Note: I preached a version of this sermon on August 4, 2013 (Proper 13C) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Then 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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, and be merry.’”
I want to talk today about insecurity.
In fact I’d like to talk about two kinds of insecurity. A report came out just this week that said something shocking to me. According to data compiled by the Associated Press, four out of five Americans will be poor or nearly poor over the course of their lives. People are likelier to lose work and to depend on government benefits to make ends meet than they were not long ago. And this is true not just in areas that we think of as “poor” communities but in large stretches of the country, including our own area. Mining areas are especially hard hit.
And it’s difficult to read these stories. There is so much instability in the family, so much insecurity, so much dependence on things like disability payments and food stamps–which are good things, because they help keep people alive and well, but which are not how any of us wants to live over the long run.
“Poverty is no longer an issue of ‘them’, it’s an issue of ‘us’,” says Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who calculated the numbers. “Only when poverty is thought of as a mainstream event, rather than a fringe experience that just affects blacks and Hispanics, can we really begin to build broader support for programs that lift people in need.”
So that’s one kind of insecurity. Here’s another, which comes from an article written a couple of years back by a friend of mine:
THE OCTOBER 2008 issue of SuperYacht World confirmed it: money cannot buy happiness. Page 38 of “the international magazine for superyachts of distinction”—if you have to ask what it takes for a yacht to qualify as “super,” you can’t afford to be in the showroom—presented the Martha Ann, a 230-foot, $125 million boat boasting a crew of 20, a master bedroom the size of my house, and an interior gaudy enough to make Saddam Hussein blush. The feature story on the Martha Ann was published just as the S&P 500 suffered its worst week since 1933, shedding $1.4 trillion over the course of the week, or about 2,240 Martha Anns every day. Still, one of the captions accompanying the lavish photos betrayed the status anxiety that afflicts even the highest echelons of wealth. “From these LOFTY HEIGHTS,” the caption promised, “guests will be able to look down on virtually any other yacht.” Virtually any other yacht! One imagines the prospective owner wincing at this disclaimer, pained by the knowledge that the world would still contain superyachts more super than his own, that at least one gazillionaire in Saint-Tropez harbor would likely be able to peer over his gunwales and down at the Martha Ann.
It turns out, according to a fascinating survey conducted over many years by scholars at Boston College, that people at the other end of the wealth spectrum from the 4/5ths of Americans who are at risk for poverty experience terrifying insecurities of their own. They worry about their children growing up to be responsible adults, they worry about their family and intimate relationships, they worry about being isolated by their wealth, they worry about status. And, surprisingly perhaps, they worry about money. “Most of them still do not consider themselves financially secure; for that, they say, they would require on average one-quarter more wealth than they currently possess.” These are people who have tens of millions of dollars in assets.
Now this is not because the extremely wealthy are bad people. But it is because security itself is something that is very, very hard to experience. The idea of having enough–enough money, enough savings, enough financial stability–is the sort of thing that recedes from us even as we chase after it. As a wise rabbi once taught, the less food you have, the more you want, and the more food you have, the less you want. The less sex you have, the less you want, and the more you have, the more you want. But with money, the less you have, the more you want, and the more you have, the more you want.
Today Jesus tells us a story about this very problem. He is teaching his disciples and someone asks him to do what teachers were often asked to do: resolve a dispute involving the laws about inheritance.
Now it would have been more useful, though less interesting, if Jesus had just answered the man’s request. Instead, Jesus does what he so often does which is to tell a story.
A rich man’s land brings in a bumper crop one year–so much that his own barns can’t hold it all. He would have to sell so much of it, and in a good harvest year that means everyone else is selling too, and prices are down. So he takes a drastic step and pulls down his existing barns in order to put up new ones that will hold the whole crop. And so, the man thinks, he has achieved financial security: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
And just as he feels he has achieved enough, God says to him: You fool. Tonight your life will be demanded of you. And the things you have stored up–whose will they be?
I’m going to pause here and admit that I preached the heck out of this story back when I was an intern making $500 a month on the Southside of Chicago. I could really hear Jesus then. Now, I have a real job, and I have two kids, and I get pension contributions from the church. And this text hits me harder. Because I am torn, as many of us are, between wanting to faithful to what Jesus says here and throughout the Gospels, and wanting to make some provision for my own and my family’s future.
And I suppose today I imagine that I could live freely and generously toward God and my neighbor if only I could attain a little bit of security. Enough money in the IRA. Enough money set aside for my sons’ college. Enough certainty that I could get health insurance.
But I’m lying to myself. I have more to my name than I’ve ever had, and yet I feel farther from having enough than I have ever felt.
That, I think, is the point of Jesus’ story. The man is not content with being rich. His barns are already larger than most, and he already had more goods than most, but he must scheme to have more. And he does it in a way that is harmful to his neighbors. As our reading from Ecclesiastes shows us, people were terribly afraid of working hard in their lifetimes only to have someone undeserving inherit their wealth. So Jesus points his audience, and points us, to what is in front of us now. Whom do we love? Where is God? What do we need today?
Because security isn’t a feeling. Enough isn’t a feeling. Not to Jesus, anyway. For Jesus, security comes from God, and having enough is God’s gift. The only security that Jesus cared about was the security that we find in God’s service and in the community that God has assembled. And the only “enough” that Jesus cared about was enough for everyone. Not enough for me, or enough for you, or enough to get my kid through a semester at the University of Chicago, but enough for everyone. When we seek that–when we seek the kingdom of God–we will truly know what security means. Amen.