the opposite side of the street. For whatever reason, some of them probably really logical, understandable reasons, they didn’t get involved.

But the man is still lying in the ditch, so injured that he cannot even cry out for help.

Then a Samaritan came along. He also sees the guy lying half dead in the ditch. He’s moved with compassion and his impulse is to help the wounded Jewish man.

Samaritans and Jews, you may know, were not friends. They despised each other in fact. Each considering the other a heretic. Samaritans and Jews disagreed about the proper place and the proper way to worship God. Samaritans were descendants of both Jews and non-Jews. They were part Jewish but not all Jewish. Today they might be called bi-racial. The enmity between Jews and Samaritans was so great that if the man who had been beaten was able to crawl for help, he might have preferred to crawl on his hands and knees than to be helped by a Samaritan. And it would not have been surprising for the Samaritan to look at the injured man and think, “He got what was coming to him” or at minimum, “He’s not my concern.”

But in this story, what we would expect is not what we get. The Samaritan becomes the means of healing and restoration of life for the wounded man. Without the Samaritan intervening on his behalf, the man would have died.

 

But for the black man driving in his car, there is no Samaritan.

It’s not like this is the first time it’s happened—not the first time someone has been shot on this road. In fact the road is strewn with black bodies. The road is dangerous and everybody knows it. And I keep wondering, if the road is dangerous and everybody knows it, where are the Samaritans? Where are the people who bind up wounds and take people to the hospital and pay the bill and check back to see that they are recovering? More than that, where are the people who have organized themselves along the road so that no one has to go there alone? So that everyone has a community to make it from one place to the next place safely and still alive? Where are the people who put their bodies on the line all along the route to make sure there are no more beatings and no more robberies and no more shootings and no more deaths? Where are the people demanding of the powers that be:

“Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Now I don’t mean no one is working on this. But collectively we have not moved the needle to decrease the amount of violence targeted at people of color. And we have not moved the needle to decrease the use of deadly violence as an outlet for frustration, disagreement, anger, and fear.

Not enough of us who are white have made this our problem. Not enough white people have decided that white supremacy and white privilege are a problem for us—as well as for communities of color. Not enough white people are convinced that we are a big part of the problem and therefore we must be part of the solution.

We are part of the solution when we fall on our knees and recognize that this way of living is killing us too. Not in the same literal killing that people of color experience but in the deep dehumanizing that we absorb into our hearts and minds in order to maintain systems and structures that enforce and preserve our privilege.

 

Central Presbyterian Church is a congregation that has had a commitment to social justice for decades. Our commitment is rooted in the Bible and the many times we hear, all throughout Scripture, of God’s intentional concern for those who are most vulnerable and most at risk in our communities. We are continuing that commitment in the projects that have grown out of New Beginnings: supporting kids in our neighborhood schools; developing closer relationships with our neighbors who come for lunch on Wednesdays; and standing as an ally and advocate for Simmons College of Kentucky in part by doing our work to understand and dismantle systemic racism. (If you haven’t signed up to be part of one of these three endeavors, you can find more information and sign up sheets on the table outside the sanctuary.)

Even more today our work in our community feels significant as an expression of God’s good news and as a witness to God’s redeeming love. But I also want to be careful that we do not think that is all we must be about. It is too easy to let the killing of black men and women and children be someone else’s problem.

Years ago I heard the acapella women’s group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, sing “Ella’s Song.” The refrain and one stanza go like this:

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes[2]

 
And so we do the holy work of mourning and lamenting and crying and then we gather ourselves together and we continue to do the holy work of working for justice, building relationships and responding to God’s call to be a neighbor.

In the biblical story Jesus asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus does not ask, “Who is your neighbor?” He asks, “What kind of neighbor are you—[what kind of neighbor are we?]—to those who have been left for dead?”[3]

Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote a poem titled “Shoulders” that could be an appendix to the story of the Samaritan.

Shoulders

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.[4]

* * * * *

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/opinion/sunday/what-white-america-fails-to-see.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share, accessed 9 July 2016.

[2] http://www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/ella.shtml, accessed 9 July 2016.

[3] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/irreverin/2016/07/who-is-my-neighbor-police-shootings-and-those-we-leave-for-dead/?ref_widget=related&ref_blog=irreverin&ref_post=the-end-of-us-where-love-is-not-enough, accessed 9 July 2016.

[4] https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/shoulders, accessed 9 July 2016.

God Says “Go!”

July 3, 2016 – 7th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10.1-11, 16-20

Last Monday Mark and I, Jo Haas and six kids from Central shopped at the Family Dollar store at 4th and Oak. We were using money you contributed for personal care items for clients of Central Louisville Community Ministries. We bought lots of laundry detergent, dish soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste. We loaded those items along with the personal care items you have purchased and brought to Central in previous weeks and delivered them to the delighted staff at CLCM. Just that day they had been turning clients away because they had no personal care items to share.

Our kids packaged up dozens of bags with three rolls of toilet paper, a bottle of lotion, a bar of soap, three razors, a bottle of shampoo, a toothbrush and toothpaste. On Tuesday, our neighbors whose food stamps and limited incomes don’t cover personal care items, would be able to take home a bag of these supplies.

