Rich Towards God: Bless, Break, and Give Away
Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church
The Bible starts with a liturgy of abundance says theologian Walter Brueggemann. Genesis 1 is a song of praise for God’s generosity. God blesses and endows. All is good. All is good. Even in the desert God’s love comes down as manna, a gift of heaven, a miracle feeding. Everyone had enough until some started to hoard. Later in the Gospel story about loaves and fishes, Jesus too performed a miracle feeding; he blessed, broke, and gave the bread away. 5,000 were fed and 12 baskets left over. More than enough. All was good. Jesus that “brown-skinned Palestinian Jew”, as Rev. Barber referred to him the other night at the Democratic National Convention came for the hungry, the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan, and all unacceptable or marginalized others. He came to remind us of about our origins and original blessing of goodness and abundance. That first Eucharist of loaves and fishes is the model we are called to participate in as receivers and as givers: bless, break, and give away. This is sacramental living; for all is God’s and all is to be shared.
Brueggemann believes that the central problem in our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity and that this belief makes us anxious, greedy, mean, and un-neighborly. He says we spend our lives trying to sort out this ambiguity. Or we don’t.
Many of us live into this myth of scarcity and claim it as our Gospel like that billionaire John D. Rockefeller who believed we are born to consume. “We are not enough if we don’t produce, consume, and store a surplus of money and stuff. The more you have, the better your life will be. You can’t have too much.” Sounds like our Rich Fool does it not church?
But this is not what Jesus believes, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Or as it is translated in the Message, “Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”
To illustrate his point to or to make sure his disciples understood he told them a story about a farmer who produced a big crop, so big he didn’t know what to do with his surplus. After talking to himself he decided that he would build a bigger barn to store his excess a harvest.
Now I wish to pause here in the story and talk about excess and greed. And I would to illustrate this point by doing a small demonstration with my Pythagoras cup that I bought in Crete a few years ago. As you can see it looks like any other clay cup from the outside but inside it has a column that has a special function. Let me demonstrate. I am going to pour the water up to the line and then past that line.
When you go past the line all the water comes out. When we go past our limit of what is necessary or just we lose it all. So this farmer, so absorbed in himself, so self-satisfied with his own accomplishments he decided to go past this line, “I will build bigger barns.” Then God stepped in to remind him of that final line, death. Yes God, who rarely speaks in the Gospel stories says, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” or “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with self and are not rich towards God.”
Last year at the beginning of August a Turkish couple spent their wedding day feeding 4,000 Syrian refugees. They decided that instead of feeding their well-fed family and friends they would feed the victims of the civil war next door. Is this not a modern enactment of the loaves and fishes? Is this not being rich towards God?
Pastor Steve Craig says the Rich Fool was impoverished, not rich, on a variety of levels. The first is a poverty of gratitude to God for the success he has in his life. The second is a poverty of relationships because he doesn’t seem to have a community to discuss this important decision around what to do with his surplus. Third is a poverty of vision because he doesn’t know how to see beyond himself into the future. And lastly, he has a poverty of generosity because he doesn’t know how to share. This Rich Fool has bought into the scarcity myth. He must also be Rockefeller’s inspiration.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also preached on this parable and like Pastor Craig sees that this Rich Fool is not just greedy but also lacking in judgment. “He allowed the means by which he lived to out distance the ends for which he lived.” King believes each of us has two realms--- within and without. The within realm is our spiritual nature expressed in art, literature, religion, and morals. The without realm is our physical reality expressed by our house, our clothes, our money. This man was “a fool because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum.” He became so involved with the means by which he lived he couldn’t extend himself beyond that world. He had lost touch with his within realm. I think Pastor Craig might categorize this under his poverty of vision.
And because King believed we are tied together in a interconnected universe or garment of destiny this man is a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others; he lost the capacity to say “we” and “our” and could only say “I” and “my.” He forgot that his wealth is the result of the commonwealth. And finally, he failed to realize his dependence on God and acted like he was the creator of his good fortune.
I find both of these frameworks illuminating in helping us move beyond a story about the dangers of greed. But these frameworks don’t leave me with a place to go with the story because I don’t really identify with the Rich Man. I don’t see myself having enough to save or hoard and like you I try to share what I do have.
However, I do see people building bigger and bigger barns by destroying our natural living systems to get quick energy fixes instead of sharing resources or developing cleaner more green friendly systems. I see my country consumed by moneyed interests and scandals, which are corrupting our democracy. And I see there and here an escalation in the use of violence, whole barns full of new missiles, surveillance equipment, and “crowd control” weapons. And sadly I see water resources stolen and contaminated here and there, not shared. And I see barns full of new settlements and displaced families standing in rubble heaps which used to be their homes. I see religion used as a silo for those within the flock and the expulsion of others. I see barns full of materials for building walls instead of bridges. I see barns full of keys for the wealthy 1% and trunks full of keys for refugees who are still waiting to return.
What kind of barns do you see church? And to get personal for a moment, what is in your barn that you have been saving or not sharing? Do you really believe there is and will be enough?
How are you living rich toward God? What songs of praise do you sing and when? What threads of interdependence are part of your garment of destiny? And when you act foolishly, as we all do, how do you bring yourself back to the center so that you can find that line again or stop building more barns?
And finally, where and with whom are you blessing and breaking bread? Who are you feeding with your one special life?
Loren McGrail serves with the YWCA of Palestine. She helps identify international partners, and relevant sources of funding.