Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 1, 2010

2010.08.04 “A Cautionary Tale” Luke 12: 13 – 21

Central United Methodist Church

 “A Cautionary Tale”

Luke 12: 13 – 21

Pastor David L. Haley

August 1st, 2010


     “Someone out of the crowd said, “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.” Jesus replied, “Mister, what makes you think it’s any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?”  Speaking to the people, he went on, “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”  Then he told them this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop.  He talked to himself: “What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, “Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’ “Just then God showed up and said, “Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods — who gets it?’  “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.” – Luke 12: 13 – 21, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

     About 2,260 years ago, the ancient writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes – part of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament – said: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

      I felt that way last Monday morning when I sat down to read the news, and, not long after, today’s Gospel.

      In the news, there was a story in the New York Times about David H. Brooks, chief executive and chairman of DHB Industries, who made body-armor used by law enforcement personnel and the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, Mr. Brooks, 55, is on trial in United States District Court for accusations of fraud, insider trading, and company-financed personal extravagance.

        DHB paid for more than $6 million in personal expenses for Mr. Brooks, covering items as expensive as luxury cars and as prosaic as party invitations. Also included were university textbooks for his daughter, pornographic videos for his son, plastic surgery for his wife, a burial plot for his mother, prostitutes for his employees, and, for him, a $100,000 American-flag belt buckle encrusted with rubies, sapphires and diamonds. Even as federal investigations into his actions were widening and his business was crumbling, Mr. Brooks threw his daughter a multimillion-dollar bat mitzvah party featuring performances from the rapper 50 Cent and the rock group Aerosmith.

But the expense-account abuse, says the prosecution, is a pittance compared with the $190 million that Mr. Brooks is accused of making through a stock fraud scheme in which he falsified information about his company’s performance to inflate the price of the stock before selling his shares in 2004.

Said the article:

“As a whole, the accusations might present just another cautionary tale of excess and entitlement in a powerful individual, but Mr. Brooks’ story stands out because of details and characters that give it the strange and sordid depth of a long-running soap opera. “What makes it interesting isn’t that there is anything novel legally about it, but just how egregious this guy’s alleged behavior is, how gross the abuses are and how much greed is involved,” said Meredith R. Miller, an associate law professor at Touro College in Central Islip, N.Y. (A. G. Sulzberger, “At Military Contractor’s Trial, a $100,000 Buckle,” The New York Times, July 26, 2010)

In a time of Wall Street bailouts and bonuses, does this sound too familiar?  In difficult financial times, such a cautionary tale only serves as another poke in the eye for all those who struggle to make ends meet, keep their houses and afford health care.

Of course, we don’t have to go to New York to find examples of what economist Thorsten Veblin – in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class – once called “conspicuous consumption.” We need only follow the trial of our former Governor, Rod Blagojevich. Apparently the family – who present themselves as an “average” Chicago family – spent an average of $57,000 a year on clothes over six years, including, on one occasion, $1,300 worth of ties in one day. Here was a man who was governor of the state of Illinois, yet like the man in today’s parable, was unhappy, wanting a bigger and better barn.  Really, doesn’t it make you shake your head in wonder (or is that disgust)? 

        Someone – maybe Jesus – once pointed out that there are two ways money and wealth can get the best of you: one is by not having enough, so that you worry about it all the time; the other is by having too much, such that you worry about it all the time. In either case, it can blind you to that which is most important in life.

        Most of us fall into one of these categories. (More of the first than the second, I’d guess.)  So what can we do to keep money and wealth – and the stuff it buys – from ruining our lives?

There are two ways we can learn what’s important, and keep it before us, in life. One is in the School of Hard Knocks, aka a Slap to the Side of the Head or a Dash of Cold Water.  By keeping our eyes and ears open, we can observe, and learn the lessons of life.

        Through being a Pastor, a Chaplain, a Paramedic, I’ve had a good vantage point to see it. There were times after I got home, when I felt like I wouldn’t ever get my eyebrows back down again. 

–      A man standing by his dying wife’s bedside, says to me, “You spend your whole life acquiring things, and then you have to give them all away.” 

–      An older woman found dead in her apartment, dead for about three days. You walk around her apartment, and look at all the stuff, and wonder: “Whose will this be?”

–      A man is found dead in his apartment, likely for two weeks. There are no calls on his answering machine.

–      A man dies in his bathroom, who it turns out, was a former pastor. Around his apartment are his books, his files, a shredder in which he was shredding his files, possibly the files from years of ministry. I couldn’t help but think, “This could be me!”

Even if you haven’t had the vantage point I’ve had, you can still see it. Walk through an intensive care, or a hospice. Visit an Alzheimer’s facility. Walk through a cemetery – preferably a cemetery where the former high and mighty are buried – like Rosehill in Chicago – and read the epitaphs.  Wasn’t it the late Colonel Sanders, of KFC fame, who supposedly once said, “I have no desire to be the richest man in the cemetery.”

