The Real Tragedy of the Story…

Luke 12:13-21

I have been on sabbatical since the first of June. In order to give my self a true break, I posted old blogs to cover the time I was away. Although I will be back in the pulpit this Sunday, I was concerned I would not have the time or the focus to get something before you in a timely way and so you may have already read what I wrote several years ago and re-posted for this week. I am sorry that this particular post comes a little later in the week than usual, but what follows reflects where my heart is carrying me now as I consider the parable of the rich farmer and his many barns.

I would begin by offering this: a story repeated far too often, it seems to me. Last year, a long time colleague and friend died not so long after finally retiring. I can remember standing with him next to an electric coffee maker at a church meeting more than a decade ago when the stock market was in turmoil. I recall him turning to me and smiling as he offered that he had already moved his 401K into safe funds so he had little to worry about. On the day of his funeral as his life was celebrated, I ached to remember that moment knowing that he himself never had the chance to enjoy the fruits of his wisdom then — his choice of barns in which to store the abundant ‘harvest’ which had been his.

And oh, don’t we all have stories like these? People we know who worked so long and hard and in the end, were never able to enjoy what they worked so hard to earn? It strikes us as tragic, doesn’t it? Indeed, it strikes a kind of fear into my own heart as I, too, think of the many, many years I have worked and saved so that one day I won’t have to work and save, all the while recognizing that for all of my ‘building bigger barns’ it may well not turn out the way I have hoped.

Certainly, I suppose, this is part of the tragedy, a piece of the warning in the story for us now. I mean, the voice of God quoted here surely affirms this for us, “…And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” And yet, at first, I find myself landing somewhere else — in a place more implied than specifically addressed. I am captivated by the fact that as the subject of Jesus’ story is celebrating his good harvest, as he is making plans for what to do with that abundance of grain, he is only talking to himself. Not a spouse, a child, a sibling, a trusted neighbor. He is all alone in this, the last decision he will make before he dies. No, indeed, it strikes me that the tragedy of this story is not only that he died too soon, but that he never really lived. And isn’t this surely illustrated by the fact that at the end of his life he apparently had no one with whom to wonder and dream, to share and struggle and hope? Indeed, perhaps if he had cultivated the opportunity to be in such authentic conversation, he may still have died, but he would have done so knowing that he had done something that mattered with the riches which were his to steward in this life now!

And so it is I find myself thinking through the places I have traveled in these last weeks. I find myself wondering what it is I have learned about the world, about myself, and about my own call to steward God’s abundant gifts in the time I have been given. For it is so that I am as guilty as the next one in that I spend too much time thinking about and yes, “hoarding,” what God has so generously given. And yes, some of that is material, but the fact is that even with what is put away in one’s 401K, the grain in one’s barns, can still be put to good, even life-giving work, later. Even if I don’t have the good sense to do so while I am still able. To be sure, today I also find myself considering the other riches God has so generously given me in abundance which I also often “hoard” in a way — putting off using them until some later date. I think to myself that in some far distance time I will finally, hopefully put to good use the hope, the passion, the drive for justice, the compulsion towards mercy which God has planted within me. But if I wait. If, in fact, I die without doing so? All of these truly will be wasted.

Indeed, this is how this came home for me in these last weeks. I spent part of my sabbatical as a pilgrim on the Civil Rights Trail in Alabama.

  • I stood in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham where fire hoses were turned on children. Children who then were carted off to jail in school buses for the ‘crime’ of demanding their freedom.
  • I walked across the street to the memorial stone to 4 little girls who were killed in a  Sunday morning bombing as they were primping in the ladies room of the church basement before they went up to worship.
  • Yes, on a beastly hot day I walked through the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, overwhelmed by the names and the places and the dates of thousands of black men and women who were lynched — murdered in cold blood by others infected by ignorance and hatred and fear: by racism.
  • In Selma I walked to the summit of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and on the other side spoke with a young man named Columbus who was hawking commemorative books and t shirts. He told me then about his uncle who had lost an eye in the bloody battle on that very spot more than fifty years before. And of how that uncle taught those who came after about forgiveness. About hope.

