What Do You Count?
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, September 27, 2020, “Come Thou Fount” sermon series.
Text: Luke 12:13-21
It has long been understood In church administration and management circles, that what we count will get our attention. The logic is that if we’re counting the number of people in classes or the volume of IDs we are able to help obtain for our neighbors then the energy directed toward those ministries will inspire growth and thriving. What we count reveals what we value, what we believe matters, what we think is important. Today’s Gospel presents us with parable that invites reflection on this.
It is easy, and therefore tempting, to label the rich guy in today’s story as a bad guy. But what does he do that’s so bad? After all, he’s not a criminal—has hasn’t stolen or mistreated his workers. His land has produced bountifully making him a wealthy man. He makes a smart economic decision according to worldly standards. He heeds both the counsel of his financial adviser and the message that pops up every time he logs on to his banking site (are you saving enough for retirement?)—save more for your future because Social Security is going to run out and pensions aren’t really pensions any more. The farmer simply plans for his future, gets the biggest silos on the market, and is set. So if this man isn’t a bad guy, then what is he? Well, the story makes it clear that, while the farmer may be smart and responsible in the ways of the world, he is a fool in God’s opinion. And why? Well, it’s not because he has money or has been successful—those things aren’t inherently problematic. It seems the problem has to do with the fact that the farmer is focused on no one but himself. Listen to what he says: “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.” (vs.18-19) He doesn’t talk to friends, family, or God. He talks to himself—and even has a conversation with himself within the conversation he’s already having with himself! And this completely self-centered conversation is about his possessions. The farmer has allowed his possessions and his management of possessions to be all that counts, to be the one thing that he relates to—not people, not God, but rather his stuff. The farmer literally says that his possessions make his life good and happy. In response, we get the one time in Luke that God speaks directly to a character: “You fool!” Ouch. God challenges the farmer—do your possessions keep you alive? Do your possessions go with you when you die? Whose will they be? This is not only a practical reminder to think about how whatever possessions we have might serve others both before and after our death, but it points to an even larger issue. Playing with the idea of the farmer shacking up in his big barns with his stuff, I can imagine God asking: Do your possessions help you become more of yourself? Do they comfort you when you are sad? Do they laugh and delight when you are happy? Do they love you back?
We live in a culture where everything is driven by money and the bottom line. And even soaked as we are in this reality, I imagine most of us know in our heart of hearts that money can’t buy love and that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (vs.15) But mercy! The messages we are bombarded with all over the media try to convince us otherwise. And most of us are online even more than usual these days as we remain in various states of quarantine. The technology and targeted marketing just keeps getting sharper. How does an algorithm know the precise thing you’ll be tempted to spend 10 minutes of your day learning about in a video with “scientific” proof of how the product will miraculously change your life? One commentator suggests that most advertisements use a kind of “inadequacy marketing”—that is, they exaggerate and play on built-in human insecurities and anxieties and present products as a remedy (for example: breath/mouthwash; weight/diet; status/car). If you only have this or try that your life will be better, easier, prettier, stronger, longer, and on it goes… And, insecurities and anxieties are not a new thing. As a matter of fact, in the verses that immediately follow today’s passage, Jesus teaches about anxiety: “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?” (Luke 12:22-26)
What started this whole line of teaching was someone demanding that Jesus tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him. It seems that Jesus recognizes in this demand both an anxiety about having enough AND, based on the story he tells, a misplaced focus on what matters most of all. // I once read about a lawyer who was getting ready to retire and who, upon reflection of his career, noted that he had spent so much of it in the midst of siblings fighting over family inheritance. “And really,” he said, “they are fighting over their parents’ love.”
So often, we focus on stuff, on money, on products, as a way of trying to deal with something much deeper and, frankly, more real and meaningful. We all grapple with worries of having enough or being enough. We all have various insecurities about our bodies. We are anxious about our health. We all struggle with worries about our relationships. Sometimes, perhaps often, folks get caught in worrying about their “net worth” (and then spend their time counting the amount of grain they have and the size of their silos) when the real concern is whether their lives are worthwhile. I would argue that the most basic concern is this: Am I lovable? Am I loved?
Jesus teaches us that what matters most of all is relationships: love of God and love of neighbor. This is what life is all about. This is what counts. This is where meaning and joy will be found. Loving relationships make our lives worthwhile—our riches are found in the amount that we have loved and been loved. I have never heard people talk at funerals about how much money the deceased had or how big their house was. How generous they were? Yes. How they gave of themselves and cared for others? Absolutely. What matters in the end is not how big your barn is, but how big your heart is; how much room you make in your heart to give and to receive love.
Our faith teaches the correct answer to the question, “What is your net worth?” You are worthy of a love that is beyond measure. God’s love for you is infinite and eternal and steadfast and patient and forgiving and powerful and saving. God loves you. You are worthy of that love. You don’t need the biggest barns full to the brim in order to be loved and to receive God’s grace (consider the ravens…they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!). I know it may be hard to remember, but I invite you to try to remember it when you’re chasing down this thing or that product to try to make yourself more lovable. You are already lovable and deeply loved.
And our faith also teaches us that this love is a gift, a blessing from God that flows freely. God’s love for us is what strengthens us to be brave and generous even in the midst of anxiety. God’s love for us is what strengthens our own hearts to be patient, merciful, loving, and kind even in the face of challenge. God’s love is what called forth creation and gives you and me the gift of this life. We may be creative and smart managers of the things we have in this life, but all those things are gifts from God without whom there would be…nothing. In other words, God’s heart of love is the fount of every blessing…You are loved and blessed by God.
As a way to try to remember these truths, I invite you to consider taking a moment each day to count your blessings. I know things are upsetting right now on so many levels. I’m not suggesting to ignore that or fail to pray for, lament, and labor to address the pain, the brokenness, the injustice in the world. Rather, I simply encourage you to also intentionally call to mind with gratitude the things and people that bless you even in the midst of it all. If we’re only counting the distressing headlines, logging our anxieties, or keeping tabs on what is going wrong in our lives, then our souls will suffer even more. Remember that what you count, what you give energy grows. And we can’t control all that is happening in the world. We can do our part. But we can’t control it all. What we can control is where we put our resources, our energy, and our focus.
Perhaps you could write in a journal or offer a prayer each morning or evening giving thanks to God for God’s love, for the people you love and who love you, and for any other blessing in your life. One person shared with me that she makes a point to try to do at least one kind and generous deed for someone each day. I’ve had friends who share on social media things they are grateful for each day. As we do these things we allow God’s generosity and love to flow to us and through us and back into the world to bless others. These are simple teachings and practices. But what a difference they make. What do you count? Counting your blessings will cultivate a heart big enough to receive God’s love, a heart that gets so full that it overflows with gratitude, with love, and with loving deeds and generosity towards other people. Jesus says this is the way to build a life that will sustain you, a life that will last. Even into eternity.