This past week was Central’s second annual Hometown Mission Trip. Mark and I spent four jam-packed days with six to seven of our kids age third grade to ninth grade. Our theme was “God says ‘Go!’” Go make disciples, go share the good news, go care for the poor, go transform the world.

We have three goals for the hometown mission trip:

  • For our kids to meet adults who are part of the Central community and to see and hear how their faith is connected to their work;
  • For our kids to experience of variety of ways people serve God;
  • For our kids to work on a project with or for the people we meet.

On Tuesday, we visited Carrie Klinge in her lab at the UofL Medical School. The kids got to look at cancer cells under a microscope and heard Carrie eloquently make the connection between the breast cancer research she does and her Christian faith.

Tom Parmenter, who works at St. John Center for Homeless Men, introduced us to Lenny who awed us with stories about his life and helped us remember that every person who is homeless has a story that is about more than just being homeless.

The kids made and served three full sheet cakes to our neighbors who come for prayer and lunch on Wednesdays. They heard many appreciative words for their delicious cake and after the lunch they talked with Debbie Moore and Carol Noffsinger about why they volunteer at the lunch and Mark told them about starting the lunch thirteen years ago.

We also explored bible stories where God says “Go!” in a variety of ways and to a variety of people. We played games and made art together. We created small pouches out of duct tape and inside we placed a list of the things we would carry if we were homeless and had to carry all our possessions with us. We had a scavenger hunt all over the building and spent time playing at Central Park.

The research about how Christian faith is shared from one generation to another says kids need to participate in the actions and practices of faith and they need to have conversations with adults about those actions and practices.

In Luke 10, Jesus sends the disciples out two by two. “Go,” he says. No one is sent alone. There is a harvest waiting to be harvested but there are not enough laborers. Everyone is needed. The work of bringing God’s peace and blessing does not belong just to Jesus, or even just the twelve disciples, but to all his followers. In fact, we who follow Jesus are not simply the advance team. “Whoever listens to you listens to me,” Jesus says. Those who follow Jesus are the messengers of God.

As I said last week, following Jesus is not for the faint of heart. “I’m sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves.” “Leave your purse, your overnight bag, and your extra sandals at home.” “Rely on the hospitality of others.”

“What you’re bringing to others,” says Jesus, “is God’s peace.” Now that’s no small thing. And it’s not inconsequential. It’s not peace as in, “You’ll hardly know I’m here. I’ll make my own coffee and strip the bed when I leave.” What followers of Jesus bring is shalom; the kind of peace that is about wholeness, well-being, life being the way God intends for all people and all creation.

And when someone does not receive you, do not get angry, do not be snarky or defensive or vengeful. Simply wipe the dust off your feet and move on. Because the realm of God has come near no matter how you are received. The truth of God’s goodness and love, the broad reach of God’s concern and compassion, the wildly inclusive love is still making its way in the world.

So, go! Go on your way. Go into the world bringing God’s peace and love, God’s joy and justice, God’s healing and hope.

Now I’m going to invite you to go one step farther. One thing we learned about ourselves as a congregation from the StrengthsFinder Inventory is that we are good at talking and thinking about things among ourselves. We have fewer strengths as a congregation in influencing others—people outside of our congregation—with our message. We don’t have a lot of strengths in talking with others about our congregation and about our faith. I’m not saying that none of you have this strength but as a congregation, this is not our strength.

In order for our children to grow in faith and be followers of Jesus, we must be able to demonstrate our faith with actions and talk about it with words. Similarly, if others in Louisville and southern Indiana are going to join us in the ministry of living in God’s wildly inclusive love, we must be able to demonstrate our faith with actions and speak about it with words.

I’m less worried about the action part of this equation because people from Central are involved in lots of ways in our community. But I venture to say we are not that great at talking about our faith with other people—especially people outside of our congregation. I include myself in this too. I love to sit and talk and think as much as many of you do. But that doesn’t get the job done of reaching out to others about what is amazing and wonderful about this congregation and about the challenge and joy of following Jesus in the world as it is today.

Carrie Klinge told our kids last week about how being a disciple of Christ led her, and continues to motivate her, in her work as a cancer researcher to bring healing to the world.

I wonder how you would express that if our kids came to your workplace or the place you volunteer or to your home? How would you say, in 30 or 60 seconds how you are God’s person in your community, your workplace, your family? Think about that for a minute. It doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t have to use big religious words. You could also think about how you would say this to a colleague at work, or a neighbor, or a family member. If it helps you to jot a couple of notes as you think, feel free to do that. How is what you do with your life shaped by your Christian faith? [pause for a minute]

Now here’s the part that’s probably the hardest. I invite you to practice saying that out loud. Share it with someone else. One other person or two other people. If you need to move around to get close to someone to talk to, do that. For those of you who are regular attenders here, will you look around and make sure someone who is newer isn’t sitting by themselves?

There’s no grade. There’s no judging. It’s okay if you stumble looking for words. There’s no right answer. I simply invite you to practice something that is hard for many of us liberal Presbyterians—to talk about how our faith is connected with our life outside of Sunday morning. It’s an essential skill in sharing the good news that we have received and by which we have been blessed.

So take a minute, find another person or two and tell them about how your faith shapes what you do in your workplace, in your community, in your family.