There is another way we can gain such wisdom, maybe less painfully, which is what we do today. It is to hear and heed the wisdom of our faith tradition – and specifically Jesus, who teaches us – through story and example what is important.

      For example, in our Gospel today, once when Jesus was speaking about weighty things, there was a man in the crowd not listening, because he was worried about stuff.  What he was worried about was that he wasn’t getting as much of his families’ inheritance as his brother was. We understand: how many families (maybe even our own) have we seen blown up over who gets what? We understand, because we too want Daddy’s stocks, the family pieces in the attics, Mother’s silver in the silver chest, and the lace tablecloths in the linen closet.

      At any rate, consumed by this, in the middle of Jesus’ sermon the man raises his hand: “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.”

      The man has come to Jesus for justice – a job often performed by rabbis – and has faith Jesus will help him.  But one look at Jesus’ face, and you get the sinking feeling that as far as Jesus is concerned, heaven does not have a small-claims court.

      And so Jesus answers, (in one of my favorite all time answers): “Man, who made me an umpire over you?” 

      In elaboration, Jesus then tells a story. Once there was a rich farmer whose farm did so well, he said to himself: “What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ “Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, “Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’”

      Good plan, but unfortunately, he then drops dead. Or as Jesus says in The Message, “Just then God showed up and said, “Fool! Tonight you die.  And your barnful of goods — who gets it?”

Did you hear the story about a man, an avid golfer, who had a friend who had a near-death experience? “Tell me something I’ve always wanted to know,” said the golfer to his resuscitated friend. “Is there God in heaven?” “Well,” said the man who had died, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is golf in heaven, with long, beautiful, grassy fairways.“ “The bad news is, you’ve got tee time at 10:00 tomorrow.”

      The point of Jesus cautionary tale was, “Be careful: that’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”

       That’s what happened to the rich farmer, to certain people in the news, and can happen to us: we become a worshiper of the most popular of gods: the Unholy Trinity of “me, myself, and I.”

      The rich farmer doesn’t consider sharing the wealth. He doesn’t care about others who are suffering, he has no regard for the hurting and needy. Neither doesn’t he voice any concern about the community in which he lives.  He is not foolish because he makes provision for the future; he is foolish because he believes that by his wealth he can secure his future, and that in exclusion from the welfare of others.

      We get the point. Jesus is not just talking to the man who asked the question; not even to the crowd.  He’s talking to me!  Here today, gone tomorrow! Of course it will happen to me, to all of us; it’s only a question of when and where? And then, all this stuff, whose will it be?

      That’s why the heart of the spiritual life, the heart of living lives of meaning and importance, is to be able to look past the stuff, beyond the transient and temporal to that which is lasting and eternal. Sixteenth century German reformer Martin Luther once said, “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”

      Lawrence Wood is the Pastor of Fremont United Methodist Church in Fremont, Michigan, and is the author of One Hundred Tons of Ice and Other Gospel Stories.  Six years ago, in the Christian Century magazine, he told this story:

      Ed and Edna’s place is pretty typical, I think. Her cupboards, bureaus, cabinets, garage, attic and spare bedrooms have been crammed full of things that define her.  (“Oh, you know Edna Furbelow,” says her neighbor, “she collected Hummels.”) Every once in a while, Edna took some of the clutter out to the front yard and sold it, although no one stepping inside her house ever knew the difference.  Now that Edna had died and her husband’s pole barn has finally gotten empted, everything must go.

      It’s too bad she’s not here for the lesson, because there’s something morally instructive about an estate sale. Absent the owners, the items lose their meaning, so that even Ed and Edna’s kids and closest friends think, My God, there a lot of stuff here. What a lot of junk! The agent, who doesn’t want to haul it away, has priced everything low: books go for 50 cents, a big set of plates for a few bucks.  Here is an old rusty bicycle from the Eisenhower era and a once-prized lamp that now seems hideous.  Set out on the green grass outside the barn, Ed’s band saw and drill press, his pride and joy, appear headed for retirement.

      Now the auctioneer calls out Lot 152, a collection of four hundred Hummels. Eyes roll and knowing smiles break out, but no one bids. The auctioneer looks at the estate agent, the agent looks at Edna’s oldest daughter: a lifetime’s hobby and a person’s identity have come to this. It’s almost possible to hear Jesus asking, “And these Hummels, whose will they be?”  (“A Lot of Junk”, Living By The Word, The Christian Century, July 27th, 2004, Vol. 121, No. 15, p. 20)


      “Take care,” says Jesus. “Protect yourself against the least bit of greed.” “Because life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”  


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