We’ve got a lot going on today so I’m going to get right into it here with some words from Jesus. We are finishing up our spring prophetic living series. Next week, and for all 11 weeks of summer at Reservoir, our pastoral team will speak at our 10:30 services as we’re guided by the Bible texts of the day. Rather than choosing those texts as part of a series, we’ll draw them from a shared Bible reading plan called the lectionary, that churches in many traditions use. We keep a daily version of this Bible reading plan on our website, where it’s called Read the Bible Together, and we’ll be using the Sunday weekly version of that calendar this summer, just like we did last year.
But today we’re wrapping up these 8 weeks we’ve called Prophetic Living – living as if our best hopes in God are timely and true. We’ve drawn from a smattering of the wisdom of the ancient Hebrew prophets in our Bible’s Old Testament, and a bit from Jesus when he’s functioning as a prophet too. Both Christianity and Islam esteem Jesus as a truth teller; I think the teaching of Jesus holds pretty broad respect in non-religious American culture at large as well. Although most Americans, just like most Muslims and just like most Christians, haven’t really grappled a lot with the content of the teaching of Jesus.
Jesus’ words are on the one hand so simple, and at the same time so deep they’re kind of inscrutable. Jesus tells these stories about farming and fish and water and widows that are earthy and grounded and at the same time seem to nudge us toward a life that impossible – impossibly hard, impossibly beautiful, impossibly provocative, impossibly good. I come in and out of passion and interest with most religious things, but I think I will never tire of the words of Jesus.
Let me share a few of them right now. In Luke’s good news, Jesus tells this little story. Jesus says:
15 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.”
-Luke 12:15-21 (CEB)
Jesus, what a story you tell, Jesus. It’s funny. This guy is so excited, so pleased with his own good luck and clever ideas. And then God enters the story, and depending on your point of view, or the mood you’re in that day, it gets even funnier, or it gets kind of dark.
“Fool, tonight you will die. How’s that barn doing for you now, fella?”
Jesus’ listeners, who were largely what we’d consider really poor, probably would have cheered this turn in the story. But it’s provocative too, isn’t it? I’m not going to try to answer all the questions this story raises, because I want to focus on something else. But I really wanted to tell this story, and raise the questions it asks about how we accumulate and what’s important.
This guy and his barn and what it all means at his death – I’m going to mainly just let it hang there. I don’t think the takeaway is to spend zero energy planning for our future – to give no thought to our future is sometime to ensure our future regret and to ensure trouble for our loved ones.
But to my mind, Jesus is suggesting that a focus on accumulating possessions and wealth and security for ourselves, makes us not a very good friend of God, and not even a very good friend to ourselves.
Why is that? And what is the prophetic alternative Jesus is pitching?
That’s where I want to go. Let’s keep reading the rest of this section of Luke.
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.
-Luke 12:22-34 (CEB)
So I think what we do with these words has a lot to do with the tone that we imagine Jesus speaking them. Now I hate it when people tone police my words, like when I say something to one of my kids, and they’re like: Dad, why’d you have to say that? And I’m like, I said: Hey, what do you need? And they’ll say to me: No, it’s that tone of voice you said it in.
Which is totally annoying, and totally fair, because I do the same thing to them, like: Don’t you look at me with that tone of voice.
It’s true. So much of our communication is beyond the words themselves – our tone and posture and body language. And here we have these words of Jesus on the page, and what and how we think about Jesus is going to have a big impact on how we take these words.
So if we imagine Jesus to be kind of strict and fed-up and annoyed with people who are getting in the way of the whole Son of God thing he’s trying to do, then we’ll hear these words as something like: Get. It. Together. You faithless people, who are so obsessed with money, knock it off. Pay attention to God instead.
And you know what, if we think this is how Jesus talks, we may or may not agree with the point we think he’s making, but we will not do it. He’ll seem too strict and too hard, and we’ll ignore his words and get all defensive or ashamed about it, but we will not do anything he says. Or we’ll do what we think he’s saying, but we’ll be as smug or critical or superior as we think Jesus is, and that too will be full of anxiety and an empty heart. And that will miss the point as well.
