Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for August, 2013

Law Bends to Love

Luke 13:10-17 

Les Miserables 10th Anniversary Clip to Watch…

Les Miserables, the 10th Anniversary performance of the musical adapted from the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. Jean Valjean, a person from a poor family who gets arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. He spends the next 19 years in prison doing hard labor and becoming a bitter and hardened man. Finally, he is given parole, but is reminded by his arch nemesis [and representation of the law] Inspector Javert, that he will never be free. Valjean will always be a convict, and never free.

So Valjean wanders the country of France with no family or friends. He stumbles across a rectory where the Bishop Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel lives. In the book, this bishop is referred to as Bishop Myriel or Monseigneur Bienvenu. Bishop Myriel offers Valjean a bed and a hearty meal. For the first time in 19 years, Valjean falls asleep content. But in the middle of the night, Valjean’s horrific past takes hold of him. He gets up from his bed and steals the good silver plates from the bishop’s cabinet. He runs.

The next morning, the French authorities find Valjean and bring him back to bishop Myriel’s house. They are prepared to arrest Valjean for stealing. But when they ask the bishop what they should do with Valjean, something strange happens. Bishop Myriel says to Valjean, “Ah, there you are! I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest. Why did you not take them along with your plates?” Valjean, befuddled and frozen, takes the plates from the bishop. Then, as the authorities release their grip of Valjean’s arms, the bishop says one last thing:

Forget not; never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God![1]

Valjean’s life changes radically after the bishop shows him this mercy. Valjean becomes mayor of a city in France. He is a well-respected individual in the community. He runs a factory that provides jobs for poor women. He raises a girl, Cosette, to adulthood, one who has lost her mother Fantine to disease. It seems that Valjean is indeed free of this spirit of perdition [punishment]. And yet, even after the passing of so many years, Valjean’s arch nemesis, Inspector Javert, still hunts him all over France. Javert is convinced that Valjean did not deserve to be mayor or to even live as a free man. The law was everything and the law said that Valjean must be punished for violating his parole. All the greater good that Valjean was bringing about with his new life and all the people he was blessing—this did not matter to Javert.

Law over mercy.  

It is a great story, Les Miserables. Timeless. Why? Because even though we like to identify with such heroic characters like Jean Valjean—even though we like to think that mercy will triumph over judgment and law—often it does not. And even you and I struggle with showing mercy to certain people. We can act like Javert.

We can be Javert.

We are capable of holding on to law and forgetting mercy.

And that is just what this Luke Gospel story is all about:
Law vs. mercy; judgment vs. love.

It was a Sabbath day—Saturday as we know it.

A woman appears “with a spirit” that “bent her over” for 18 years.

What did she have? Perhaps some kind of spinal disorder? The story does not tell us specifically, but that isn’t really the point, is it? The point is that on the Sabbath day, there are certain procedures to follow, traditions and rules to observe, and so this woman entering the synagogue all “bent over” doesn’t fit into the way things have always been.

The woman doesn’t cause trouble or even ask for help. After 18 years it seems that she has accepted that this is going to be her life. But Jesus sees her. And he calls her over.

You are set free.

He touches her with his own hands. She stands straight up and begins thanking God.

Of course, this kind of incident cannot go unnoticed. It is the Sabbath, remember.

So a leader of the synagogue is ticked off, says Luke’s author. Jesus [or anyone else, for that matter] was not supposed to touch an unclean person and heal on the Sabbath. Six days are reserved for work. Why couldn’t this woman wait one more day and then come to the temple to be cured? Seemingly not a bad question, if we are just thinking about the letter of the law. After 18 years, what difference would one more day make?

Couldn’t she be straightened out tomorrow?

No, says Jesus. You Hypocrites is how he refers to the religious elites of the temple. And then he uses simple examples to remind everyone that try as they might, everybody still does some kind of work on the Sabbath. It is unavoidable. No Sabbath can be completely work-free. So why in the world would they not choose to heal this woman who happened to wander into the temple on the Sabbath?

