I preached this sermon in 2003 at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly.The day's theme was designated as "Healing of the Earth," and the text was chosen for me. I remembered it this week when I looked at the text for next Sunday.
Proper 13 | Pentecost 10C
Relax! Eat, drink, be merry! The farmer imagines saying this to his soul after he finishes his barn expansion project. I like this picture of the farmer taking a break from work and worry. I know a few farmers, and I confess I have not often thought of merriment as one of their pastimes. Many of them are not the best at relaxing, either. On a farm there’s always more work to do than you can get done. About the time you think you’re getting ahead of it, a piece of equipment breaks down. It used to be that darkness at the end of the day, or a hard freeze at the end of the growing season, would have the effect of slowing down the farmer’s pace, but for years we’ve had lights on all the big machines, and now we have crops like sunflowers that you cannot even begin to harvest until after a hard freeze. It is as if there is no end to the work.
So finally, after who knows how long working his fingers to the bone, this farmer has a good year, and he sets about saving for a rainy day – or maybe just saving for next year’s drought. Sometimes we read this parable, assuming that the man was somehow a crook or that he was insatiably greedy, you know, never enough. But Jesus doesn’t say either of these things. Jesus doesn’t say that the man is hoarding ill-gotten gain; he just says the land of a certain rich man produced abundantly. The guy had a good year. We should all be so lucky, and most of us have been, one year or another. Was he greedy for more and more? The fact that he’s ready to kick back and relax after those barns are built says that he wasn’t the sort of guy who’s never satisfied. As far as we know, from the details that Jesus gives, the man’s problem is not that he practiced dishonest business, or that he had a voracious appetite for more and more. So, what is his problem?
Well, first of all, our guy needs to get into town a little more often. He’s started talking to himself. He’s talking only to himself, and he’s pretty much talking only about himself. In the 1980s James Taylor had a hit song called, “You are my only one.” When the song was popular one of my school classmates joked about his own bleak, date-free status by walking down the hall singing, “I am my only one, I am my only one.” This could be the theme song of the farmer with the great crop and the new barns. In the parable, not even one other human being makes an appearance. He is his only one. Every line that this farmer speaks is spoken to himself, and everything he says refers to himself: my soul, my goods, my barns.
There is no one else in this story that Jesus tells – not until the end, when God says to him, “The things you’ve prepared, whose will they be?” It is a question without an answer in the parable. As far as we know, he doesn’t have anyone to whom to leave his goods. Besides being all alone in the world, our farmer has at least one other problem: he is misguided about what he manages and what he doesn’t.
A few months ago I was talking with a woman whose office manages a database of contacts. She told me about a software glitch that they had. They encountered it as they were migrating data from one system to another. Somehow in the migration the reports – things like mailing lists and contact lists of certain people in the office – all those reports got corrupted, so that some names were not with the right addresses and all sorts of similar problems kept cropping up. You can imagine, this is just a disaster if you’re trying to figure out who’s who. One of the problems was that the file of deceased contacts was somehow activated. I’m not making this up, and it actually happened at a development office of one of our fine schools! The file of deceased contacts was activated so that people who had died were appearing again on the mailing list. The woman said to me, “We had people coming back from the dead!” And then she said, “not our job.”
That wasn’t their job, and reassuring his soul on the basis of his assets is not the farmer’s job either. Our friend with those new barns, he is apparently good at resource management; he knows his business and he is successful running it. All that is good. But then, given all his management skill, he begins to imagine himself managing the future. In an internal dialogue about an internal dialogue, the man says, “I will say to myself, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' A reassured soul is is a good thing, but the farmer is making promises he cannot keep. It is not his job to assure his soul about the shape of the future. There are some things that even a man with a good crop and big barns doesn’t control.
Strangely, the rich man does not seem to know that he has stepped beyond his sphere of influence. He is rich, he is prudent, he is a good manager. He is also a fool. The farmer’s folly is not that he has built barns; he’s a farmer, and farms need storage space. In the story, God does not pass judgment on the farmer’s moral character; instead, God calls him a fool. The man is a fool because he believes that his ample goods will safeguard his future. He is a fool because, whether he has ample goods or no goods at all, he will be dead tomorrow. And he seems to have considered every future scenario except that one – the one that is guaranteed for all of us, and breathtakingly close at hand for him. His future is ours, you know. I hate to put it this way exactly, but none of us is going to make it out of here alive. This thought may have occurred to you earlier in the week, but I speak it. (I couldn’t resist that. Sorry.) I speak it here in another context.
