Fifth in the Series, Seven Stories: Jesus’ Big Story, and the Other Stories by Which We Live
[The audio for this sermon had some bugs, sorry! We’ll try to get it back up and running soon. Meanwhile, full text of the sermon below.]
In two weeks, we’ll begin our practice of Lent. Lent is an old church word for the annual time in the weeks running up to Easter, a time when here at Reservoir, we have some great opportunities to deepen our faith, to welcome together a greater connection with the teaching and person of Jesus. We produce a daily reflection guide for the season, which this year will be on The Cross. This month, in the run-up to Lent, I’m posting a few reflections on our Blog on the question, “Why did Jesus die?” I hope you have the opportunity to read some of those, and I look forward to starting this powerful season together in just two Weeks.
Meanwhile, we are close to wrapping up our winter series, Seven Stories. We’re exploring Jesus’ story of reconciliation and liberation, and contrasting that with six other stories we’ve been telling, and listening to, and following for far too long.
We began our time with the children’s book Cory and the Seventh Story. There we met a badger and a fox, each of whom thought violence would be the means to a happily ever after. They told the stories of domination and revenge, the myth of redemptive violence: the very oldest human story, and the founding story of America as well. Over the past two weeks, Ivy and Lydia have talked so powerfully about two stories we tend to live when we’re threatened by how scary the world has become. We isolate and withdraw with me and mine alone. Or we lay the blame for our problems on some set of people or behaviors that disgust us, thinking if we can only purify ourselves from those people and things, we will have our happily ever after. In many ways, isolation and purification are the quintessentially toxic religious stories. How faith goes bad.
Our last two weeks we’ll look at two more stories that are very much the stories of times, I believe: the stories of accumulation and victimization.
There was this moment with the animals, you may remember, when the badger and the fox reunited with an idea to distract everyone from their troubles and enrich themselves in the bargain. They made a shiny object factory, which at first delighted all the animals of their village and made them lots and lots of money.
But in time, all the shiny objects didn’t delight anyone at all anymore. They were distractions, and ways to measure status, and the making of all these objects polluted the rivers and the air. So all these shiny objects didn’t make for anyone’s happily ever after at all.
This story of accumulation, and what Jesus has to say about it, has at first something really obvious to say. Just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s not important, so we’ll start there.
But we’ll end someplace less obvious, how our addiction to accumulation is giving us more and more, or at least making us want more and more, but taking us off track from the great that we really want most.
Let me pray for us, and then read some words from Jesus along these lines.
Luke 12:15-21 (CEB)
5 Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. 17 He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! 18 Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. 19 I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.”
I love this story.
It’s grim, but it shows Jesus has a great sense of humor, and man, is it true!
We know this. We have sayings in our culture, like You can’t take it with you.
We have other phrases like: The one who dies with the most toys wins, but as a journalist pointed out — anyone who has ever said that must have thrown up a little in the back of their mouth as they did.
We know we can’t take stuff with us. We know that more money and more stuff doesn’t make us happier – sometimes quite the opposite.
We know that when we work too much, we end up hating our lives, and living with regret. We know that when we make and buy and order and ship too much stuff, it just fills up our closets, and fowls our earth, and supports crappy, dead-end jobs for other people, and doesn’t make us happy.
Jesus’ baseline point that more money and more stuff for ourselves will not make for anyone a happily ever after just seems so obvious, it hardly needs saying.
And yet, we can’t seem to change. For more true today, than in the first century when Jesus told this story, we can’t seem to find another way.
Why is this? Why do we still write this story of accumulation? How is it not just about money and things, but so much more? And what’s Jesus’ better story he’s pitching? What might it mean to be as he says “rich toward God?”
When I was last in therapy, I was working with this approach called Internal Family Systems.
One of the ideas of Internal Family Systems is that each of us has lots of parts. We’re this family, this system of selves. We may have this really fun-loving part of ourselves, and another part of us that worries a lot, part of ourselves that gets really angry, another part that keeps us organized, and so on.
And these parts exist for a reason. They have their place. We’ve needed them to build our lives. Parts of us know to find and eat food when we’re hungry. Parts of us know to make or buy things that we need. Parts of us know to prepare for danger, or accomplish goals, or present ourselves positively to the world. All of that is great. It is so good to be a human being and to be so adaptive and to have all these parts of ourselves that build a life for us.
The problem is that most of us also have parts of ourselves we avoid. We have parts of ourselves that are very afraid, parts that are hidden or ashamed, parts that have suffered great pain. If we’ve experienced trauma or neglect or abuse, and especially if that was so when we were young, than some of the sad or scared or angry parts of us may be very large and very deep. Internal Family Systems calls these parts our exiles – the parts of us we can’t face with calmness, curiosity, or compassion.
When that’s the case, we use other parts to distract us, and sometimes these parts get too loud, too active, sometimes even out of control.
