Sunday, July 31, 2016

What's in Your Barn? Luke 12:13-21 - Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

13Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus,] “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then 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. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (NRSV)
Derelict Barn. by B Gilmour.  Creative commons image on flickr
Last weekend, while we were visiting Denver, we were shocked by the number of panhandlers roaming the streets.  There was at least one person at every stoplight and intersection holding a ragged cardboard sign begging for money, food, or shelter.

I always get rush of feelings when I someone begging.  The most obvious feeling is sadness.  And yet, I’ve never lowered the window and given them a dollar.  Instead, I’m thinking: “what if they use it to buy tobacco, drugs, or alcohol?”  “Can’t they just go to a rescue mission or soup kitchen?”  Any reason I can think of to keep the window shut, until the light turns green and I’m on my way…

Still, I can’t help but wonder: what am I really afraid of here?  Of what they will do with my dollar—or, what I will do without my dollar?  Am I afraid of giving something away and not being in control of the outcome?

I can’t help but wonder about this as Jesus speaks the parable of the rich fool.  It all starts with two siblings who are at odds with each other over an inheritance.  They want Jesus to settle the dispute.  But he won’t do that.  Instead, he tells them the story of one man, his barns, and his treasures.

After a highly successful harvest, he resolves to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store up his crops and his goods.  In his mind, he’s got it made.  His life will be worry-free from this point forward. 

Just then, God appears—to declare that all his life is at its end.  All of his wealth and success have added up to nothing. 

You may have noticed that as the fool talks to himself, there’s no gratitude; no thought of sharing in the wondrous bounty with his workers or anyone else. It’s all about him.

He had many treasures, but he was not rich toward God.

Now I could stop right there, and tell you that if you don’t give generously of your treasures, you’ll share in the rich fool’s fate.  But I need to be clear about one thing—you don’t get rich toward God by what you do.  God’s riches are freely given.  And I’m not talking about stuff, here.  I’m talking treasures in heaven: the love of your Creator God and Savior Jesus Christ.  By the Holy Spirit, treasures in heaven become treasures of peace, hope, and new beginnings for the here-and-now. 

But all too often, you and I forsake these treasures for the flashier, instantly-gratifying treasures of the here-and-now.  All too often, you and I cling to money and possessions, fully believing that they will bring us the life our souls crave. 

This can go three ways:
1.     You have great wealth and possessions, and you’re living the high life.  You don’t need forgiveness or anything else from God, except to keep the blessings coming.  If so, you are definitely poor toward God.
2.     You may have wealth and possessions in great or small measure, but you’re empty.  You know money can’t buy happiness, but still you cling to things.  Still, your soul aches for more.  You, too, are poor toward God.
3.     You don’t have wealth or possessions.  You may have enjoyed much at one time and lost it; or maybe you’ve never had much at all.   So how can you feel rich towards God if you are without your daily bread?

The rich fool’s first folly is that he failed to acknowledge that his barns and all the treasures contained therein were not his.  It all belongs to God.  His life belongs to God. 

It is never God’s will that God’s gifts be enjoyed only by a fortunate few…

This leads to his second folly: he is completely self-absorbed. He’s not just missing out on what it means to be a Christian.  He’s missing out on what it means to be human.  The only love he knows is the love for stuff that cannot love him back.  People are treated not as brothers and sisters but as means to his own ends. 

To become rich toward God, on the other hand, begins with a trust: that you matter to God—and that your needs matter to God.  You don’t need to cling onto every morsel of what you own to ensure that your needs will be met.  Just thank God for what you have today—and trust God for tomorrow. 

And hold on loosely to what God has entrusted to you.  Give freely to those in need, and leave the rest to God.

The good news for the rich and poor alike is that God is faithful.  But these words become meaningless babble unless you and I are committed to meeting the needs of others with the same urgency as we meet our own—and not with hand-outs, but with hands to hold and lives to share. 

So practice letting go.  Give something away without analyzing the decision.  After all, in Christ, you don’t need to be wealthy to make a difference in someone’s life.  When you can give something away, even when you don’t have much, you are rich.  When you trust the Savior who gave his life on the cross for you, who raises the dead, who promises never to leave you or forsake you, you are rich.  When you trust that your life matters to God—and other people’s lives matter to you, you are rich.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Better Part: Luke 10:38-42 - Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

38Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
pocket watch by Jeffrey Smith.  Creative Commons image on flickr
I have this pair of black dress shoes.  They are super comfortable, and the right shoe looks like I wrestled it out of a dog’s mouth.

