Sunday, August 26, 2007

August 26 Sermon--What's in a Name

Sermon Texts: Jeremiah and Luke

Today I adapted a sermon by Will Willemon to our particular context. If you would rather read his sermon, it can be found here.

Lara and I love pouring over names for our next child (no, this isn't an announcement, just a sermon illustration.) This is one of our favorite activities, although we rarely find a name that we can both agree on. Atticus Rex Mattox sounds great in my estimation, but it’s going to take some convincing.
All of us have friends who are hard to imagine with some other name. Some names conjure up definite pictures in all of our minds: Poindexter. Can you see him? He looks like a Poindexter. Grace. See her? She is her name. She is gracious, grace-filled. She is Grace. It’s like someone saw these people, got to know them, then said, “Yep, you should be called Poindexter.” But of course, that’s hardly ever the way it is with names. You get a name, then you grow to it. Maybe he’s Poindexter because that’s what he was given, and over time, he became as he was called. Poindexter. I think that’s the way it is with Grace. Grace. Probably too big, too high-sounding a name for a wild little girl romping about the house. But over time, she’s called Grace she became Grace, gracious, graceful. Grace. Rarely do we pick our names for ourselves. Our names pick us. Our parents give us our names. Other people bestow names upon us, and sometimes these names, these nicknames, are not at all the names we would have chosen for ourselves.
On the high school football team, everyone had to have a name — and I understand that it is this way even today: “Goofus,” “The Beast,” “Slim,” “Mad Dog,” “Timmy.” Sometimes the names were in loving jest, designating what we loved in a person. I just had a phone conversation this past week with a friend who’s getting his PhD at Duke whom we always called “Noodle” in college. Smart guy, that noodle, we’d say to ourselves in dorm meetings.
All through my life, every coach I’ve ever had has shortened my name to “Nate” instead of “Nathan.” That’s fine with me. My mom calls me “Natty Bumpo,” after the James Fenmore Cooper character, and telemarketers call me “Michael” and I promptly hang up on them. (They call me Michael because it’s my first name.) I suppose I look like a Matt, because I oftentimes am called Matt. Maybe people are just trying to remember that my last name has two tts instead of two dds. Yet there were other not so generous names — “Small Fry,” “Fatty, Fatty No Neck,” “Hunchback,” “Cripple,” “Ugly,” “Retard.” Sometimes these names represent our cruelty toward others, rather than our love.
I can remember
Can you feel that pain, do you know that pain, the pain of a name that hurts, traps, confines, cuts to the heart? It makes much difference how we are named. Today’s gospel is a story about a woman. In my Bible she is identified as “the bent woman.” How would you like to be immortalized in Scripture that way? She was bent over, had been bent over, staring at the ground, back terribly contorted, for many, many years. She doesn’t appear to have a name to anyone in town. When they saw her, creeping down the street, body bent, eyes attempting to lift up from the ground, they didn’t say “Here comes Mary,” or “Look, its Elizabeth.” They said, “Here comes the bent woman, the crippled woman.”
That was her name and in her name was her life, her destiny, her whole sad fate. Part of us may be a bit amused by the current attempts to speak of persons not by some of our traditional designations, such as “crippled,” “blind,” or “deaf,” but rather as “person with disabilities,” “persons with special needs,” “visually challenged person,” and so on. Surely this is a good attempt by persons who are different from the majority to name themselves, to gain some freedom from having the majority name them, label them, pigeonhole them and thus discriminate against them. The woman doesn’t have a name, other than the one given to her by the town, a name based upon her disability. She doesn’t have an identity other than that of a victim. She doesn’t have a family, it seems, no occupation, nothing other than her deformity. She is the one who is bent, stooped, bearing upon her shoulders an invisible yet very heavy burden, the burden of being different, the burden of not looking like everyone else, the burden of not being able to do what everyone else does. She is the crooked woman, the bent woman. She is there, I think, for everyone who is so named. She is “just a drunk,” or “retarded,” “slow,” “stupid,” “grossly