August 4, 2019, Drop Those Nuts!, Luke 12:13-21 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000147
About fifteen years ago, I went in for a routine checkup, and was shocked and alarmed when I noticed that the doctor was shocked and alarmed. He found something in the course of the examination that looked very bad to him, and he started making phone calls and setting up consultations right then and there. Here I am, preaching to you, so obviously it all worked out alright. But that day was the first time I can remember really being struck by the reality of my own death.
We all know we’re mortal beings, and as we get older most of us begin to make peace with the certainty that our lives have an undefined expiration date. We are reminded every year on Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” But for most of us, death is not something we have penciled into our appointment books. I was pretty disappointed by my own reaction. It hit me much harder than I would have expected. I had thought I was so much better prepared for my own death. But I found on that day that like most normal human beings I had kept my mortality carefully wrapped and tucked away where I’d never had to look at it head-on.
But we do well to remember, when we wake in the morning, that we have today, we have only today, to do those things we know we ought to do, to show kindness to the people we meet, to forgive the offenses we have been holding onto, to make peace, to use our time and our gifts and our possessions for good. Jesus’ words are shockingly harsh in the parable we read today, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” We have today, maybe no more than that, to live our lives in this world. We do well to remember that, even though we don’t like being reminded of our mortality and especially we don’t like being reminded of the mortality of the people we love. But the truth is, if we live as if we had control over our own life and death we are fools. That’s part of the lesson of the parable we read today.
But it’s not the main lesson. Jesus often told a story in response to a question that somebody in the audience threw out to him. To understand the point of the story, you have to know what the question is that the story is meant to answer. And that’s the case this time. A man in the crowd called out to Jesus on a matter of justice and fairness. Or so he thought. “Teacher, tell my brother to share the family inheritance with me,” he said. Luke doesn’t tell us any details about this man’s situation. The practice in Israel in that time was that the sons of the family shared out the inheritance equally, except for the eldest, who received a double share. So, if there were two sons, the youngest got a third of the inheritance and the eldest got two thirds. If there were three sons, the two youngest sons each got a quarter of the inheritance, and the eldest got two quarters, or half. There’s no way of knowing, in this passage, if this man’s brother was trying to cheat him out of what was rightly his, or if he was trying to see if Jesus, who had a reputation for being a bit of a radical in a lot of ways, would take his side against his elder brother and tell him he should split the inheritance equally.
But the thing is, Jesus didn’t really care about any of that. “Friend, who made me a judge or an arbitrator over you?” he answered the man. And then he added, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed. Life isn’t about possessions.” And then he went on to tell the story, about the man who built bigger barns to hold all his stuff.
The story about building bigger barns, then, is partly about knowing that our lives can end at any moment. But more specifically, it’s a story about the human tendency to be greedy. Greed is such an awful word; we don’t like to think we could ever be greedy people; only nasty villains and evil politicians are greedy, not plain old nice people like us. We’re just a little materialistic, maybe. But we wouldn’t say we’re greedy. But when Jesus warns the man in the crowd to guard against greed, he isn’t talking about some kind of extreme wickedness. He’s just talking about our very natural human attraction to stuff. We are creatures who get attached to stuff – all the more so now, in present-day America.
We don’t even have to work hard to acquire an awful lot of stuff. When Carroll and I moved to New York in 1986 we had six children and an enormous dog, a few mattresses and an old desk and a dollhouse and a gazillion books. Not a whole lot for a family of 8, at least by American standards. We packed it all in a big yellow school bus with plenty of room to spare, and we drove a thousand miles to find a place where we could live “simply” on a little land. But within an astonishingly short time our house was full of stuff, clothes and furniture and toys and tools, stuff we needed and some stuff we didn’t need at all.
Most people spend the majority of their youth preparing for a career that will provide them with stuff because they have a responsibility to provide stuff for their family so they won’t ever have to worry about not having stuff. People want their children to have more stuff than they had, and better stuff. And we are all required by law to insure our stuff so that if it burns or crashes or gets stolen we can get all of our stuff replaced.
People’s homes are so full of stuff these days that a whole industry has grown up for the purpose of storing the stuff that won’t fit in our houses, so we don’t have to get rid of it. You see these storage businesses all over the place. Americans are building bigger barns. But we have forgotten, or maybe we never knew, that real life isn’t about stuff.
“Take care!” Jesus warns us. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” The man that called out from the crowd to Jesus was probably not trying to take advantage of his brother. He probably didn’t want anything more than what was rightly his. But Jesus didn’t even ask him about that. His warning cut across issues of fairness and rights and equality. Because all those things have to do with possessions, things, stuff – and real life isn’t about stuff.
