Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From God, For All

This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

Click here to read the biblical passage.

Let me tell you something about my brother: he’s a jerk. I mean, really. A world class jerk.

Everything in life has just been handed to him. He was always dad’s favorite: the eldest son, good looking, charming, and everything else you could want a son to be. Dad doted on him. He always bragged about him to his friends: “My son this… my son that…”

Well, what about me? Ain’t I his son, too? I’ve played second fiddle to my brother for my whole life. Both of us followed in Dad’s footsteps, taking over the family business. I work just as hard as he does, but he gets all the credit. He gets to be in charge and call all the shots.

But in these past few years, as Dad has gotten older and sicker, has my brother even lifted a finger to help take care of him? No. Not even once. That was my job.

I checked in on Dad every day. My wife went over to help Mom with the cooking and cleaning so she could be with Dad. And then, when the end came and Dad finally passed away, I was the one sitting by his bedside, holding his hand and saying prayers. My brother was off tending to the business. I had to send one of my kids to tell him that Dad had died.

At the funeral, he made a good show of grief and all the neighbors came by to comfort him. They talked about how proud my Dad was… of him. I got the obligatory handshakes and clichés like, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

But that’s not even the worst of it. After the funeral, when Dad’s estate was being settled, all of the inheritance went to him. Nothing was left for me or my family. Just him. Where was he when Dad got sick? Where was he when Dad died? Both of us run the family business, so why I didn’t I get at least a portion of the inheritance?

It was humiliating. I would be dependent on my jerk of an older brother for the rest of my life, without a nickel to my own name. I would live like a beggar, even though I work for a living.

I went to the village rabbi with this issue, but he wasn’t any help at all. He just quoted this rabbi and that rabbi, saying that oldest sons were entitled to the largest share of the family estate. It’s like they didn’t even care about what was right, only what was legal, according to the dictates of the Torah.

I had just about given up hope when I heard that this traveling rabbi named Jesus was coming to town. I thought to myself, “Aha! This guy can help me! This rabbi Jesus has a reputation for speaking his mind and telling it like it is. He stands up for the common people and fights for what is right.” Surely, I thought, he would be able to knock some sense into my brother and make him give me what’s coming to me.

So, Jesus came to town and it was amazing. He was healing people left and right. I saw things I had never seen before in my life. My brother was there. Jesus was preaching to the crowd about the justice and mercy of God. He said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

And I thought to myself, Yes! This is it! This is my golden opportunity! So I stood up and shouted, “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.”

And then Jesus just stopped. He looked at me, looked over at my brother, and then back at me again. I just stood there, like I was frozen. All of a sudden, I felt kind of small. You know what I mean?

And then Jesus said to me, “Mister, what makes you think it’s any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?” Turning to the crowd, he said, “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”

And then he told us a story. It was about a rich man who owned a lot of property. For a minute, this made me really excited again because people like me knew all about these rich jerks. They made their money, not by hard work and sacrifice, but by exploiting the poverty of their fellow farmers who were down on their luck.

You see, if a farmer had a bad year, he would take out a loan from one of these big business moguls. As collateral, he would put up the only things he had to his name: his land and his body. If the next year was a good year, then everything was fine. But if it was another bad year for the harvest, the farmer would have to take out another loan. Eventually, the poor farmer would get so deep in debt, he could never hope to pay it off. The creditors would foreclose on the loan and the farmer would lose his land. If he was lucky, he could go back and work the land as a tenant, but all the profits would go to the creditor. If he was unlucky, the farmer and his family would become slaves. Either way, the end result was that the rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer. The whole system was exploitative.

So, I was glad that Jesus started by talking about these rich jerks and how they took advantage of poor, working folk like me. I hoped my brother was listening.

And then Jesus continued:

The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’

“Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’

“That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”

After that, Jesus went on to say some other things, but to be honest, I kind of tuned him out. Something about that story stuck with me. Actually, it made me uncomfortable (somebody told me later that Jesus has that effect on people a lot). I had a sneaking suspicion that Jesus wasn’t talking about my brother; he was talking about me.

It wasn’t so much what he said that bothered me; it was what he didn’t say. Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines on this, but it occurred to me that the rich farmer in the story never gave thanks to God for the big harvest he had just hauled in. He seemed to assume that this abundance of crops came from his own hand, as if he himself, and not God, had made the rain to fall and the sun to shine that year.

It reminded me of a passage from the Torah that we used to hear in synagogue services every year:

Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

The second thing that occurred to me from Jesus’ story is that the rich farmer seemed to want to hoard all of this wealth for himself and not share it with others. Didn’t he know that other people in his community, especially the families of those poor farmers he was exploiting, would probably go hungry that year? Didn’t he realize that God sends the rain and the sunshine on everyone so that so that all of us can enjoy the fruits of the earth together?