Now before we criticize the leaders in the temple just as we would criticize Javere from Les Miserables, we must remember to put ourselves in their shoes. The concept of Sabbath was not at all a bad thing. In fact, Sabbath was a time of renewal. Sabbath was a peaceful rest from the grind of life. My colleague who is an Orthodox Jew observes her Sabbath faithfully each week. She will not answer her phone; she will not do any type of work, use the computer, watch television, etc. But Sabbath is not a restriction for her. It is FREEDOM. For the ancient Israelites, they were moving from a time of being slaves in Egypt. They were forced to work constantly; no time off. This idea of Sabbath was a blessing. And for those who still practice Sabbath [Jews, Christians, Muslims—anyone], this day of rest is refreshing and wonderful.

Maybe that’s what we need to keep in mind about the leaders of the temple. They were protecting Sabbath because of its great worth. I honestly think, though, that like any religious tradition, law or practice—something really wonderful and refreshing can become awfully rigid and harmful. Why? Because we can become obsessed with the “rule” of the law and forget about the “spirit” of the law.

This word spirit appears in this story. The bent-over woman had a spirit in her that was causing this ailment. I think we all can have this type of “spirit” when we obsess over rules and forget mercy. We can all become bent over, limited, trapped, and judgmental. It is indeed a sickness.

But the woman was freed of this spirit of ailment when Jesus chose to “break” Sabbath rules and touch her with his own two hands.

So can we be freed of our obsession over laws and rules.

We can all be freed if we remember and live by the mercy rule.

You see, I would argue that the spirit of the law of Sabbath is indeed rest, but rest for everyone.

So if someone cannot rest because she is bent over, ignored, forgotten, shunned, untouchable—then you and I have a responsibility to pay attention, recognize his/her humanity, and to reach out with our own two hands–to heal. The spirit of the law is based on God’s love and mercy.

The moment any of our religious practice becomes more rule and less love, we have lost our entire purpose for being.

Friends, in all religious traditions, we find wonderful and refreshing ways of living that can benefit our body, mind, and soul. But like with any religious tradition, we must be very careful so as to not forget the spirit of these traditions. Any time our religious practices are more about rules and law and less about mercy and love, we have completely lost our way. For the way of Jesus is this:

Law always bends to love.

The spirit of the law is always more important than the ritual.

Mercy sets ALL people free!

In your own spiritual practice, keep this in mind always. Don’t be obsessed with law. Instead, let love bend the rules. Focus on the spirit of your religious practice more than the rituals themselves. And in your interactions with other people, no matter which day it is or who they are, be merciful.

This will set you and all who you touch…free.


[1] Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, 1862.1992 Modern Library Edition copyright Random House Inc.


Storms and the Peace Within

Luke 12:49-56

Last Sunday an unexpected visitor came to the church building. Twenty-four years old, he had the courage to drive to the NE suburb of Warminster all the way from Philly to walk through the doors of a strange church only seeking a conversation.

As a consequence, my meeting was interrupted. I was pulled out of conversations about worship music style, planning for the calendar year, leadership, etc. This young man simply wanted to talk. Could it wait? Why the interruption? I had things to do. But I left the meeting after someone hinted that he really needed to talk now. And so we did.

What I found out was that this conversation was as much for me as it was for him.

He is an incredibly intelligent, mature, and wise individual. Wise beyond his years, actually. He grew up in the church, was a “star” in the choir and everyone always referred to him as the “model” kid in the church—the highest moral character, the ethical wherewithal, the “godly” lifestyle.

But my new-found friend came all the way to the suburbs because there has been a storm raging inside of him for quite some time. Something is wrong. Something has been eating at him, little by little, causing a pause in his seemingly smooth ride through life.

Last Saturday, he came with his mom to the car dealership right next to the church. She bought a vehicle there some ten years ago. He just came to accompany her.

And then he saw the two signs on the front window of the church building.

One is a rainbow flag with the words: God is still speaking.
The other is purple with the words: Open and Affirming. Image

Simply because of these two signs—visible to him from a car dealership—this young man drove from Philly to talk with some joker like me.