If we had been there, we might not have thought the man was particularly greedy for wanting to get what he was supposed to get. Jesus’ answer would probably have taken us by surprise. I’m sure it took the man by surprise. I think it was meant to take us by surprise, because Jesus wanted us to wake up and hear him. Because the trouble with our attachment to stuff is not that stuff is evil in and of itself. It is that the richer we are in stuff the poorer we become in the things that make for an abundant life.
There is a children’s story from Pakistan that you have probably heard many times, about a monkey who was troubling the people of a village by going into their houses and stealing food. But a clever man figured out how to catch him. He took two pots with narrow necks and he put peanuts in both jars. The monkey soon found the pots and reached in with both hands to grab the peanuts. With his hands full of nuts he couldn’t get his hands out of the pots. But the monkey couldn’t bring himself to let go of the nuts. And he couldn’t run away with his hands stuck in the pots. And so, he was caught and locked up in a zoo where he couldn’t cause any more trouble.
The trouble with holding on to stuff is that it traps us – it keeps us from being free to live abundantly, because life isn’t about stuff. Remember the rich young man that came to Jesus once, to ask him the way to eternal life? He was a good man. He had obeyed all the do’s and don’t’s, from the time he was a little kid. Jesus looked into his heart and he loved him. But he said, “Just one more thing – get rid of all your stuff, and come, follow me.” And the young man went away, sad.
He was trapped. His stuff kept him from attaining the life he was seeking. Jesus watched the young man walk away and he said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
That’s why Jesus told the man in the crowd, “Friend, I got no time for passing judgment on matters of stuff – that’s just dirt and rocks and bricks and boards and coins and cloth. All that stuff has nothing to do with real life.” And he said, “You got no time either. Wake up! and let go – live while you still have time to live.”
We don’t like to think so, but all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, are naturally inclined to be greedy, to hold our worldly goods tight with our sweaty little paws like the silly monkey in the story, even though we find ourselves caught in a trap. We hold on because we are afraid we won’t have enough. We hold on because it makes us feel safe. We hold on because we believe the world when it tells us it’s our stuff – our salary and our nice car and our comfortable home and our fashionable clothes and our retirement account – that gives us our real worth.
As physical creatures we need the things of the world. We need food, and we need a home, and we need clothing. Jesus never said otherwise. In fact he said once, “Your Father knows you need all that stuff. But look!” he said, “Look at the birds up there in the air. They haven’t done a days’ work in all their lives, but your Father feeds them. And look at the wildflowers blooming along the highway. Not one of them knows the first thing about spinning or weaving, but nobody on this earth is better dressed than they are. Set your minds and your hearts on the real things of the kingdom, and God will supply all the stuff you really need.”
It’s life that Jesus came to give us: not wealth or status, not a superabundance of stuff – not even our fair portion of it — but real, abundant life. And life in the kingdom is freedom, not servitude to our possessions. If we can loosen our grip, if we can let go, we will find that we are free to live as we have never lived before. I have seen it, again and again, with people who are in the last days of their lives. They know how little value there is in the stuff around them. They know the freedom of letting go, of offering grace and love where there has been hostility and resentment. They know the freedom of giving without any expectation of repayment. That’s abundant life.
But what if we learn to let go before we are in the final days of our lives – because the truth is, as Jesus, King Solomon, and the Sons of Korah all pointed out in the readings this morning, today could very well be your last. “Life doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions,” Jesus told the man in the crowd. Life is so much more than that. Don’t let’s waste our time here on earth building bigger barns. We got no time for worrying about stuff. The abundant life of God’s kingdom is radically different from the world’s agenda.
I’d like to close with the little meditation from Henri Nouwen that Karen put in our bulletin for today. Personally, I plan to cut this out and paste it somewhere where I can see it every day:
“Our lives as we live them seem like lives that anticipate questions that never will be asked. It seems as if we are getting ourselves ready for the question “How much did you earn during your lifetime?” or “How many friends did you make?” or “How much progress did you make in your career?” or “How much influence did you have on people?” or “How many conversions did you make?” Were any of these to be the question Christ will ask when he comes again in glory, many of us could approach the judgment day with great confidence. But nobody is going to hear any of these questions. The question we all are going to face is the question we are least prepared for. It is: “What have you done for the least of mine?” As long as there are strangers; hungry, naked, and sick people; prisoners, refugees, and slaves; people who are handicapped physically, mentally, or emotionally; people without work, a home, or a piece of land, there will be that haunting question from the throne of judgment: “What have you done for the least of mine?”