August 5, 2013

The Beauty and Burden of Barns


Text: Luke 12:17: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”

Perhaps more than in most other vocations, farmers tend to divide into two camps: Good farmers and bad farmers, or, depending on your perspective, lucky farmers and unlucky farmers. It’s true there is a lot of fortune that goes into the outcome of a farming life, but somehow fortune tends to favor the smart farmer and to trouble the rest.

Both of my parents spent their formative years on growing up on farms, and while like most people of their generation neither of them made a livelihood of farming the lessons of that life were never far from them. Good farmers strike a Zen-like balance between conservative practicality and liberal resourcefulness, between cautious living and risk-taking inventiveness. Bad farmers, or unsuccessful farmers, tend to be good at one of those things but not the other; the problem for most is balance.

When I hear Jesus’s story about the rich man whose land produced abundantly, I know how I think I’m supposed to preach it—and how it will probably be preached in most places today. It’s a warning against materialism, against the danger of putting your faith in your stuff. And a lot of people will no doubt be quoting George Carlin’s old routine about how the purpose of life in a culture such as ours turns out to be finding a place for your stuff. Unless, of course, you choose otherwise. Which takes a lot of courage, a courage most of us lack.

That theme will cover about eighty or eighty-five percent of all the preaching today. In Episcopal churches there may well be another theme, one about social justice. The preacher will point out that the setup of the story is a discourse by Jesus to a crowd, a crowd of poor people. In the midst of this erupts a dispute over inheritance—a dispute between a man and his brother, in a time and culture in which men inherited everything and there was a significantly unequal distribution of an estate between the eldest brother and everyone else.

That might cover another ten percent or so of all the preaching.

But I want to go back to that fact about farmers. Because the story that Jesus tells, to me, is completely noncontroversial. If you spend much time among farmers, it is not surprising that the land of a rich man would produce abundantly; he’s a good farmer. Good farmers produce well, and bad farmers generally produce less well.

I think none of that would have been surprising or scandalous to the people listening to Jesus. Instead I think the focus is on the question that weighs on this man’s mind: What should I do? What should I do, for I have no place to put my crops? The whole point of being a farmer is to grow crops and then to turn those crops to use—either as produce to sell or feed for animals. There is no injustice in the fact that he’s done well.

The question of justice, the answer to that moral question—what should I do?—comes because of that abundance. The farmer’s question expresses in profound simplicity the paradox of possession. We have been designed to work, to seek, to accomplish, to strive; and when we succeed, when we produce abundantly, we are confronted with the paradox of possession. Now what? What should I do?

The farmer’s solution is a very good solution for a farmer. I’m not sure about pulling down the old barn, but the idea of building a bigger barn is sensible at least on the terms the farmer has to work with. It does not seem as though he has considered many other alternatives: He could give the surplus away; he could sell it at a discount; he could rent space in other barns.

None of those seem to be compelling possibilities to the farmer. It’s either keep it, or lose it. That is the paradox of possession. You work hard and strive to succeed in order to gather in the harvest, whatever your harvest is; and when you do, you are confronted with a different set of problems, a new set of challenges.

We know how the story turns out for the farmer; in the end, he doesn’t have to figure out a solution to the paradox of possession, because he dies. In a strange way the story is circular; because the farmer didn’t figure out a solution to the problem of this abundance before dying, he has presumably left an inheritance mess behind him that will now become the source of another struggle much like the one that kicks off the story.

When I began working on this sermon some weeks ago, I didn’t know that I would be spending the days leading up to it in a driving tour of the upper north eastern United States and Southern Ontario. I have seen a lot of barns in the past few days. And they pretty much reflect the divide between farmers; there are good and bad farmers, and there are well-kept and not-so-well-kept barns.

There are barns that beautifully and elegantly perform all the tasks appointed for barns—storage and livestock shelter and machine-shop and workbench. And there are barns that are decaying rapidly into ruin, long since abandoned by a farmer who gave up tending the land.

Like anything else that does a task well, a well-kept barn is a thing of beauty, of order, of creation; it is a sort of waiting room for the Gardener of Eden.

It’s a place that somehow incarnates that delicate, Zen-like balance that is the mark of the good farmer; it is ordered, but useful; neat, but not too neat; cared for, but not worshipped. And a good farmer uses a barn to strike the balance between scarcity and abundance, between having enough and going hungry.

How does this have anything to do with us?

I think in two ways. First, I think the lesson here is really one about balance, about perspective, more than it is a message against materialism. We all know that materialism is both dangerous and foolish; saying that isn’t really saying anything insightful. But maintaining that balance between work and reward, between the fruit of our labors the tendency to hoard what we’ve earned—that is a matter for our reflection every day, and certainly every payday.

That’s the first thing. The second is a little bit of an inversion of the whole message. Because the thing we have an abundance of right now in the church, the thing that our work and labor has yielded, is barns. We have a bumper crop of barns, and abundance of barns. Of course I’m talking about church buildings, eight of them just in our Episcopal church, all within the city limits of Newton.

There’s not a lot of guidance in the story from Luke about what to do with an abundance of barns. It would at least seem as though the idea of tearing down smaller ones to build a bigger one would probably not be the hallmark of a good farmer, at least not on this land.

But it is our abundance, for now, and unlike the farmer in the story Jesus tells we probably have alternatives other than simply keeping them and losing them. I think wee need to be even better farmers than that rich man, creating and exploring different ways of making godly use of our abundance—so that when our souls are demanded of us, we will have a better account to offer of the use we made of the fruit of our labor. Amen.