NRSV HOSEA 11:1-11
11 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
4 I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
5 They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
6 The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
7 My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
8 How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
9 I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
10 They shall go after the LORD,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.
NRSV LUKE 12:13-21
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “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.”
He still pops up on the television every once in a while – Samuel L. Jackson, that is – where he proceeds to tell you about those credit card companies who have all kinds of hidden fees and broken promises, while the company he is plugging is right up front with you to give you what you need. Then at the end of every commercial, the esteemed Mr. Jackson asks you: What’s in your wallet?
I think we have seen enough of those commercials to pay them much attention, but perhaps the first time they came around we might have found ourselves checking our wallets just to see what was in there. Was it the credit card he was plugging or something else? Is there something in there that we had forgotten was there, and in our search for a credit card we made a rediscovery?
There are all kinds of things in our wallets – credit cards, medicare cards, licenses of various sorts, health care cards. There are a lot of things there. But what they have in common is that they represent something. A company, an organization, sure. But they also represent who we are, and what is important to us. We have credit cards so we can buy things without a lot of hassle. We have identification cards so we can get on a plane or vote. We have pictures of those special people in our lives. What’s in your wallet? Whatever it is, it says a lot about you, and what you consider to be important.
There are wallets that we put in our back pockets or in our purses, and there are wallets of a different sort. Or, to use Jesus’ parable, there are barns. Barns that contain those things that will provide for us. Barns that house those relationships which support and nurture us. Barns that contain those things which are most important. Those things which proclaim what our lives are all about.
What’s in your wallet? What’s in your barn? As we get ready for our church’s anniversary next week, that’s an important question to ask. What is in our barns, what is it that provides for us, the things that sustain us, the things that make us who we are as a congregation? Is it our nice, historic sanctuary? Is it our Christian Education wing, built in another time, formerly filled to capacity but now for the most part unused? Is it in our programs, where we learn from each other about the Bible and what it teaches us? Is it in the community organizations we support, who do things we cannot do to feed the hungry and house the homeless? Or is our barn just a building we come to once a week to get a spiritual fix and think that has nothing to do with the rest of our lives? Just come here and get it over with and pass by the connection it has with our political or social or economic lives.
I wonder if the people of the ancient land of Israel ever considered what was in their barns. Heaven knows, from the Biblical account, they had plenty of invitations. Granted it came from a couple of in-your-face guys like Amos – whom we heard from a couple of weeks ago – and Hosea. In this week’s section Hosea lifts up one of the most beautiful portrayals of God’s love in the whole Bible. It is filled with the love of God, poured out upon stubborn and faithless people. It is a passage that speaks of God’s tender, caring, mother and father like love, a love so unrelenting that it will not let go, it will not give up, it will not cast aside the wayward child even when that child keeps running away and doing the very thing that drives the parent crazy with its destructive potential.
But as I read this passage again a couple of things kept bothering me. One is that in spite of this great passage, the historical context of these words is that these people kept following those idols of the nations around them to the point where God did let them go, at least into exile. These are what we now call “The Lost Tribes of Israel.” We really don’t know where these people went. The conquering Assyrians sent them all over their far-flung empire so they wouldn’t cause any more trouble. Unlike the Judeans, who were all kept in Babylon until the Persians freed them fifty years after they went into exile, the people of the northern tribes were scattered all over the place.
For another you may get a sense that there is a danger here of veering off into what the late German theologian Dietrich Bonhoefer called “cheap grace.” In the years when the Nazis first took control of the German government, Bonhoefer preached and taught in a difficult situation, seeking to keep the word of God alive and fresh to young people who had not yet been captivated by all the flag waving and intense nationalistic fervor of the Hitler Youth movement. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoefer wrote about the need to move away from cheap grace, a grace that just assumes that God will always be there and will always bless whatever we do, even if it is crass and out of line and hurtful to ourselves and others. Bonhoefer called for a return to costly grace, the grace that must be sought over and over again, because, as he said, “What has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”
God’s grace is free, it is unrelenting, it is given not because we are nice people who deserve it but because God is gracious and the giving of love is what God does and who God is. But God gives it because God desires to be in relationship with us – isn’t that clearly seen in these words from Hosea? God started this whole relationship thing with Israel, and when it breaks down it grieves God to the core of the Divine Being. God has created us to be in relationship with our loving Creator, and to be in relationship with each other. When something gets in the way of that, it touches God in a very deep way. And it should touch us as well.
