This is the sixth Sunday I have been preaching here at Peace. For six Sundays the lectionary, and the book of Luke have been relatively gentle with us, showing us a Jesus who teaches about the importance of neighborliness, undistracted living and attention to prayer. The Jesus we have seen for the past six Sundays is the Jesus who calms, who illumines gently, the one we’d invite over to watch the game, or meet for a cup of coffee. He teaches us things. He enlivens our minds. He gives us helpful tips on how to be more attune to God. He’s that close friend who has our best interests at heart, and wants us to live into the fullness of who he knows we can be. It isn’t hard to be this Jesus’s friend, it isn’t hard to be his disciple. But this Sunday, Luke tells us of a different Jesus, and it can be a trifle unnerving to come face to face with this Jesus. Because this morning we become reacquainted with Jesus the radical. Jesus the prophet. Jesus the disturber.
I have a wonderful resource that I use each week which outlines the lectionary texts and then offers a perspective from several different writers. Each week this book greets me and each week there are three columns which invite me in to the scripture. The first column outlines the text based on its theological understandings and has quite a few twenty-five cent words which take me right back to seminary days and require me to do google word-searches on meanings I have forgotten. The second column outlines the exegetical perspective and tears apart and defines the Greek or Aramaic words in search of the truest translation of the text. And then there is the third column, which is actually my favorite. In this third column each week a writer shares what it means for a pastor to apply this topic to his or her church. In essence this last column says, “Okay, here’s the background, here’s what it means, now how’s it gonna play to the crowd?”
This week’s “pastoral perspective” column could have had a skull and crossbones symbol over it as warning to anyone who dare tread on this path as a preacher. In it’s reassuring, but careful, polite wording it says this: “The power of today’s Gospel lesson can sneak up on a congregation…” It then goes on to mention that in these dog days of summer when we are lulled into the rhythm of pool and patio this Sunday’s Gospel text “sizzles and spits like a backyard grill.” In fact, if it weren’t so restrained I think it might have suggested a guest speaker come and preach for this Sunday…and I missed it by just one short week!
So, I would encourage you to put your seat belts on this morning, as we listen in on Jesus’s little encounter with the man concerned about his inheritance.
You’ve heard the scripture read from the NIV this morning, but hear Jesus’s parable told this way through the lesser known translation of The Message by Eugene Peterson:
The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!
Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’ That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.
Now I admit, I like this translation a little better than the original. I like this idea that we have to fill our barns with God, we have to put our faith in God’s providence, we can’t fill our metaphorical barns with our own sense of self and entitlement. And I also confess, that I like that this version of scripture doesn’t focus on material goods alone, but seems to leave some room for those of us who like to stop at Starbucks for a venti Chai tea latte, and who occasionally spend more than their husband may like on the latest Oprah-endorsed novel at Barnes and Noble (strictly hypothetically speaking of course). This isn’t about material goods, I can rationalize, and so this aspect of the sermon is not for me.
Instead, I smugly think of the Freddie Macs and the Fannie Maes. I think of the higher ups at Leamon Brothers and the fat cats on Wall Street. I think of the city management team in working-class Bell, California who paid themselves several hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think of those profiled on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous who set up trust funds for their pets in excess of 12 million dollars. And I think with righteous indignation, “You Go, Jesus, let ‘em have it.” And as I wrote my sermon notes, alone in the church on Monday, I felt smug and a little righteous even.
And then the buzzer rang at the front door of the church, and because Susan was off on Monday, I went to the door myself to find a guest who asked to come in. Her name was Mary.
Now, Mary was not pretty by our cultural standards. She was missing some teeth. Her clothes were dirty, and didn’t fit her very well. And she walked slowly and with a limp, her right leg noticeably more swollen than the other. She was very sweaty, and kept wiping her brow with her hand. She shuffled slowly into my office and collapsed with a heaving sigh onto the rocking chair in my air-conditioned office and paused to look around. “This is so cozy,” she said. “How do you ever leave?”