Every Ash Wednesday we get honest with each other about this: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The rest of the year many of us take our vitamins, keep our doctors’ appointments, eat our oatmeal and sweep that dust language as far as possible away from us. I’m not here preaching against vitamins or routine medical care, or even oatmeal – I actually like oatmeal – and Jesus is not preaching against a good crop and the good sense to gather it into barns, either. But here’s the thing: You may be the best farmer, the greatest long-range planner, the most dedicated oatmeal eater in the room, and still, if you do not know that you could be dead tomorrow, you are a fool.
It is ironic that this story was inspired by a request for help getting an inheritance. “Tell my brother to share the family inheritance with me,” someone asks. “Rabbi, you read the law; explain the law to my brother. Tell him he should share with me.” But Jesus won’t step into that debate. He’s headed somewhere else as he responds to the man who asked for his help. Instead of issuing a ruling on the inheritance question, Jesus cautions the man and everyone else within earshot about the difference between storing up treasure for one’s self and being rich toward God.
Jesus is headed somewhere else – namely, to Jerusalem where, as he has already told his disciples, he will be killed. The farmer is not the only one breathtakingly close to death. Jesus is interested in inheritance questions, but not the inheritance of the brother in the crowd, or even the inheritance of the farmer who dies with no heirs at all. Instead, Jesus speaks of the inheritance that belongs to the children of God. Just a few verses after the parable of the barns, Jesus says, “Have no fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” You are a child of God – a son, a daughter of God! And it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. That’s all the inheritance you need.
When I was in college, one of my religion professors was trying to explain this inheritance, this gift to us, and he borrowed a single run-on sentence that had been fashioned by a woman named Ann Herbert, whom I’ve never met, but I use a couple of her things over and over, and if someone knows her, you should tell me. She used to be an English teacher at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Herbert explained God’s grace by saying:
So here’s Peter, standing by an imitation-I’m-sure-not-even-cultured-pearl picket gate, stuck with a sign scrawling “Welcome home to the universe” and being naturally curious, and I won’t add in my usual considerable pain, I try to get it, offering dollars, marks and using anecdotes, custom-tailored purebred yankee ingenuity with a five-year service contract, stock options both ways and dinner for two and a complete living-room suite while watching the latest in self-adjusting color tv, but he won’t take or tell me the price of admissions; he says I’m already in.
You’re already in. It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. It is the Son’s good pleasure to share his inheritance with you.
What if our hard-working, momentarily-relaxed, about-to-die farmer had known about God’s good pleasure to give him the kingdom? How might his life have been different before his death? To answer that question, it may help to go back to the farmer’s first problem. Remember, he is his only one? Yet Jesus announces the gift of the kingdom to the flock, and not to a solo sheep. “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give y’all the kingdom.” In that little word “you” with its plural form, a different story comes into focus.
The man with the barns is there, but there are also other characters we haven’t seen before; there are workers – builders of the barns, commerce people for the grain, people who need to eat – even the One who sends rain and makes the sun to shine and the crops to grow. It is that One’s good pleasure to give you and all those other people in the story what you all need from day to day. The man with the barns was never as isolated as his self-talk led us to believe. The difference now is that the man can look up from all that muttering over his ledger long enough to realize it.
The other difference for the farmer comes in what he expects his barns and his grain to be able to do for him. Dear Mr. Farmer: Your soul is secure in life and in death. It is God’s good pleasure to secure our soul. When that matter is settled, no longer is all the grain in those barns the means by which one foolish farmer gives himself a false sense of security. When the farmer comprehends that his soul is secure, the grain can be what it was meant to be: the simple miraculous means by which the Creator cares for creatures who need to eat.
Dear voting member, assembly visitor, honored guest, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ: Your soul is secure in life and in death. It is God’s good pleasure to secure your soul. Relax! Eat, drink, be merry. Rejoice! Rise, work, rest. All of this – your whole life and your death besides – is sanctified by the One who said, “This is my body, my blood, my life, my death. For you.”
As for that grain in your barns, that work you are good at, those accounts you manage – they are worthless for the purpose of soul-securing. Worthless. But they were never intended for that. In the rule of God, they will not go to waste. Our time, our talents, our possessions – they are just what God needs to answer our neighbor’s prayer for daily bread. How’s that for resource management?