July 31, 2016
Last September I received a letter in the mail. I had been told by friends to expect this letter, but I was still not prepared for it when it arrived. When I saw it in the mail that day, my face flushed. My hands shook slightly. I had to sit down and collect myself before I could even open the envelope. I could not believe that my time had come to receive such a letter. Its arrival meant that I had reached a turning point in my life; a new chapter. But was I ready?
The letter was my invitation to become a member of AARP: the American Association of Retired Persons. I was turning 50 in October, half a century, and that meant I could now join the same association that my parents belong to. Perhaps we could pool our senior discounts.
I’m making this moment sound a wee bit more dramatic than it actually was. I had been told by friends that you get an invitation when you turn 50, so I was expecting it. I hadn’t really considered whether I would join or not, but when I read that the cost of joining wasn’t that much and I got a free gift, I signed right up. (I also got a free gift for renewing my membership. Thanks AARP!)
Even with this invitation from AARP, turning 50 was not as traumatic as I had once believed it would be. In fact, it was fun. Being 50 hasn’t felt any different than being 49 or 48. But hitting mid-century does bring certain truths into the light. One of those truths is the reality that at some point in the somewhat nearer future, I will have to consider retirement. It’s not that close yet, but it’s much closer than it used to be. I would like to say that when I look ahead to retirement, I just focus on all the cool things I’ll be able to do – things that I don’t have the time or the means for right now. You know, traveling, taking up hobbies, learning new skills. But the truth is, when I think about retirement I don’t imagine its potential possibilities. No, when I imagine retirement I worry. I worry about being able to survive. I see those ads on television about planning for retirement, and I worry that I’m not taking that kind of planning seriously enough. I worry that by the time I am ready to retire, the cost of living will be so high that only the excessively wealthy will have the means to live comfortably.
I worry that I’ll have to work long past retirement age, not because I want to but because I have to. I worry that I’ll need to work long past retirement age, but that I won’t be able to because of health issues or other factors. I worry that I’ll be like someone who finally retires, then dies within a month or weeks or a day of retirement. I worry that I won’t have enough. I worry that there isn’t enough time. I worry and worry and worry. My worry drives me, and not to a happy place, but to an emotional and spiritual cliff’s edge. I worry.
Although the man Jesus described in this parable was in vastly different circumstances from my own, there is a sense that worry drove him as well.
Jesus was once again surrounded by a crowd of people. Someone in that crowd asked Jesus to tell this person’s brother to divide the family inheritance with him. When I hear something like that, I think of the bitter disputes that can ensue between siblings over an inheritance after a family member dies. I wonder if it was this kind of rancorous fight that pushed the man to ask Jesus for arbitration. But if the man looked to Jesus for help, he did not receive it. Jesus not only told him, “No, that’s not why I’m here,” he went onto warn the people about greed and putting stock in an abundance of possessions. Then he told them a parable.
Remember, Jesus didn’t tell parables to give people the warm fuzzies. He told them to make people think about familiar ideas, people, situations, etc. in new and unexpected ways. This parable was no different. It was about a rich man. This rich man had land that produced abundantly. As he surveyed his abundance the man thought to himself,
“'What should l do, for I have no place to store my crops? Then 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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”
But God had other plans. God spoke to this man and said,
“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Think back on the man’s words. Who was he talking to? What pronouns are used consistently throughout his monologue? The answer is I and my. What should I do? I have no place to store my crops. I will do this. I will pull down my barns. I will build larger ones. I will store all my grains and my goods. I will say to my soul.
I, my, I, my, I, my. Not once does he refer to anyone but himself. Jesus’ description was of a selfish man, true, but it was also a telling picture of a sad man. I know Jesus never used the word sad. The man didn’t seem to think of himself as sad. But I think he was. After all, he amassed all that wealth in grains and goods, but at the end of his life he only had himself to talk to. When God demanded his life, the man was alone. Jesus ended the parable with the words, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Why would this parable have shocked Jesus’ listeners? The obvious answer is just what Jesus said, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” The man put a lot of energy and time into storing up treasures for himself. But storing up grain for a future date would not have been that unusual. Think back to the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis. Joseph received visions of famine in the land, so he made sure that plenty of grain was stored in preparation. He and his brothers were reunited because of that famine. They came to Egypt seeking food so they and their families would not starve to death.
