The Fortunate Farmer who had More than Enough
October 23, 2016
(a sermon based on Luke 12:13-31, page 905 in the pew Bible)
by Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister
First Congregational United Church of Christ 201 S. Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707
A couple weeks ago, Hurricane Matthew inundated Haiti, killing more than 450 people; it then chased the residents of Florida and up along the Atlantic Coast inland. We watched the news as thousands of displaced persons in North Carolina, carrying what they could fit in one car, clogged the freeways. For the entire month before that, wildfires did the same for a several thousand Ventura County California homeowners. In each of these natural disasters, with only a few hours notice, they had to select from all their possessions the most precious, valuable belongings, and leave the rest to the fate of the storms and the valor of the firefighters.
These tragic stories of sudden, unexpected losses made me reconsider the volume of clutter — the excess baggage — I carry around with me. It’s in my home, in our basement, in my office here, and in the Church’s Lower Level… Believe it or not: for a number of years, Patty & I rented a storage unit in California, just to store my excess stuff. ($50/mo.) — mostly books.
For most people — other than me — moving out of state gives them a great opportunity to sort through those decades of accumulated “stuff,” deciding which possessions we really need, and which ones we are willing to give up — what’s worth dragging along and storing for some future occasion, and what’s too burdensome to fool with. I (obviously) did not
learn my lesson three years ago. I still have it all… A couple weeks ago, when Jim McNeil & I had our 45th High School Reunion, I pulled out papers from my Alpena High days! When I die, Patty has assured me, it will all end up in a dumpster.
We need not wait until our heirs are left to decide what to do with our accumulated possessions. We need not wait until the moving van backs up to our house. We need not wait until the evacuation order from the police sends us fleeing We can decide in advance of any emergency what is of real value.
It’s something I’ve done with youth groups on retreat: I have the teens write down all their personal possessions. It’s something folks don’t usually ask them. It can be quite interesting. Sometimes they’re struck by how much stuff they really have (after all) in their rooms, in their closets, cabinets, back packs.
Our adult lists, of course, would be much longer because we have more stuff — we’ve earned more money and have had more time to spend it. For example, when Patty & I (early in our marriage) moved stateside from Germany, all of our record albums (you know, vinyl 33-rpm stereo platters) had been stolen from our shipment by the moving company. We had to make an itemized list of more than 400 LP’s, by artist & album name, for the insurance. June Perry helped me do the same thing with the titles & authors of 450 books that were waterlogged in last year’s church flooding.
Anyway, after the kids have listed their possessions, I ask them to cross out half — those things they would most easily give up, should they have to. Then I tell them to cross out half of what is left. That is harder, but in a forced evacuation, or a fire, such may be the case. When they get down to the things they would only give up at gun-point, I tell them to cross out half again, until they are holding on to only those possessions they just COULDN’T live without.
Among the necessities of teen-age life today, it seems, are smart- phones and Mp3players, video games, computers, and skateboards. Pets are never left behind. Among us older folks, photographs and personal files are often included. Each of us would probably have different lists regarding what’s truly important in life. The purpose of the exercise is not to reach a consensus, but to decide (in advance of any real emergency) what has lasting value to us.
It’s fun enough to go through such a process in a youth group setting, but (in real life) the decisions are much harder to make… especially if you’ve seen hurricane winds, fires, floods, or mud-slides actually take everything away from a family without giving any advance notice nor asking anyone’s permission! All it takes is a dropped match, an electric short, a sneak thief & a weak lock, an earthquake, flood, or fire.
I realize how lucky I am to have so much stuff. Like the fortunate farmer in today’s parable, I’m tremendously wealthy in material things. (!) Which (if the truth be told) sometimes gives me an uneasy feeling. You see, I have heard a lot of sermons that make the point that GOD doesn’t want us to own too much stuff. That God doesn’t think THINGS are important at all. Or, presumably, that God wants us to get by on the BARE NECESSITIES, not on a lot of “extras.”
I’m sure that you have heard those sermons, too. On this Sunday, with the story of “the Rich Farmer (who had more than enough, and didn’t know what to do with all his stuff)” front and center in our minds, it’s especially unnerving to admit how much “stuff” I have! I’m overstocked… with far too much accumulated stuff to easily dispose of should the need arise. I suspect that if you took an inventory of all your stuff, you may likewise find that you have an abundance of riches. If we had to move to a smaller apartment — like Phyllis Manitz did, moving down to Saginaw — let alone grab a single carload to evacuate from an on-coming storm, what we would take shows our priorities & our values. Still, it’s hard to imagine.