overweight,” “blind as a bat,” “gimp.” She is encountered by Jesus. And how Jesus refers to her. Jesus heals her, and that’s wonderful. For the first time in her adult life, she is able to stand up straight, to look straight ahead, to be restored to what we call normalcy. But perhaps just as wonderful is the way Jesus speaks to her, what Jesus says about her. He does not call her disabled, or hindered, or a victim of life’s unfairness, though from most points of view, she is. Jesus seems to have no need in making her a professional victim, so that her disability defines her whole life. Rather, Jesus calls her “a daughter of Abraham.” I think that’s significant. This one whom we, even my Bible, calls the crooked woman, the bent woman, is called by Jesus a daughter of Abraham. What does that mean? Who was Abraham? Abraham was the great, great-granddaddy of Israel. Abraham was the one to whom, one starry night, a promise was given. God promised to make a great nation out of Abraham, a nation through which all the nations of the earth would be blessed. She is a daughter of Abraham. She is an heir to the blessings of God. Moreover, as a daughter of Abraham, she is called to be a blessing to the whole world. She is meant for more than superficial, cruel, limiting labeling. She, bent over though she is, is part of God’s great salvation of the whole world. She stands up straight. Even if her back had not been healed by Jesus, I think she would now have stood up straight. Her life had been caught up in God’s promises to the world. Her life had been renamed, not as a long story of injustice, victimization, and sadness, but as part of the great drama of God’s redemption. Let us therefore remember her, not as just one more sad victim, not as the woman with a bent back, but as a daughter of Abraham. Jesus means to name you. He will not let you acquiesce to the names the world wants to lay upon you. Our God knows us better than that. Our text from Jeremiah shows God speaking to Jeremiah and all of us, “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” You are daughters, sons of Abraham. You life is meant to count for something, to take its place on stage in God’s great drama of redemption. God says, “before you were born, I consecrated you.”
Therefore, in our church, when we baptize a baby, we ask what name has been given to the child. And then, though the parents may have named the child “Zane,” or “Wesley,” “Mollie,” or “Atticus,” we now lay on the child a much more determinative, revealing name — “Christian.” We predict that this child’s life will be long story of growing into that name, living into God’s gracious dreams for us. You also are a daughter or son of Abraham. Your name, whatever else we may call you, is “Christian.” Stand up straight, act like it, go in peace. Fred Craddock tells of meeting a man one day in a restaurant. “You a preacher?” the man asked. Somewhat embarrassed, Fred said, “Yes.” The man pulled a chair up to Fred’s table. “Preacher, I’ll tell you a story. There was once a little boy who grew up said. Life was tough because my mama had me but she had never been married. Do you know how a small Tennessee town treats people like that? Do you know the words they use to name kids that don’t have no father? “Well, we never went to church, nobody asked us. But for some reason or other, we went to church one night when they was having a revival. They had a big, tall preacher, visiting to do to the revival and he was all dressed in black. He had a thunderous voice that shook the little church. “We sat toward the back, Mama and me. Well, that preacher got to preaching, about what I don’t know, stalking up and down the aisle of that little church preaching. It was something. “After the service, we were slipping out the back door when I felt that big preacher’s hand on my shoulder. I was scared. He looked way down at me, looked me in the eye and says, ‘Boy, who’s your Daddy?’ “I didn’t have no Daddy. That’s what I told him in trembling voice, ‘I ain’t got no Daddy.’ “‘O yes you do,’ boomed that big preacher, ‘you’re a child of the Kingdom, you have been bought with a price, you are a child of the King!’ “I was never the same after that. Preacher, for God’s sake, preach that.” The man pulled his chair away from the table. He extended his hand and introduced himself. Craddock said the name rang a bell. He was Ben Hooper, the legendary former governor of the state of Tennessee.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Photos from baptisms at the Disciples of Christ Church

