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Pentecost 11C Sermon
Luke 12: 13-21
Ecclesiastes 1: 2, 12-14,
2: 18-23

July 31, 2016

 

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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us, in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

Twenty six years ago this past May, I graduated from seminary. I am 52 years old now. Do that easy math and you come to the conclusion that I have been ordained for just over half of my life. When a person comes to this point in life, he or she tends to take stock on accomplishments, personal and professional, and wonder what it’s all been for. Oh sure, the accomplishments have been plenty – high school, college and post-graduate degrees earned, churches led, baptisms, marriages, funerals officiated, budgets met, improvements made, nearly 25 years of marriage reached, two wonderful children (mostly) raised to adulthood. But a couple of weeks ago when we sat down with our Thrivent agent to go over our life insurance and other financial products, I saw once again evidence that I am in the second half of my life. I started taking stock about what I have done which was good and lasting, what will happen with all that I have done, and what have I done which was a waste of time or that I regret. Mysteriously the books on my shelf having to do with effective youth ministry and evangelism have been replaced by those having to do with finding meaning in the second half of life, searching for faithfulness as the church, and what it means when we fail. Sometimes when we reach this point in our lives, we wonder what we have to show for it.

I know, I know, this isn’t the up-beat message with funny anecdotes from the recent vacation that most of us pastors share after we return from a week away. But I seem to be dealing with the same kinds of issues that Qoheleth, the teacher in Ecclesiastes, deals with in our first lesson this morning when he says, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” In the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes, from which these verses are snipped, we find the honest reflections of someone who is looking for lasting purpose and meaning in life – searching for that second half. Everything that he thinks will bring this purpose and meaning – wisdom, pleasure, labor, and toil – turn out to be like a vapor or mist, of little substance and quickly disappearing. He says, “It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.” The Hebrew word for business, inyan, is a favorite word of the teacher, appearing in the Hebrew Bible only in this book, and seven times in its 8 chapters. This human business is generally irksome, pointless, and leads to a joyless, dismal life.

But wait, there’s more bad news! As if this wasn’t enough, we achieve wisdom, we toil in the busy-ness of God, we labor, gain wealth, have pleasure and not only is it vanity, but then we all die and it comes to an end … and not only for us, but for everything for which we toiled. Do you really think that the next person who moves into your house is going to get out there with a fine tooth comb and scissors every Saturday like you have after you’re gone? Nope, ain’t going to happen!

Fortunately, this is all first-half stuff: first half of life, first half of our relationship with God, and first half of my message this morning. For the real joy comes not in all that we do or accomplish or achieve, but in what God fills us with when all of our efforts are exhausted. In Jesus’ parable that I read this morning, we are told that the land of the rich man produced abundantly. He had spent the first half of his life tending, tilling, nurturing his fields and, it appears, building sizable barns to store his produce until it could be used or sold. Evidently he has done well … or at least, his fields have done well. As a result, the barns that he built are not big enough to hold what the fields have produced. He has a conversation, and as a result of that conversation, he decides that it is time to tear down what he had spent so much time building, and construct even larger barns. The only thing about it is, the conversation he had was only with himself. He got no other feedback from any of his neighbors, no advice from family, not even a quick prayer off to God to make it look like he cared what God thought. And as a result, God did speak to him … and he basically told him the same bad news that Qoheleth concluded in Ecclesiastes, that death will soon come, and all that he has accumulated will be gone.
In his writings about the two halves of life, Father Richard Rohr talks about how the first half of our lives are based on the performance principle. We define ourselves by our performance or achievements; we build a container for ourselves out of which we live our lives. We have to do this because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t graduate from schools, do our jobs, find a spouse, have kids and do the things that we do. But if we define ourselves strictly on those achievements, then there is not room for God in these containers that we have built for ourselves. The rich man in the parable focuses not on the abundance of his fields and not on the community in which he lives, and certainly not on the God who blessed him so richly; his focus is on the barns – they’re too small, and he must rebuild them.

I have been likening Rohr’s image of building a container in the first part of life with the barns that this rich landowner built. The man had the choice of tearing down the barns that he had built, or filling them up to overflowing and allow the abundance to be used by God and enjoyed by others. The typical, “mid-life crisis” that many go through could be likened to the man wanting to build new barns for his abundance. Recently in his daily devotional, Rohr shared these five insights about the good news about second halves – of life and of the Christian Gospel: First of all, it is when we begin to pay attention, and to seek integrity precisely in the task within the task, that we move from the first to the second half of our lives. In other words, it is not the end or the goal that is important, but the process and the experience of getting there. Secondly, he says that the only thing strong enough to move you from the first half of life to the second half is faith in the midst of suffering, the ability to bear darkness and uncertainty, to carry the mystery of paradox. Thirdly, if you can face your mortality and let go of this small self early on, you’ll experience heaven here and now. This is what Paul is talking about in our second lesson when he calls on us to put to death whatever is earthly, knowing that we have already died in our baptisms with Christ, and have already arisen to this new life.

The fourth thing that Rohr says is that it’s not what you do for God; it’s what God has done for you that is important and lasting. You switch from trying to love God to just letting God love you, and it is at that point when you fall in love with God. Instead of bemoaning the vanity of life or the smallness of our barns, you appreciate the blessings of God and use them as if they have always belonged to God in the first place. Rohr then moves on to this fifth point, that in the second half of life, you start to understand that life is not only about doing; it’s about being – about dwelling with God in these containers or barns that we have built during the first half.

I chose the picture of the barn on the front of our bulletins intentionally to illustrate this message – could you imagine tearing down this beautiful barn because it is too small? It was built with sweat and toil, and cared for with love. Each one of us has been built with sweat and toil, and God has cared for each of us with love along the way. Our sins and our failures are part of the containers that we have built, just as much as our successes and achievements. God’s promise is to continue to pour into us an abundance of blessings. When they overflow, that is good – they can be shared with those around us who themselves may be frustrated or depressed about the vanity of all of their busy-ness under the sun. Moving from the first half of life to the second is as important as moving from the message of vanity and mortality to the message of resurrection, hope and joy. In all that you do, include God and your community in your conversation because we can see the beauty that is your container more than you often can yourself! And trust that God’s abundance will overflow from your life to be a wonderful witness to those around you. Amen.