To Bless the Space Between Us, VII States of the Heart
This is the final sermon in a series Katie, Bill, and I are preaching using the lectionary passages in Luke in conversation with John O'Donohue's blessings from “To Bless the Space Between Us.” This week we are considering “States of the Heart,” as we read one of Luke’s parables, that as one commentator puts it, “sizzles” in the dog days of summer.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 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.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 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?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
This summer, as I was driving on the freeway, I saw my road-trip-bingo -holy -grail: the four-vehicle combo. Here it is, a motor home, with a motorcycle strapped to the back, towing a jeep with a kayak strapped to the bumper. I’d been searching for this combo since I saw an amazing three-vehicle combo several years ago: an RV towing a pickup truck with a golf cart in the bed somewhere on the roads of South Dakota. Of course now I am on the lookout for a five-vehicle combo. I am sure that there’s room to strap a bicycle right next to the kayak. For good measure let’s add a bumper sticker that says “whoever dies with the most toys wins!”
“You can’t take it with you!” says Jesus. But wow do we try. The RV is a ridiculous example—even a caricature like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable. But I think we can relate. My friends and I talk all the time about the benefits of downsizing versus staying put because we don’t have the energy to sort through mounds of two decades of family artifacts. Who am I to judge the RV driver?
Examples of excess and materialism and the resulting impacts on the earth, our neighbors, and our psyches are everywhere. The fast fashion movement has stuffed our closets and created an environmental disaster especially in Ghana; where massive piles of clothes wash up on the beach. Vendors buy bales of used clothing from charity shops in The US and Europe, but 40% of them end up discarded in overflowing landfills, waterways, and the ocean. The local name for these soiled, ripped, and unusable garments are “dead white man's clothes.”
You can’t take it with you we say, but our barns, closets, houses, basements, cars, sheds, warehouses, and maybe even some of our bank accounts are overflowing. The commentator is right, this parable about materialism sizzles, and I am right here with you in the hot seat. I’ve been building bigger barns my whole life.
My first job was building a grain silo on my grandparents' farm. I was five years old and in charge of putting bolts through the holes of the galvanized steel while other family members tightened the nuts on the other side. I earned enough money to buy a doll that did somersaults.
My husband Brian and I have made perfectly legal but regrettable investments, earning enough to eat at a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants on two continents, drink a few fine bottles of French wine, and take merry vacations. Not too long ago in another life, I’ve uttered similar words to James Adams “What we do is legal therefore it is not unethical. If this was unethical it would be illegal.” Jimmy's riches to rags Wall Street demise is portrayed in the movie Waffle Street. In real life he’s “fessed up” to his role in the 2008 financial market meltdown, learned a lot about life, and what matters making $2.13 an hour plus tips at the waffle house. He eventually decides to use his expertise to help people save, hopefully more honestly, for retirement.
If it is legal it must be ethical, right? It is perfectly legal for the rich man in Jesus’ parable to hire cheap labor to work his land, legal for him to hoard the harvest, and legal for him to mark up the prices if there is a famine. After all he might note, his ancestor Joseph governed the lands and crops of Egypt for Pharaoh (Genesis 41), conveniently forgetting that later ancestors were forced to make bricks for pharaoh's storehouses and supply cities (Exodus 1).
Like all good parables this parable starts with a question “Jesus will you tell my brother to split the inheritance fairly?” Jesus could have told him the legal solution. Instead Jesus focuses on the underlying ethical question for those who wish to follow him: greed and materialism.
Our ethics reveal the state of our hearts which carry, according to O'Donohue, the “book of life.” Just a few lines after this parable Jesus says “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The rich fool’s heart is fully invested in his grain bins. Notice the rich fool’s first-person language: I will pull down my barns, I will build new ones; I will say to my soul eat, drink, and be merry. There is not a single reference to God, who makes the harvest possible, no mention of his laborers essential for creating this profit, no awareness of his neighbors this grain will one day feed.
In the Gospel according to Luke uncomfortable references to wealth are woven through the text. Pregnant Mary sings “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1: 53). Jesus begins his ministry with the words of Isaiah, proclaiming “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. (Luke 4:18).
We who teach third graders the 10 Commandments shouldn’t be surprised. After all we help our young scholars to remember the meaning of the word covet in the tenth commandment by using 10 fingers reaching and grasping for more “gimme, gimme, gimme!” we say. We also teach them the second commandment “do not make idols” by saying “no copies of God.” The rich fool has committed idolatry, putting wealth above God.
