Rev. Anna Woofenden
Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon
Scripture: Genesis 41 and Luke 12:13-21
Before I begin, a disclaimer: I know it’s not Christmas, but I’m going to use a story from “It’s a Wonderful Life” anyway.
Do you remember the scene at the very end of the movie? After Uncle Billy loses the Bailey Building and Loan’s $8,000 deposit and the small bank fails the bank examiner’s inspection, George Bailey is at his total and complete wits’ end. Where will he come up with the money to save the town and save his family? He sees no hope, and is preparing to end his life when an angel comes along and leads him through visions of what life would have been like if he hadn’t been in it. He saw how his brother would have drowned, how his mother would have suffered, how the town would have gone downhill had he not been part of it. Having seen how his life really did matter, he runs back to his family where his wife Mary has been rallying the town, and they collectively have come up with enough money and good will to get through the crisis together.
Now, you could say that this story is all about money, or a lack of money, that this plot line is all about economics. Yet, as anyone who watches it knows, the narrative invites us deeper. There’s something else going on here, something that holds both the reality of the physical needs and the deeper truths about spirit and heart and community.
Imagine with me for a moment the last scene for example: that iconic moment where George is receiving baskets full of money and his old high school friend calls from London and pledges $25,000… if you took that snapshot at face value, one might say it was all about the money, and yet, what is the feeling in that scene? It’s so far from greed, or being hung up on material possessions. The feeling is all about the people, the closeness that comes after desperation, the preciousness of family when you’ve glimpsed your life without it, the generosity of community coming together and offering the little they had to make together enough, enough to save the family and the town.
Some who read our parable of the rich man today might read it purely on the physical level, and go on to conclude that, “money is the root of all evil,” but I don’t think it’s that simple (besides, it is misquoting the original phrase which is, “the love of money is the root of all evil”). Instead, I would posit, selfishness and greed are the roots of evil, and whenever we are selfish, whenever we are greedy, this is the problem. Money, material things, clothing, houses, cars, any material possession are not innately good or evil; it’s what we do with it, why we do what we do, who we are serving, and how we interact that matters.
We had two parallel stories in our scripture readings today, both having to do with the storing up of grain—of material things—but each with drastically different intentions and markedly different results.
In the story of Joseph in the Hebrew Scriptures, we see how God guided Joseph to not only save the people of Egypt from starvation, but also save his own family, as he was led in the interpretation of dreams that there would be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Joseph was a good leader and an efficient manager. He organized storing up grain during the years of plenty, most certainly building barns and putting away the grain, in order to be ready to feed the community during the seven years of famine.
Then in the parable, Jesus tells us in the gospel of Luke that this very same action is not good. Jesus gives the example of a rich man who has an abundant harvest, and doesn’t have the storage facilities to keep it. The rich man asked himself, “What will I do? I know, I’ll build bigger barns, then I’ll store the abundant harvest so that then I’ll be set and I can relax and eat, drink, and be merry.” But then God replies to this rich man, “Fool, this very night your life will be taken from you, and these things you have prepared, then whose will they be?” Jesus ends the parable with these words: So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
So what do we do with these two stories? What do we do when the Bible seems to contradict itself, to be telling us two completely different messages?
This is one of the many places where we have the opportunity to hold the “both/and” that we often talk about here in our community. Not holding one exclusive or particular way of reading the text, but instead knowing that God is in the complicated, in the messy, and is always drawing out that which helps us to love God and love neighbor. When we hold these two texts together within a both/and reading, some interesting themes and messages start to emerge.
Here we have very similar situations and actions—an abundant harvest and storing up into barns—yet the motivation is different. In the story of Joseph, his reason for gathering up the harvest during the seven years of plenty and storing it away is for the common good. Whereas the rich man’s response to an abundant harvest is self-centered; his storing up is only for his own enjoyment and false sense of security, and doesn’t take into account God or others.
What arises for me from these two parallel stories is this: Motivation matters, intention matters, and the reasons we do the things we do matter.
It’s not the storing up that’s bad—but the question is, for what purpose? Saving for future material needs is one component of proper stewardship of God’s bounty. Appropriate concern for the future is balanced, however, with awareness of how the love of God and neighbor are involved. To be aware of how our choices affect all facets of our interconnected system, to make choices that take the marginalized into account, to give freely and generously of what we have to others, to be good stewards of what we’ve been given.