This reminded me of another passage of scripture we used to hear in synagogue: God spoke to our ancestor Abraham and said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

God blesses us, not so that we can be rich and comfortable, but so that we can be a blessing to other people in need. This is what we should be thinking about, as God’s chosen people.

And then it hit me: I was like that rich farmer in the story. The rich farmer was me, not my brother. I came to see Jesus that day, not to bear witness to what God was doing in our community, but to get something for myself. I thought it was my responsibility to make my brother do what I wanted him to do.

Not only that, I didn’t really care about what happened to my brother or his family; I just wanted to have what was owed to me. I kind of forgot that he’s my brother. We’re part of the same family, so a blessing for one of us is really a blessing for both of us. And my rotten, selfish attitude was only making it less likely that I would benefit from this mutual blessing in the future.

I’ve got to say, I didn’t get what I came for when I met Jesus that day, but I did get something. His words reminded me of what is most important in life: that we are family. My brother and I are sons of the same Father, and that means something. And you know, if you think about it, all of us human beings are kind of like brothers and sisters. We are the children of God, our Father in heaven. And the blessings that God pours out upon the earth are meant to be shared by all, not just a few of us. I’m grateful to Jesus for showing me that.

Ever since that day, things have been a little bit different between my brother and me. Not dramatically different, but a little bit. I eventually let drop the whole thing about splitting the inheritance. To be fair to my brother, he’s been okay about the whole thing too. When we fell on some hard times with the family business, my brother dipped into his inheritance to help the whole family out, so that we wouldn’t have to go one of those loan sharks. We wouldn’t have made it through if it hadn’t been for him.

Don’t get me wrong: he can still be a jerk sometimes, but he’s my brother after all.

I went to Jesus that day because I wanted to be proven right. Instead, Jesus showed me how wrong I’d been. More than that, he showed me that there is more to life than what I can get out of it. He showed me that I am loved, that I am part of a family, God’s family that reaches around the entire earth. And God’s desire is that all the children of this family would share generously in the abundant blessings that have been poured out for all.

Shifting Perspective

Image
The Rich Fool by Rembrandt (1627). Retrieved from Wikipedia.

 

Grief is an unpredictable thing.  It tends to bring out the best or the worst in people.  Everyone grieves a loss differently, so it’s not up to anyone else to tell another person how they should or shouldn’t cope with a loss.  Some people want to laugh and reminisce about the best and favorite memories of their loved one while others might need to just be sad and have a good cry; some folks need to keep busy while others need to stop and sit down; some might need to be alone while others crave human contact.  All of these are good ways to grieve and the best thing to do whenever someone you care about is grieving is to let that person deal with their loss in whatever way they feel they need to.  You don’t have to say or do anything in particular, just be there for them, hug or give space as needed, and listen when they speak.  After all is said and done, they probably won’t remember what you say, they’ll just remember that you were there for them.

The only exception to this, the only time that grief can go wrong or turn tragic, is when a person allows the pain drive a wedge between those who are left behind.  This can happen in lots of unfortunate ways.  In cases of sudden or early death, someone might start pointing the finger of blame at others, believing that the loss could have been avoided if only the situation had been handled differently.  Even worse, some folks turn really nasty when it comes to dealing with estates and inheritances.  I’ve seen tragic situations where siblings turn against one another over the distribution of property or money in the wake of a parent’s death.  These are the only situations where I, as a pastor, want to intervene and suggest that they find another way to face the pain of loss.

In such situations, the issue at hand is rarely the money or the property itself.  Most of the time, family members are simply overwhelmed with pain and are looking for some place toward which they can direct the energy of their sadness.  In our culture, which glorifies strength and despises weakness, finding something to get angry over feels a lot easier and safer than just admitting that we’re feeling sad or lonely.  So, we hide our grief behind fights over things and never really get to the bottom of what’s really going on in our hearts: the sadness we feel over losing a loved one.  We’ve missed the point entirely and, in the process, damaged or sacrificed our relationships with the ones who might have helped us get through the pain and find our way toward healing together as a family.

The real trick in those moments is to stop, step back, and take stock of what’s really important and what life is really all about.  Is fighting over money or stuff really going to bring back the dead or help us to deal with the pain of loss?  No, not really.  Life is not about getting money or stuff.  In our better moments, we all know that.  But we forget it sometimes when the pain becomes so great that we would rather think about anything other than the fact that we are hurting right now.  I’ve seen this happen more than once and it breaks my heart every time.

In this morning’s gospel reading, the scene opens with just such a situation brewing.  Two brothers have lost their father and a dispute over a contested will has arisen between them.  We don’t know many of the details, but we get the basic outline of the situation as they bring their fight to the rabbi Jesus for a just resolution.

But Jesus, as usual, declines to answer directly the question he’s just been asked.  He says, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  Once again, Jesus is not conforming to the role that would normally be expected of him as an itinerant rabbi traveling among rural villages.  He continues, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

I hear something deeper in Jesus’ words to these disgruntled siblings.  I hear him saying, in effect, “What you are asking is not what you really need.  You’ve missed the point entirely.”

