A sermon preached on August 4th, 2013 based upon Luke 12:13 -21.
Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 15And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ 16Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
Underlying this parable that Jesus told about the man building bigger barns is the most important questions of life. What makes for a life well-lived, a life worth living, a life that matters? How do we find meaning and purpose in life?
It is the question I believe that in large part brings you to church each Sunday, and that’s because, as important as this fundamental question is, it is rarely, if ever addressed in the other settings in which we live out our lives.
Our schools don’t address the question with our children, in spite of all the time they spend there. It’s not a question asked at our workplaces. If anywhere, the question may be asked in our homes, in our families, but the truth of the matter is that the routine stuff that consumes the attention of families keeps us so busy, that even there, it doesn’t often get asked.
The question – what makes for a life well lived? — can only be asked when our most basic physical needs are met. The extreme poor — consumed with the question of where their next meal will come from, or where can they find shelter – aren’t free to ask the question. All their attention is consumed by the question how they can have enough of the stuff necessary to stay alive.
But the man in Jesus’ parable isn’t such a person. He’s not in danger of going hungry anytime soon. His barn is full of grain. He has more than enough. “What should I do,” he asks, “for I have no place to store my crops?”
This is the point in the story when the man should be turning his attention to the most important questions: “What makes for a meaningful life? What truly matters and what doesn’t matter?”
But instead the man simply plows ahead with his plan to build bigger barns.
Why does he do this? Perhaps because he already assumes he knows the answer to the question. It is the answer that the world at large functions out of without even thinking about it.
The purpose of life is to build bigger barns.
We send our kids to school encouraging them to work hard so they can get good grades and get into a good college where they can work hard to get good grades so that they can get a good job when they graduate that pays well and then work hard to be a success so they can get even better paying jobs and buy a house and then a better house and steadily improve the size of their personal kingdom – i.e. build bigger barns.
Peter Gomes was the chaplain at Harvard. He describes in one of his books about giving the commencement speech at an elite girls prep school. Addressing these highly-driven students with their over-achieving anxieties, he chose to preach on the gracious words of Jesus in which he asks, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?… Consider the lilies of the field who neither toil, nor do they spin, but their Heavenly Father provides for them… Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious to itself.”
Gomes thought the sermon had gone pretty well, that is until afterwards, at the reception an irate father came up to him and lashed into him, telling him that what he had said was nonsense. When Gomes pointed out it was Jesus who had originally said it, the man replied, “It’s still nonsense! It was anxiety that got my daughter into this school, it was anxiety that kept her here, it was anxiety that got her to Yale, and it will be anxiety that will keep her there, and it will be anxiety that will get her a good job! You are selling nonsense!”
Of course we’ve got to be continuing building better barns! Any fool can tell you that!
The man didn’t want to consider the question: was this life of never-ending anxiety about getting ahead a life that was truly worth living?
Curiously, although Jesus’ raises the question of what it means to live a life worth living, his parable doesn’t specifically answer the question. Perhaps this is because the answer isn’t something you can sum up in a simple formula. There’s no rule you can keep that will assure that you’re always on the right track. It’s a question that we have to live with – not something we answer once and for all and leave behind for ever.
In Jesus’ parable God unexpectedly show up to the bigger barn man and say, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
In other words, he confronts the man with the reality of his mortality, which exposes the shallowness of the life he’s living.
I read once about a chaplain who encountered a middle-aged man in a hospital room who had just been given the news from his doctor that his cancer was terminal, and that he only had a short time left to live. The man felt a profound sadness, but it wasn’t so much for the life he wouldn’t get to live, as it was for the life he never really had lived. “How can I die when I haven’t really ever lived?” the man asked. He realized that in his continual anxiety to build bigger barns, he’d never really lived his life at all.
He hadn’t lived with the big question: what makes a life worth living? He had simply accepted the unquestioned answer the world had handed him about what life is all about.
Now although Jesus doesn’t exactly answer the question, there are some clues given in this parable about the qualities of a meaningful life.
There are several things that seem to be missing in this man’s life.
The first thing that is missing is significant relationships with other people. The man is all about himself. In the short monologue he speaks, he uses either the word “I” or “my” eleven times. The monologue is almost funny the way Jesus tells it: the man is having a conversation with himself, inside another conversation with himself.
By nature we are lonely and need other people, but the world’s solution to our loneliness is to find that one perfect lover. A life companion is a good thing, but we need more – we need a community of loving relationships.
Part of the reason we come to church is in search of this sense of community. I our worship service, part of the significance of the sharing of joys and concerns is that it invites us to get out of ourselves in caring for others of our community.
The second thing the man is missing is gratitude. This is surprising, given how well things have gone for him. There is no recognition that his good fortune isn’t simply a function of his own hard work – that he has been blessed and graced in a whole host of ways he isn’t acknowledging. Although, as Jesus says, it is the ground that has brought forth the great harvest, the man acts as if it were something he himself has made happen.
The third thing is that he is missing is any sense of having a mission to serve. There is no recognition that the abundance that has been given to him comes with a calling to help those less fortunate than him. He has far more grain than he can ever use. He should recognize in this blessing an opportunity to help the many poor, hungry people in his community, but instead he sees only the need for a bigger barn.
The fourth thing that’s missing is more subtle. The man conjures up an ideal life of being one in which he can “Relax, eat, drink and be merry.” Since the man is an example of how not to be, it might sound as though relaxing, eating, drinking and making merry were a bad thing. It’s not, although there have been Christians throughout the ages that have heard it this way and as a result have cast a very dour, killjoy image of what it means to be a Christian.
But this misses the fact that Jesus is often portrayed in the Gospels as relaxing at dinner parties where there was plenty of good food and drink, sharing good times.
Here’s the problem with the man. He’s not talking about relaxing, eating, drinking and being merry in the present. No, he’s imagining a time somewhere in the future when he will finally be able to experience these things. When the bigger barns have been built, then he can begin to enjoy life. But not now. There’s too much work to be done — always something that first needs to be improved upon.
Of course, if a person’s whole life was devoted to nothing but relaxing, eating, drinking and being merry, then that wouldn’t be living a life worth living either.
Which is simply to get back to the point that a life worth living isn’t something you can sum up in one simple rule.
It involves a balance derived from having God at the center of your life.
Caring for yourself, but also caring about others.
Legitimate pride in your accomplishments, but gratitude for all that you have been blessed with along the way.
Working hard and a mission to help others, and setting time aside to rest, enjoy the bounty of life and celebrate.
Jesus is our guide in our quest to live such a life.