Today, Bayjou, Tori, and Kassi were baptized, and Mollie was confirmed. Congrats girls. Thanks to the Chrisitan church (DOC) for letting us use their baptistry.

Confirmation Day sermon

Texts: from Hebrews and Luke

It is always interesting to me to look at the scriptures that the lectionary offers us when I have planned something out of sync with the customary time frame. Confirmations are usually celebrated on Easter or on Pentecost, not in the middle of the summer. But for us, this is the season for confirmation, and we today celebrate the decisions of these 4 young people to take vows of professing membership in the church.
The scriptures today seem an odd choice for such a festive occasion, and I suppose they are a choice, because I could have easily picked out something else and gone off the lectionary today to find some more “appropriate” texts to focus us on the things at hand, but the lectionary texts are there to challenge preachers to apply the text to the context, and that’s what I feel led by the Spirit to do.
What are we professing? “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” Christ assures us that making this pledge doesn’t always win us friends and make us popular. Today’s Gospel passage gives us pause. You may have wondered, “who is speaking here? Is it Jesus? “I did not come to bring peace to the Earth, but division?” But what about the angels calling him “Prince of Peace” at his birth? What are you getting at Jesus?
Christ is telling his followers and his listeners that things aren’t going to be easy because we become followers. In many cases they become harder. It sometimes creates divisions, even ripping the fabric of the household, when we truly follow Christ and take a stand for him in the world.
I had colleagues in seminary who were practically disowned by disappointed parents when they chose to go into the ministry. Jesus didn’t write the book “How to win friends and influence people.” He writes the “Book of Life,” and sometimes life, Real life, is threatening to our comforts of home and the status quo.
“Resisting evil” has been Hollywoodized in our mental perceptions. Resisting evil may conjure images of standing up against the fiery, scary, repulsive, and unabashedly hateful powers of Hell. While evil can be all of these things, we take vows to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Don’t forget that what you pledge to resist can oftentimes seem very comfortable, it can seem glamorous. It wouldn’t be very tempting if it weren’t.
Part of resisting evil is resisting temptation. Our gospels tell the story of evil presenting itself to Jesus as power, glory, and “easy street.” Pray for the faith of Christ and the wisdom to discern when God is offering you rest and when Evil is masquerading as good. If “good things” are distracting you from the Love of God and neighbor, if your Spirit feels drowsy, then you have probably fallen into the trap of temptation. But you can always climb out if you ask God to throw you a rope.
Author of Hebrews speaks about those who have been victorious and those who have suffered with equal admiration. He ascribes faith to both of the groups. Faith does not keep us from suffering, sometimes having faith makes us a target for suffering.
But we do have comfort in the “cloud of witnesses.” There is a reason why the congregation responds to each of these young people who profess their faith. There is a reason we ask parents and sponsors and friends to come and surround each person as they kneel and we invoke the Spirit’s presence and activity in their lives. It is because the cloud of witnesses is alive and present! It is real, not just a name!
Hebrews speaks about the generations upon generations who have exemplified the faith that is the “assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things unseen.” The Bible contains stories of the called who have professed the faith over the centuries. These stories can lift us up when we are faltering. The cloud of witnesses include our loved ones who have run the race before us, and the people of our faith story who shape the present with the record of the experience of God in the past.
And what is it that we are all called to do? Lay aside every weight and Put aside that sin that clings so closely. Put it aside because it’s not the real you! It’s not the clothes of the children of God! I told the confirmands that the way the early church practiced baptism was to take off every stitch of clothing and come down into the waters. This symbolized this very real notion that we do lay aside that weight and that sin, and when we are reborn out of the waters of baptism, we are as naked and new and blameless as that newborn coming from the waters of her mother’s womb.
Early Christians would then come up out of the water and stomp on their old clothing to symbolize their disregard for the previous life, and then would receive new white robes. The new white robes evoked “putting on Christ,” as Paul speaks so eloquently about in his letters. This almost always occurred on midnight of Easter Eve, when the church watched and waited and celebrated the New Creation that was inaugurated upon Christ’s resurrection from Death itself.
So, we take off the weight of sin and run with perseverance the race. Don’t give up when you get out of breath. Push through the cramps in your guts and keep running. Get outside yourself and understand that you are running for the glory of Christ. Your faith is a testament to the triumph of love over hate, forgiveness over revenge, God over evil.
Running with perseverance the race that is set before us: When we profess our faith and pledge our allegiance to Jesus Christ, we boldly step forward into a future unknown by us with the assurance that what we hope for awaits us if not before, at least at the end of our journey. We may hope for health, wealth, and peace—and for some that is the race that is set before them. For others, it is not. Jesus speaks to that reality in the gospel lesson today.
For some, following Christ down the path set before us may mean poverty, oppression, and division. But faith can be exemplified in both paths—and the stories in our Bible lift up examples of both. In everything, God may be glorified, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. I’ve never liked running. I can recall running for football and tennis when I was in high school. I don’t know if I’ve run since then (unless it has been running to catch an airplane). Running isn’t pleasant for me. But there are those who crave the “runner’s high.” They love the feeling of pushing through the pain and feeling the rush of endorphins that our body injects into our bloodstream to keep us going.
Hebrews speaks about the vision of Christ in his glory as that kind of “runner’s high.” This vision keeps us going even when we encounter difficulty and division along the way. Can you see Jesus? Can you see him bearing the cross ahead of us? Can you see him being lifted up in glory? Can you follow on the race set before you?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Should I be baptized again?