Surely a person who was able to store up grain was wise not foolish. That person was preparing for the future. But what did all of the man’s wealth of grain and goods do for him? He never even had a chance to use it. He amassed it, then he died. What I find particularly sad is the man’s address to his soul. Hey Soul, we’ve got this! Now we can sink back into an easy chair. Now we can eat and drink and have a great time. We’ve done it. We have secured our security.
Except his security did not ward off death. Nothing wards off death. Death is the great leveler, the great equalizer. No matter how rich or poor, we all die. I think Jesus wanted the people around him to understand this, to realize that no amount of treasure, no amount of wealth can secure any of us from death. The man, the “barn guy” as one commentator put it, spent a lifetime building wealth, but in the end he had not built relationships. He had not built community. He was not rich toward God. That poses another question. How are we rich toward God? God does not need our wealth. God does not require money or things. How are we rich toward God? We are rich toward God through our relationships. We give offerings and tithes to this congregation, not because God needs it, and not solely for keeping the lights on – and yes, the staff paid. We give because through our offerings, through the sharing of our treasures, we are able to reach out to God’s children. We are able to do the work of God’s kingdom.
But the barn guy Jesus spoke about did not understand that. He built his wealth, he built his barns, but he built nothing else. When he died, he was rich in stuff, but not rich in relationships, not rich in community.
Nowhere in this text does Jesus say that wealth is inherently bad. But he warns against greed. He warns against thinking that life only consists of an abundance of possessions. Jesus’ words were not so much a diatribe about too much stuff or too much money, it’s about our tendency to believe that those things make us secure, safe. They don’t. Jesus warned against greed because it distorts our priorities and it keeps us from being in real relationship with God and with each other. Ultimately, what good is our wealth if there is no one to share it with? What good is our abundance if stays stored in barns? What good is our worldly treasure if it keeps us from claiming the alternative treasure that God gives us in abundance?
So Jesus said, don’t worry. Don’t worry about what you will wear, what you will eat, how you will live. God clothes the ravens and the lilies of the field. They don’t sow or reap. They don’t stockpile for the future. They just live. Don’t worry.
But herein lies the rub. We are not the ravens, nor are we the lilies of the field. The primary needs of life – food, shelter, and clothing – require some amount of money. It is hard not to worry, at least a little bit, that we will or won’t have enough to meet even those basics of life.
Country singer and songwriter, Brandy Clark, has a song on her first album called, Pray to Jesus. The refrain goes,
“So we pray to Jesus and we play the lotto, cause there ain’t but two ways we can change tomorrow. And there ain’t no genie, and there ain’t no bottle. So we pray to Jesus and we play the lotto. Like a bumper sticker, like a poor man’s motto. Our time is short and our time is borrowed, so we pray to Jesus and we play the lotto.”
I think she is saying that even the most religious of us hedge our bets. We pray to Jesus, yes. But we also do whatever we can to stay afloat and stay safe and stretch for some security in this world. Yet Jesus told the people around him, and his message still speaks to us, that we should not worry. Life, abundant life, is not to be found in treasures or possessions. They cannot provide security or safety. Don’t worry. Worrying adds nothing. It will not give us one more day, one more hour.
I know that we won’t leave today not worrying about something. Well, at least I won’t. I’ve turned worrying into an art form. But I hope that this is a reminder of what is truly treasure and what isn’t. The building on Beard Street and this building are not where our treasure lies. We do not find treasure in stuff or things. Our treasure is here, in us, in this congregation, in our relationships with one another. Our treasure is in the people we love, and even more in the people we serve. Our treasure is out there, walking down the sidewalk, queing up at the Salvation Army. Our treasure is most truly and most deeply found in the abundance that God so extravagantly gives us; the abundance of love, hope, and joy. That is an alternative treasure to the treasure of the world. That is our true treasure. That is where our heart must lie.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”