Preaching on the Parable of the Rich Fool …

  … 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.

IMG_0348 Luke 12:13-21 – The Parable of the Rich Fool

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

Telling a Better Story

Sandy-Hook-Elementary-School-elite-dailyI’ve been working on this one for some time and now seems like a good time to put it out there.  It’s been over six months – more than half a year – since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  Remember how so many vowed in the aftermath “This time is different; this time things will change!”?  Well, legislative sessions across the country are concluding have concluded.  How much action has there been at the state level?  And there’s been nothing at the national level despite intensive involvement by the President and Vice President.


untitledThe Church has not been entirely silent (even if its many expressions have not been as vocal as they could be.)  In my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA , the bishops wrote a letter on the subject of gun violence at their March conference.  Their letter has been widely shared since that time. The season of synod assemblies throughout the ELCA  has concluded.  How many assemblies took any action regarding this letter?  How many even had any discussion of this subject at all?  Our Churchwide Assembly will convene next month,  so perhaps this letter will receive some more attention in discussions and possible resolutions at that time.  It should be discussed and considered.  The letter is still timely; it is sensitive and well-written – especially if (as might have been the case) the bishops selected a few of their number to draft it then in March and there in Chicago, using whatever they might happen to have brought with them or have been able to access on this issue.  The letter raises a number of good points.  It’s a fine piece of writing … as far as it goes.

But that is the letter’s biggest problem; it doesn’t go far enough.  For example, it calls on congregations to help with the task of lamenting the victims of violence.  Lamenting is something we, as faith communities, know how to do and we do it well.  We know how to weep with Rachel who is weeping for her children because they are no more.  But we can do more than lament and weep with those who are weeping and mourning.

We are also prophets, like Jeremiah (who spoke those words about Rachel weeping for her children) and the others, messengers who are called to point to the idols and would-be powers and false stories of the time and say “This is not what God wills … this is not what God calls for … this will not stand.”

img1One of the most creative – and provocative – ideas that I’ve heard as a faith-formed response to gun violence in the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School came from R Don Wright, an ELCA pastor whom I know only through Facebook.  He wanted to have a processional cross made from guns welded together to use much like Moses used the snake on the pole in Numbers – for much the same reason.  “Look at this.  See what is killing you.  Then turn and live.”  Our cultural idolatry of guns is killing us – literally.

The story we are being sold – and it is about selling, not telling – is that only guns can keep us safe.  Since “bad guys” have guns and will have them no matter what we do, the “good guys” (that’s us, right?) must have guns so they can stop the bad guys.  Good people who generally care about their own personal safety, about the safety and well-being of those near and dear to them, who want to do the right thing must have as free and easy access to guns as the bad people do.  It’s their sacred duty to be prepared at all times to protect their lives – and the lives of others – by being equipped at all times to stop a bad guy with lethal force before the bad guy can do harm.

This is the story we see played out time and time again in our entertainment. The saga of redemptive violence is the sacred story of our culture.  By punishing the wrong doers, paying them back blow for blow and life for life, justice is done; only the hero willing to use violent means in the proper way can set the world back to right.  How many of the hit summer movies and popular television programs play out according to this same story line of might making things right again through redemptive acts of violence?

Much as Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association has endeavored to blame violent entertainment (along with “unregistered” – actually, untreated would be a better descriptor – mental illness) for the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, the story he uses to sell his agenda is that same myth of redemptive violence.  Guns are celebrated in our culture as a source of power – the power to harm, sure … but also the power to avenge, make right, and protect (only if you, the aspiring hero, can do it to them, the evil doers, before they do it to you).

imagesCAFXM5L9imagesCANIKG5GThis is the myth, the sacred story, that George Zimmerman told himself on an April night last year when he accosted a teenager named Trayvon Martin.  For whatever reason, Zimmerman perceived Martin to be a threat to the peace and well-being (and maybe the lives) of his neighbors and himself.  So he acted to prevent the threat from becoming an actuality.  It’s the story he continues to tell himself and the rest of us … as his attorney attempts to show that, since Martin was less than a perfect angel of a kid, he therefore was a real and obvious threat to the community that night … because, if Martin wasn’t some sort of threat, then Zimmerman initiated an altercation with a teenager who had nothing more on him than iced tea and Skittles and had no other intentions than getting back home with his snacks.  Although Trayvon Martin may have very little in common with the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, he is no less a victim of gun violence than they are … as are the many, many other young people just like him who are being killed with guns in cities all over our country.  But will the jury recognize this or will they affirm the myth of redemptive violence by acquitting Zimmerman?