Two key words came to mind as I thought about today’s parable: “sufficiency and sustainability.” The fortunate farmer had more than enough… more than sufficient for his present & future needs. He had it made in the shade! His was a problem of abundance; no room for it all.
The second word is the question of “sustainability.” I doubt any of us would disagree that the primary value and concern for humanity should be “sustainability” — that there be enough food, water, shelter, and natural resources to sustain life beyond this 21st Century.
None of us may live into the next century, but life itself — (plant, animal, and human) in some measure of pleasure — ought to be assured. All other issues of economics & politics are secondary to our concern that life itself be sustainable.
I would say that the sustainability of life depends upon a sufficiency of resources. Of that, I believe, there is no question. It is at the heart of both our “ecological” and our global “economic” crises: the sustainability of life into the future requires a sufficiency of resources adequately distributed. With those two words in mind — sufficiency and sustainability
— words upon which the lives of our children & grandchildren (& all future generations) depend: let’s look at Jesus’ “Parable of the Rich Farmer.”
The title printed along the top of the page in our pew Bible, is actually “The Parable of the Rich Fool.” But, quite frankly, the farmer does not appear as a fool — at least at the outset; he comes across as quite successful! He has (as I say in my title) “more than enough” — more than what’s necessary
— more than what would be sufficient to sustain life; much more! This is a story of prosperity: the result of productive soil, hard-working field hands, a bountiful harvest, and a manager who is on top of his inventory. The farm is a success! In any other setting, this fortunate farmer would be a good guy.
The man is in agriculture — which is a risky business, subject to the whims of Mother Nature and requiring a great deal of attentive labor — and yet he turns a profit! His estate (most likely worked by tenant farmers and peasant day-laborers) proved to be fruitful — profitable — many times over his wildest imagination. Taken by surprise by such unexpected good news, the farmer didn’t even have room in his storehouses & silos for the excess!
You know, we should feel good for this fellow. He has been LUCKY! He’s gotten to where most of us would like to be. He has applied himself, invested well, and reaped a generous reward of “the good things” in life — and then some! God has, most definitely, blessed him.
Did I mention God? Why give any credit to God for his success?
Well, you could say God gave him those good things by providing “sufficient” rain — not in excess, to where there would be a flood; and not too little, precipitating a drought. (Dick Bloom told me that this summer was too hot and dry for many of our regular crops – the hottest September on record – and a lot of our cornfields and soybeans suffered for it.) The farmer in Jesus’ parable was more fortunate! God provided a rich harvest for him through “sufficient” sunshine — at no charge, no less! — sufficient water and fertile soil, together with the miracle of germination of new life in those hard, dry seeds he had sown in the spirng. The guy was set for life, and it really wasn’t through any “cleverness” on his part! He simply had the right soil & seed, good climate, & some pretty-good hard-working help!
But since his productivity had outdistanced his planning, the farmer in the parable (whose granary was already “filled-up”) had to ask himself: “What shall I do?” You see, what had been ample storage space in the past — what had been sufficient quarters for his use in the past — is suddenly too small to keep all his newly-found abundance.
“What shall I do,” he wonders, “with all my stuff?”
Thirty years ago, when I was a Minister down in Dowagiac, I told this parable to some real-world farmers – Wicks apple orchards, Grabmeyer grape-growers, and Hurley’s hog farm (not to mention gentleman farmer Pete Weaver, who used to drive his Cadillac through his corn fields) — and I asked them what they thought. What should the man do, since he has too much food to store? “What would you do?”
The first answer came quick: “I’d sell the extra. Just lower the price to get rid of it, kind’a like a yard sale, or a fire sale. Overstocked. Farmer’s Market, here we come! It doesn’t pay to hold it, or to store it, if there’s a glut on the market. Sell at a loss! But keep back some seed for next year.”
Second, since they knew I was the preacher, and it was Jesus who told this story, they said: “I’d give it away to some poor people who didn’t have any food. People who couldn’t afford to live. That is probably what Jesus would have the man do. Right??”