As I am preparing to baptize some of our youth this Sunday by immersion (my first time to do so--we will meet at 10am at the Disciples of Christ Church on 3rd st), I wandered across this great article relating to baptism.
Those in our neck of the woods who were baptized as infants have likely been questioned about that practice and have perhaps even doubted the validity of our own baptism because of the seemingly airtight arguments of those who disagree with infant baptism. If you've ever found yourself wondering "well, should I be baptized again?," the author of this article makes a pretty strong case for the historical and theological "defense" of infant baptism. It is written by an Orthodox priest, and has many scriptural and historical warrants for infant baptism. We also have an excellent resource ( a bit longer ) linked on our sidebar on the United Methodist Undertanding of Baptism called "By Water and the Spirit."

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Aug. 12 Sermon: A hand in the Dark

Psalm 50
Luke 12:32-40
Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

Recently I was delighted to receive a question on Myspace from one of our youth. The question was so earnest—it filled me with joy that I am the minister of this congregation, and I get to engage in these kinds of conversations. It read:
From Jessica
“Faith, it's easy to explain the grace of God to people that have faith already...but what about the people that can't see anything but bad in the world and wonder where God is to do something about it. Of course, its a very cliche question but it is so common because its a question nobody can truly answer. But you have somewhat touched on you thoughts over the situation but never had the opportunity to go into further detail. I would just like some scriptures and verses to help with my journey.”
I commend Jessica for taking time to formulate and ask the question, for taking the time to think about sharing her faith, and for struggling with the very real call that is given to each of us who profess to be members of the Body of Christ to share what it means to have faith with our neighbors.
I share it with you today because I believe our selection from the Hebrews really enhances it. Faith: how to explain it. The first verse from Hebrews gives us something to start with, something to orient us in this pursuit. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Let’s say it together:
Faith is a way of seeing. St. Augustine put it perfectly. He said, "To have faith is to believe what you can't see and the reward of faith is to see what you believe." Isn’t that a beautiful way to think about faith? Paul talked about “seeing with the eyes of our hearts.” This is the same concept. Though the world may seem ugly and malicious and scary, faith is the “assurance of things hoped for.”
Faith is linked to hope, but faith and hope are distinct qualities. Hope is what Emily Dickenson called "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all." George Iles knew hope as “faith holding out its hand in the dark.” And Bern Williams claimed that “The day the Lord created hope was probably the same day he created Spring."
Yes, we can become romantic about hope. It is a wonderful thing. Hope, though, can be elusive. It is a state of mind which can be wrenched out of us. Without faith, it can fly out of our souls as easily as it perched there. It can go unfed and whither. George Eliot said that "What we call despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.”
While hope may be a what Emily Dickenson called "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all." Faith is the words that fit the tune perfectly. While “The day the Lord created hope was probably the same day he created Spring,” faith, as the assurance of what is hoped for, is the act of planting the summer harvest. Indeed, hope is “faith holding out its hand in the dark,” and faith is the “confirmation of things unseen.”
There’s a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that elaborates this idea pretty plainly.

