… One week after the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial
Because the congregation where I’m providing extended pulpit supply this summer is using a Narrative Lectionary Format, we’re two weeks ahead of the Revised Common Lectionary right now. Those of you who will be working with this passage in the next few weeks are welcome to anything you find of use.
Jesus told them a parable, a story … The province of a wealthy man produced an overwhelming abundance. The man looked at his harvest and his storehouses and asked himself, “What shall I do? I don’t have enough room in my storehouses to store all of this.” Then he answered himself, “I know! I’ll tear down these storehouses and build bigger ones. Then I will say to myself, ‘My soul, my life, you have plenty of goods stored up for many years. Relax! Eat, drink, and be merry.’” But that very night God came to him and said, “You Fool. Your soul, your life will be taken from you this very night. Then all of these things you have saved up, whose will they be?” So it is, Jesus said, with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich according to God.
Decades ago, preaching on this very parable, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior remarked: “There are a lot of fools around. Because they fail to realize their dependence on others. Do you know that man talked like he regulated the seasons? That man talked like he gave the rain to grapple with the fertility of the soil. That man talked like he provided the dew. He was a fool because he ended up acting like he was the Creator instead of a creature. And this man-centered foolishness is still alive today.” Decades later, all that needs updating in this observation is a bit of the language: This human-centered foolishness is still alive today.
Some schools of spiritual direction hold that there are three universal energy centers that ever threaten to (and often do) become our gods: security, pleasure, and power. As the original Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism regarding the First Commandment, you shall have no other gods: “Whatever you give your heart to and entrust your being, that, I say, is really your God.” Luther characterizes God as saying “Look to Me for any good thing you lack … whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, reach out to Me.” What we look to for help, comfort, security, and any good thing, that is our god. The question is not so much do we have a god? as it is what sort of god (or gods) do we have for ourselves? These three universal energy centers of security, pleasure, and power often do become our de facto gods, what we look to for all good and entrust ourselves to.
Where do we look for security, if we’re being really honest? The rich man in the parable looked to his accumulation of crops for his security – what he’d produced, stored up, accumulated. Are we that much that different? Our sense of security is deeply rooted in our material resources, primarily money. Security is the regular paycheck or benefit check, the money we’ve saved in the bank, the house that’s bought and paid for. Our homes are the place of safety and security because we have made them so with locks and lighting and maybe alarms. We rely on our own efforts and abilities to provide for ourselves and secure our provisions – hence our current cultural obsession with personal protection and self-defense and being ready at all times to protect ourselves (and others we might care about) because we cannot trust most others around us; we can’t even count on our designated protector, police officers, to be there to help us (or so we are told by the marketers of fear).
Fear undermines our sense of security, so we seek more power – the power to push back against the things that frighten us, the power to make things work out right for ourselves, to direct our own destiny. In our parable, the rich man took counsel with himself to chart the course of his future. As Reverend King observed, he talked like he regulated the seasons, like he had all power and control over the course of events … until, of course, God showed up and suggested otherwise. We just don’t like it when things don’t go the way we want them to, when we find ourselves powerless to control our situations and direct our lives. Many nights at work, a number of callers will become angry and hostile because I’m telling them that what they want is just not possible at this time. It’s not about me; it’s that they are realizing how truly powerless they are in their situations – and they hate it, just like any of us would hate to be so powerless.
Powerlessness is unpleasant and so it has a way of driving us to seek pleasure as a distraction from unpleasant realities (not that pleasure and pleasant experiences aren’t attractive enough in and of themselves). When we are pleased, we are happy and satisfied. Pleasure has a way of protecting us from unpleasant realities, insulating us from difficult situations we don’t want to be in, distracting us from real problems we’d rather not face. So long as we are pleased and satisfied ourselves, the rest doesn’t matter so much. We see this in the Rich Fool. He’s pleased and satisfied with himself and gives no thought to anyone else. But did he really bring in that overwhelmingly abundant harvest all by himself? Had he worked his province, cultivating those crops, all by himself? Was he about to pull down his existing storehouses and build bigger with just his own two hands? I don’t think so. There must have been others involved, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to his self-talk.
That’s the trouble of those universal energy centers of security, pleasure, and power. They seek their own ends without regard for the effects on others. As theologian Walter Brueggemann observes: “We must confess that the central problem in our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity – a belief that makes us greedy, mean, and unneighborly. We spend our lives trying to sort out that ambiguity.” We are called to God’s vision of abundance, where there is welcome and plenty for all, where there is no need to fear there won’t be enough because the future is sure, where there is no reason to horde things now against some fear-filled future. But we also live in this world where we are reminded in so many ways there might not be enough to go around, there’s no way to know what tomorrow might bring so it’s best to be prepared.
