July 31, 2022
Out on the west coast, around the Seattle area and up the coast of British Columbia, there is one of the largest temperate rainforests in the world. Water from the relatively warm Pacific Ocean feeds clouds that head straight for the coast, and then they run into the Cascades where they drop an absolutely stunning amount of water every year. The ocean also keeps the temperatures of the whole region pretty stable and mild, so the growing season basically doesn’t end. The result is a region of some of the highest biomass in the world outside of the tropics.
In this region, for thousands of years, there were native tribes who were shaped by the sheer abundance of the landscape. Even though they never developed indigenous agriculture, tribes like the Chinook and Klamath were able to settle down instead of wandering from place to place looking for food and resources. These cultures were so accustomed to abundance that they developed a special kind of ceremony celebrating that abundance—the potlatch.
Essentially, the potlatch was an event where the community would be invited by a local bigwig—someone who had accumulated a lot of stuff—and they would host a celebration about something going on in their lives. There would be dancing and competitions and feasting, and then they would gather up all their possessions (or a large portion of them) and give them away to their neighbors. And the thing is, it wasn’t just one person who would do it. Everyone, just about, was expected to throw a potlatch celebration from time to time. They responded to abundance by regularly sharing it with others. It made sure that everyone would have a share in the abundance of the region, and it strengthened friendships and social bonds because people were constantly sharing with each other.
What a stark contrast it is, then, to the parable Jesus taught in this morning’s gospel reading. A rich man finds that his land has produced abundantly, and when he sees just how much he has, what’s his reaction? Build bigger barns! Store it up! The grain would be good for him to eat for years, and he would have a store of grain to sell at a good profit when times got lean. He’s very satisfied with himself, but then the twist—he dies unexpectedly, and never gets to enjoy his abundance.
I think this can be a very uncomfortable parable for us. Here’s this man who just happened to have a really successful harvest. It’s his land. It’s his grain. It’s his to do with as he wished. If he wanted to store up his grain in bigger barns, isn’t that his right? Isn’t it wise to be prepared for the future? To store up for retirement? He’s living the dream, after all—the first-century equivalent of cashing his stocks and retiring to Florida. But Jesus gives us a hint at what we’re supposed to be reading from this parable when God tells the rich man, “the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
When God blesses someone with abundance, there is a purpose behind it. When Abraham received a blessing from God, he was told that he was being blessed “so that all the nations of the world will be blessed through you.” It wasn’t his to hoard. And in the Torah, the Law, there is a lot of time devoted to reminding farmers not to harvest the corners of their fields, or pick up dropped produce; instead, they’re supposed to leave that for the poor. Abundant harvests are meant for more than just the harvester.
And the prophets throughout scripture are constantly fuming at the ways the blessing of abundance is mistreated—Amos condemning wealthy people reclining on ivory couches while the poor starved in the streets; Ezekiel comparing Judah’s sins to Sodom’s when that city refused to help the poor despite having so much in abundance; Isaiah reporting the words of God declaring that justice for the downtrodden was more important than any other kind of worship. When abundance, when wealth is hoarded by those who first receive it, scripture roundly condemns it as misusing God’s blessings.
But just as sinister as hoarding wealth—and don’t get me wrong, that part is not metaphorical—so is the way the rich man’s mind is warped by it. Notice all the pronouns he uses: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? 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…” He’s completely absorbed with himself, to the extent that he can’t even see how his greed is affecting his relationship with others. He doesn’t notice anyone but himself. He can’t imagine any use for his abundant blessings except for his own personal use.
So what can we do with this? How are we shaped to steer clear of the greed that wrongly assumes all that we have is for our own personal enjoyment and not a blessing God intends for us to share? How can we be, as Jesus reminds us, “rich toward God?” Well, the good news is that we are already doing it. The good news is that we are being shaped to share our abundance with others.
Consider our ballfield. We, as a congregation, have the last church ballfield in our area. And we could have done any number of things with it. We could have dressed it up and sold the land, and used the proceeds for church improvements or the endowment fund. Or we could have kept a tight rein on it and only rented it out to local groups. Or we could have turned the concessions booth into a way to pay for church improvements. But instead, we have turned that ballfield into a ministry. We’ve brought together teams from area churches to play ball together. We’ve improved the ballfield to make it more fun and more accessible for more people to have fellowship there. We’ve taken this blessing that we have and made sure that it is used for the good of our community—for the good of Christ’s mission in and through us.
Or consider the hamburger fund. We could have just relied on profits from the fair stand to cover the cost of the beef, but we didn’t. We knew we had abundant blessings from God and we responded with the kind of generosity that has its trust in God. So many of us stepped up and donated. We were ready to donate, to share, to take that blessed abundance God has given us and make sure this congregation had a way to multiply that blessing for our outreach ministries—outreach that is supported by the money the fair stand raises.
That generosity is the sign of our trust in God, of being rich toward God, because we know God will keep blessing us with abundance. When we are confronted by need in the world and we respond with generosity, that’s the work of the Spirit chipping away at our greed. God is constantly calling on us to see when the harvest is abundant, and instead of building bigger barns, we spread a bigger table and find new ways to be generous. Let’s be drawn deeper into that trust. Let’s continue to grow in our richness toward God as God calls us to share the abundant blessings we’ve first received.
Because how different would it be had the rich man in the parable seen his abundant harvest, and his first thought was how he could celebrate with his neighbors? Feed the hungry in their midst? Store up for the community so that everyone would have grain in hard times? We may be tempted to build bigger barns when God gives us bigger blessings, but let’s never forget why God gives us blessings in the first place: to share that abundance with others. When we receive more than our daily bread, that doesn’t mean we get more to use—it means we get to be God’s hands and feet that deliver daily bread intended for others. God gives in abundance, and that abundance has always been meant for all.
Thanks be to God. Amen.