When I was young, I had an incredible belief in the unseen.
I believed that every night, aliens were standing right outside my window, trying to peak through the blinds. I remember calling out to my mom, much like Wesley now does with us, to come quick because there were monsters in the closet. My parents would lovingly walk over to the closet, open it, and turn on the closet light and look around. “No, son, there aren’t any monsters here!”
I remember being mystified about how brave my parents were to so boldly walk over to the closet and open the door to inspect the closet. I had a firm belief in things unseen. But it was my parents who were exemplifying faith. You see, their action, their boldness was a “confirmation” that the closet didn’t contain any monsters. Their willingness to open the door without any fear of monsters coming out and devouring them alive was an assurance of what I deeply hoped for—that monsters weren’t really in the closet after all! You see, fear and faith don’t occupy the same zip code. If I’m afraid of things unseen, I’ve just got an overactive imagination. But if the unseen gives me confidence and hope and boldness, then my faith is a confirmation or proof of the existence and goodness of the unseen.
So, if we are contemplating our faith in grace, as Jessica was, we might look at the lives of those who have faith in grace and see how it compares to those lives lived without faith in grace. Some people orient their faith life around the notion of God’s wrath. What kinds of lives do we see lived in those circumstances?
I have known people who orient themselves in this direction, and I have found them to be full of fear or spitefulness. An over-emphasis of the wrath of God in our faith life turns us into little children quivering under our blankets, afraid of the monsters in the closet. They either turn God into that monster, and are at their core afraid of God, or they turn those people they believe earn God’s wrath into that monster in the closet and live with a heavy reproach and torment in their souls.
If our faith is a reflection of God, then that kind of faith doesn’t reflect God: perhaps we are worshipping something else. That is a faith of fear. There is no fear in God’s wrath. God’s wrath is born of a deep seeded concern for justice for the widow and the orphan, the poor and oppressed. Dare I say that this is not typically the concern of our contemporaries who put a put an emphasis on the wrath of God?
I like to witness lives of faith that are molded by the deep conviction in God’s grace. In my opinion, that faith is a proof of God’s unseen grace. That faith is the essence of what is hoped for. That faith mirrors God’s love and generosity and forgiveness and transformative power. Those are the kinds of people who are just magnetic. Their faith is a great joy to carry, not a burden on their backs. Why live in a way when you have to go around carrying all that scorn? Is that what God created our hearts to do?
You know how it is when a young couple falls in love. Jack and Jill. Some of the old gossips say over their bridge cards, "I don't know what he sees in her," or "I don't know what she sees him." They are absolutely right. They don't know, but Jack knows. He sees in Jill the fulfillment of the ideal of womanhood and she sees in him a very wonderful man. There has been nobody like him ever. Who is right, the old gossips or Jack and Jill?
William James once gave his attention to that question. He said, "It's Jack and Jill who are right, and for this reason, they are right because love and trust and openness reveal what suspicion and hostility and cynicism will hide."
Perhaps this is another way to get inside this “conviction in things unseen:” Do you believe in the wind? I do! I “see the wind” because I can see and feel and hear it move things. I see and hear it rustle the leaves in the sweetgums outside my window. I feel it when I’m riding my bike around town. I have faith in the wind (and in Oklahoma, that’s not hard to do).
I believe in the Holy Wind—the invisible Holy Spirit, because I can see and hear and feel it move things as well! I have witnessed it move people to act charitably when you would expect them to respond with anger or vengeance. I have heard it when I have read inspired words or heard inspired music. I have felt it urge me to respond to the world around me by reflecting God’s grace.
The Psalm we heard today says God “speaks to and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.” Do you hear that? Do you hear the summons? The Psalmist is expressing the ever-present-ness of our God. Here we witness a testament to God’s closeness, to the majesty of God’s presence. Yet, it happens all day, every day! God doesn’t keep silence, around him are things as inconspicuous as fires and storms. If we open our eyes to the unseen, perhaps we will see the illumining fire. Perhaps we will see Christ in “the least of these,” perhaps we will see the Divine face in a flower or a tree or a thunderhead or a neighbor. Perhaps we will see God’s provision in the neat haybales and the produce section of the grocery store. Perhaps we will live with faith and trust.
So, as Jesus told his disciples, be attentive! Watch with hope and excitement for the return of our master. Keep the house clean and ready to celebrate. Don’t fall asleep with your faith. Don’t be lazy with your spiritual life! Don’t settle for the treasure that will eventually tarnish and rot. Don’t become distracted by the empty calories that leave us feeling full only for a while. Seek the fullness of God! Cultivate your spirits as carefully as do your careers. I believe that this opportunity I have mentioned with the covenant discipleship groups is one method to be attentive to our Spiritual lives. By tuning in to the pulse of faith, we will become instruments of God’s grace and love. We will become proof of things unseen. We are reaching out for that hand in the dark. Keep your faith stirred up and fresh. It is the essence of all we hope for. It is the proof of things unseen. Don’t hide it under a bushel! Let it shine God’s sunlight into all you say and do. Let it reflect God’s grace into a world that needs love.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Our new storage building!

