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.

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