I like both of those answers! (1) Sell the stuff you can’t use at a discount… or (2) give it away to people who need it and cannot afford to buy it. Those are great answers! But the farmer in Jesus’ story surprises us. He didn’t think of either of those options.
He could have given some of his crop away. Certainly there were some hungry families in his town — his was a peasant-based agrarian economy! And I’ll bet his tenant farmers would have appreciated an offer to share his bounty — after all, they were the ones who had to work longer hours (and work harder all around) to bring in this year’s much larger harvest than in years past.
That would only have been fair! Nowadays we call it “profit- sharing.” The rich farmer could have shown himself to be benevolent, generous, a real “philanthropist” (which means “lover” of “humanity”)… Spread the wealth around (like we do annually with our Comstock Fund). Make a difference for the good in one’s community. Give it away!
Or, as a faithful Jew, he could’ve brought his tithe (one-“tenth”) as an offering to God, who had given him the harvest in the first place. A tithe was required under Jewish Law, but he could have added a special offering like we do supporting SERRV, and Neighbors in Need, and One Great Hour of Sharing — double his pledge of support that year out of gratitude to God.
Or, if he didn’t give it to his workers or give it to his church, he could have left a greater portion of it out in the fields unharvested — as he was supposed to do under Jewish Law (the “gleaning” clause) — for the poor who could pick for themselves some fruit or grain as they passed through town. It was like giving alms to the poor, providing food for the homeless transient; the migrant refugee could pick for themselves enough to get by. Food sufficient for their needs and sustainable for the community.
The farmer could have left some of it simply exposed out in the open for the birds and bees (without whose carrying of seeds and pollination work, the harvest would not have come!).
He could have left some of it unharvested until the next growing season — to restore nutrients to the soil as the ground lay fallow.
Or, for heaven’s sake, he could have thrown a big party in keeping with the Middle Eastern tradition of Hospitality! He could have used this serendipitous occasion to have fed everyone in the whole country-side at least ONE good meal, on the house! A “Y’all come!” party-hearty shindig.
But he didn’t do any of those things. Instead, the fortunate farmer only thought of himself.
He made plans… building plans… to tear down his (otherwise perfectly sufficient) barns — to go through all the turmoil and expense of resources — to build bigger ones, just to store everything for later… for himself! The very idea is so exaggerated, it would strike us as comic — were it not so sad a commentary on the man’s narrow view of life.
Jesus calls this successful man — at the peak of his productivity — a “fool.” Perhaps because the man thought that security in LIFE was all there was to the matter. His short-sighted sense of personal security made him impervious to the call of God on his soul… blocking out all the other options we mentioned — any one of which would’ve been more reasonable and more compassionate — and blocking out all other people but himself.
Seeing the whole picture, any person who would choose to be like that
man — rich in things, but lacking eternal value — appears comic, pathetic. How much wiser and more meaningful it would be to SHARE our good fortune with our less fortunate sisters and brothers. We don’t want, as the final summation of OUR life-story, to hear God say: “You fool.”
Please notice: when the farmer lost his fortune in the end, it wasn’t a punishment for anything. It occurred simply through the natural process of death. As the old saying goes: “There are no pockets in a shroud.” “You can’t take it with you.” What to do with his abundant estate was no longer HIS problem; it became a matter for his inheritors to fight over.
He may have made a foolish decision about how best to use his accumulated wealth, but we can hope that his inheritors may be wiser, more compassionate, more creative… There is no way to know. Usually the nuts don’t fall far from the tree.
When the Parable was finished, and the people had been given time to think (“Who WILL get what you have prepared for yourself?”), Jesus went on to encourage the crowd — especially the one who, at the outset, had asked Jesus to tell his brother to share his inheritance — that they should do all that they can to gain wealth that has lasting value (meaningful in God’s eyes, not just in your own), rather than just building bigger store- houses to accumulate more stuff. It may be advice we need to consider in our day as well. (I know I need this sermon! Maybe some of you do, too.)
Over the winter, when things slow down here at church, I hope to get into those boxes of accumulated stuff downstairs — financial records to the shredder, old files to the trash. Maybe… Maybe I’ll even get a start on the boxes in our basement. It’s a New Year’s Resolution that’s already in my mind, three months early. But one thing’s for sure: I’m not going to start renting a storage space to keep the excess, like we did in Long Beach.
Because I don’t want to hear from God on my deathbed: “You fool!”
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