We know from the Bible, and we know from experience, that materialism doesn’t bring happiness. Each of us at times has been or knows someone who is heart-sick and hopeless because they measure their days by asking “how much did I make?” or “how much stuff did I buy?”
We know from the Bible, we know from experience, and we know from psychology, that materialism does not predict happiness or satisfaction. Our community and this church’s Alison Toby Smart Fund have brought psychologist and New York Times author Madeline Levine here to talk on multiple occasions. Levine says she's been to the North Shore more than any other place. In her first book The Price of Privilege, she names materialism as one of several challenges to youth mental health in affluent communities. Materialism is “a value system that emphasizes wealth, status, image, and material consumption.” Our hearts are where our values live. Materialism and fear co-occupy our hearts. Levine asked students to name what their parents do worry about and what they should worry about in her visit here in 2016. They said parents worry about money, getting a job, and kids’ social lives when they should worry about mental health and happiness. I’m guessing she would have said the same thing when she visited in 2020, if the visit hadn’t been canceled by the pandemic.
Our hearts are muscles. Biologically speaking they pump oxygenated blood throughout our bodies. Metaphorically speaking our hearts are our emotional centers, the home of our values and ethics, and as one poet puts it “the core of our being.” Our spiritual muscles atrophy just as our physical muscles atrophy as we sit stagnant on the couch binging episode after episode of opulent wealth in the Gilded Age, Downton Abbey, Real Housewives, or Selling Sunset. Our shows are interspersed with luxury car commercials which talk about cars like the rich fool talks about barns, “I am led by my legacy, who I will become is up to me, I am free, I am limitless.”
Disciple and discipline have the same root word. As followers or disciples of Jesus, we interpret his teaching in community, and live them to the best of our ability. This takes discipline—it always has. Which is why people throughout the ages have developed rules to order their lives to be more Christlike. Just like some of us prefer to keep our physical selves in shape with Peloton, Orange Theory, CrossFit, water aerobics, chair yoga, or even a daily walk around the neighborhood, there are workouts for every spiritual style as well.
The Rule of St. Benedict is one of the most well-known rules or disciplines, focused on moderation related to food, dress, sleep, work, and prayer. The sixth-century monk shunned the lavish and decadent lifestyle of Rome, retreated into a hermit’s life, gathered a following, and founded monasteries. If a detailed ritual of praying at designated times of days appeals to your spiritual workout style, you might try The Liturgy of the Hours in the Benedictine tradition.
Those who resonate with the methodical approach taken by John Wesley might look into his general rule of discipleship. The four quadrants of a cross organize a life of loving God and loving neighbor individually and in community. A simple image, but an effective organizer for an individual and public faithful life of prayer, fasting, worship, Bible study, generosity, and acts of justice.
Others might find spiritual discipline in taking the opposite approach to the rich fool, asking yourself before purchasing an item or building a structure, if the object‘s purpose will glorify God and serve the community. This is a question the faithful leaders of our buildings and grounds construction planning teams ask before embarking on new projects.
Or maybe you prefer to create a practice of serving at organizations that feed the hungry. This church supports A Just Harvest, which describes its work as “feeding hunger, cultivating abundance, seeing beyond, and building power.” Katie Nahrwold and a group of folks regularly go to volunteer at the garden where food is joyfully shared, not hoarded, and community replaces isolation.
Perhaps you would prefer a more custom approach, creating your own rule. Katie Lancaster would be happy to match you with spiritual resources that resonate with the state of your heart in this season.
Spiritual disciplines transform our hearts and minds through accountability and abundant grace. Spiritual disciplines are not a list of tasks to be accomplished, or goals to be achieved, but a way of becoming the people God created us to be.
Friends it is so easy to get swept up in the pursuit of more, more, more, like the man in the parable of the rich fool. It is so easy to get so wrapped up in our own lives and our own worries that we fail to notice our neighbors and fail to give thanks to God for all that we have and all that we do.
Jesus knew what it is like to be human, to worry, and scramble every day. Just a few verses later Jesus says “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, about your body, or what you will wear. Life is more than food and the body more than clothes. See how God takes care of the ravens and the lilies? God knows what you need and will take care of you too.”
With that assurance that God will take care of us friends, let us trust that the Holy Spirit will strengthen, guide, and sustain us as we develop heart fitness regimens. By God’s grace, may our hearts become vessels filled with richness toward God.
 Lull, Patricia in Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol 3, p. 863.
 West, Audrey, in Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 3, p. 858.
 West, Audrey, in Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 3, p. 859.
 Levine, Madeline, The Price of Privilege, p. 45.
 O-Tuama, Padraig, Daily Prayers from the Corrymeela Community.