13 Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Not far from Camp Christikon, the Lutheran Bible camp in Montana I just visited with a youth group from Holy Trinity, there’s an old, unoccupied log cabin. You can’t get there by the road; you need to follow the Boulder River and the narrow footpaths that switch back and forth up into the Absaroka Mountain Range. But it’s worth the hike, as that cabin is set in a breathtakingly beautiful spot in the valley. The forest service has boarded it up now. The shingles are falling off, the walls are beginning to crumble with no one there to maintain them, and it’s all been left to be reclaimed by the forest. But not long ago and for several decades, it served as a relatively comfortable home for a man named Charlie.
Charlie died in the late ‘80s, but there are a lot of stories still told about him at camp. We heard how years ago he left his home out East and his community of family and friends there to seek his fortune mining gold in the mountains of Montana. He was going to get rich. He staked out his claim and then single-handedly built that cabin, along with a bridge, his mines, and a handful of other structures. With only the help of his mule, he carried the necessary materials up the steep incline, transporting the heaviest logs during the winter on the frozen river. No one could say whether he found any gold during all of those years, but the signs indicate he did not and died nearly penniless.
Christikon campers and counselors got to know Charlie over the years, as they’d hike up to his place. Whenever they did, Charlie would welcome them in for a rest and some homemade cookies. Now there’s a portrait of him on the wall in the camp’s main lodge. I looked at that picture while eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day during our time at camp, and I started to wonder, with all the stories told about Charlie, is he remembered at camp as a hero or a fool?
I’m not sure how to answer that. It seems to me that whether he’s a hero or a fool depends on how his story is told. If it is a story of leaving one’s family and friends to live isolated in the mountains in selfish pursuit of wealth, then clearly he is a fool. He has nothing to show for his life. He worked hard all those years for a life that he never realized. It was all vanity and chasing after wind. What could be more foolish?
But then if it’s a story of a man who knew some significant struggles and made some bad decisions, but still managed to find a way to connect with campers, counselors, and other hikers and to have an impact on their lives, well, then, if not a hero, at least he’s a pretty good human being. And I’d even say that in his simplicity and poverty, his life may yet be remembered as one of abundance.
I didn’t know Charlie. But however you tell it, his story inspires great questions about what is most important in life.
Today Jesus gives us more to think about. “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” he says. We hardly need to be told; it’s obvious to us that there’s more to life than our stuff, right? So the character in his parable—a guy with big barns full of grain, talking to no one but his own soul about how happy and comfortable he will be—yes, it’s easy to call him a fool. Any of us would gladly share with others such an abundance if we had it. We know what life is about.
But I’ve learned that Jesus never told parables just to make us point and laugh at others. They tend to hold up a mirror to our own lives and reveal deeper truths. Maybe this guy with the barns is more like us than we think.
None of us here has probably ever had a conversation with one’s own soul before; that sounds exceptionally foolish. But then again, you may know what it’s like to feel deep down in your gut a worry for the future, for your security. Then “soul-talk” can take a variety of forms: “you need to work harder, you need to be more cautious with what you have, you need to be sure you get what’s coming to you.” When we start to engage in this kind of talk, it can be easy to forget what we believe most about wealth and possessions. It can be easy to forget what we believe most about God, too, focused as we are on ourselves and what we must do.
Let me be clear that it’s not at all foolish to be concerned about the future. It is wise to plan ahead—for retirement, for college, for emergencies, and so forth. That’s true for us and for the main character of this parable. The root problem, though, is the soul-talk. The foolishness lies in deluding ourselves into thinking that our future security is all up to us; and that joy, generosity, and true rest can only exist when that supposed security is attained.
We might tell our souls we can really live only once we have sufficient income or have built up for ourselves sufficient savings, but so often our definition of enough keeps changing and always seems to be just a little more than what we have or are making now. How can we ever really feel that we have accumulated enough when there is so much available and so much that promises to make life better? There’s always more to attract our attention.
And it’s not just about money and possessions, though. Some of us here today might say we don’t need more money as much as we need more time. We say to ourselves, “when I just get the right balance in life, managing all of my varied responsibilities, then I will say to myself, ‘relax, rest, and be merry.’ Then I will live the kind of life to which I feel called.” The problem is we live in a beautifully changing and evolving world, in which balance is a moving target, and again not something that can be ultimately achieved. Life does not consist in the abundance of time, either. It is lived from one moment to the next. Its blessings are received as they come.
Or maybe what some of us are after more than all else is success, more achievements upon which we can prop up our identities and sense of self. It’s the way of the American Dream, right, to work hard and make something of yourself? But what is it, really, that you could accomplish on your own that would give you deep, true sense of meaning? Would there not always be more to do? None of our accomplishments finally can define us.
Instead, what if we practiced a different and wiser kind of soul-talk? What if we could say to ourselves consistently and sincerely, “I have enough—I AM enough—to live a life marked by joy and generosity. I can rest in the abundance of God’s grace. I am part of God’s great commonwealth of blessing, in which I am both blessed and get to bless others, too.” The work and challenges of life will continue, of course, but this kind of talk reminds us that abundance is the starting place, not just the end goal.
This kind of soul-talk is so much more in line with God-talk. That is, it follows what God has said and continues to say to us. You are loved. You are enough. My grace is sufficient. This parable, it seems to me, is not meant to raise anxiety for us about whether we’re living with wisdom or foolishness. It’s an invitation to a completely new and abundant life of grace.
In light of these gracious promises, I hope that each one of us can leave worship today convinced that our barns are full. Of course, the contents differ among us. For many of us, we possess material wealth that can be shared with others rather than hoarded. For some, our circumstances may mean we have privilege and power of which we can be good stewards, using it well for the sake of others. We may have experiences, ideas, and passions that have been given to us not to keep to ourselves but to share with our communities. Even our mistakes and faults can be blessings to others when we share them and what we have learned from them. We have so much.
For all of us, above all, our lives have been filled with the love of God. You are loved in this very moment, before anything else you do or do not do. You are treasured in God’s sight, and that means you can live in love, treasuring all that God treasures, even when it seems that so much hate, fear, and selfishness surround you.
This very day, your life is being demanded of you. That is, your true life wants to be lived in you—a life secure in God’s abundant faithfulness.