The storms moving him inside were related to all the hypocrisy he has witnessed in the church. People so quick to judge others for their lack of morals or their “alternative” choices that “lead them astray from Jesus”, yet these same people who judge are the very ones who also lack morals and most certainly fail at following Jesus. So they hide behind the Bible and religious tradition, sit in a pew weekly or at a table for meetings too; they think that they are holy enough to predict the weather or even who gets into heaven.

He’s had enough. The storms inside him say that there is a “gospel” to share with the world and with those who are hurting and alone, but if THIS is the gospel—hate and judgment and fear and hypocrisy—then forget it!

Because he is talented! He’s a singer, an actor, a performer. He’s a good listener. He accepts people as they are.

What does open and affirming mean? he asked me.

I tell him: It means that we try to accept people as they are, no matter what. It means that though we fail sometimes, we really seek to be an inclusive community of faith. Anyone who wants to worship or pray or learn or serve others is welcome with no strings attached. We don’t accomplish this every day or all the time, but that is what we try to be for people. Open and affirming. God loves us as we are; we ought to love others as they are.

He listens intently. And then he says:

I think that this is the gospel—to love and accept people as they are.

Eventually, he leaves—he goes back home to Philly. I go on with my day. A day later, he writes me an email thanking me for the conversation. He offers to help with any service or project coming up.

I thank him for the conversation and then I more clearly notice the storms raging inside me; and in the world.  

Today we are exploring one of Jesus’ hard sayings. Yes, it’s true—this Jesus of Nazareth of the Bible is not the friendly, Mr. Rogers character who makes us all feel better about ourselves and then tells us to go home and relax. Today we hear the peaceful guy now saying he isn’t about peace at all.

Division? Fire? Water?                      

Let’s find some context: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. It’s going to get worse, of course. His ideas are dangerous. The political situation is tense.

Jesus is stressed [worn out]. Luke’s storyteller makes sure we know it.
Luke also doesn’t hide the fact that this gospel book was written many, many years after Jesus traveled to Jerusalem. The “divisions” existed within the Christian community itself—long after Jesus’ death. There is also religious persecution—something that American Christians have no idea about. But certainly people of other religious backgrounds do.

Put yourself in the shoes of an American Muslim.

What does it feel like to be mistrusted, even when you’ve never done anything suspicious? What would it be like to deal with people’s daily stares at your head scarf or to hear constant complaints about the Muslim’s need for daily prayer? With all that is happening in Egypt right now, what would it be like to be grouped together with political and religious fanatics, simply because you identify as a Muslim?

This is persecution. We need to keep this in mind in order to better understand Luke’s point of view [and Jesus’].

You see, this difficult saying of Jesus is expressing a truth that being a follower of this Jesus Way actually causes conflict and is anything but comfortable.

Quite a contrast to the typical American church ideal.

Luke calls the Jesus community the kingdom of God. This kingdom, however, is not governed by powerful people but by equity. All people are cared for, forgiveness is the mark of the community, the poor are lifted up, wealth is shared, and the weak and lonely are honored.

No doubt that if we were to transform our communities into this kind of “kingdom,” things would be uncomfortable and there would be division.

Our Open and Affirming sign [the rainbow one] was stolen the first time it was hung up outside on our building. Why, do you think?

Because taking a stand and saying to all who traverse Street and York Roads that gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people are full members of the kingdom of God and therefore full members of our church community—this caused division. It still does. People left this church because of that stand. There’s no denying it. It happened.

Now by no means am I saying that we are “right” or “more Christian” than other churches. That would be contrary to the message here and also not true. The point is that most forms of our religion called Christianity avoid creating the kingdom of God. Otherwise, churches would be full of homeless people, ex-cons, people on welfare, kids and adults with mental or physical challenges, divorcees, single parents, people who speak different languages, identify with a variety of cultural heritages, etc., etc. But that’s too hard. That could cause division.

And that is Jesus’ point in Luke’s story.

It is much, much easier to try to follow religious rules and to participate in habitual traditions than it is to ask this question: Who is in need?
Who is lost, hungry, and sad, discriminated against, ridiculed, lonely, or hurt? Who has storms raging inside them?
Let’s help them with no strings attached!
And if we ourselves cannot help them, let’s find someone who can!

THAT is not easy to do, is it?

