As some of you know, I’ll soon be moving to a new home – I’ve been renting an apartment in Fayetteville, and I’ve been given the opportunity to rent the parsonage of a church in Syracuse that isn’t being used by their pastor instead. Getting ready to move again has made me think about all my moves since I left seminary. My biggest move was going from Oneida to New Jersey. I actually used movers and a moving company for that move. They came to my parsonage in Oneida and they walked around the many rooms of the parsonage with some handheld devices, clicking away entries based on what I have: 5 armchairs. Click. 3 televisions. Click. 4 couches. Click. 7 bookshelves. Click. 12 little end tables. Click. Most movers estimate based on pounds – how many pounds of stuff do you have to be moved? Well, at that time, I had over 7000 pounds of things to take with me to New Jersey, a number that I found a little embarrassing, frankly. I’m one person. OK – I will give my excuses – I do have a lot of Todd’s stuff, and occasionally Todd, that I have to transport from location to location – that has to be one or two thousand pounds right there. And I had a piano – that’s probably four or five hundred pounds – I looked it up online at the time, just to make myself fee better. But somewhere between four and five thousand pounds of stuff was all mine. I don’t think of myself as someone who has a lot of stuff. But when it’s time to pack all the stuff, weigh all the stuff, move all the stuff, I’m suddenly aware of exactly how much I have. Do I need 7000 pounds of things with me to make a home? To have an acceptable amount of things to fill up a house? To live my life? How much in that 7000 pounds of stuff is really important to me in any way? I pared down when I moved into this apartment in Fayetteville, but now that I’m heading back into a big house, will I need to start adding pounds to my possessions?
Our gospel lesson enters as an answer to these questions, a stark, direct answer. Our gospel lesson from Luke is one of my very favorites. It is the first passage I ever preached on, twelve years ago tomorrow. I have preached more times on this text than any other – this is my fifth time preaching this text! And because of that special place in my history, I know the text well, and the words of the passage are always close to my heart and mind. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions . . . These things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Someone in the crowd calls out to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” This like would have been the younger brother calling out – the older brother would by law get a larger share of the inheritance, and by law be responsible for handling the assets and giving the younger brother his share. (1) The younger brother, then, was looking for help getting his due. But Jesus doesn’t want to be judge and arbitrator, he says, and instead tells them a parable, beginning with a warning: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Jesus tells about a man who was wealthy, whose land was producing abundantly. He had no place to store his crops, they were so plentiful. What should he do? He says to himself, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But that very night God speaks to the man, requiring of him his life. “This very night you life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus concludes, “So it is with those who stores up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.” How did the younger brother respond to this parable? We don’t know. Perhaps he heard Jesus saying that his older brother shouldn’t try to take more than his fair share. Perhaps he heard Jesus telling him not to worry about how much he was getting – that how much he had wouldn’t really matter in the end anyway. But a more important question is what we hear in Jesus’ words.
What does your life consist of? Jesus says something we know – our life doesn’t consist of our things. Human life is made up of something else than that. We are not our stuff. But what does our life consist of then? What are we made up of? And how do we know? What evidence do we have that our life consists of more than what we have? What in our behaviors, our actions, and our attitudes can we point to that says we know our life is more than our stuff?
The problem with Jesus’ parables – or should I say, the problem with our understanding of Jesus’ parables is this: from our 21st century perspective, having a whole collection of Jesus’ parables, and knowing enough about Jesus to know what he taught, what he valued, what his basic messages were, we know enough to pick out who are the “bad guys” and the “good guys” in the parables. We know in the parable of the Good Samaritan that the good guy is, well, the Good Samaritan. We know in the parables about Pharisees and tax collectors that the Pharisee is the bad guy and the tax collector is the surprise good guy. And we know in this parable that the man building the big barns is the bad guy. After all, God calls him a fool! The rich man is the bad guy! We shouldn’t act like him. We shouldn’t build bigger barns. And then, happy with our clear understanding of the parable, we can go on our way.