Mary’s story was not unlike the stories of those who struggle with poverty. She has lost her job. She cannot get more work with her diabetes. She has grandchildren she cares for. She is behind in rent and in danger of being evicted. She has no health insurance. Her story spilled out of her with one tragedy after another and I simply listened.
When she finished telling me her story I said, “How can I help you, other than to pray?” She told me that all she needed was ten dollars. She needed some gas for her car, enough to get her to the health clinic and then home. And there was one more thing, and she seemed reluctant then as she looked down. She needed some toilet paper, because she couldn’t get enough of it with her food stamps. A simple request. Gas and toilet paper. I quickly took out a ten dollar bill and pressed it into her palm, and her eyes met mine as she said, “it is hard to ask. Please know it is hard for me to ask.”
We made polite conversation for a few more moments, and then I walked her out to her car.
And I walked back into my posh office where my new laptop sat gleaming and the air conditioner hummed in the ninety degree heat and I threw away my sermon notes and started again.
Mary’s visit indicted me. For this scripture is what it is: pure and simple, a call as Christians to share the wealth, to help the less fortunate. It is a call to safeguard ourselves from greed, a call to remember that there but for the grace of God go we. And to make this verse any less than that is to shy away from the radical nature of Christian discipleship. Jesus’s words were meant to rile us up, to rally us around, to remind us that we are God’s hands and feet in this world and living selfishly is not acceptable. Our responsibility is not to fill our barns with our own ego, our own material goods, but to instead let go and yield to the extravagant freedom of losing ourselves in God.
It was the Dali Lama who said, “It is not enough to be compassionate, you must act.” Discipleship calls us to a place of action. What will be do with the goods we are storing in the barn? What will we do with the treasures we keep locked away for safe keeping? What will we do to die to self? What will we do to be rich with God? How will we act? And how will that change us?
Perhaps each of us needs a visit from a Mary each week to keep us honest. Perhaps we need to see with our own eyes the plight of the poor. Perhaps we need to agitate against the social iniquity. Perhaps we need to rally against the economic systems and choices which allow the inequalities to continue. Perhaps we need to grapple confessionally with our own questions of whether we get caught up in labeling the poor as “worthy” or “unworthy.” Perhaps we need to ask us what we are storing, either metaphorically or tangibly that has become our God? Perhaps we need to open ourselves to the reality that when we take the bread and cup of communion that Jesus offered what we are really called to do is to count the cost of discipleship and seek sustenance for a spiritual journey which asks more of us than we ever thought possible.
The Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan writes: Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought it or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.
And that is what Jesus reminds us in his story—our barns are not for ourselves alone, we must share what we have.
I want to close this morning by sharing one final story with you that tumbled across my desk in the past few weeks as I sorted through old files. A story which I ripped out of a magazine sometime in the past several years and stuck with a post-it note on which I’d written the word “SAVE” in capital letters and then I added a few exclamation points for emphasis. It is the true story of a woman named Osceola McCarty. Osceola was a simple woman. She had no advanced degrees, had in fact never even finished the sixth grade. She worked for nearly eighty years as a laundress, taking other people’s dirty laundry in the Hattiesburg, Mississippi area and cleaning it, charging only $10.00 a bundle at her highest earning capacity. She was a woman of simple means. She never married. She had no children. Mostly she cared for her elderly relations and faithfully attended church. And so it came as a bit of a surprise to all who knew her when, in her 87th year, she bequeathed the University of Southern Mississippi a gift to assist African American students who had not previously had access to higher education. Osceola, who took her Bible seriously, did not believe in storing her treasures, in filling her own barn. Instead, this priestly laundress gave a gift of $150,000 away. (A gift to a school, I might add which would not have allowed to her When asked why she did it she said simply, “I can do something to help somebody. And what I can do I will do.” Ms. McCarty made a choice about where to store her treasure, and knew a little something about what it meant to be rich with God.
Jesus the disturber, Jesus the challenger beckons us into new worlds. And as disciples of Christ we have the choice to follow. May we chose to drink of the cup, the cup of commitment and covenant which promises us barns full of abundant life and in so doing know that we are becoming rich with God.