But within this hard saying of Jesus, there is also wisdom and strength. For the conflict, strife, and division can lead to….greater peace. Shalom.

 ImageNot a superficial peace which is just the absence of conflict and therefore not real.

Instead, a peace born out of harsh reality that passes all understanding.

So we get two famous, important symbols: fire and water.
ImageNotice that they are opposing symbols. The same, yet the opposite. Both fire and water purify and clean; they can destroy, but they also bring new life.

God in the Hebrew Scriptures, is a fire—a presence with people, a voice, a guide.
Fire hones, burns, refines.

Water is cleansing, healing, baptizing, renewing.
In the natural world, living things do not resist or “fight against” fire and water. They are natural parts of creation. Nature takes them on, confronts them, incorporates them—recognizing fire and water as necessary. And then, after the water and the fire, nature is renewed. Life after death! Peace after conflict! Calm after storm!

But you and I are like the Pharisees [and many others]. We think that we can predict the weather and the natural order of things. People in Jesus’ time, where they were living, knew that rainstorms could come quickly and flood the ground. Also, temperatures in desert areas could soar in a moment and scorch everything. Water and fire. They were sure that they knew about the weather outside. But what about the weather inside themselves? What about the storms in their hearts? What about the fire and water that needed to transform their ways of thinking and living?

Already, communities were splitting. They were not noticing this. Already, they were losing touch with their true essence as human beings, as God’s children. They failed to recognize it. Sound familiar?

Do you recognize the storms within yourself?

Or do you ignore them, hoping that they will go away?

I have thought a lot about this since my conversation last week with the twenty-four-year-old with storms in his head and heart. And I’ve struggled all this week with all that is going on Egypt and around the world—the raging storms outside and inside.

Then I remembered something else that this Jesus of Nazareth said:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Not the peace the world gives, because, quite frankly, the world gives us squat. Another war here. Or there. People die in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Syria…peace?

Kids get shot in Philadelphia; violence happens in Warminster and the suburbs, too. We often lose the essence of our humanity and so families are broken; and real friendships are so hard to find.

Peace? Really?

Yes, really, but not the peace that the world gives.

Not comfort.

Not sitting in a nice, comfy chair and watching the world turn.

Instead, a peace that is wholeness and truthful. A peace that doesn’t ignore the storms.

A peace that is about fire and water.
A peace that confronts the storms within ourselves.
A peace that recognizes that all of us are like nature and part of it—we have hurricanes, storms, earthquakes, and tornadoes inside ourselves.
We change as the seasons do.
And if we recognize that this is just part of our natural cycle of change…
Then, we get through those times and we emerge renewed, rejuvenated, reborn with…
Added strength, perspective, knowledge, and spirit.

And then we are able to see the beauty of the weather changes. Like the Northern Lights.
ImageImage And we are aware that we are not alone. We share these experiences with others.

We are connected, just as all of nature is intertwined.

Friends, peace is not nice and comfy. It can cause division—even in ourselves—as we seek justice, reach out to someone in need, and decide to leave our comfort zones.

But this peace-living is whole and real.

Recognize your storms and embrace them.

Be open to having a conversation or to making a connection to someone who also is dealing with storms. And don’t be afraid of the conflict. It will lead to true, inner peace.


Where Is Your Heart…?

Luke 12:32-40

Today’s message is about treasure.

But when we hear that word treasure today, our minds tend to wander off into thoughts of pirates, maps, and perhaps Johnny Depp.

ImageOkay, so let’s contextualize the word treasure. Treasures are what we value. So what do you value?

There are hundreds of online exercises you can do to help you determine what some of your core values may be. Perhaps at work or at school you have done some sort of test or exercise related to core values.

Today we don’t have time to do an extensive core values exercise, but we can start with something simple. A few questions have always been helpful to me and I hope they are for you.

The first question to ask yourself:

What would I do if I knew the world was going to end one week from today?

Answer honestly and quickly.

The second question:
Jump ahead to the end of your life. You know that your time on this earth is at an end. What are the three most important lessons you have learned and why are they so critical?

Next, think of someone you deeply respect. Describe three qualities in this person that you most admire.