But Jesus’ parables aren’t as simple as good guy and bad guy. The Pharisee is never really just a bad guy, but someone standing in the need of God’s grace. The tax collector is never a saint, but someone who has found out a truth about God and life and decided to live it. We always seem to fail to see ourselves in the parables because we’re never ready to admit we’re as bad as the bad guys, and never able to see ourselves acting as good as the good guys. And if we can’t really see ourselves in the parables, then we can’t really hear what Jesus is saying.
Is the rich man a bad guy? Let’s see exactly what he’s done. The possessions he’s accumulating are not exactly luxury items. We don’t read that he’s bought a summer home or a second camel or hired his own musicians to entertain. He’s rich, that’s true. And he has a lot of grain – that’s food. He has so much grain that he stores it, and gets bigger barns even to store it in. And finally, he feels relieved to have so much grain. Finally, he can relax, eat, drink, be merry, enjoy his life after working hard to get to this place. He has a little security for himself. He has security for his family, because, of course, they will inherit what is his when his life is demanded of him. He knows that he won’t go hungry now, even if a famine strikes. The Bible talks about times when famine wiped out whole families, whole nations. Living of the land was risky. This man was prepared. He had plans. Is that so bad? Are we much different?
I have a pension plan myself, of course. The pension plan for United Methodist Clergy is a good one – I may not get rich now, but I have the security of a good pension plan when I retire. In fact, the denomination is working very hard to make sure that clergy outside of the US have the same strong pension plan. We want to know we have a secure future, that we’ll be able to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, house ourselves, and provide for our family, far into the future. Most of you probably have retirement plans, or are already enjoying the benefits of retirement savings or social security, things you worked hard to put in place. Isn’t this all the rich man is doing? I think about the financial status of this congregation. Our financial team tries very hard to keep us on track and aware of the deficit we have to cover. We’d like to be thinking about our future. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had had a bit of grain saved up, so to speak? So that an unexpected event wouldn’t send us reeling? I know how that feels, I understand why we want to be ready for anything. Secure. Can’t you see yourself in this rich man, with his barns of grain? Can’t you understand him?
And yet, God calls this man a fool. Jesus warns us against all kinds of greed, and says our life consists of more than our many possessions. And he says that if we are not rich toward God, but instead focused on storing up treasures for ourselves, we’re in trouble. Where’s the line, then? How much grain can we save up for ourselves without being in trouble with God? Are medium sized barns ok, just not extra large?
Of what does your life consist? What’s your life all about? We know that our life doesn’t consist of stuff, of money, of possessions, of assets, of retirement funds, of pension plans, or even of the lack of all those things. But it would be hard to tell that we know this by any hint of our culture, our society, our work ethic, our financial priorities, our goals, or what we think it will take for us to finally be able to “eat, drink, and be merry.” As a rule – and sure there are exceptions – but as a rule, we’re just not happy with what we have. I’ve read that most people believe they would be happy if they had just 20% more than they have now. But the catch is this: that’s true at every level – no matter how much you have, you’re always convinced just a little more would make you happy. And so it is never enough. There’s always something on our wish list. Maybe a tangible thing like a newer car or a better laptop, both things I’ve acquired in the last six months. Maybe something less concrete like better health insurance or more vacation days. But there’s always something we think we need, or want, and we’re convinced that if we could just get to that thing, just get to that point, just get to that status, just get to that place of being settled and secure, we’d be set. We could eat, drink, and be merry. And maybe then we could be disciples. Then we’d be in a good starting place to follow God. During my first year of ministry, when I went from being a seminarian surviving on a $4000 a semester work-study job, to a full-time pastor with a full time salary, making so much more money then I’d ever made in my life, I was sure I’d be set. I felt so very rich. What else could I want? Four years and 7000 pounds of stuff later, I still have a wish list.
What do our lives consist of? What will we offer to God? There’s nothing in my house that God wants except my soul. And the shape my soul is in will probably have an awful lot to do with what it is my life really consists of. How is your soul? What does your life consist of? What do you still want to check off your wish list before you’ll finally be in the right state of mind to think about discipleship, to think about answering God’s call? The things you’ve been working so hard to prepare, to store up, to save up – whose will they be? Take care! God’s abundance is so much richer than the treasures you have here, and your life is so much more precious than you think, and God wants that life – your life – right now. What does your life consist of? What kind of soul will you give to God?