July 31, 2016 – 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 12:13-21
Ordinary 18C; Proper 13

I like big barns and I cannot lie.

Jill Duffield's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.
Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

It is difficult, I would suggest, to live in this consumption culture and not find big barns tempting. We are not a society that glorifies “enough.” I am also a child of the 80s – big hair, big shoulder pads, “you can never be too rich or too thin” posters. During the prime years of my values formation, building bigger barns wasn’t frowned upon, it was celebrated, glorified. I think it still is. We like big barns and we cannot lie.

We’ve bought into the prosperity gospel even as we snicker at Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen. Ours is a subtler version, perhaps, but we imagine that God wants us to have big barns, large endowments, a hefty retirement account, and we (at least, I) do a fine job of theological gymnastics to justify whatever size barn gives the desired level of security.

We are idolatrous about stuff: the stuff we have, the stuff we want, even the stuff we take to the dump or the resale store. Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has sold almost 6 million copies. It has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Those who follow her method of radically paring down their stuff are called “Konverts.”

Big barns, tiny houses, storage units or rooms empty of everything but those joy-producing items: We are idolatrous when it comes to material things. We spend a lot of time thinking about, acquiring, getting rid of, curating, obsessing about our goods. But let’s be honest, we have the luxury of this obsession.

There are many who have no barns, no need of barns, no hope to ever own a barn. Stephanie Land in a New York Times blog, “The class politics of decluttering,” notes, “Minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice, and it’s telling that its fan base is clustered in the well-off middle class. For people who are not so well off, the idea of opting to have even less is not really an option.”

We, like this barn builder in Luke, have the option of less and the ability to decide how much less at that. It is that level of control and myopia that gets us into trouble. We survey our orderly, self-made kingdom and begin to think we have control over not only our barns and the stuff in them, but our lives, too. We mistakenly think our things can influence the state of our soul and the span of our days.

That’s when God cries, “Fool!” That is when God interrupts our monologue and reminds us we get in grave trouble when the only voice we listen to is our own.

“You fool! Do you think these barns are going to protect you? Do you think this stuff is going with you? Do you imagine security and joy and contentment comes from goods?”

“Umm… well, yes, Lord, in fact, I did.” We really do buy what the infomercials, billboards and ads are selling. Until… until… an unexpected, outside event intrudes on our barn-focused lives. Sometimes in the form of an illness or a job loss or a death of someone we love. Sometimes, thankfully not as life-altering, it comes when we hear the voice of God through another’s story.

That happen to me this week. Twice.

When I sat down at the end of the day to distract myself with a little Facebook scrolling, I did not anticipate encountering a “GoFundMe” site that would remind me of the folly of my barn building. A college student I know was sharing the GoFundMe page on behalf of a friend. She’d written, “Please help out a beautiful soul and a wonderful friend.” Somehow “beautiful soul” hit me, so I clicked and read. I read what amounted to a heart-felt confession from this beautiful, young soul who’d made some wrong choices that spiraled into addiction, debt, legal trouble and ultimately resulted in a suicide attempt. The young woman wrote, “The rope popped and I was found.”

Then it became a conversion story, an I-once-was-lost-but-now-I-am-found-story. She’d gotten the right help at the right time and she was turning things around. She was asking for contributions to pay deposits for a training program to which she’d been accepted. She needed help to pay for court required drug tests that in turn would allow her to start her educational program. I was moved. I was moved by her honesty. I was moved by her hope. I was moved by how much she’d endured and survived in her young life.

I had planned to make a small donation. I glanced at what had been raised so far. Not much. The gifts were small: $10, $20, the highest was $30. I was moved by that, too. Each one seemed a vote of confidence and act of kindness from those who knew this beautiful soul, but perhaps didn’t have overflowing barns from which to share.

I made a larger gift than I’d planned. Not because I am particularly generous (I like big barns, remember?), but because her story reminded me of what really matters and what happens when what really matters is missing. It reminded me that to relax, eat, drink and be merry, we don’t need barns full of stuff, we need people – people to hear our story in its rawest form and who still see us as a beautiful soul no matter how much ugly we’ve experienced or felt or been. We need people to share our story and advocate for us, vouch for us, support us when standing alone isn’t possible.

Her story reminded me, that, yes, Lord, I have been a fool, saving my goods for later when there are people who need them right now. I have horded things. I have held back praise. I have built up barns instead of people. I have thought if only I have a little more I will sleep better at night, instead of giving thanks that I have never once gone to bed hungry. I have thought myself self-sufficient when, in truth, I am upheld daily by You and by others.

And just so I didn’t miss the point, I came across another story the next day. This one was titled, “Thank you for my beautiful life.” In this column, writer and professor Alison Piepmeier details the joy and sadness that make up her last days. She is dying. She shares her gratitude for all the acts of kindness she and her family are receiving. They were supposed to go to Disney. She is too sick to travel, so friends brought Disney to her in the form of a princess party for Piepmeier’s daughter. She writes, “I am happy, so happy, to have experienced a princess party. I am so sorry there won’t be more of them for me, if only because I would never turn down the chance to experience the pure joy of my daughter singing ‘Let It Go’ over and over.”

Eating, drinking and being merry has never been sweeter. Not because Piepmeier is sitting in the shadow of a big barn, certain she will never run out of goods for many years, but because she is surrounded by care, kindness, compassion and the people she loves in the few weeks that remain to her on this earth. Cords of human kindness, bands of love, these are what enable us to relax – no matter the circumstances – and know it is well with our soul.

This week:

  1. Take a look at the other stories in the New Testament when Jesus is called upon to arbitrate between siblings (Mary and Martha, James and John). How does he respond in those stories? Do we ask Jesus to arbitrate our sibling rivalries?
  2. How do we keep from simply hearing our own voice and justifying our decisions? How do we seek God’s guidance when it comes to how big our barns should be?
  3. What do you make of the decluttering trend? The tiny house movement? The interest in simplicity? Are these just another form of the materialism?
  4. How do we discern what is enough? What Bible passages help us determine how much is enough?
  5. Taking a look at Jesus’ response to the man asking Jesus to intervene with his brother, why does he say, “Friend, who set me to be judge and arbitrator over you?” Didn’t God set Jesus to be judge and arbitrator over us?
  6. How are we to be rich toward God? What does such richness look like?

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