A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost, July 31, 2016
Psalm 107:1-9, 43 Luke 12:13-21
Most of you know I’m originally from the Midwest. I grew up in the South Suburbs of Chicago and later attended Millikin University, one of our Presbyterian Colleges in Decatur, Illinois. Where is Decatur? I’m glad you asked. Well, as college students we used to say, “Picture Illinois. Decatur is at the dead center, with the emphasis on the word dead.” Decatur is the buckle in our nation’s corn belt. It’s the “Soybean Capitol of the World.” On weekends we could get in our cars and drive for hours in any direction with nothing to see but mono-crops, agribusiness retail shops, and dry bulk storage silos for unprocessed grain. And every year, the same signs and cycles of growing corn.
In the early summer you can delight in watching the tiny green plants struggle through the soil to be nurtured by the slippery rain and warmed in the arms of the sun. Just about now, hairy, leaf swaddled bundles are beginning to spring from the plants, weighing them down and making them sway precariously in the wind. The corn stalks are taller than the average person, so it’s a great time to jump a fence and disappear into a field as in a maze.
Soon, the corn plant will grow skinny and turn a bland color of tan. Its leaves, once erect, will curl inward as if to protect the aging stalk. And then the combine’s whirling blades will whip the tired plants onto their final dusty resting place. The fields will resemble men – half-shaven – the ground supporting only tiny, awkward stubble. And in the distance, the shabby barns and modern silos filled with new deposits awaiting transport to the next stop on the food chain.
Abundance. Sown. Attended. Collected. Stored.
“And Jesus told the parable saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” And the man said, “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; take your ease, eat drink and be merry,” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is the one who lays up treasure for themselves and is not rich toward God.”
Why is the rich man a fool? Why is the rich man a fool? Option one: the rich man is a fool because he laid up treasure. Therefore, we think, those who are rich, or savers of goods, or pejoratively speaking “Hoarders”, are fools. This is a parable clearly directed at the 1%. After all, we, like Jesus, scorn big barns, at least when they are bigger than our own.
Why is the rich man a fool? Option Two: The rich man is a fool because he was not rich toward God. You see, it’s o.k. to have lots of stuff just as long as you are spiritually unattached to it. This makes us feel great because we are purveyors of spiritual wealth. We are pretty sure we are being spiritually rich toward God when we attend worship (at least sometimes). We are the people baptized into the image of Jesus, dedicated to his ministry and mission in the world. Ahhhh. What a relief. It is not our money that God wants, but our hearts and our minds. It’s a good thing that we remember that being rich toward God is our foundational principle.
Why is the rich man a fool? Option Three: The rich man is a fool because he has provided for himself and not for others. Perhaps, we think, this rich man didn’t let the poor glean in his field, as the Bible commands. He allowed his riches to isolate him. He assumed that all that was important was that he enjoy retirement, that he get to eat, drink, and be merry. We, however, recognize that we have responsibilities to our families, our community and our church. Ahhhh. We thank God that we’ve been taught the Protestant work ethic and that we lead responsible, reasonable lives.
Why is the rich man a fool? Why is the rich man a fool? The rich man is NOT a fool because he laid up treasure, or because he was not “rich” toward God, nor even because he did not provide for others. The rich man is foolish because he thought he could secure himself against tomorrow. That he could secure himself against tomorrow! And by using his energy securing himself against tomorrow, he thought he could anesthetize himself from the insecurity of today. The folly of the rich man lies not only in his riches or his attachment to them, or even in his selfish irresponsibility; the folly of the rich man lies in his desire to build a bigger barn for security in an insecure world. Barn raising was his folly.
Now what do I mean by barn-raising? The thought of barn raising immediately conjures in my mind a picture of that wonderful scene from the movie Witness. Large wooden slats are furiously nailed together by Amish men while the sun splays golden hues everywhere and the women pass jars of water to the perspiring workers. Such a Hollywood act of solidarity is not what I mean by barn raising.
Our barn raising is a much slower process; it is an act we do individually, progressively and deliberately. When we are still relatively young people, we begin to make assumptions about our lives, and accommodations to secure our future. Our society tells us we are not entitled to economic security so we better be good financial planners; we better get into the best college; we better have a good paying job; we better marry right. Notice that all of these things assume that we are self-made people; we are individuals whose point and purpose is to secure ourselves and our future because, after all, no one else will!
This is not life! This is what the Bible calls death. In her book, Death By Bread Alone, feminist and liberationist theologian Dorothee Soelle describes it as “a slow and dreadful death in which all human relationships are mutilated and strangled. Of course, such a death does not mean we cease to exist. Our bodies still function. We still go about our chores and routines of life; we accomplish things; we breathe; we produce and consume [and excrete]; we come, go, and speak.” But we have lost the fullness of life and our quest for security has killed us. “I have a neighbor,” Dorothee writes,
an elderly, childless man whose wife died not long ago. One day he called me over to show me some damage, the scratches some children had made on his property with their bicycles. “Just look at what they have done,” he said, “this house is all we have.” … My neighbor had worked for what he had. He lived in that house, kept it in repair, took care of it. “This house is all we have,” he had said. Suddenly it dawned on me that this man was dead. He had died from no longer having any kind of relationship with another human being.
This is what the Bible means when it speaks of death. Death is what takes place within us when we look upon others not as gift, blessing, or stimulus but as threat, danger, competition. … This is the death that the Bible fears and gives us good reason to fear. It is not the final departure we usually think of when we speak of death; it is that purposeless, empty existence devoid of genuine human relationships and filled with anxiety, silence, and loneliness.
Indeed. The gospel provides us a different vision, one of interdependence as the way to weather times of plenty and want. Over the past six weeks, in sermons, we have attended to how Jesus was renewing the covenant communities of Ancient Israel, renewing peoples’ sense of need for one another, care for one another, and vulnerability before one another. We have heard him ask us to place our personal reputations in the hands of the community, open our kitchen tables and sacramental tables to those who experience welcome nowhere else, use all our goods for the common good, become dependent on the hospitality of our neighbors and stranger alike, and to make peace with our enemies. He meant it. And because he meant it, he taught us to pray: Our Father . . .
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive our debts
as we forgive those in debt to us.
Save us from the time of trial
and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and forever. Amen.
Contrast this vision with that of the anxious rich man. Even this rich man, a man with more money than all the hearers of this parable would have been able to amass in a lifetime, cannot secure himself.
God does not promise us security; God promises us community whose covenant life makes it possible for us not only to face and surmount adversity but also to grieve together when that is not possible, and not be destroyed. I am looking at people who have held one another in hard times. This covenant community not only supports us, but helps us name and confront the injustice within systems that make some of us terribly, wrongly and needlessly vulnerable. We pray and speak and act to address the sexual and racial violence, economic inequality, and environmental devastation that works death among us.
Why is the rich man a fool? The rich man is a fool because he thinks he can and must provide for himself, and secure himself against the future. The emphasis of this passage is not that “we’ll all die someday and we can’t take it with us.” No!! This passage exposes the futility of the man himself. Those who try to protect themselves live lives of futility. Lives of anxiety. Lives of certain death. They are the walking dead. They live the life of a fool.
Jesus insists we “Stop building (barns, walls, whatever we think will secure us in an insecure world) !” Because our treasure consists not in what we can provide for ourselves but in what God provides for us: the way of covenant community. Our treasure in heaven is God, who loves us so much that the embodiment of such love was sent us and walked among us to remind us of our covenant commitments to one another and to model life together. We do not need to build barns of false security as a defense against the world, but to walk with Jesus and one another through it. The Christian life is not a life that promises security but companionship with our loving God.