Hancock Church Sermon  http://youtu.be/o1XTEJut2bM

Rev. Paul Shupe

Luke 12:13-31

March 17, 2013

Fifth Sunday In Lent

Middle Age in the “Faith Across the Lifespan Series”

Luke 12:13-31

    Responding to a voice in the crowd, Jesus tells a parable about the dangers of wealth, and follows it with assurances that all that we need, God will provide.

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 towards God.’

He said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

“Old(er) Dog, New Tricks”

    In my younger days, it was much easier to judge than to empathize.  Am I the only one?  Or did things seem so much clearer then?  In my twenties, feeling the freedom and vigor of youth, I’d hear a story like this one that Jesus told, and I just knew I was right there with Jesus, to cheer him on.  “You tell ‘em, Jesus!”  As the little story unfolded, I could feel Jesus setting the stage, the man with the bountiful harvest was practically begging to be put in his place.  Such arrogance!  Such short sightedness!  How could he be so blind to the dangers of wealth?  How could he be so rich and so blind, while I, who was so poor, could see so well!  I’d listen to this story and give thanks in the silent sanctuary of my heart that I was like Jesus, and not like this tottering old fool in the story.

    I am older now, very near a perfect example of what it means to be middle aged.  Some days, though not all, I already feel older than I ever truly expected that I would be; not that I thought I’d die young, just that being fifty-plus was always something that other people did, not a reality that would ever apply to me.  Other people went grey at the temples and took a week to recover from a full day’s exercise and got up in the middle of the night, but never me.  Surely, never me!  And yet, here I am, and there’s no denying it, I’ve got more years behind me, than ahead of me.

    Like I say, middle age was not something I dreamed of being, not something I’d aspired to.  And yet there are blessings to it, one of which is that my impulse to judge, to see clearly the problems of other people while pretending to have none of my own: that’s receded further than my hairline.  When I see other people struggling: stuck, caught, unable to see new possibility, well, I have no interest in judging them, in fact, I think that quite often I understand them completely.  Take the man in this story.  As Jesus sets it up, he’s comfortable, financially, and that can happen in middle age.  We often get good at what we do, and the world is ready to reward us for it.  But now, Jesus says, he’s got a windfall, a bumper harvest, all his work and acumen has come together with the perfect growing season and suddenly he’s got more than he knows what to do with: enough to feed him not just this year or next, but for all the years that are left to him.  It’s as though the company has given him a huge bonus; or a competitor has swooped in with the offer of a lifetime; or on top of a banner year, the only lottery ticket he’s ever bought in his life came up aces.  This doesn’t happen to us all in middle age, but don’t we all dream of it?  Wish that it would?  And when he says, “Well then, I’ll just throw up some bigger barns,” we know what he’s thinking.  Stash it away, max out that 401K, guarantee yourself the freedom to do what you want, when you want.  Little red sports cars hadn’t been invented, so he chose a mid-life ride of his own: eat, drink, and be merry!

    When I was twenty-five and sure of myself, I could see his actions as nothing more than the sin of greed, I could judge him, and delight when he got what was coming to him.  Now, I find that I understand him.  I wouldn’t mind a big windfall, and while wine, women and song, wouldn’t be my first response to it, I can see myself with the twenty-first century equivalent of bigger barns to secure my wealth.  Tell the truth, you fifty-somethings: you understand the man, don’t you?

    I’m not even sure any more that man’s big sin here is greed.  Supposing, just for a moment, that he’s like me, middle-aged, with more years behind him than before him.  It might not be greed at all that drives him, but rather something more mundane, something that is far more dangerous to life at this age than perhaps at any other.  Maybe he’s just stuck.  Maybe he’s just doing what he’s always done because he can’t for the life of him imagine another possibility.  Maybe he builds bigger barns not primarily because he’s greedy, but because hanging onto wealth is all he’s ever tried to do.

    The great danger, the great soul-destroying danger, of middle age is stuckness, is habit, is an inability to imagine anything different.  We’ve gotten to this point in our lives by being productive at one thing or another.  We’ve learned to use the strengths that God has given us, and to reap the rewards that the world dispenses to people with our strengths.  At some point early in our adult years we learn how to do something, and learn that good things come of doing it.  It’s as if early in life someone gave us a hammer, and we found that nails need hammering, and that we could get paid for hammering them in.  And we got good at hammering.  By the time we’re middle aged we can hammer like no one’s business: at any angle we drive any nail and never bruise the wood.  Often, people keep paying us, keep rewarding us, for our hammering, but just as often, by the time we’re in our fifties hammering has lost its appeal.  The satisfactions are no longer as satisfying as they once were.  The compliments we’re paid seem more like what is expected than a welcomed affirmation of a growing ability.  Such an irony!  At the very moment we’re as good as we can ever be, it satisfies us less and less to be so good.  We’re stuck then.  Can’t change and do something else because that would be starting again at the bottom, where the pay is poor, and the perks are few.  The great danger to the middle age soul is simply getting stuck.

    Well, it’s Jesus’ story, and perhaps I’m taking too many liberties with it.  But sometimes, at my age, the sins we get entangled with are not the result of eager choice, but rather of simple momentum; it’s what we’ve always known, it’s what we’re good at.  The rich farmer built bigger barns and went for the party because that’s all he’s ever known how to do.  It’s who he is, not just what he does.  Perhaps he’s middle aged stuck.

    But here is Jesus, with another possibility: what if success is best measured not in the size of our barns, or our bank accounts, but in the ability to see the lilies?  What if the stuckness that comes from doing the same thing over and over is not a life sentence?  What if we were to be able to change, to adapt?  What if we could put down the hammer and take up the paintbrush?  What if instead of doing again and again what we’re already good at, we dared to try something new, something fresh, something unanticipated?  That’s what Jesus is offering his listeners: a new way of seeing the world, beyond worry, beyond the anxiety of making your own place in the world.

Here’s one thing I believe for sure: Jesus is in the business of unsticking the stuck.

And middle age is the perfect time for new possibility.  To be sure, we can’t always change careers, can’t yet pull up stakes and go someplace else.  But in middle age we learn that our strengths will carry us without our needing to tend to them perpetually, and we can dare to entertain the possibility of finding new life in places we’d never considered.  Instead of doing again and again what we have always done, we can find ways to do what we have long desired to try, but never dared.  It is in middle age that we learn what it truly means to say that God is Creator.  For God longs for all God’s creatures to be fully alive, and God moves to create not just where we are strong, but even more where we are weak: learning to trust, to be vulnerable, to be open, and above all to find deep and abiding joy in things that cost nothing: the delight in watching a grandchild, a sunset, a meal served at a soup kitchen, a gift given, more generous than previously thought possible because we are trusting what Jesus has taught: that joy consists in trusting God, instead of ourselves.

You know, Jesus died when he was about thirty.  He never got to be middle aged.  But I suspect that if he had had the chance to tell this story again, when his skin was sagging and his chin doubling up, perhaps, just perhaps, instead of the rich man dying, stuck in place, Jesus might have found some way to set him free, living the second half of his life differently than he had the first.  Or so at least your middle aged preacher dares to hope.  May Jesus unstick you, and may you learn to delight in doing something new, something novel, something saving.  Amen.