Instead I encourage you to believe that Jesus is gentle and that even the provocative things he says are said kindly and without any anxiety. So here, Jesus is like: “Sweetie.” He actually says, Little Flock, which is affectionate and warm, but I’ve never really been around a flock of anything before, so it doesn’t land. But I have this one friend who calls me Sweetie sometimes. It was weird and frankly horrifying to me for a while, and you do not have permission to call me that if you’re not related to me, but with this one friend, I got used to it, and now it’s warm and I take it with the affection he means when he says it.
Anyway, Jesus is like: Little Flock, sweetie, it’s OK. I know that life is hard. There is so much you can worry about. But there’s a better way. I’ve got your back. I know what you need. But take a look over here. There are people, there are treasures, just waiting for you.
I had this thing with Jesus recently when I was reminded how gentle he is and reminded about striving too. It started when I got ridiculously obsessed with exercise for a month or so. Part of my ADHD involves some impulsivity and a tendency to hyper-focus now and then on certain things. And last month, that involved working out, probably too much. OK, definitely too much.
Now there are worse things than working out, I suppose, but I was feeling a little embarrassed by how much time I had put into this, and kind of judgy on myself as well. And I had spiritualized that self-judgment, because when I talked to Jesus about this, I thought maybe Jesus was asking me what I was doing, in a particular judgy way I won’t get into right now.
So I tell this friend of mine, someone called a spiritual director – he’s basically my pastor – about this and about what I thought Jesus was saying.
And my friends says: just to be clear, those judgmental questions – are you sure they were the voice of God, or is it possible those were your thoughts about yourself, Steve? And he waited to say more, as I thought about it and realized: you know, I’m not so sure the judgment on me was coming from Jesus. That may have been me assuming how God sees me again. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. So many of us shape our image of God in the image of the angry or emotionally shut down or neglectful or critical authorities of our youth. And so we make gods for ourselves that don’t particularly honor God or ourselves.
But now, open that the real God might see me kindly, my friend suggested some other ways to interpret all the exercise I’d been doing: a less judgmental, even a more positive way of framing it. And somehow, it opened me up to what I came to believe was the actual voice of Jesus. Where in a silence in that conversation, this thought came to mind that felt like Jesus to me, saying Steve, this is good that you’re taking care of yourself. And Steve, I love that you’re joining in with your kids in things to do together too. But Steve, sweetie, is there a reason you’re going after this so much? Why are you striving, Steve? What are you striving for?
This to me sounded like Jesus, affirming the good he saw in me, like someone who knows and loves me and is gentle with me. And in the context of that gentle knowledge and love, raising something I need to see: why are you striving?
That word striving means so much to me. Because striving – working hard, working ambitiously, even impulsively, is in many areas of my life, part of how I’ve built a good life for myself. I’ve gotten some good things from striving.
But striving – pushing myself hard, ambitiously – is one of the ways that since I was teenager, I’ve tended to avoid my pain and not engage the most important things going on in my life too.
Some of us strive because we worry, and that’s our predilection. We struggle with anxiety. And thankfully there is help for that and we can make peace with that too, that this is part of who we are, and that’s OK, and we can learn with help to manage it. I’m not talking about that kind of worrying and whatever striving that might produce. And I don’t think Jesus is either.
I’m talking about the striving that people like me do, putting all this energy and self-protective labor into our drive because we’re trying to avoid an ache in our lives or because we’re afraid of the future.
Jesus says: I understand. But look at the flowers, look at the grass. God makes it so beautiful and how much more will God do for you. If we strive because there’s this ache or this problem we’re trying to avoid, we don’t have to, because God loves us. And we can sit with our lives with that same compassion. How much more will God do for you.
And if we strive because we’re afraid of the future, for what it holds for us or for our kids or for this earth, Jesus is like: look at the birds. They have no thought of the future, but God takes care of them, and no offense to the birds, but you are worth so much more.
When it comes to worry and striving, Jesus addresses our pragmatism. He asks: when has this ever worked? When have we made our life longer? When have we clenched our teeth and gritted out our way into joy? Jesus even manages to slip in a little dig at the famous King Solomon, the archetype of wealth and power in his culture. Jesus does this little side by side comparison. On the one side, there’s King Solomon – all the wealth and glory and fashion you could ever dream of striving your way up to. On the other side, grass. King Solomon, grass.
