The parable Jesus offers now is surely about an individual and choices he has made. And yet, I have found myself thinking instead about the choices we make collectively as God’s people about our ‘barns’ and all they hold. About what matters and what doesn’t. About what it means for us together to be ‘rich toward God.’ Yes, certainly the words of Jesus now are worth sitting with a good long while as we consider our priorities in our own individual lives and in the lives of our families. And yet, this time through I find myself thinking about lives together as congregations.
And so it is that the memory I share today is an old one.
I was a young adult, working with the youth at my home congregation in that season between graduating from college and starting seminary. Now mind you, youth ministry was not then and is not now God’s best gift to me, but it was a good and needed balance to my front desk job at a local hotel before I headed off to St. Paul and the rigors of “Summer Greek.” But that is for another reflection.
If I am remembering right, I had coached the high school youth through some kind of worship experience where they dressed up as clowns — complete with clown white make up and grease paint. (This was at least familiar to me.) We had been in the nave for this experience. The carpet around the altar was white. And as you can well imagine, by the end of our sharing, at least one spot on that carpet was not as white as it had been only hours before.
This is what stays with me now: the sight of my normally dignified and calm pastor on his knees frantically trying to get red grease paint to let go of its hold on that formerly pristine white carpet — all the while mumbling the name of the church custodian almost under his breath. But not quite. Not quite under his breath that is.
This came to mind this week as I settled into the familiar words of our Gospel lesson and its constantly needed message that bigger barns and all they promise to hold will not save us. This came to mind as I considered the lesson Jesus offers to me and to those I serve, individually and collectively as a congregation. Oh yes, this unsettling memory came to mind as from time to time I recognize myself in my old pastor now — caught up in the anxiety of others’ anxiety about protecting and preserving our ‘barns.’
It should be an easy case to make in churches, of course, for all that we are about is not finally about the ‘barns or what those barns contain.’ And yet, who among us has not gotten caught in the battle about preserving what finally doesn’t matter at the expense of what does?
Indeed, in the place where I serve we are blessed with a profoundly beautiful ‘barn.’ This very summer, in fact, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the building itself. (The congregation itself is, in fact, much older.) We have been fortunate that previous generations have kept it up well and it is, to be sure, a beautiful place to worship with ample room for most any gathering you can imagine. And yet, you who serve in old buildings know the struggle well:
- The cost of maintaining old ‘barns’ too often precludes us from being about meaningful mission.
- The anxiety associated with keeping those ‘barns’ pristine too often keeps us from welcoming into our holy ‘barns’ those who would perhaps benefit the most from the gifts we are called to share.
It is not easy balance, this one and I, for one, don’t think the struggle will ever fully go away: perhaps not until ‘our very lives are demanded of us.’ No, in fact, the tension that is illustrated in Jesus’ parable for us now is one before us and within us every day, in our own lives and in our life together as God’s people:
Take a moment to think this through with me:
- What is the balance between ‘tending the barn’ and letting it be used for mission and ministry?
- Doesn’t it matter that the carpets are clean, the roof is not leaking, the garbage is properly disposed of, the altar rail is dusted?
- And does it really finally matter that there is clown make up on the carpet around the altar? Does it?
I do know this. My heart still aches to remember my old pastor who gave me many a positive example of what it means to serve God and God’s people well — kneeling on the floor anxiously trying to remove that stain from that white carpet. My heart aches, too, when I recognize that same kind of anxiety in myself. For nothing about it, then or now, boasts of ‘richness towards God’ which is where Jesus’ words finally point us now.
Oh yes, Jesus’ story of one rich man compels us to examine ourselves, our congregations, our lives and our life together, and while I don’t imagine that worry about ‘having enough’ in this life will ever fully leave us, if we could but allow ourselves to be shaped by the question of what it means to be ‘rich toward God’ in our own lives and in our life together, perhaps our ‘wealth’ might just begin to accrue where it really matters.
What do you think?
- I have chosen to consider here how the ‘barn’ itself may just be a parallel for all the ‘barn holds’ — at least for many of our congregations. Is this a logical path to take? Why or why not?
- In your experience, what does it mean to be ‘rich toward God?’ How does that contrast with our anxiety which has us ‘building bigger barns’ or just protecting the barns we already have?
- Might it be enough to start by simply asking the question about what it means to be ‘rich toward God?’ How might the right question asked faithfully and often begin to change our values and priorities?
- What might it look like in your own life or in your life together with your congregation — at a council meeting, a finance committee meeting, a Sunday School Class — to ask the question of what it means to be ‘rich toward God?’ And how do you see yourself leading others past the blank stare which is typically our response to such a question never pondered before? How might this very important conversation change everything?
- Are there other ways in which we as leaders put our energies into matters which do not lend towards ‘richness toward God?’ How are you being called to reconsider your priorities in your life and ministry these days?