Before I went, I studied and read. When I came home, I continued to do the same. And as I did so, I learned that while these events happened ‘far away,’ northern economic interests benefited from the cheap labor which kept things ‘as they were’ before those fateful days in the early 1960’s. This was particularly so in Birmingham. And yes, I learned of the struggle within the movement for change itself as leaders debated how best to move forward. Indeed, I learned the names and stories of so many people I had never known before this pilgrimage. And I have a great deal left to learn. But this is also so.  Two days after my return I opened up the Chicago Tribune to read about the Chicago Race Riots of 1919 which happened exactly a century ago not far from where I call home. (Google it. There are dozens of stories about this out there.) And I am reminded that all of this did not, does not happen so far away, but is right here as well. And yes, here in the community where I live and serve, it continues with substandard housing, limited opportunity, and neighborhoods which are segregated not by law, perhaps, but by history and habit and economics. And I am reminded that history is meant for this: not only to inform us, but to change us as we consider where we have been, where we find ourselves, and where God is calling us next.

So it is that for me as I consider the story of the man who built more barns and then died too soon, I am wondering what it means not to hoard the good gifts of God, but to use them up.

And I am wondering what it means to live a life in community where we have others, one another, to struggle alongside as we consider where and how those gifts are best used.

And oh, I am thinking about all those precious people God has given me, given us, to help work this out. So that the tragedy of this story will not be known among us ever again.

So that at the very least we recognize that we have one another with whom we can work it out, not making the last, most important decisions of our lives alone.

And at the most? We actually use God’s good gifts to help make the world look a whole lot more like God intended!

  • Above I explore the possibility that at least part of the tragedy of this story is not that the man died, but that he never lived. He did not have any kind of community with whom to ponder how he was called to use the gifts of God. Am I ‘on track’ with this or not?
  • What gifts of God do you find yourself hoarding for later? And where and how and with whom are you able to sort out how they might be putting them to good use now?
  • Given my recent travels, I find myself considering all of this in light of issues and real human challenges around economics and race in my community. On what parts of your own life and call does this parable shed light and challenge on for you?

6 comments

  1. Beth Foose says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I can’t even approach the Edmund Pettus Bridge without tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. It is a thin place — between despair and hope. I so wish I had known you were coming to the South with an interest in the Civil Rights movement! I would have tried to talk you into coming to Mississippi. We have a new Civil Rights Museum and designated sites throughout the state. I am an Episcopal priest in the small town of Canton, and I read your blog every week in preparation for my sermon writing. I count you as a trusted friend and colleague. Should you ever decide to resume your Civil Rights pilgrimage, we would love to welcome you to our farm.
    Gratefully,
    Beth Foose

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Thank you, Beth, for your comment and for sharing your experience of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It is, indeed, a ‘thin place,’ to be sure. I know I would be grateful to learn with you in Canton. Thank you for the offer. Perhaps one day I can take you up on it. Bless you in your ministry there.

  2. Pat Taylor Ellison says:

    Janet, as always, you raise great questions. Mostly retired, I am enjoying a slower pace in a much smaller city, enjoying time to lavish on my daughter’s family and my aging Mom. I work only when I choose to and say no to stuff that would press me and stress me. Nice, huh?

    Yet I am still called to recognize where my gifts need to be used up in service of mission, in service of the lonely and suffering. I’m richer in unclaimed time now than I have never been, but I also need to be willing to part with some of it in service to God’s mission here in Fargo. And my life will be richer, even in retirement, if I choose to give some of my jealously guarded time away as God taps me on the shoulder to do so. Life is learning, am I right? I’m trying to figure out this new chapter, and you are helping me think it through. Thanks!

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Thanks, Pat, for reflecting with me this week. With you, these days I am considering the gift of ‘time’ and how our decisions about how we guard it and give it away offer a window into life and faith and priorities. And yes, ‘life is always learning’ you are right. Bless you.

  3. On track with the ‘never lived.’ We’ve just experienced a mass shooting by a young man driven by fear and anxiety that his future was being taken from him by corporations and automation and environmental losses that he related to Hispanic immigration that would ‘turn Texas Democrat’. Greed and fear are two sides of the same coin – or both share the same underlying anxiety that Luke’s text next addresses.
    It is the reduced spirit – or context – that claws things towards itself without acknowledging its links to all of being.

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