Pastoring in the suburbs and pastoring in the city are two completely different animals. In an urban parish like this one, I will probably never be in most of your homes. But in a suburban parish, one will be in almost everyone's home. I worked in two suburban parishes of 100 members each before I came to Broadway. That meant that in both places I spent the first year going from house to house, eating endless pieces of pie and cake, drinking gallons of coffee, looking at scores of photographs, and hearing lots of stories. And every once in a while, I got invited to dinner.
That's what Jo did. She invited me to dinner. Jo was a widow who lived in this incredibly charming Dutch Colonial stone house that was chocked full of the treasures that she and her husband had collected over a lifetime. One day, Jo became ill and died. Everyone loved her, so the funeral packed the church. Once we had laid her to rest, her family did what all families do when the parents are gone: they closed the house. None of Jo's children lived close by. All of them led busy lives. And so they hired a company to come in to that charming house and sell everything. I was curious, so I went to the sale. Strange people met me at the door and asked me to come in and look around, having no sense of who I was or who I had been to Jo. And what I saw that day has never left me: literally everything in her house – from the furniture to the knick-knacks to the rugs and drapes and dishes and clothing had price tags on it. Everything she had collected and purchased and been given and loved was for sale.
A friend of mine once told a similar story about his friend, Alice Tully, of Lincoln Center fame. When Alice died, all of her valuable things went to Christie's. But the rest of it, photographs, dishes, even things like stockings went to another auction house where it was pawed over by strangers. My friend told me that seeing that shook him so deeply that he wept uncontrollably. He said: “No one's life should be reduced to people groveling over stockings.”
We spend our lives collecting things that we love and have meaning for us. But the hard truth is that one day, when are no more, people will take our things and divide them and sell them and fight over them and throw them away.
One day, someone in a crowd called out to Jesus: “Rabbi, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” We might assume that this was a younger brother who was unhappy with the unequal distribution of assets based on ancient Judaic inheritance practices. It was customary for the oldest male child to receive 2/3s of the estate, leaving 1/for the rest. (We can assume that females got nothing.) Maybe the man in the crowd that day hoped that this rabbi with his radical new ideas would say something fresh about dividing inheritance money more equitably. If Jesus had ideas about that, we don't hear them here. Instead, Jesus used the moment as a jumping off point to tell a story about the measure of our lives.
Once upon a time there was a very rich farmer who had a bumper crop. The harvest was so great that he didn't have any place to store it all. And so he decided that he would tear down the barns he had and build much bigger ones to store the tremendous surplus. Then he would kick back for the rest of his life, take an early retirement and enjoy the fruits of his labor. But the party ended before it ever began. God spoke and God said: “You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus ends this unsettling story by saying: “So it is with everyone who stores up treasures for himself or herself, but is not rich toward God” – which is another way of saying “not rich toward those made in God's image.”
This is, perhaps, the most un-American story in the Bible. It flies in the face of our ideas about the superior nature of our capitalist system. And it is contrary to the way I was reared. From the time I was a little kid, I was taught to work hard and save my money for a rainy day – the more saved, the better. Abundance today protects you from poverty tomorrow. My mother canned food – hundreds of jars of green beans and tomatoes and corn and jam for the long, Indiana winters. That's just smart, right? What can be wrong about being prepared? What was so wrong with the rich farmer building new barns to hold the surplus grain? He's just a good businessman, practicing the art of the deal. So why does Jesus give him such a bum rap?
Well, to begin with, this man was no ordinary farmer. He was a major landowner. This was an agri-business. And that made him significantly different from almost everyone else. You see, the vast majority of the people in the ancient Near East did not own land even though they lived in an agrarian society. They worked the land of others or they were tradespeople or merchants. And all of these non-land owners bought their staples from this man. His success or failure was essential to the entire community's life. He literally fed his neighbors. He was literally his brother and sister's keeper.
So, what he might have done with all that surplus grain was sell it to his neighbors at a reduced rate – abundance for everyone. He still would have made a profit just by the sheer volume of his sales. But instead he hoarded the life-giving grain. One commentator has suggested that by doing do, he could dole that food out bit by bit, creating a demand that wasn't really there and thus driving the price up. Sound familiar?
In addition to that, the rich man completely removed God from the equation of his life. He speaks in the first person (“I” and “my”) eleven times in this short story. Not once is there a mention of the God who created the seed and soil and sun. There is no prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings of a bumper crop. Instead there is a singular attention to what this wealth will mean for him and him alone. It is tremendous wealth and power concentrated in one man's hands. Sound familiar?
But then God speaks. And this is the only time in any of the parables of Jesus that God actually speaks. And what God says should give us all pause: “You old fool, your time's up. You're planning for your future at just the moment that your life is over. And all these things you have accumulated, whose will they be once you're gone?” As the writer of Ecclesiastes put it: “one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.”
Just like the rich farmer, we will all die and leave everything we have ever owned behind. That is the truth that ought to frame our relationship with possession and money. And yet we sometime live our lives as if that inevitable truth is not true at all. And the church, for the most part, does not challenge our attitudes toward money because the church is too busy protecting its own money. Peter Rhea Jones has made the astute observation that a great many American Christians are really “practical atheists” in regard to their relationship with money. What he means by that is that while we verbalize a belief in God, we sometimes live as if God doesn't exist. We know the Gospel's demands for generosity and charity and economic justice, but how do those things find practical expression in our lives - or in the life of this church or this city or this nation? That is a question you should take with you into the voting booth.
Now, of course, it's wise to plan for one's retirement. I certainly do! But according to Jesus, it's wiser still to plan for one's “expirement.” And apparently, if the Bible is to be believed, then how we live with money and possessions – how we share or don't share - is a big part of how God measures our lives. The tragedy of the rich man was not that he was rich. It was that he was myopic and self-centered and fearful.
We're hearing a lot about fear in this election cycle. We're hearing a lot about battening down the hatches and protecting what is ours. But the challenge of the Gospel of Jesus is that we are called to live not in fear, but by faith. We are called, not to build walls, but to throw doors open. We are called to take what we have been given, whether it is little or a lot, and to bless those made in God's image. Is that hard? Is it counter-cultural? Is it against the tide You betcha. But anything less is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.