That is a good way to wake up our minds and to get us thinking about our values. A reminder: values are part of who you are, they are not who you think you should be nor are they what others think you should be.

Let’s keep going.

Here is a short list of possible values. I want you to make a mental note of the values that feel right to you. Or, come up with some of your own.

 _____Commitment to Family                     _____Commitment to Spouse/Partner

 _____Commitment to Community            _____Commitment to career

 _____Spirituality                                        _____Health

 _____Nutrition                                           _____Exercise

 _____Integrity                                            _____Responsibility

 _____Self-Respect                                     _____Honesty

 _____Friendship                                        _____Sense of Humor

 _____Loyalty                                              _____Creativity

Have you done it? Okay, now of the values you marked, how many are there? Narrow them down to five or less.

What remains?

This is a helpful exercise to get us focused on the story in Luke’s Gospel. This teaching of Jesus challenges the disciples [and all of us] to ask:

What do I value?

Your treasure/value determines where your heart is.

In other words, what we value moves us to decisions, actions, and the giving of ourselves [resources, talents, time, and energies].

Let’s put this Luke story in context. Previously, Jesus told the story of the rich fool. Then, he followed that up with the charge to live without anxiety. Look at the birds of the field…Do not worry about food or clothing, because God knows that you need these things. It is a provisional “duh.” The disciples were meant to see birds and other animals and plants, and they were meant to remember this teaching. If these living things are taken care of, shouldn’t we believe that we are taken care of, too?

People who fret and worry do so because they buy into society’s assumption that we do not have what we need. Anxiety follows.

Society teaches us the myth of scarcity.

We are made to believe that there isn’t enough food and shelter for all people, so we must compete for even the basic of things. Jesus challenges us with a different point of view: there IS enough for everyone and we need to stop with this attitude of scarcity. It is destructive and causes nothing but anxiety and suffering.

A healthy change from a perspective of scarcity to an attitude of abundance helps us to stop being afraid. Our anxiety level goes down. It is God’s great pleasure, says Jesus, to actually freely give humanity the Kingdom. In other words, God enjoys providing what is necessary for all people. In God’s perspective, every human being [created in God’s image] should have enough to live, should be care for, and therefore fear is not necessary. It’s not about waiting for heaven so things get better. God is freely giving this in the present tense. Now.

This shift from scarcity and competition to abundance and sharing leads to Jesus commanding the disciples to actually do something.

Give to the poor.

Why? Because society is unbalanced. Even though there is enough for people to eat, some still go hungry. This is our doing, not God’s. The disciples are commanded to “act out” the principle of the last being the first. Who does society reject and trample on? The disciples are called to bless them and to be generous so as to lift them up. In this way, they participate in God’s loving action in the world.

This teaching rejects the idea that treasures are individualistic desires for more things.
Disciples are instead called to place their treasure [their values] in the poor, in the downtrodden, and ultimately, they are called to place their value [and trust] in God’s generous, giving love.

Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.
It is a famous, bumper sticker-type Jesus saying.
But we often get it wrong.

Notice that Jesus does not say, “Where your heart is, put your treasure.” He says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

So, if you really want to get your heart into something, give a lot of money to it.

A lot of money.

Like..all of your money.


Jesus’ teaching contradicts our typical perspective.
Usually, we assume that our imagination can draw us into a different reality.

I imagine that I want to be kind and generous. I think about it. My heart is into it. And so…that should lead to me actually doing it.

But no!

Jesus says the opposite.

Instead: creating a new reality can change our imagination.
Living a new reality can change our hearts.
Are you with me here?

For example, say I want to be live out my core value of being compassionate. Instead of thinking about how I can be compassionate, reading about it, imagining it—I should instead put my treasure into it. I should put my resources into compassion; my time; my energy; my enthusiasm. I should create a new, compassionate reality for myself and for others.

And only then will my heart truly be in it.

So, to review: this is teaching us:
Do not fear. We should not fear because fear paralyzes us.
Without fear, we are free to move, act, bless, give, and love.
Without fear, decisions become clearer.
Without fear, we trust rather than distrust.
Without fear, we focus on what’s important and we don’t hoard the unimportant.
It all starts with do not fear.