Have you been outdoors this spring? Grass wins. Really. This world God made and sustains is so beautiful.
What King Solomon-type are you striving to be? What vision of success or wealth or power or beauty or worthiness are you wishing you could worry or work or white-knuckle yourself into?
You’re better than that. You be you, the beautiful one God made, the beautiful one you are already.
You are enough, this world is enough, has enough, because, Jesus says, God is enough.
All the nations of the world want the things you want, Jesus says. And God, your good parent, knows what you need.
But think about what happens to us when we don’t think we’re enough, when we don’t think God has enough, when we’re striving and striving.
Our gaze becomes very focused and very small. Jesus calls it food and clothing, but it could be a lot of things. We can only see that next rung in our achievement, or that next dollar, or that next better day in our future. Or more often than not, we only see that opportunity that passed us by, that failure behind us or looming in front of us, that fatal flaw in our appearance or our family or our children or our fate.
Worry and striving lead us to a small and unhappy gaze.
While Jesus is saying, my Father has a Kingdom for you.
Now, a small aside here, we’ve spent time over the past year now and then encouraging us that some of the default patriarchal language and in our religious heritage isn’t the only vocabulary we have for God. Jesus again and again calls God Father, but there’s a subtext teaching us that God is Mother to us too. I’ve taught multiple times that family, or kin-dom, can be a great way of understanding what Jesus is getting at when Jesus talks about the Kingdom God is growing.
Today, in traditional church settings, is called Trinity Sunday, after the Christian formulation of the mystery that God is one being expressed in three persons – traditionally called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And theologians have been helpful to us in recent years in giving us broader ways, more language, to frame this three-fold personhood of God, so Father-Son-Holy Spirit can also be to us Maker-Guide-Wisdom, or Mother-Sibling-Advocate.
So much space in God, so much language to help us know and love and move close to God in ways that suit us today.
But this particular day being Father’s Day, I’m going to stay old school and just work Jesus’ language in this passage of Father and Kingdom.
Because what better gift can a Father give a child than to say: what you worry about today, I’ll help you take care of that. But look, there’s so much more for you too. Let me show you the best and biggest things in this world.
Perhaps a father, or if not perhaps a father-figure, has done that for you before – come alongside to help or encourage or protect and then also to help you see bigger or better or more beautiful things than you’d noticed before. Perhaps if you’re a father, you’ve done that for a child.
Jesus says this is what God is doing for God’s kids, to try to shift out attention from our striving and fears that we aren’t enough, that this world doesn’t have enough for us, and to show us this big and beautiful thing God is doing on the earth, this thing Jesus calls God’s Kingdom. God is growing people and places and spaces where God’s good and generous ways come to life.
And Jesus is saying: look at that for a while, be part of that, grow that with me. Open up your gaze. Find a bigger goal. Build a better treasure. Try trusting that the smaller things will take care of themselves.
I spent a lot of my late 20s with a smaller gaze, striving, worry that I wasn’t enough, that God didn’t have enough for me. Partly because of the family I was raised in, partly because of my own hang-ups, I was so afraid that my life wouldn’t amount to enough, that the story of my career and all the rest of me would be a failure. And most of that decade, I felt I didn’t have enough money, and so I worried about how money was spent in my household and felt and thought all kinds of judgy things about people and money in my life. And these not enough ways always made my life harder and smaller, but there were break-throughs in that first decade of my adult life in seeing the bigger, and more beautiful world God was trying to build and have me be a part of.
One of those ways was falling in love with and then marrying Grace. Because for me, that was a way of taking my eyes off of my own “not enough” and on to someone else, and starting to learn to love – to seek someone else’s highest good. I’m still not very good at this, but I’ve come to see some of the best and most beautiful things God is doing come when my gaze stays on someone else and on loving and appreciating and encouraging what I see. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be. Treasure your own needs and fears, and your heart just stays with you. Treasure others’ joy and fulfillment as well, and your heart gets tied up with them too, which is a path to some amount of pain, but a path to so much joy as well.
You obviously don’t need to be married or have kids to have this experience. For me, in my 20s, marriage and then having my first child were windows into learning to love. But so was youth work – first college ministry and then public education. And for you, it might well be happening in some other way.
