As I wrestled with this week’s gospel text, I had a few things on my mind. First, and always lately: packing. I’m in the process of packing, preparing for my move in a few weeks. In the fall, I’ll be hopefully living on campus at Drew University, where I’m headed to work on my PhD. In the summer, I’ll need to do something I never thought I would: rent a storage unit. I’ve always found storage units kind of distasteful, I’ll admit. I know there are lots of good reasons folks rent storage units. A Syracuse theatre company I’m fond of keeps all their set pieces, including those for my beloved Jesus Christ Superstar, in a storage unit since they don’t actually have a building of their own. That’s certainly more cost effective than trying to maintain a building that needed extensive repairs ever was. But in some situations, a storage unit has always just been a signal to me, a sign that we have too much stuff, if we have to find a place to keep what we can’t fit in our current living spaces. So yes, I’ve been judgy about storage units. But now, I find myself in between places this summer, and then heading for what is likely a campus housing situation this fall, and my campus housing will come with some university issued furniture, and it certainly won’t have room for my queen sized bed, or full-sized couch. And so I’ve been asking myself: what possessions do I have that I cherish enough that if I had to pay to store them for even the first couple of years of my PhD program, I’d consider it worth it - all that money on a student’s income just to store stuff. Asking that question has helped me let go of a lot of things. But I have some things I really treasure, too. Some of you might remember the pretty china cabinet and buffet table I have in the parsonage dining room - they were my great-grandmother’s, and they were in our dining room when I grew up, and I’ve had them since I moved into my first parsonage. The china cabinet is full of plates from the other side of my family - I have my grandparents’ dishes. I hardly ever use them. They’re delicate and fragile, and mostly all they do is sit in the china cabinet. And I tried, I tried to talk myself into giving them away to my cousins and siblings. But I just couldn’t. I want to keep them, even if I have to store them for years.
I’ve also been thinking about greed, and what it means to wrestle with greed when we’re sure we’re not greedy. In our family, one of our favorite stories is about my youngest brother Todd. Todd will tell you that when he was little, he always wanted to be Scrooge McDuck when he grew up. Scrooge McDuck is the Disney variation on Ebenezer Scrooge, and in the cartoons, he kept all his gold in a giant vault, all these gold coins, and he would swim in the money, literally. Todd really liked the sound of that! Well, Todd was maybe four years old, and it was Easter morning, and we were doing our regular Easter egg hunt, and Todd was determined to find more eggs than anyone else. He didn’t want to take time to set any of them down, since that would slow down how many he could find before the rest of us, so he was carrying the eggs he had under his arms while he searched. Only, some of them weren’t quite hard-boiled all the way through apparently. And suddenly, Todd was standing, runny eggs dripping all down his sides, crying and confessing: “I was selfish!”
Or I think about this silly game my mom and I play on facebook. You win coins for doing various tasks, and you can spend the coins getting boosts and extras that make it easier for you to in turn win more coins and get to the top of the scoreboard. I was tired of not having enough coins, so I played and played so I could build up a sort of cushion of coins. That way, I could use as many boosts as I wanted without worrying. Only a funny thing happened. Once I got more coins, I didn’t want to spend them. I liked having them. And I kept raising the amount in my mind that it would take for me to feel like I had enough and could relax. Now, my mom still plays the game, and she never has any coins, and I hardly play it at all, but I have millions and millions of coins. Silly, of course. Just a computer game. But it made me wonder how easy it would be to feel the same way about my stuff and my money. If I was able, how easy would it be to need more and more before I felt comfortable.
Or here’s a really timely example for you: I was in Target last week, and I noticed that they had a display of hand sanitizer - the big bottles, the gel kind, the kind I used to get all the time before hand sanitizer became so precious. I have plenty of hand sanitizer. I have plenty to last me for weeks and weeks, no problem. But I really had to fight the urge to buy a bottle at Target. It’s been hard to get, and the urge to make sure I had plenty stored up was strong. I didn’t need it. But it was very hard to walk away from even so.