The rich man is not set as a negative example because he had the abundant harvest, or even because he was going to build bigger barns, but because with all the excess in his life, he turns to only pleasing himself. He gets stuck in that trap that we so easily can as well—that the goal in life is the abundance of possessions. We are encouraged to spend more, have more, use more, supersize and maximize. We start to believe that these are the signs of a good life, yet these are the signs of the external. What actually goes with us—what lasts? This parable reminds us, it’s our hearts, our interactions with others, our intentions and loves that endure—where your treasure is, your heart will be also.
In one of Emanuel Swedenborg’s books, he talks about what people are asked after death as they prepare to gravitate towards heaven or hell. Rather than asking, “What is your belief?” or “What are the things that you think about faith and religion?”, we are instead asked, “What is your life?” What is the life you lived? How did your faith and beliefs lead you to a life of useful service, a life in relationship with God, a life of serving our neighbor? It’s not whether we have grain in barns or material wealth, it’s really how we live and operate within whatever we have.
Being rich in God transcends economics. Being rich in God does not deny our need for material provision, for homes and clothing, beauty and food. But being rich in God is not dependent on it. Being rich in God, is responding to whatever comes our way, whether it’s abundant harvest or deep financial hardship, with knowledge that in the end, it’s where our heart is and what our actions have been that matter. We are all interconnected, and the choices we make for ourselves are part of the effect for many.
When we have our community meal later in our gathering, we’ll sing our blessing song as we go to dinner, “there is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.”
Our two stories today invite us to look at that fundamental question, a fundamental choice of how we show up in the world. Is there “enough and some to share?” Do we believe this?
Do we believe this when we’re living on the street? Or when our next child needs to go to college? When the car breaks down and then the refrigerator quits? What is our response when we encounter extra abundance in life? Is it to rush out and buy that thing we’ve been drooling over, or squirrel it away for a rainy day? Far be it from me to say that there is one right response to any of these scenarios. But what we have in this parable today is the invitation to pay attention to our responses and to our motivations and intentions in the choices we make.
On some level, we can all get stuck in the trap of thinking that material resources will save us.—if we just get_____, it will all be okay, if I figure out how to pay for this thing, if, if, if… Ultimately, we know that being rich in God is what matters; where our heart is, our treasure will be also.
And this awareness of our motivations and intentions applies to times of abundance, and it applies to times of loss and lack and struggle too. Providing for basic needs, saving for the future, being able to enjoy life, these are important things, and I believe that they are within the realms of faithful following. And wanting these basic necessities, working for them, this is right and good.
Just as we are given the invitation to read and hold scripture with a both/and attitude, we are invited to hold life this way too.
We need money and resources in order to survive in this culture and world. Truly everyone should have a clean safe house to live in, to be able to eat, to have access to education and clean clothing. Everyone should have the opportunity to sleep peacefully and not worry every night about their safety or where their next meal will come from. And yet, we’re not there yet. Some of us live in nice homes, others of us are camping out in the parks, some of us have to keep a super close eye on the bank account each month before we write our rent check and worry about making ends meet, some of us never know where our next meal is coming from. There is a both/and reality in our world and a both/and reality in each of our lives. And, there is an interconnected reality—each of our lives is intertwined with the lives of others, as well as with God.
And so each one of us, all of us, individually and collectively, is called to pay attention to the both/and of these stories and the both/and in the world around us. We’re called to pay attention to what is our relationship is to the material things around us: How do we respond when we encounter abundance? How do we respond when we encounter scarcity? And this is another reason we need to be in community, to keep interacting with each other, because it reminds us that it’s not all about us. Each of our choices impact the greater web of economics, of systems, favoring some and not others.
And this is why we need to commit, and then re-commit ourselves to a life where we ardently believe in the provision and abundance of God, and take it upon ourselves to be faithful stewards with whatever is given us. And with whatever is given us, whether it is incredible material wealth, or a bowl of soup, we can take into account the needs of others and we share. Be it sharing a piece of our burrito with someone, giving a percentage of our income to the church and organizations we believe in, opening our home to a family member in need, or helping the person in front of you in line at the grocery store. These practices, these actions help to change us from the inside out. They shift our focus from the “it’s all about me” of the rich man in the parable, to “how can I faithfully be part of feeding the greater whole” of Joseph. Remembering that we are all connected—part of God’s interconnected web of life—and that somehow if we all engage it and show up to it, that there is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.