In the New Testament lesson Jesus is teaching his disciples and the crowd about discipleship, what it means to follow him. Someone in the crowd apparently recognizes in Jesus a person of great authority. So he yells out, “Hey, teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
In that culture when a father died the inheritance was divided among the sons, but it was the older son who was supposed to direct this process. Apparently some were better at sharing the inheritance than others. Maybe the younger brother – and I am assuming it was a younger brother, why else would he ask the question – felt that he wasn’t getting his fair share. He wants Jesus to be the arbitrator and judge in his favor.
But Jesus won’t take the bait. Not just because he wants to be, as we say in family systems counseling, a “non-anxious presence,” though this is a classic triangle; Jesus and the two boys, one of whom tried to drag Jesus into the unhealthy system so he can get what he wants. But something else is going on – Jesus sees another issue, a deeper issue. It is the issue of wealth, and how it has the capacity to take over our minds, our wills, our very souls. Wealth is not in and of itself bad; but our attitude can be destructive if wealth becomes a be-all and end-all, and when we sacrifice our relationships with other people because of it.
Jesus tells the parable about a rich man who has a wonderful crop, and then in a moment of planning for the future he decides to tear down the barns he has and build bigger ones. He will do this so he can store his food source and be better prepared for the future. Nothing wrong with that, we might think; it sounds like good planning to all of us with our 401-Ks and IRA’s, doesn’t it? After all, didn’t God instruct Joseph to do that in his dreams when he was second in command to Pharaoh way back when?
But there is something missing here. There is no consideration for anyone else; it is all about “me.” The rich man is not thinking, “To help feed my community I will need to store this up so I can share it.” It is all about himself, how he can feed himself and take care of himself so that he can sit back and eat, drink and be merry.
Before Jesus started in on the parable he told his disciples, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…” So the question for us is: What’s in your barn? Or, what’s in your wallet? What are the things that you hold onto tightly and won’t let go of? Is it your food supply? Is it your aforementioned retirement or pension plans? Is it your clothes? Is it your status, what other people think of you, your reputation around town? What’s in your barn as far as this church goes – is it a place to be spiritually enriched, or just another social club?
We are a people who live in a consumeristic culture that worships the barns we make. But there is something else that makes life beautiful, something that, I think, Jesus was getting at, and Hosea was, too. Jill Duffield, editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, was writing about how she and most of us like our bigger barns but there was an event that caused her to look at life differently. She was moved to make a donation to one of the online groups to support a young lady who had tried to commit suicide and was now trying to put her life back together. Duffield wrote:
“I made a larger gift than I’d planned. Not because I am particularly generous …, but because her story reminded me of what really matters and what happens when what really matters is missing. It reminded me that to relax, eat, drink and be merry, we don’t need barns full of stuff, we need people – people to hear our story in its rawest form and who still see us as a beautiful soul no matter how much ugly we’ve experienced or felt or been. We need people to share our story and advocate for us, vouch for us, support us when standing alone isn’t possible.
“Her story reminded me that, yes Lord, I have been a fool, saving my goods for later when there are people who need them right now. I have hoarded things. I have held back praise. I have built up barns instead of people. I have thought if only I have a little more I will sleep better at night, instead of giving thanks that I have never once gone to bed hungry. I have thought myself self-sufficient when, in truth, I am upheld by You, Lord, and by others.”
The costly grace God calls us to may be building a wider attitude, one that includes all kinds of people, not an easy thing to do in our time. While everyone else wants to divide us up into who has the bigger barn – or the barn of people who think like me – maybe our call from Jesus is to reach beyond ourselves, to engage in relationships of God-given love with all.
Every once in a while, but especially these days, it’s good to check out what’s in our barns. And to make sure there is always enough room for the love of God and the love of others there. Amen.