I had all these things on my mind as I studied our gospel for today from Luke. You might remember that this text is the first text I ever preached on, 22 years ago now. And so it’s really stuck deep in my heart, and I wanted another chance to reflect on this powerful parable with you. Jesus has been teaching the crowds when someone asks him to settle a family dispute. “Teacher,” the man says, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” We don’t know what the dispute was. Is this a younger brother wanting a bigger share than the law allows? Has the man’s father just died, and they’re arguing over his things? We just don’t know. And we’re not sure why he wants Jesus to settle the matter. But Jesus was a teacher, and he was wise, and he radiated authority. Maybe the man thought: Who better to ask? Jesus will be able to settle this! In Jesus’ usual way though, he doesn’t respond how we expect, turning questions back to us, urging us to think critically about our life and faith. He says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And then he tells a parable: A rich man had land which produced an abundant crop. And the man thought to himself, “What should I do? I don’t have any place to store all this!” So he decides he will pull down his existing barns, and build larger ones. Then, he will have room to store everything. And he imagines saying to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God interrupts his thoughts with a harsh reality; God says, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus concludes, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”
So, is what the rich man does in this parable so bad? He has a good crop, and he stores up the abundant harvest. Yes, he could have shared. Absolutely. But I think about Joseph in the book of Genesis, and how his careful direction when he worked for the Pharaoh of Egypt to store up grain for years meant that when the famine came, the people had enough food to see them through and to help other people as well. I think about how we’re urged to think ahead and carefully plan for our eventual retirement, or to care for children whose college tuitions we might have to pay, or other long-term projects. Is it wrong to store up now so that we have something for later? Isn’t that just wise and careful planning? This week during our Bible study, Annetje shared that it was hard to decide what we do that’s about survival - making sure we have enough to get along, not being surprised and unprepared for what life throws at us - and what’s about being selfish - always wanting and gathering more than we need. How do we figure it out?
I don’t think there’s an easy, clear-cut answer. There rarely is in our life of faith! We have to wrestle with these questions, and listen for God’s leading. But I think there are some questions we can ask ourselves. First, we have to acknowledge that even if we don’t long to swim in a pool of gold coins like my brother Todd, that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. We have to ask ourselves: If it isn’t stuff, money, possessions, what is it that we are trying to store up just as fast as we can? What is it that we just can’t get enough of? We listed lots of things at our Bible study that we might get greedy for: Attention. Being liked by others. Feeling like you belong. Status, in a group, among your friends, among your co-workers. Privilege. Power. Control. Respect. For anything new. For technology. And yes, sometimes and way more often than we’d like to admit: money, stuff, wealth. What is it that we’re storing up?
We’ve talked many times about how idolatry is the biggest “no” that God gives in the scriptures. Idolatry isn’t just about making golden calves and worshiping them instead of God. Idolatry is when we give anything else the place that God’s supposed to have in our lives - first place. I think that’s why storing up more and more of anything should put us on alert. Because when we store up more and more of anything that’s not God, it means that we’re giving more and more space in our lives and hearts over to something that’s not God. What’s claiming more and more of your time, your attention, your resources? We’re always sure we’re not letting other things claim more of our heart, but Jesus knows better. We’re giving room in our heart to whatever we’re storing up, and we need to be on guard, lest we find that God isn’t really first place for us after all.
Jesus wants us to be rich. Jesus wants us to be rich towards God. How can we be rich toward God? What does that mean? We’ve talked often about seeking to make God’s ways our ways. I think we need to make what God values what we value as well. What is it that God values? And who does God value? And how does God value? I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on those questions. I’d love for you to share your responses with me. What and how and how does God value? And how can we, through our actions, reflect those same values? I keep asking myself: is there anything that Jesus was storing up? I can only come up with two answers to what Jesus made more and more room for in his life: God, and us. How can we be rich toward God? We need to give God and God’s people more and more room in our hearts. In the end, they’re the only things we can store up that have eternal importance. They’re the only things we can store up that will help us mold our lives to be more and more like Jesus. I do want more room: more room for God, and more room for each precious person God created. What do our lives consist of? May our answer bring joy to the heart of God. Amen.