I even had a little taste in my 20s of learning the Father’s beautiful, more than enough Kingdom on the terms that Jesus is going to in this passage, with money. Sell what you have and give it away to those who need it more, Jesus says. Make yourself better wallets – ones that will last.
I didn’t have a ton of money in my 20s, but with what I had, I made a lot of bad money choices. Who hasn’t? I blew money on a couple dumb things. I didn’t use money toward some great things I could have. There was even a time when one of my grandparents died and I got a life insurance payment, I hadn’t known about. I had a couple thousand dollars I was going to try to learn to invest with. One of my friends insisted I put it on this new company he was buying his books from online. He said it was called Amazon, and that if he had any money to invest, he’d put it there. I was like: Amazon, a book store you can’t even visit and open the books. No way.
If I had invested $1,000 in Amazon back then, I’d have $1,208,000 today. That’s a lot more money than I have. That might have been nice. I didn’t do that, though.
One thing I did, though, is know that it’s always broken my heart when kids are neglected and abused. And with the couple thousand dollars of the insurance money that Grace and I were ready to give away, I found an organization that would use that money to send four girls in Southeast Asia to high school and out of risk for human trafficking. And when we gave that money and got that report, I cried for joy as much as I ever had to that point. That just seemed like a huge treasure we had our found our way into.
And despite my many mistakes, and many moments of striving and fear and small-mindedness, each time I’ve been part of a big and beautiful thing God has done, it’s shaped my heart in ways nothing can change, and no one can take away.
But now I’m not in anything like my 20s. I’m mid-way through my 40s now. And so instead of asking: what life will I build for myself? Now I’m asking: how do I feel about this life that I’ve built, and that has been built for me? What parts do I treasure? What parts do I accept? What parts do I course correct?
How in all that can I say: There is enough. With the help of God and friends, I am enough. Life has enough. God is enough.
Thankfully, I find that as I’m doing this, because of my engagement in this faith community, I’m surrounded by encouragement and models in this regard.
Last week I spoke with someone in their 40s who has more money than they expected to have at this point in life, and we were talking – not for the first time – about a way they felt a desire to use some of that money toward something beautiful they thought God was wanting to do in the world. And when I went to appreciate them for their generosity, they said: hey, it’s God’s money. And they said it so reflexively, so quickly, that it was clearly the result of years of thinking in that regard, years of learning that when their money is tied to God’s beautiful work in the world, they have treasure.
A couple weeks ago, I was with a colleague of mine who is based in Mattapan. He’s a Haitian-American pastor, who also runs a small business to support his family. And in his ministry, and through his business, and with huge swaths of his so-called free time, he advocates for his fellow immigrant congregants and customer and community members, whose immigration status and life in this country are less secure than his. I find myself wondering sometimes why he puts so much work into this when his life is secure now, but then I notice that he’s not striving to make his mark in the world or anything. He’s got a mission, and he finds passion and joy in it. And that encourages me to give a little more to God’s beautiful work securing the futures of vulnerable residents of my nation. I’m not alone in this congregation. Many of you are doing the same, which is why we’re celebrating World Refugee Day today, because there’s an awful lot of work to do on behalf of our immigrant and refugee and asylum-seeking brothers and sisters, but there are many of us to do that work, and many of us to do it. Stop by the tables in the dome at the end of the service to learn more.
I could tell a lot more stories about the people in this church, and the people throughout my life, that are inspiring me to find a better treasure by building a better wallet, who are encouraging me to step into the big and beautiful things God is doing around me.
But instead of more stories, I’ll just punctuate this by saying this is not another burden, not a set of hard things God is wanting to make you do, but a delight and joy for us all. This is part of what it means, Jesus says, for God to be a good Father to us all – to free us from our fears, to tell us we are enough and this world is enough because God is enough for us, and then to not shield us from pain or just give us everything we once thought we wanted. Good parents don’t give our kids everything they want, and we know that it’s not possible and not even good to shield our kids from every pain. Instead, God is a good Father, and a good Mother, to us all, by taking care of us, and especially to calling us into treasuring all the big and beautiful things God is doing around us, and letting God do some of that through us as well.
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
In personal interactions and in systems, generously do what diminishes the causes of other people’s stress and striving.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Rest. Refocus. Aim to serve the person and purposes of God.