The following sermon won Honorable mention in the 2004 annual intern Stewardship contest. The prize is designed to enrich and strengthen the practice of stewardship in the church by advocating preaching and teaching that promotes the stewardship for financial resources.
TEAR DOWN YOUR BARNS AND BUILD NEW ONES
Gospel: Luke 12:13-21
It is a difficult thing -in a place where buildings are empty and abandoned- to motivate anyone to tear down what is old and build new, anticipating great growth.
I have witnessed here in NE Montana that houses and former businesses will simply sit empty - especially in small towns like Hinsdale and Saco - when their owners leave. No one bothers to tear them down, anticipating that something new could be built in their place. These empty hollow shells moan a testimony to those who remain, speaking "the truth" according to what we have trusted all along, the numbers. According to the numbers, we are losing. The wind through broken windows whispers words we all hear sometimes, striking fear in our hearts: "loss" and "scarcity."
The bean counters would stop us long before we could tear down the Saco school, for example, and build in its place a new school fit to serve three times as many students. Would we not be thought of as totally crazy for suggesting such a thing? Look at the numbers, and how we are decreasing, not increasing in students! Things are not as they used to be. I believe that I would need to see an abundance of students, expanding so much the walls can no longer hold them, before I would support such a plan. This is the case for the man in our parable today, who gets a vast return on his crops, and being the bean counter that he is, knows that new barns are needed, if he is to hold onto the abundance of his harvest. He trusts the numbers.
But let's back up a minute and get the whole picture. The man who prompts Jesus to tell this parable in the first place, he trusts the numbers too. In fact he has looked around him and understood there to be a limited amount of financial resources, so that he must fight over what remains of the pie just to make sure he gets a piece. This man calls to Jesus from a crowd: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me!" He knows what he is looking at, and if he doesn't stick up for himself, it might be an empty wallet. In places where we sense scarcity, it is our first instinct to calculate how much is left, and then scrambles to make sure we get some. Never mind someone else's broken-down house, or business, or life. We must make sure ruin does not enter our own lives. In Saco, I spoke with someone who works in town but lives in Malta, and heard about how earnestly the Saco School tried to convince her to enroll her children with them. They need to keep enrollment up. They know the numbers and want to make sure they can get whatever students are available. In this way we keep all of our accounts in great detail -- that's the most important thing -- because the numbers don't lie, do they?
I don't think this is a parable about the virtues of watching the numbers. This may be an obvious strategy and just plain "good business" in some sectors of our lives. But when it comes to having true, abundant life, God gives us a different story. Jesus prefaces his parable with a solemn warning: "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." There is no life-giving power in getting ahead, beating others to the perceived scarce supply of money, students, jobs, or anything else. True life is found in abundance by other means. Yet the man in this parable and the one this parable is told to trust the numbers, and their own stored-up abundance. They see the abundant crop as a credit to their own work, so rather than giving it away to those whose own barns are yawning empty, they're looking to insure themselves against ever sharing that fate. Yet, when the man in the parable's life is demanded of him, what has he to say? Abundant life, as God defines it, built on the trust of the one who will never fail us - is in short supply in this man's life. His life is demanded of him, and there is nothing there. Scarcity. His wealth had been abundant, but his life -- the life lived in God had not.
The good news in Christ Jesus is that our lives are not about what we have, gain or lose, but about whom we trust. There is abundant life, and insurance that will never run out. There is no limit to God's abundance. The numbers may say "scarcity" and fear might start to grow around us, but God alone gives life in abundance, bursting with meaning and power to bring change into the world. God alone brings hope in an unpredictable world. Larger storage spaces cannot do that. Precise calculations cannot do that. Only God can be trusted for that.
Last month I attended a workshop on prayer, and the speaker shared a recent conversation he had with a bishop from an African country where 40 percent of the people are infected with the HIV virus. The African bishop described the spiritual explosion that was happening in their churches and communities (Lutheran churches, by the way), the numbers of people coming to faith, and reaching out to others. The churches were bursting with people. He described families with 5 or 6 children of their own whom they could barely feed, who took in AIDS orphans with the faith that God would provide. How can it be that there is so much abundance in a place so poor by our standards, asked our speaker? It is because they do not see a scarcity of resources, said the African bishop, but only God's abundance.
What would it look like if in our individual lives, we operated fully out of trust in God to provide life abundantly? Would we give more of our time away to others, trusting that God will care for our household business while we to tend to a relationship? Would we invest more of our time and emotions in someone who might not return the favor? If we operated more out of trust in God, would we risk serving in ways that would gain us no recognition and no rewards? And how would it affect our financial giving? Would we take care of all the other bills first, put some in savings, and then give what is left over to ministries of the church? Or would we instead give the first fruits -- support God's work in the world before anything else, trusting that God would provide for the difference? There is life in abundance when we live by trust in God, and freedom to see hope in every situation. When we see only the numbers, there is still scarcity and fear, and someone must always lose.
And now I must ask, since we are here together, as one body of God's people, and not just as individuals: What would it look like if this congregation operated out of trust in God to provide the abundance instead of seeing scarcity? Can you imagine what that would mean? If we behaved as a faith community that sees God bringing and renewing life our lives, what then would happen? What would our outreach to others be like? What would our enthusiasm level for the gospel be if we operated fully out of trust? Do we trust that God will work abundant life in hurting lives every time someone hears the good news of Christ Jesus? If we could see down that road, we might just begin tearing down our barns and building new ones! It is not because we've done the figuring, but because we know and trust the abundance of the God who is working among us.
--Lee Ann Machosky
Lee Ann Machosky did her internship at Parish Prairie Lutheran Parish, a 5-point parish in NE Montana.
Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa (ignaciogarcialosa.com) via Flickr. Used by permission.