We need to stay awake and alert, but not out of fear.
We need to stay awake out of love.
God loves us, and it is God’s great pleasure to take care of us, to provide, so it follows that we should trust and stay awake out of…love.

Perhaps, if we take this to heart [literally], we will be less reactive and more proactive; less apathetic and more compassionate; less depressed and more joyful; less selfish and more generous.

If we stayed awake, with our lamps burning out of love, how would that change our actions?
I think it would, and I think it would change the church.

After all, the church is just people.
But sadly, the church is often an organization that acts out of fear and certainly believes that there is more scarcity than abundance.

There are two pastors who post funny church signs that also have deep meaning. I chose three that I’d like to show you.

ImageImageImageWhile funny, these signs also speak a truth.

Most churches live in fear.
The core values become obvious when these are the only questions:
Will we meet our budget? Will our endowment run out?
Will we scare people off? Will our ministry be controversial?
We don’t have enough resources to help in our community. So what?

And yet, as we’ve been thinking about our own core values as individuals, I wonder if the church did the same. What if we valued justice, peace, compassion, and love and put all of our treasure into those things?

What if we made decisions out of love and not fear?
How would that shift our energies and refocus us?

Friends, this is a challenge, to be sure. It is not easy to shift perspective overnight. But I do think we can start with do not fear.

I think if we start with an attitude of abundance and thankfulness, we will be much more capable of making a positive, lasting impact in the world.

It is true–we are driven by our treasure.
What do you value?
Wherever your treasure is, your heart will be.

Why not go for it?

Why not pursue your values, giving of yourself?
Why not act on those values on a daily basis?

May it be so in me and all of us.

The Wealth of Relationship

Luke 12:13-21

There are two paintings we will look at so as to deepen our understanding of this Jesus parable. The first one is a modern painting by Jim Janknegt called The Rich Fool.


Do you notice the household items? A vacuum cleaner. A lawn mower. A computer. A blender. A camera. A refrigerator. A television. And a few times: a phone. Janknegt’s technique was to cut and paste items from Wal-Mart advertisements [you know, the wonderful junk mail we get]. He chose items and also words. You cannot make out all the words because they are covered partially by the items, but Janknegt offers a video diary of his painting process and so you can see the layers as the painted them. The words are:

Essentials for Every Home.

50% off SALE.


Buy One, Get One Free.

Of course, the artist is attempting to show the layers of consumerism that we as human beings buy into—thinking that we have to fill our houses with such things. We are convinced, coerced, sold the idea that our houses must be filled with things.

You will also notice two houses. The house on the right is small and contains a group of people sitting around a table. The scene is intimate, cozy. The people are oversized—they barely fit in the house, much less the room! But this house is dwarfed by the McMansion on the left. It is huge. One man lives in that house. He sits at a large table alone. Upstairs is his bedroom. The only “company” he has is the personification of death. Around the frame of the painting you may also notice pictures of houses. One house gets bulldozed. The big house has a for sale sign posted.

In a video interview, the artist Jim Janknegt shared that he was trying to show that this parable is not saying that material things are evil or necessarily what we shouldn’t do, but that the parable’s point is to show us what we can lose if we obsess over material things.

We can lose relationships.

We can end up alone at a big table in a big house with all of our things, but with no one to share life with.

The second painting is a well-known work by Rembrandt Van Rijn [1606–1669], also entitled The Rich Fool.


In the year 1627 material wealth looked quite a bit different than it does today. There was no Wal-Mart, no cell phones, no computers or televisions.

In Rembrandt’s time, books were a sign of great wealth.

 The rich fool, in Rembrandt’s painting, is happily surrounded by his treasures, totally unaware of the darkness surrounding him. His candle is about to be snuffed out and he doesn’t know it.

What draws me to Rembrandt’s nearly 400-year-old Rich Fool is what also draws me to Janknegt’s modern work: the sickness of isolation contrasted with the health of relationship and community. The rich fool is a fool because he is not really rich. His books mean nothing. They don’t love him, care for him, or provide life. His books are not evil at all, but because he has chosen to surround himself only with books—to obsess over them—he is isolated from people. And he doesn’t even recognize it.

