August 1, 2010
One of the things I love about being back home in the Midwest is driving through the countryside. I grew up in a small town in northwestern Ohio; the church of my childhood was set in the middle of cornfields. Only after I moved away did I realize the spiritual power for me of those endless rows of corn and soybean fields, punctuated by big red barns and tall silos.
Corrie and I were driving through Wisconsin’s countryside this week and those same thoughts came back to me. Something has changed in the nearly thirty years since I left the Midwest, however. Back then, it was still the case that most barns had recent paint jobs, there were few that were in disrepair or crumbling. Now, it’s different. One can easily tell the active, successful farms from those barns and silos that are no longer in use. Many of the latter are decrepit; they look like just one strong wind might blow them over. Often these barns that are falling apart are relatively small, ill-suited to contemporary agribusiness, and crumbling for that reason. But there are others, that were clearly once the pride and joy of wealthy, successful families who had large acreage and herds.
We can see something of the history of rural America in that landscape. We see the prosperous and not so prosperous farms of a few generations ago. We also see the prosperous and not so prosperous farms of today. It’s easy to speculate about the families who lived and worked there, about their hopes and dreams. We can also see something of the widening gulf between rich and poor in rural America, for dotted among those prosperous farms are the house trailers and tumbledown houses of the poor.
These barns, the decrepit ones and the big, well-maintained ones, provide something of an object lesson for the parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel. It’s a fairly straightforward story about a farmer who has a very successful year. His barns, granaries and silos are bursting at the seams. In response to this bounty, the farmer does the responsible thing. He plans to build bigger barns, granaries, and silos, to store the grain, and to live off that bounty for years to come. Now there’s no sense in the story that he has attained his wealth dishonestly, nor even that he is greedy. No, he’s a run of the mill farmer with great good fortune.
But still, his plans go awry. Instead of a long life ahead of him in which to enjoy the fruits of his field and the fruit of his labor, his life will end that night. But what did he do wrong to deserve this fate? What is the message of the parable? The most significant clue lies in what the farmer says to himself, and how he says it: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops. I will do this. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, …” Do you notice how many times the word I is used in this monologue? It seems forced and artificial and serves to stress the farmer’s sole focus on himself, his own efforts and his enjoyment.
With this Gospel, we are entering a series of readings over the next few months that will confront us again and again with questions of wealth and poverty and what constitutes an appropriate relationship with our possessions. These are difficult readings to hear and to preach, because all of us find it difficult to talk about money. That may have become even more difficult in the last few years as we entered the “Great Recession” and as many of us have serious concerns about our financial well-being and our future. We know too many people who have lost their jobs and have struggled to find new work. The economy seems to be sputtering at best; there is no certainty that we will once again have robust economic growth any time soon.
We are struggling, we are full of anxiety, and we come to church and hear a story about a man who does all the right things. He’s successful; he plans on saving for the future like all of the financial planners tell us, but the story ends with him dead and all of his plans come to nothing. What might Jesus be telling his disciples with this story? What might the story have to say to us today? In fact, the answer to those questions is quite simple. The parable serves to illustrate the point Jesus made in the statement that precedes it—“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
That is the message we need to hear, even in difficult economic times, that one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Or to put it more bluntly—money cannot buy happiness or meaning. It’s something we know in our hearts, but too much in our culture sends a very different message. The cult of celebrity that drives our media reinforces the lesson that if we were rich, things would be different. Advertising seduces us with the promise that if we buy the next great thing—an Ipad, or Iphone, or what have you; we will be happy. But as we grasp for those things we hope will satisfy us, fill our hungry hearts, we miss what really matters.
The reason money is such a problem for us, is the same reason it was a problem in NT times. You may not think it was important in Jesus’ day, that he and his disciples didn’t worry or think about it. If that’s what you think, you’re wrong. Jesus had more to say about money and wealth than about any other topic. He talked to his disciples about it; as in the first part of today’s gospel, he spoke to strangers about it. He used money, wealth as an object lesson. That’s what he is doing here as he sets up a contrast between a man who seeks security by means of hard work and possessions, and a life lived in Christ, which is where the only true security may be found.
The reason money is such a problem for us is because it promises security, happiness, and fulfillment. It offers a clear goal for us and a clear standard by which to judge success or failure. We sing, “Money changes everything.” But in the end, for all the stuff it can help us accumulate, all of the places it can take us, it can’t satisfy our hungry hearts. Don’t think I’ve got it figured out and that I can show you how to live a life free of the encumbrance of wealth and the pursuit of happiness through cash and stuff. I can’t. I don’t have it figured out
Against this false life, this false self that beckons the man in the parable, the prophet Hosea offers a clear alternative. It is an oracle from God, Yahweh speaking through the mouth of the prophet, promising judgment and doom on the people of Israel for their faithlessness. But in the midst of that prophecy of doom comes another hopeful, loving image. Using language that sounds like a mother speaking about her love for a child, Yahweh speaks,
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
Like the Israelites we worship our Baals, our gods of money and ease. But when those gods no longer satisfy, God will be there, to comfort us and draw us back, like a mother who loves and nurses her infant. The things that bring us back to what really matters are often those things that challenge us to our core—job loss, illness, the death of a loved one, and we suddenly realize that everything we’ve worked for, aspired to, everything we’ve driven ourselves for counts for little next to the love of those we hold most dear, or our love of God.
It’s a lesson some of us have learned over the years through tragedy or struggle. It’s a lesson some of us are learning right now as we try to make it through this difficult period in our nation’s history. Hosea offers a very different picture of human beings than that expressed by the rich man in our parable. The rich man believes he can do it all by himself, that he can be self-sufficient and secure apart from anyone else and apart from God. Over against that, Hosea shows us as we really are, as we know we are, dependent on God for all we have, dependent upon a God who loves us and cares for us. In that love, in God’s embrace, we find meaning and purpose.