Note: This was originally preached as a sermon at The Congregational Church in Exeter on August 9, 2015.
Every UCC pastor participates in the pension fund for our denomination. The idea is that years from now when we retire we’ll have enough put away so that we can live. And when I started my first pastorate in the UCC I had to get set up in the pension program, so I called and had them send a registration packet.
It arrived and it was, literally, over an inch thick. There were brochures about all sorts of different funds and investment strategies. I had never done this sort of investing, and I was lost. I had no clue whether I was supposed to have an aggressive approach to investing or a semi-aggressive one or balanced one or conservative. I didn’t know which sort of investment to choose, or what my target date should be. I panicked. Finally I asked a friend with a lot more experience to help me out. I just handed over the pamphlets and said to her, “I’d like to be able to retire one day.”
I know more about investing now, but the fact remains that for most of us the idea of investing makes us uneasy. We often don’t know if we’re doing it right. Are we putting enough away? Are we putting it in the right places? Will there be enough for us down the line?
These are not new problems. They apparently were very much present even 2000 years ago when a man called out to Jesus from the crowd saying, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
Even Jesus seems a little reluctant to talk about it. He tells the man, “Who made me the arbitrator?” But he goes on and warns, “”Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
And then he tells this story: There was a man who had some land and he was doing very well. He had a lot of crops, a high yield. But he realized he didn’t have enough room to store it all. So he takes down his barns, and he builds even bigger ones in their place. He says to himself, I’ve got it made. I’ve got enough for years now. I’m going to relax and eat, drink and be merry.
Except, Jesus tells us, that very night the man lost his life. And now what good does all that stored up grain do? And who does it belong to? He ends by telling us that it’s the same as those who store up things for themselves but are not rich in their relationships with God.
Unlike the man who builds a bigger barn so that he can horde his wealth, Jesus reminds us that we have to take the even longer view. We have to look not just at our lives, but at the life eternal. We have to look past what we can forsee, and look at what we don’t even understand yet. And then we have to fill our barns only as much as we need.
Do we take what we have and do we store it up in barns? Do we cram those barns with far more than we could ever use? Do we sit back and say, “Now I have enough…now I can relax?? Because the reality is, no matter how much we get, we will never have “enough”. We will always think that we need more.
I read an article from the New York Times a few years ago. It was about storage units, the kind where you take the stuff you can’t fit anymore in your house and put it into a small room that you rent. And if you’ve ever been to a storage unit place, you know that there are row after row of these little rooms, each renting for a pretty good monthly sum.
The article was talking about how even in a recession, in a time when a lot of other industries are having to downscale, the storage market is growing. There are new ones opening up all the time. The article offered a statistic that blew me away: “by the early ’90’s, American families had, on average, twice as many possessions as they did 25 years earlier.”
When you think about that, it sure does say a lot about who we are, and what we value. It says a lot about what we hold on to, and what we invest in. And it says a lot about where we put our faith. We are building bigger barns, and we are, quite literally, storing up the stuff that won’t save us.
There’s a phrase you may have heard before: you can’t take it with you. We all know it. And we know that the subtext is that we can’t take the money or the things or anything else that we have accumulated in this life on to the next. And that’s true.
I’m always struck by that when I do funerals. Often people eulogize the person who has died by telling stories about them. And the one thing that keeps coming up time and again is always about that person’s generosity. People remember what the person gave to them, and not usually in terms of material things, but in terms of time, or attention, or love. And it always strikes me that no one cares about how much the person may or may not have had stored away. I’ve never heard a eulogy talking about how much money, or how big a house someone had, and how that defined them. But I’ve heard so many that talk about generous hearts and spirits.
But this is not a lesson that applies just to life and death. It’s a lesson for ministry as well, as in the ministry that we are all engaged in together. You can’t take it with you if you truly want to follow Christ. You can’t be so tied down to the stuff that you want to hold on to, both literally and figuratively, that you are afraid to follow Christ to the new places you are called.
When I was in Vermont I initially pastored two congregations, in a yoked parish. One was doing okay. And one was quite small, and wrestling with the fact that they needed to close. In the end, they had a significant amount of money in the bank. But they had very few people left in the pews.
And they had a choice. They could either horde their money for themselves, and keep on going until they had spent their last dollar. Or they could choose another, radical option.
They knew God wasn’t done with them yet, and they knew that there was a lot of ministry left in them. And so, rather than storing up their treasure in a building they loved, but that they didn’t need anymore, and rather than keeping their money tied up in its upkeep, they decided to let go, and to follow Christ. They donated their money to the church down the road. And they gave their building to a congregation that had lost theirs. And they took their faith and joined with another church.
It’s a powerful lesson, and it can guide us now. What fears are holding us back from doing the work we want to do? How are we building bigger barns, and packing them to the rafters, when we should be sharing our abundance with others? What are we holding onto out of fear that we might not get it again? What are we treating like a limited resource, instead of a gift given by God for us to share?
This isn’t just about money or stuff, though it is about those things too. This is about all that we are given. It’s about our time. It’s about our talents. It’s about our love. And it’s about not being afraid to use it. You may remember that song from when we were kids called, “This Little Light of Mine.” One of the lines is, “Hide it under a bushel? No. I’m going to let it shine.”
It’s the same way with all we are given by God. “Hide it up in a barn? No. I’m going to share it with God.”
I’m talking about using the barn to store what you need, but not making that barn your god. Not making your fear and anxiety over not having enough in the future dictate your whole life. And not making the need to fill that barn to the rafter dictate your happiness. Because here’s the secret: if your happiness depends on how much you have, it will never be enough. There will never be a barn that is big enough to hold all the things our fears want us to hold onto…unless you let go, and trust in God’s abundance.
I was thinking about how sometimes churches have trouble doing that. Even in our simplest acts. Like every time I go to a church potluck. It doesn’t matter the church. There’s always one fear: will there be enough food to go around? But then I remember: when have I ever been to a church potluck where there hasn’t been enough? At this church, we typically have the opposite problem. I can’t remember a time I haven’t been sent home with a plate of extras.
This morning, this parish is going to partake in our own meal together. It consists only of a loaf of bread, and a cup of grape juice. It’s nearly the simplest meal you can think of, and yet, it is the one Jesus chose for us. When you think about that, it’s pretty amazing. God incarnate got to set out a meal for us to eat for centuries, one in which Christ would be spiritually with us, and it wasn’t a four course dinner from a well-known chef. It was just a humble meal. And it was enough. And it will be enough.
As people of faith we can’t ignore the fact that more often than not we are living in abundance. We have far more than we will ever need. And we have been blessed with more than we can use. And so we have two choices…build a bigger barn? Or decide that we will trust in the God who has blessed us so deeply enough to open our doors, release our fears, and bless others with us. The choice is ours. And the choice is yours. Amen.