Here's our new storage building our trustees have been working hard to prepare for....

Aug 5 sermon: Dangers of a Bigger Barn

I had planned on avoiding this gospel passage for a while, what with our building project that we just finished and everything. But then, I came home from the mission project and looked at the scriptures, and there it was in the lectionary. Oops! Maybe we’re meant to wrestle with it!
We all know that rich fool don’t we? The rich fool has made quite an impact in our culture! We live in a world where he is preaching his message to a captive audience. I say a captive audience because many of us are trapped in a cycle of consumerism. We buy to make us feel better after something goes wrong. We buy to show affection. After the devastating events of 9/11, some of the first words out of George Bush’s and Rudy Giuliani’s mouths were—“Eat out, go shopping, catch a play, go on a trip, go to Disneyworld.” It is almost as if the grief and fear that Americans felt that day ran the risk of disrupting our programming—which has carefully conditioned us to buy when the going is good, and to buy when the going gets tough.
Whereas humans used to memorize love sonnets or Biblical passages, now we inadvertently memorize commercial taglines. (Example?) This mentality is so pervasive in our culture, that a subversive group called Adbusters, which utilizes the techniques of consumerism to sabatoge consumerism (they call it “culture jamming”) has launched “National Buy Nothing Day!” (Each year on Nov. 26). The timing of Buy Nothing day is not accidental—Adbusters paid attention to the dictum of “killing a snake by cutting off its head” by attacking the biggest consumer spending day of the year.
First we sit around a table and enjoy the God of communion and family—the God of the hearth: and then we go to the malls to pay tribute to our National God—Consumption! You can’t serve two masters? Pshaw, I’m an American—I can have it both ways if I feel like it! The two masters duke it out on Nov. 22nd and 23rd.
In this corner, we have we have the God of Thanksgiving: the Spirit of community, sharing, putting aside differences, changing leaves, and naps in front of a fire after Turkey dinner—and in this corner: we have the God of 25% off sales, new shoes when your old ones work just fine, disposable everything, and crowded parking lots---You know who I’m talking about the Great Mammon! Lets get ready to rumble!!!!
It couldn’t be more poetically ironic that these two days rub shoulders. Its actually no accident at all—it was some smart advertiser figuring out that all those families would be easy prey—Day 1, families get together and try to get along for a few hours so grandpa can cut the turkey and mom can fuss about the stuffing being too dry like she does every year. By Day 2, said family is ready for a break from each other—so kick open the doors to the mall with fanfare and tell people there’s only a month to spend your brains out so you can show the same family how much you love them as a reflection of God’s gift to humanity on Christmas.
The rich fool is affirming our preconceived notions of greatness in accumulation. We are encouraged to build bigger and bigger barns to store our surplus of goods. The problem is that once we get that bigger barn, more stuff comes along that we end up needing to store. I wonder how many cultures in the world have a thriving industry built on the principle of building a lot of empty spaces for people to come and “store” their unused stuff that they bought the day after Thanksgiving. Not only do we have too much stuff to occupy our time in our homes, we have to rent space outside our homes to put all our unused stuff in.
What are we hoping to do by accumulating all of this stuff? The New Interpreters Bible Commentary points out that “Until the voice of God interrupts the fool’s reverie, there is nothing in the story but the man and his possessions. His goods and prosperity have become the sole pursuit of his life, until finally the poverty of his abundance is exposed. Thus the parable plunges the hearer into a searching reflection on the meaning of life. WE may declare “whoever has the most toys when he dies wins,” but the parable exposes the emptiness of such a life style.”