The first time I wore them, I scuffed them on the front steps of our church.  Badly.  No amount of shoe polish can change the way they look.  I’ve tried.

And every time I put them on, I hear the searing words of someone I once knew: “I have no respect for a pastor who doesn’t shine these shoes!

But I still wear them.  It just doesn’t feel right to waste something because of a flaw in appearance. 

And yet, I’m reminded of how much effort and energy I do spend—just to keep up appearances. 

It wouldn’t be fair for me to blame this on the likes of Martha Stewart and Calvin Klein, and yet you’re made to feel shame if your homes and your wardrobes don’t look like they say they should…

And this is hardly a modern phenomenon.  Just consider another Martha—who’s frantically toiling away to be a good host for her and her sister’s guest, who is Jesus Christ.  While she’s working her fingers to the bone, her sister Mary is sitting and doing nothing, save for listening to Jesus…

Even though we enjoy the convenience of supermarket-packaged foods and appliances, you can understand why Martha’s upset.  There’s much work to be done, and she’s not getting any help. 

Do you find it strange that she protests—not to Mary, but to Jesus?  Is it his fault?

Yet Jesus offers no applause to Martha.  He tells her she is distracted by many things. 

Now Jesus doesn’t reject her service.  But Jesus does reject that Martha’s labors are for Martha’s sake—more so than his.  And that is why she is frantic. 

Jesus knows the truth of what’s driving Martha: it’s anxiety.  Jesus knows that if everything isn’t done just right and on time, her shame would be unbearable.

Hers is a spiritual condition that is not uncommon among today’s Christians.  We are distracted by many things; pulled in every possible direction; working ourselves practically dead—and much, if not most, of what we toil for is of no lasting consequence.

Think about it: modernity has given birth to all kinds of conveniences designed to make life easier—and yet we’re all more stressed out than ever.  If you don’t believe me, a song called Stressed Out has been at the top of the Billboard Charts for over a year. 

Some of these things have no easy fix—like the economy, healthcare, and the bitter division of our society. 

But how much stress comes simply from the fear of shame: that inner voice telling you that -unless you invest your time and energy into these labors, and please these people, that you’ll be exposed as a nobody?  How much stress comes from F.O.M.O.—the fear of missing out?  That if you don’t own certain possessions, know certain things, or have certain experiences, your life will become unlivable?

You and I fall into the same trap as Martha, all the time.  While Martha’s service for Jesus is both necessary and commendable, her anxiety is not.  It is Mary who is focused upon what is of ultimate importance.  “Mary has chosen the better part,” Jesus says; sitting at his feet, in stillness, and listening. 

Jesus was present, and Mary was paying attention.  Her example is a challenge for all of us, in this frantic, fast-paced world.  Unless you respond to the presence of Jesus in absolute surrender, in stillness and silence, you will be constantly pushed around by anxiety and agitated by shame.  After all, you can’t work your way into God’s favor.  You can only receive God’s graces. 

This is why the greatest urgency of the Christian journey is stillness at the feet of Jesus.  This is why the time is now for you to stop, pay attention to what Jesus is saying and doing, and offer thanksgiving.  There’s a time for listening and a time for going and doing, and yet the Christian journey will lead nowhere without the deliberate surrender to the presence of Christ.

The challenge for you and me is also a challenge for this congregation.  There are a lot of Marthas in this church.  I’m a Martha!  For a church our size, we are constantly blessing the lives of hundreds of neighbors.  Because of this, our greatest growth need—and opportunity—isn’t more service.  It’s not more doing and more programs and more committees.  It’s following the example of Mary with more silence, more listening, more reflection.

This will not come without great sacrifice—because you will have to let things go you consider important.  You will have to disappoint people who are important to you.  Shame and F.O.M.O. are always bitter pills to swallow.  It gets even harder as Jesus shakes up priorities and redefines what is of ultimate concern.  

Yet Jesus gives is what we all long for—which is not more anxiety and stress, but:
·      The peace of entrusting your cares to him
·      The joy of living for what matters to him
·      The confidence of trusting that he holds your life and your world in love.

There’s a time to be like Martha, and a time to be like Mary.  Let us pray to the Spirit for the wisdom and strength to choose the better part.