Sunday 19th February 2017, 2 before Lent, evening
by Revd Chris Palmer
The second half of that Gospel Reading is about not worrying. It’s pretty much the same as the Gospel reading this morning – just from Luke rather than Matthew. And if you want a great sermon on that subject, I refer you to Kate’s sermon this morning, which might appear online at some point.
But I’m going to talk about the first part of the reading – this parable of the man who built bigger barns. It seems at first sight that this man’s failure is the opposite of worry. He’s too at ease. ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, by merry.’ But God says, ‘you fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’
The man’s sin and failure is that he offsets worry by trusting in the wrong thing. The underlying disease is the same – needing assurance around earthly security, food, possessions and so on. For one person the disease leads to anxiety when these appear lacking; for another this leads to complacency if these appear abundant. But the disease is still the same, the idolisation of possessions and earthly security. This man places all his hopes and dreams in contents of his barns. They are temples to his gods, and like all idols made of tangible matter they give a sense of reliability. You can hold onto them, you can see them, you can trust them. But they are wholly false, the promise they make is vain. It’s like walking on quicksand; there is nothing really to be grounded on – and we sink.
The problem is that God broaches no rivals when it comes to trust. This is the root of the biblical motif that God is a jealous God – which doesn’t at all mean that God is consumed by petty envy, but rather that God knows that our wellbeing is not served by divided loyalty when it comes to faith and worship. The Roman Catholic theological Nicholas Lash says that when we say in the creed ‘I believe in God…’, we are implicitly saying ‘I don’t believe in anything else…’ – I trust nothing else for my truest wellbeing.
And at the root of this man’s idolatry is his failure to recognise what is enough. Up to the point of his abundant harvest, he had barns on his land that were presumably adequate for his needs. They had always proved sufficient in the past. In them he stored his grain, from them he fed his animals – and with them he had prospered. His problem wasn’t that his barns were too small, but that his possession were too many. The fact that that perspective is so counter intuitive to us, shows that very often we share in his trust in possession to keep us safe.
I was once told by someone with a completely straight face that their aim in life was to work as a city trader until they were in their mid 40s, by which time they hoped to have made something like £20-30 million and could put their feet up. Another time I overheard a conversation by a group of macho young men on the bus, the gist of which was that women were thoroughly unreliable; the only trustworthy thing in life was money.
The latter comment shows starkly the problem. Idolising money utterly distorts our capacity for decent relationships – mistrust finding an out in overt misogyny. And if we can’t relate well to other human beings, what hope do we have with God. But they were full of bravado. The person who told me about aiming for £30M told it so straight and as if it was wholly reasonable, that I knew no way of beginning to challenge that worldview; the acquisitive tendency in our society has been so normalised, that we cannot see it for the fraud that it is.
But I suspect that these rather grotesque examples actually are merely caricatures of tendencies I also feel. I also am tempted to offset my sense of anxiety or insecurity by clutching at things or using people for what I can get out of them. I clutch for assurances that people in church, and perhaps especially those senior to me, like me. I angle to get my own way, and become anxious if the decision seems to be slipping away from my control. I trust that family life is the basis of my happiness or wellbeing. I worship at the shrine of liberal democracy, believing that it is a bulwark against violent and extremist tendencies. And of course many of these are good, and moderate size barns aren’t to be despised. But enough is enough – and seeking more and bigger barns in which to store approval, influence, or relationships will not ultimately satisfy me.
Only God will truly satisfy. And he won’t be stored in a barn or located in a temple. If you’re looking to build houses big enough to house God, you’ll never succeed.
Jesus says that we need to become rich towards God. I wonder what that means. Perhaps it is about living with such trust in God that we believe we are truly rich because we love him and he loves us – and consequently we don’t need to guarded, but generously share and give all we are and have in his service.
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, give us today our daily bread. It could be translated our bread for today. The point being, we don’t need to ask for tomorrow’s bread until tomorrow. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, storing up the manna makes it go rotten – and distorts our relationship with God. When we’ve got more than we need, we stop trusting, we stop asking, and we stop praying.
So the truly courageous prayer would be to ask God for whatever will help us to trust him more, whatever will lead to our deepening life in fellowship with him, whatever will allow us to grow in love for God and in his joyful and dedicated service. The question is, have we got the courage to make that prayer? And have we got the courage to accept whatever the answer is that comes back?