Monday, August 06, 2007

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.

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