So long as we have enough for ourselves and our own, we are content enough to let others have theirs, provided it doesn’t diminish what we have. This is what drives the man whose request opens our gospel reading: Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me. This man wants his fair share, same as we all do. And the same could be said of the Rich Fool. It’s his land, his crops, his harvest. It’s his and he wants to keep it. Is there any law against that? He’s looking to his future needs. Isn’t that right to do? Maybe … but as Brueggemann observes, this concern about potential scarcity in the future can, and does, make us greedy, mean, and downright unneighborly.
That unneighborliness has been on display quite a bit these past few weeks as the trial of George Zimmerman and the subsequent verdict of a week ago and then the discussion of and reaction to that verdict have directed our attention to events in a gated community in a suburb of Orlando, Florida way back in February 2012. Those three universal energy centers – security, power, and the pleasures of wealth and prestige – are all tightly interwoven in this situation. Much of what happened that night can never be known for certain. However, any attempts to explore why George Zimmerman was instantly suspicious of Trayvon Martin and unable to consider any other reasons for the teenager’s presence in his neighborhood are diverted or squelched when attention turns to the color of Martin’s skin.
In recent weeks, a number of prominent men of color have shared their experiences of moving through daily life with the sense that a cloud of suspicion is always hanging over them. Their ranks include the host of the children’s TV program The Reading Rainbow, the Attorney General of the United States, and even President Obama. To a man, they have described their experiences of frightened reactions from people around them throughout the day on the street, on buses, in elevators … how they are followed by security personnel in stores, stopped by police for no clear reason … how they teach their sons the precautions they have found vital to keep the police officers calm during these random stops. But when they speak about these things, they are told “This has nothing to do with the Zimmerman-Martin case. You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about. This is only stirring up racial tensions; you’re just making things worse – not better. Don’t talk about this.” Why is it so hard to simply hear them on this subject?
One of the ways to read the word greed in our gospel, when Jesus says “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” is “Beware from every advantage one possesses over another.” When men of color speak about their experiences of automatic suspicion and rejection, they confront us with the truth that most of us do not share these experiences. We, of the ethnic majority, have advantages and privileges that they do not. We may not like hearing this; it makes us extremely uncomfortable. But Jesus tells his followers: Be on your guard against these privileges; don’t take those advantages, such as you have them. Don’t be over-reaching, trying to grab as much for yourself as you can – especially to the exclusion of others.
Jesus warns us against seeking our advantages, gaining power over others and events, securing ourselves and our possessions against others, chasing after pleasure. Life does not consist of these kinds of things, he cautions. Like the Rich Fool, you can accumulate everything you possibly can – but to what end? It won’t always be yours. The end comes sooner or later, and then what? What will you have? Instead, Jesus advises, become rich in accordance to God.
What’s that supposed to mean? Well, it isn’t exactly clear. It definitely does not mean building bigger storehouses and filling them with an abundance of stuff. It certainly does not involve collecting wealth or treasure solely for one’s self. The opposite of these impulses would be to look outward, rather than inward … to share instead of horde … to invest in the greater community instead of our own household. Surely the Rich Fool of the parable had a community around him – a community of people who worked his land, harvested his abundance of crops, and would (presumably) tear down his too-small storehouses and build the bigger ones he was imagining for himself. If the problem is that he was all about himself, then the solution likely involves looking around us, looking at others.
To be rich towards God is to be invested in the work of God, in living out that good news of abundance with the simple trust that there is enough for all. We need not grasp for all we can take for ourselves; we don’t need to build stockpiles of stuff against hard times. We are called to share so that there is enough for all, trusting there will be enough in the future. We are called to act with fairness and work for justice. This does mean recognizing when we possess advantages over others, being wary of those advantages, and trying, as best we can, to forego them and undo them in our interactions with others. We are called to, first, actually see others – not just ourselves, and second, to see the other as like and equal to our own selves.
To be rich towards God is to be invested in community, in the people around us. It is to trust God for all we need – for safety and security, comfort and sustenance, every good thing. It is to accept our proper place as creations of this loving Creator, who loves us and has placed us together will many other equally beloved creatures to be community, to show the face of God to one another, to invest in one another, to live into a vision of a world in which a George Zimmerman says to a Trayvon Martin, “Excuse me, son; I’m with the Neighborhood Watch. Can I help you with something?” … and then gives the young man a ride home to get him out of the rain. That would be beautiful and wise and rich indeed. Amen.
Quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool” from Sundays & Seasons, Year C -2013, p. 234
Quote from Walter Brueggemann from Hunger for the Word: Lectionary Reflections on Food and Justice – Year C, p.153