The key phrase in his response, which is also the central phrase in this entire passage, is, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

That one word, “life,” is super-important.  Jesus isn’t just talking about life in the sense of biological survival, he’s talking about that rich, full, and meaningful (i.e. abundant) life that God intends for us as human beings.  Jesus is talking about really living and not just getting by.

This is a particularly important (and particularly challenging) message for us to hear in 21st century America.  We live in an extremely wealthy and powerful culture.  Capitalism has given rise to consumerism in our post-industrial society.  Our sole purpose on this earth, it seems, is to produce, buy, and consume products that keep our economy going and growing at any cost.  The American dream is an ideal of security through economic prosperity.  We dream of having a white picket fence and a car in every garage.  We are inundated with literally thousands of advertisements every week, each one insisting that their product is the key to achieving true happiness in life.

Yet, one needs only look at those who occupy the top spots in the heap of consumption.  Celebrity gossip columns give a regular indication that those who “have it all” are NOT actually any happier than the rest of us.  They keep on spending their millions in the “pursuit of happiness,” only to discover that there are some things that money really just can’t buy.  Or, as Jesus put it, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

For those of us who live in this consumerist society, I think Jesus wants to extract us from the cult of MORE and initiate us into the church of ENOUGH.  And the first step in this process is to step back and really look at who we are and what we’re doing.  The meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this an “orthogonal shift.”  That word, “orthogonal,” comes from geometry, where it refers to a set of lines that run perpendicular to one another.  In the sense that Kabat-Zinn means it, an orthogonal shift is one where we step back and shift perspective in order to get a different point of view on our lives.  Kabat-Zinn says this is like moving from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional point of view: we rise above the flat level of everyday existence, survival, and concern in order to get a clearer view of the whole chessboard on which our lives are laid out.

This, in a general sense, is what we do every week here in church (and hopefully every day in our private devotional lives): we take an hour to remove ourselves from our culture’s rat race of constant production and consumption and we remind ourselves of where it is that true life, abundant life, is really to be found.  We remember that life is so much more than stuff.

The first thing we realize when we step back, make that orthogonal shift and get a three-dimensional perspective on our two-dimensional world is that we live on a planet of tremendous blessing and abundance.  We are all already spilling over the brim with “enough-ness”.  Most scientists believe that Earth has more than enough resources to safely support life for the number of people who live here, so there’s no real reason why anyone should have to experience starvation.  I won’t bore you with the statistics, but I’ll just encourage you to take your spirituality outside with you.

I mean that literally: take a hike, sit by a river, fish, hunt, or even sit on a park bench for a while.  Just get out there and appreciate the free gifts that Earth has to offer.  From what I’ve seen, those who do so come back with a much deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation for just how lush and green life can be.  That’s one way to make that orthogonal shift and get some perspective.

Another way is to keep a financial journal.  This is a great exercise, and it’s an easy one too, if you’re used to keeping good records.  The thing to do is keep track of every single penny that comes in and goes out of your bank account for a month.  And I don’t just mean balancing your checkbook, I mean really take stock of where and how you spend your money.  At the end of the month, add everything up according to category: rent, food, utilities, entertainment, charity, etc.  Where does your money actually go?  And here’s the hard question: how does that match up with the values you claim to hold as a Christian?  Are you meeting your needs before satisfying your wants?  Would a stranger, looking at this record of your earning and spending, be able to tell what your most deeply held beliefs and values really are?

Both of these exercises can be ways in which Jesus is able to lead us to that point of shifting our habitual perspectives and reminding ourselves that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Really living, according to Jesus, is about so much more than that.

One of the interesting things about this gospel passage is that Jesus doesn’t spell out the answer for us.  For example, with those two grieving brothers, Jesus doesn’t explain to them what their problem is or how to fix it.  He simply refuses to get involved in their dispute.  Instead, he challenges them (almost dares them) to make that shift in perspective themselves and see that the real source of their conflict is grief over the loss of their parent that has been misdirected as anger toward each other.

Jesus, in this situation, is drawing the brothers’ attention to the questions they didn’t even think to ask, initially.  He tells a story about a greedy farmer with the same problem.  This farmer had a huge bumper crop one year, but instead of looking to share the wealth, devised ways to build bigger barns to store keep his own massive profits to himself.  This farmer never stops to think about his wider community.  His focus is solely on “my money, my property, and my needs.”  Once again, Jesus doesn’t spell out the answer, but says more in his silence than most people do in a thousand words.

The implication, which would have been crystal clear to Jesus’ audience of hungry peasants and should have been clear to the farmer in the story, is that an abundance of blessing is meant to be shared.  We have a moral and spiritual obligation to care for one another, not just through taxes and donations to social programs, but with our own time, energy, and resources.  That, Jesus implies, is where life, real life, can really be found.