In my case, in therapy, we were noticing that much of my childhood, I was a pretty chill, happy go lucky guy. Pretty confident, pretty peaceful. But then at one point, I became really internally driven. Sharply focused on killing it, whatever I did. Crazy high standards for myself.
And after thirty years of that, I was wondering: how do I take my foot off the pedal? How do I slow down? Ease up? Drive less, connect more. How do I do that?
And in therapy, I started asking: what came into my life that made me so driven? And how had this drive that at one point was positive, had helped me build the life I want – how had that drive become a distractor, something that pulled me away from the life I want?
See, I think for most of us, what Jesus is calling greed, hoarding for ourselves, is not always just about money and stuff. It certainly can be – one of the big innovations of 20th century American life was that marketers got really good and convincing us we always need more, that we never have enough. And we tend to but it – hook, line, and sinker.
But we accumulate in other ways too. And when we do, it’s not mainly a character deficit to beat ourselves up about, as if that will do anything. I think for most of us, accumulation is a way we avoid what’s most important. Accumulation is a distraction, sometimes even an addiction, that we pore time and money and attention into to avoid facing what’s most important, because facing that is hard. Facing what’s most important maybe hurts.
The other day, I read this story from Jesus slowly, while praying. I was using this great method of Bible reading and prayer that comes out of the Jesuit tradition. It’s to read the stories of the Bible, and especially the stories of the four gospels about Jesus, imaginatively. You imagine yourself in the story. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Feel? How does it speak to you today?
So I imagined Jesus telling me this farming story. And as I hear Jesus telling me about the person building his barns, I immediately picture the house I grew up in, particularly this shed on the back of the house that my dad built. I remembered how growing up, our home was kind of an unending construction site.
My grandparents had bought my parents a little 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom house just before their first child was born. And as our family grew, the house grew. My dad and grandpa were both contractors, and they built an addition with an extra bedroom and bathroom, then a second garage, and a larger family room, and then a shed, and on it went over the years. Partly there was this sense that we needed more space, more room. And partly, it seemed to reflect an ongoing restlessness in my family, that there was never quite enough all around, and this was a tangible way to fight off that not enough feeling we had in life.
The thing is as I pictured that setting for the story, I remembered that it wasn’t glamorous, this accumulation of space. The constant building meant there were tools and sawdust lying around. Things were never settled. There was always something in progress, unfinished.
And I thought about that farmer, that builder in Jesus’ story, and then to me, he seemed not just smug and wealthy and over-luxurious. He seemed kind of desperate.
I mean, for a person in the agrarian and mostly poor and hungry first century Ancient Near East, to plant and grow crops was a good way to manage life for yourself and your family. But maybe, in response to memories of hunger in your past, or your family’s past, you too feel: there will never be enough. We have to store up more, and more. And you start piling up so much food that you’ll never need it all, when plenty of other people do. And that’s not so healthy. You can’t face down that fear of never enough and ask if you can let it go. What freedom that would make to live well, to be truly rich. To be freed from one’s fear, rather than just keep piling up against it. But you can’t do it. You look for more and more, until one day you die, still grasping, still afraid, still not having enough.
I thought about myself then, and I thought, I have issues of fear and greed around money and stuff, for sure. But the piling up, the building, the accumulating that came to mind wasn’t that. It was other parts of me.
I thought about how driven I can be. About how when I complete a job well done, I immediately am like: what’s next? I thought about the never good enough way I can feel about my work and effort. About my push to drive harder, and do more, whether it comes to scheduling my week, or accomplishing my goals, or even hobbies like how many books I read, how hard I work out, all kinds of places where I push and push, and drive and drive.
And I was encouraged to remember again: what am I avoiding? What hunger, what not enough fears, am I staving off with my penchant for more?
And I thought of the feeling you can have in a productive world when you have ADHD, times when life seemed out of control, there was too much to do, and I didn’t know how to tackle it?
And I thought of how in this wonderful city where we live, there are so many people that seem so accomplished, so successful, so busy, so smart and good at many things, and I thought of times when I’ve wondered: how do I measure up? What if I’m not good enough?
And that took me back to all the times when I was younger and I was afraid my life would be a failure, that I would live the legacy of other men in my life of not reaching my goals, and being a disappointment to myself and the people I love.
And then I went back further and remembered the gnawing loneliness I had at times, the wondering if there was room for me.
And it’s weird, because pushing hard, being driven helps with some of these things and not at all with others. But we’re not fully logical in our hearts and our choices and how we manage all our parts. None of us are.
But when I’ve reflected on my own never enough – more, more, more habits – I know that I don’t need to wait until I’m facing my deathbed to know that this is not a great life.
This is not being rich toward myself, or toward God, or toward anyone else.
So what is?
Well, Jesus tells his story about the rich fool, as it’s called. Or to be less judgy, maybe we can call it the story about the fear of never enough. The story about the more-more-more accumulator in us all.