Eventually, he will die in a heap of books in the dark; alone.   

This Jesus parable in Luke 12 is unique. It is only found elsewhere in the 5th Gospel [the one that didn’t make it into the standard Biblical canon], the Gospel of Thomas. This parable is quite straightforward. Whether your material possessions are a big house with electronics or whether your wealth is books—pick your own contextual wealth. Then, obsess over obtaining more of that material wealth. Stake your life on it. Make all your decisions based on that wealth. Pursue that wealth above all else. Hoard it. Gather as much as you can, willing to sacrifice relationships in order to have more.

And then, find death facing you before you can even realize how you’ve wasted a life that could have been a gift full of community, love, care, and relationships.

Jesus, in Luke, defines life by stating what life is NOT. Jesus says that life is not about possessions. Even when one has abundance, Jesus says, a person’s life still does not consist of possessions. But just as I pointed out with the house or with the books–the use of possessions for normal, everyday stuff, is not the problem. The problem is when possessions become our lives; when we can’t let them go; when they become more important than people.

The danger is in choosing possessions over relationships.

Of course, in a consumer-based society, we are actually taught that possessions enrich our life. The more things we have, the better we live. We are sold this idea.

We are bombarded with a health and wealth gospel: get more, live better.

But Jesus says the opposite. More possessions cause extreme anxiety. The more we have and hoard, the more we worry about those things. People drop their cell phones all the time. I do too. But many freak out about it as if it were the end of the world. They pick it up, rub off the dirt, polish it with their shirt, inspect it to make sure it’s okay, [some even talk to it as if it were alive], and then they rush off to buy a protective covering for it. They must protect that thing at all costs. On the other hand, the same people will have little or no reaction to a child’s poor health due to bad eating habits and lack of exercise; they are unmoved by a depressed, love-seeking friend or family member; they are unaware of their own deteriorating mental, spiritual, and physical health.

Will they buy a protective cover for themselves so as to prevent further injury when life drops them?

Will they pay into a monthly plan of healthy practices so they live well?

Will they check on their relationships as much as they check their phone?

Listen friends, don’t get me wrong.

Cell phones themselves are not evil.

Many material things are necessary to live in this world.

That’s not the problem.

In Jesus’ time and now in ours, people work to make money so they can eat, have a place to rest, and care for others, and this of course is not evil.

It is when that money becomes our life that we lose everything that matters.

It is when material things surround us that we lose the essence of ourselves.

And we find ourselves alone and in the dark.

So in the end, Jesus says to the guy with the big barns:

Your life is at an end. All this stuff won’t be going with you. Now what?

So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.

Rich toward God.

Listen, this phrase has been misused a lot by preachers. I covenant with you that I won’t use this parable or any Bible story to convince you to give more of your money to a church. That’s manipulation. Besides, I don’t think this parable has anything to do with you giving more money to your church. Again, it is about relationships.   

In 1967 in Chicago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way:

…this man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others. Now if you read that parable in the book of Luke, you will discover that this man utters about sixty words. And do you know in sixty words he said “I” and “my” more than fifteen times? This man was a fool because he said “I” and “my” so much until he lost the capacity to say “we” and “our.” He failed to realize that he couldn’t do anything by himself. This man talked like he could build the barns by himself, like he could till the soil by himself. And he failed to realize that wealth is always a result of the commonwealth.[1]


This focus on the material stuff only distracts us from the eternal stuff of relationships.

People don’t get involved with a church because of the building or the stuff a church owns.

People are part of faith communities because of the relationships they form.

They meet God; they meet people; they are accepted and loved;

God becomes real to them because others really love them;

they get inspired to serve and help people;

they choose community over isolation;

they see the Spirit at work in their relationships;

they follow Christ, walking with others;

they are not alone; they are rich in relationship.

In any faith community and in any life for that matter, relationships are our treasure.

So I encourage all of you as individuals to choose relationships over things.

I challenge you as a whole church to choose community over things.

Focus on this. Put your energy into this. Pursue this. Care for your relationships.

Do this, and you will truly live.


[1] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool,” preached at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, on 27 August 1967.

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