Luke 12:13-21. 13 Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 15And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ 16Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”18Then he 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. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
Does anyone know what this is? [8” x 10” piece of soapstone with a metal handle on one end] It’s a relic from our family barn in Ohio, where stuff collected for most of the 1900’s. It’s a foot-warmer – you put on (or maybe in) a stove, then on the floor of your buggy or Model T. Keeps your feet toasty warm in the winter. Maybe just one foot!
For me, this stone is a little reminder of that barn, which I thought was a kind of magical place when I was growing up. When I hear the word “barn,” I get all nostalgic. The loft area of that barn was full of useless things from another time.
Once upon a time (1978), I went looking for the small village in rural Wisconsin where my grandfather grew up. Romance, Wisconsin (population 705 in 2000). He knew I was going and asked me to get a picture of the small Methodist church building down the road from the family farm. He attended that church as a boy, in the days of the horse and buggy, and wanted to see how it looked after 70-plus years. I found the place after a couple of visits: a very small wooden building. The front door was nailed shut; there was hay coming out of the Gothic window over the door. It was now a barn.
That’s not a really a bad image if you need a metaphor. The earliest New England churches were really nothing more than barns with windows. To work in a little symbolism, a barn is a place where the flock (or the herd) finds shelter and food! The Lord is my shepherd; this is the Lord’s barn!
In the 17-1800’s, there was very often a fenced-in area right next to the church building where people would put stray farm animals. Unless you lived in a city, almost everybody had a barn until about a century ago – now we’ve got garages, unless you live in a city.
When you’re looking for a new house, you pay attention to the storage space. Maybe you’re thinking of what you’ve already got in storage. What do you keep in your barn these days? How far back do the clothes go? I think we could all confess to at least a little bit of a hoarding instinct.
Somebody said, “Jesus – help me get my share of the family estate!” Jesus – you seem to have the ability to make people do the right thing or feel enormous guilt. Help me get what I want!
There is an African proverb that goes, “Where there is a will, there will be family.” Families can fall apart over issues like this. Maybe someone here is thinking of a time when the settlement of a will didn’t go as planned and it affected a relationship.
But Jesus wants his disciples to keep first things first – loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself – so he goes on to tell a story about a rich farmer and his barns.
In Palestine, having a barn in the time of Jesus would have been a pretty big deal. There has never been much lumber for things like that; storage buildings were made mostly of stone (there are a lot of rocks in Palestine). This farmer already has barns. He tears them down to build bigger ones.
In my bible, the title of that reading from Luke is “The Rich Fool.” But is he really so foolish? By the standards of our society he is doing pretty well. He has money and makes a good living. He’s not a criminal; he’s not breaking the law. He’s invested wisely and deserves a life of comfort. He tells himself so; in fact, he is the only person in the story he talks to. He doesn’t talk to God; he doesn’t talk to his neighbors, he talks to himself, which might be the first obvious problem of foolishness. And in a time and place where many people need what he’s producing – mainly food, he’s keeping it for himself. He isn’t even trying to sell it.
During the times that I’ve traveled to places like the Dominican Republic, I’ve tried to get a handle on how the economy works there. Unemployment is very high (if employment means I have a job that the government can keep track of), but behind the scenes, people have a way of taking care of each other. I have some cows; I’ll give you some milk if you give me some of the cheese you make. You can sell the rest, or trade for something you need. The economy isn’t totally like that, but you get the idea.
If you build barns to store up food, that makes a statement to the community. Why would you hoard the stuff that everybody needs? On this last trip, I met a dairy farmer with a barn, but other than that, I’ve never met anyone in the Dominican Republic who even had a storage shed.
What are you keeping in your barn? What do you have in your house or garage that is totally useless, but hard to let go of? Could selling these useless things provide help for someone else? You might be thinking, well, nobody needs that prom dress from 1971, or your ties from 1961, but to make a connection with the rich guy in the story…. the United States stores more food and throws away more food than everyone else on the planet. So this tendency toward hoarding might be a sin we own as a culture.
When his hoard didn’t help that farmer when he needed it most, Jesus says, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (v. 21)
Jesus talks about the rich and the poor – as much or more – than any other topic in Luke. He actually seems obsessed with the wealth he sees compared with the poverty he sees. Now, does Jesus simply mean that we should get our priorities straightened out? Or are we actually supposed to share what we have with the poor? This is why it seems to me that Jesus is dangerous. He messes up the status quo. You know, my family and friends work hard for what they have, to build up a good “quality of life.” We all work hard to create a safe place to live and work. Why should it bother me that some folks in some of our neighborhood around here (or Lancaster or Philly) don’t have the family support structure I do? If they work hard they can have it too. God, do I really need to worry about them?
The problem we have with Jesus is that we understand what he does – healing, dying for us, living again and giving us new life – but we have a lot of trouble understanding and doing what he says. We just don’t want to.
How are our kids being trained to use things? What kind of exposure do they get to people who are not like them, especially those with fewer things and less money? A few years ago, there was a survey that found out that the life goal of most college freshmen is to make lots of money. This is why mission experiences for our kids are so important: they teach the kids that they are not alone in the world, and that God counts on them to express their faith in meaningful ways. We teach them that our lifestyle can have an indirect effect on the way other people live. There are people who can use a hand – down the street and in places like Biloxi or Appalachia or the Dominican Republic. It’s not easy to teach this because it’s not what they are learning in their real world.
Later on in chapter 12 of Luke, Jesus says, “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (12:33-34)
Did Jesus mean that literally? Sell your possessions, and give alms (give to the poor)? Do the things that make for treasure in God’s kingdom. Do the things that are priceless? What does that look like?
What are you keeping in your barn? God’s kingdom is all about relationships, between each of us and God, between each other. Loving God and loving the neighbor, especially if the neighbor is not like you, especially if the neighbor has needs, that is the investment plan in God’s kingdom. Find ways to do those things and you are well on your way toward untold wealth.
Take a break from building your barn and help someone build a life. What does that look like?
As a church, what are we keeping in our barn? For us, Jesus has something to say about our lifestyles and our lifestyle together. What are we storing up for ourselves? What do we have that everybody needs? Let’s give it away so we can be rich. What exactly is it that we can be doing to “make a difference through the love of Christ?”
Being a successful church of Jesus Christ has very little to do with a balanced budget, or new paint on the walls, or how many people are attending worship. Our success is directly related to the things we are doing to make a difference through the love of Christ. What are those things? That’s the question we need to be able to answer, because that’s what will make us a successful church.
O God, clear our minds and our hearts of the clutter and the junk that keeps us from seeing you and seeing each other. Teach us about possessions and treasures. Help us love you with a deeper love, and through your Spirit, help us understand who and what is important to you.
We thank you for your care for us, especially for the treasures that come from our faith in you – a church family that cares, and a growing sense of purpose in following you. Help us live out our prayers in real ways; make us living expressions of your love for our world. Amen.