The rich fool’s sin is a preoccupation with possessions. One can almost smell the unnecessary sawdust in the air as God balks at the rich man’s bright, shiny new barns. The sweat on the rich fool’s brow must’ve turned ice cold when God leveled him with the sentence: “This very night your life is being demanded of you.” The New Interpreters Bible commentary points out that the verb used here is literally a third-person plural: “they will demand” The subject is unstated. Probably the verb should be understood as a plural used in place of a divine passive: God will demand the man’s soul. But lurking as an alternative is the possibility that the antecedent is none other than the man’s goods themselves. His possessions will take his life from him. Then whose will they be? He presumed all along that he could hoard the bounty of the harvest for himself, but now whose will they be?
The rich man is utterly alone. His aloneness is accentuated by Jesus in this story by the fact that the man talks to himself. The rich fool is not only preoccupied with possessions, but he also exemplifies the foolishness of the Security in Self-sufficiency. This rich fool doesn’t need anyone else. He can provide for himself. He doesn’t look for security in the love of family or friends, or God’s love.
Many of us fall prey to this same Prideful inclination to think we can make it on our own. We call it “looking out for #1.” Sometimes this security in self-sufficiency mutates into the “grip of greed.” As Pink Floyd sang, “Money, Get back—I’m all right Jack, keep your hands off of my stack!” Our focus on our own needs becomes an obsession.
Here’s the good news and the bad news: we really can’t serve two masters! Jesus is trying to expand his listeners’ ideas about wealth and about what it is important to pursue in this life. He says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the accumulation of possessions.”
Jesus is on a mission to save souls—he looks on the other side of the boxing ring—and he sees an enemy in Mammon. In this parable, Jesus confronts the human need for material gratification. Jesus wants us to pay attention to the here and now, and the encounters with God that are possible if we open our eyes to a more significant reality than the reality that is shoveled down our throats in this consumer culture.
Paul echoes the concern when he advises the Colossians to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Paul speaks quite clearly about “putting to death those things within us that are earthly, such as greed,” which Paul further describes as idolatry. Jesus and Paul are cautioning us about letting our “possessions” possess us.
Fortunately, the God that calls the man in the parable a “fool” is doing so because He wants that man to wake up to the true essence of life—the things that make us “rich toward God.” God wants us to be truly wealthy, and Jesus is here to tell us how to achieve that wealth: we can “strive for the Kingdom of Heaven.” Avoiding the greed that so often comes with material wealth is a key to this Kingdom and is a freeing experience.
There is a story about a news interview with a man who lost his home in the fires in S. Cal. Recalling that his brother had recently mused that they should be careful not to allow their possessions to possess them, this man who had just seen everything he owned burn to the ground announced to the reporter with a note of unexpected triumph “I am a free man now!”
Fortunately for us, the parable is given to us to help us know the Kingdom of God will not be built with barns full of self. The Kingdom of God is in small, humble things like mustard seeds and yeast. Whereas shiny new barns brimming full satisfy the self and the self only—mustard seeds and yeast are small to our eyes, but God sees their potential as transformative. Humanity responds to “sure things” like accumulation, and God works with the possibilities of something we might not think worth accumulating.
It is at this table of communion that God seeks to meet us and show us that the things we may sometimes dismiss, such as bread and wine, may in fact hold the divine presence. A loaf of bread and about half a bottle of Welch’s grape juice, totaling about $4, is where God renews us and shapes us and meets us. These are the things of heaven. These are the things that should occupy our hearts.