My grandmother’s apron. The hat that looks like a grape, made by a nurse for Grace when she was on the neonatal unit, and the preemie sized clothes that would be too big for her until she was four months old. The quilt John’s mother made for our tenth anniversary; the quilt my mother made – her first ever – to give me for Christmas during seminary. The dress my grandparents brought from their trip to Hawaii in 1973 when I was two years old, what would be their last trip to Hawaii. The green bear named Green Bear that my friend Deborah gave two of, one to each of our girls, when they were two years old. The painting of Mount Hood that hung in John’s grandparents’ living room. The hat my friend Kate knit for me, and then knit again after I lost the first one.
These are things we have treasured and kept, most of them moved from place to place in our lives over the past decades. They are things we’ve found room for, chosen to store instead of giving them away.
Next week one of our members will be entering a higher level of care at the assisted living center where she lives. That means a room for her instead of the apartment she has now, and so comes the necessary sifting through of what to let go of, what to keep. This member has generously offered gifts of her things to the people served by Family Promise who have been homeless and are returning to living independently, so that other people can have enough of what they need. As I have tried to be helpful to her through this process, it caused me to think about the day when John and I will find ourselves needing to make similar choices. You’ve heard the list of some of the things I would hold onto, were I to decide right now. What about you?
Today’s gospel is tough.
Somebody in the crowd Jesus is teaching comes before him and asks Jesus to tell the man’s brother to divide the family inheritance. It seems like he believes Jesus to be fair; nothing suggests the man is trying to manipulate, or get more than he should.
Jesus’ first response is to tell the group to beware of all kinds of greed. An earlier translation of this passage uses the word “covetousness.” So to use that more traditional word, Jesus is warning them against “wanting more of what you already have enough of.” Does this man already have what he needs? So what does fairness mean then?
Next, Jesus tells the story of a wealthy farmer. The farmer plants well, has a good season, and brings in a harvest so large it surprises him – so much that he doesn’t have room to contain it all. He builds a bigger barn where he can store all that wheat. And then he prepares to relax and take it easy, his future seemingly assured.
The easy way for a preacher into this passage is to say what you maybe expect a preacher to say: that money is evil, that possessions corrupt. That might work, some of the time, for some of the people, on a Sunday morning in church. But then there’s that business of going back out into the world again.
Money serves a purpose, when it pays for a home that shelters us, and for the medicine we need to be well, and for shoes to put on our kids’ feet, and for the food that sustains us...heck, even for a vacation once in a while. And possessions? Well, I can tell you that I remember my grandmother wearing the apron of hers that I have when I was ten years old and she taught me to bake a pie. And that tiny grape hat - it needed to be so small that the nurse used a lemon as the form so she could get the size right - that hat helped keep our daughter warm before she could maintain her own body temperature. And the painting that now hangs in our living room reminds us at the same time of our family and of the landscape that are in my family’s bones.
So to say that money and possessions don’t matter, or shouldn’t, seems at best irrelevant (something the Church sometimes gets accused of being), or at worst, negligent (something your rector just doesn’t want to be).
Here’ the trouble: the only subject of the conversation in Jesus’ story is the wealthy farmer himself. The only object of the conversation is his own wealth. And the conversation isn’t actually a conversation at all, because the only person this guy is talking to is himself.
At no point does the wealthy farmer give thanks for the land, for good weather and fertile soil. All that planting and tending and harvesting and tearing down and building and storing had to involve other people, but you wouldn’t know it – because the farmer never mentions them. He shows no generosity toward people who made the harvest possible. He invites no friends or neighbors or family to join in celebrating his good fortune.
Think about some of the other parables Jesus tells: the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Widow’s Mite. Each of those stories shows people sharing what they have, as gift. Each story shows the blessing magnified by the sharing of that gift, making it greater than what it had been by itself. Money and things become tools that the people who have them can choose to share, widening a circle in which more people have enough of what they need.
Or, in the case of today’s parable, they can choose not to.
“I will say to my soul, Soul, take your ease – you have ample goods…”
“But God says, ‘Fool, this very night your life is being demanded of you.' ”
Remember: Jesus is teaching before a crowd of his followers. Remember: this is an illustration he offers when a man asks the teacher he trusts to offer a judgment that is fair.
It is not a sin, so far as I know, to make wise business decisions. It is not a sin to be surprised by a remarkable yield, or to build in ways that better meet our needs. It is not a sin, I believe, to hold special things as tangible reminders of joy or hope or even sadness…as tangible reminders of love. Where we get lost is in believing that we are our own ends, that what we have is always and only and ever a result of what we ourselves have done, that stuff is the entire substance of a person’s life, and that we can never, ever have enough.
Because this night, and every night, our lives are being demanded of us. This night, and every night, we have the choice to clench our fists and isolate ourselves, or open our hands and hearts to share. This night, and every night, we have the opportunity to learn again that we cannot store up treasures that will, finally, secure ourselves to heaven. Only God can do that.
And who knows, in the end – maybe I’ll have a grandchild in some distant future who wants to learn how to bake, and who will need an apron to wear. And somebody else might need a quilt to wrap up in on a cold night. Green Bear might travel to college, if in fact green bears do such things. And maybe someone else, one day, will need a watercolor of a big mountain in Oregon. I pray that when those moments come, we will have the generosity to notice and share, so others can have enough of what they need.