And then, he says this.
Luke 12:22-34 (CEB)
22 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither plant nor harvest, they have no silo or barn, yet God feeds them. You are worth so much more than birds! 25 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? 26 If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? 27 Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 28 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith! 29 Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. 30 All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.
32 “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. 34 Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.
My early years of wrestling with this passage were almost absurdly rigid and literal and anxious.
Is it bad to buy tomorrow’s food today, to own a change of clothing? Are you allowed to save for retirement? Is Jesus saying you’re a fool if you gain experience, or get educated, or make a budget, or plan a career?
There are many signs that this is not the primary way to engage with Jesus’ teaching? But the biggest one is the anxiety of it all. Jesus is presenting a healing path away from our incessant anxiety, not another more religious version of it.
Stop worrying. Don’t be afraid, little flock.
I don’t think Jesus meant to introduce a new rigidity that says literally, live like birds and flowers. Don’t buy, don’t plan, don’t talk, just let life happen to you.
I think Jesus is actually saying something like: take your energy, and give it to Greater, not More.
When it comes to our needs, the world has enough. There is enough. We can do our part in that process. But not more. More worry invites misery. More stuff invites moths and thieves. More work invites stress, and regret. Accumulation turns against us eventually.
Jesus says, instead, give yourself to what’s greater. God is doing beautiful and important and marvelous renewal all around you. God’s work on earth, Jesus calls it a Kingdom. The beloved family God is growing, the kin-dom. The beauty that God is creating and shaping. The opportunities to love and to nourish and to make whole.
That which is greater.
I’m using this word Greater because it’s really important in the Jesuit Catholic tradition I mentioned earlier, this tradition that has so much I appreciate. The Jesuits use the word “Magis” to describe the God who is always greater as well as the possibility of doing things that are great for God in this life.
It’s a funny motto, Magis, because it can be translated either “more” or “great”, so it could be either the motto of numbing, toxic accumulation or the motto of the beautiful story of Jesus. So that’s fun.
But Jesus says – there something different about the rich fool and the Kingdom.
One never has enough, the other believes there is more than enough.
One can never work hard enough, the other knows how to work but also how to rest.
One thinks you have worked for everything you’ve got, the other knows that so much is received and welcomed as a gift.
One is always piling up and holding on, the other takes joy in letting go and giving away.
One looks back on a day, on a life with regret; the other looks back on a day, on a life, with delight and joy.
In my prayers in this passage, I found myself wondering with Jesus: what is the Great that I miss when I strive for the more? And I thought of two things we’ll end on here.
I thought about our life mission and about our capacity for rest – how we conceive of our work, or of what is ours to do in the world. You know, when it comes to what I think I have to do today, all I have to accomplish and get done, I almost always go to more. My lists for the day are always too long. And some of that is just poor planning, but some of that is a symptom for how I see my life – more, more, more. More as a wall against scarcity, more as a way of feeling I’m good enough, more as a wall against failure, more as a wall against facing the pain inside.
But as I’ve shared, in my life, Jesus – as usual – is right. It doesn’t work. So what if I left more behind for great. I’m trying to start my day lately asking Jesus to take care of my impulses to more, to trust Jesus that I don’t need to do it all, and that today’s troubles are enough for today. And I’m trying to ask Jesus, what’s the Great for me today? What’s the one thing – the thing for your family, God, the thing for your work on earth, that’s mine to give myself to today?
In asking that question, I’m calmed a little, and my focus shifts.
My focus narrows in some ways – from the so many things to the one big thing.
But it widens in other ways – from worrying about my own personal good, to embracing the common good.
I get more generous to others.
And sometimes, I even get more generous to myself.
A friend of mine was sharing recently how she was starting the day with her spouse doing something similar, asking Jesus what Jesus had for her and for them that day.
And she was surprised that for a while what would come to mind would be things like: fill up your freezer with vegetables. You’re going to want to eat vegetables, right? Go get em. And she’d think really? That’s what’s on God’s mind today – my vegetables. But she’d be like: OK, thank you God, for reminding me to take care of myself.
Or the same thing would happen with permission to take that run she wanted to take but didn’t know if she had time for, and to enjoy that run. And she’d think: alright, well thank you, Jesus.
I know the gift of the kingdom, the gift of the kindom isn’t about self-care alone. It doesn’t end with just more veggies and exercise. But for some of us, maybe it starts there.
Anyway, the great instead of the more. God’s good gifts and good ways for us for the common good. That’s where I’m going more and more.
Where do you want to go ?
Spiritual Practice for Whole Life Flourishing
Four questions to ask:
What is my “not enough,” my “more-more-more” accumulation?
Do I have deep habits of rest, of letting go, and of giving?
What am I afraid of facing, or losing?
Jesus, what is the Great instead of the More for me this day? This season?