The only way the “good guy with the gun” stops the “bad guy with the gun” from doing any harm is to shoot first and ask questions later; otherwise, the “bad guy” always has the element of surprise … always gets the first move … always is more ready to act because he knows what he intends to do.  In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, the NRA-shaped fantasy imagined if the principal had been armed with a gun, she could have shot Adam Lanza before he shot a single person in the school.  Maybe … if she’d been able to get her weapon ready (since it’s unimaginable a school principal would always have a weapon in hand, ready to fire) … and if she could have gotten into a position to have a good shot (since I’ve yet to see a school entrance in which the principal would have a clear shot at any intruders from his or her office) … and if she could accomplish these two actions before the intruder saw her or recognized what she was intending to do … if … if …  All of this adds up to one humongous IF that is highly improbable.

But yet, that is the myth – the sacred story – of the idol we call guns.  Only guns can keep us safe.  In our guns we must trust.  Any gun is a good gun so long as it is in the right hands.  You can’t trust the police to be there for you; they take too long.  You can’t trust your neighbor; he (or she) might be one of the bad guys.  It’s a scary world out there full of bad guys who want to hurt you.  Only you can save yourself and your loved ones from all this danger.  Since insensate evil may very well be armed, you need to be armed as well.

imagesCAD9YIH3In the movie A Christmas Story, Ralphie’s fantasy of saving his family from the evil of Black Bart and his gang with his trusty Red Rider BB Gun is hilarious because it is a fantasy – a childish fantasy that is appropriate for a child.  But in adults, such childish fantastical thinking isn’t funny.  Oh, it can be aged-up … dressed up by pointing to some real, dangerous situations that happen on occasion and then presenting these events  as if they were commonplace, rather than  the rare episodes they actually are.  For example, one concealed-carry permit holder is convinced that he avoided being carjacked simply by having a concealed hand gun on his person.  While he was filling up his car at a gas station, another car pulled into the station and stopped at a nearby pump.  The lights on the other car were off when it arrived at the gas station, and there were three people in it.  From these signs, the gun holder realized that they were intending to take his car, so he stared at them for three full minutes until they drove off. (No one even tried to exit the car; no one approached him.)  He had the courage to stare them down because he was carrying a gun.  Even though he never had to touch it, the mere presence of the all-powerful gun prevented him from being a victim of a car-jacking.  [I wish I could find where I read this story.  If anyone knows the source, please let me know.]  That’s his story; it’s what he believes to be true.  But is it any more realistic than Ralphie’s fantasy?

It’s not.  However, when fed a diet of fear-inducing entertainment, we come to believe that the world is a scary, dangerous place in which we must be afraid … be very afraid.  We are alone and powerless.  To be safe we must get power and the ultimate power is a gun – a gun that will give us the power to take life (only when we must, of course).  It’s a sales pitch, really … a story spun to increase sales for gun manufacturers and related businesses.  Like most of our advertising and sales pitches, it’s built mostly on lies and half-truths.

Part of our prophetic role as people of faith (and particularly leaders in faith communities) is to name the idols as such and expose the lies of the stories sacred to the idols, the myths.  In this case, the idol is the gun and its sacred story is the myth of redemptive violence.

untitled (2)Christians have a better story to tell.  We are prophets … messengers … angels who say: “Fear not!  I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be for a people.  For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord” … “Don’t be afraid.  You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.  He is risen; he is not here!”  Do not be afraid; rejoice!  God is here in your midst.  God is not afraid to come among you … to embrace the outcast and broken, the struggling and failing.  God does not fear the worst this world has to offer: rejection, torture, violence, condemnation and death.  God is not afraid to enter into that … to go into even death itself … to overturn and undo it all.  Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is not in that tomb.  He is risen!  Life and love and grace will have the final say … not death and hate and fear.

imagesCAA3LWC6It’s a better story that leads to a better life.  We don’t have to be afraid of one another.   We are not left alone, helpless and defenseless in a scary cruel world.  We have been called out of death into life … into life in a community in which we demonstrate love for one another, trust in one another, and the peace that comes from knowing we are all in the care of a gracious God.

Yes, in our congregations, we can lament with those who weep for the victims of gun violence.  But we are also prophets to name the idols, unmask the lies they tell as sacred story, and tell the true sacred story.  We can be communities of moral deliberation where we weigh the ethics of gun ownership and use, our rights and responsibilities as people of God and citizens of this nation.  But we are also called to be communities that model the new life birthed through cross and resurrection, to love God with all we have and show our love for God by loving our neighbors … a way of life that takes us out of fear and into trust.  We are called to be safe places where the hurting and struggling – including the mentally ill – can find acceptance and help and healing.