Barns, Birds, and Urban Homesteading – August 4, 2013
When we consider the denominational tagline of the Church of the Brethren, “Continuing the work of Jesus: Peacefully. Simply. Together”, we see that “simple living” is, apparently, an important part of who we are. But since we moved away from plain dress, it has been difficult to know what it means to live simply. What does simple mean if zippers and ties are involved? Can one be simple while wearing green and white polka dots and yellow tights?
Scripture provides principles that teach us how to think about God, the world, possessions, money, and how we relate to them. Biblical understandings of success often do not mirror the values that our North American society teaches. In many ways, biblical teachings on money and possessions are subversive—they undermine turning the expectations and values of our day. It could seem a little unsettling to want to be subversive yet Jesus Himself consistently was so. He defied what the Pharisees thought a religious person should do; he refused the zealots’ ideals of taking up the sword to usher in an earthly kingdom. In Romans 12:2, the apostle Paul taught the early church to question the values of their Roman society. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” We are called as the church—as the body of Jesus followers—to discern together about the world’s values and activities to ensure that our lives and actions reflect our primary identity as Jesus followers.
What does it mean to be followers of Jesus and also earn incomes, buy goods, own possessions, buy houses, and save for retirement? The teachings of Jesus in today’s passage give us values and frameworks to begin thinking about this. Three illustrations will frame our discussion on money and material possessions: a parable about barns, a reminder about birds, and an anecdote about urban homesteading. These images—barns, birds, and urban homesteading—provide us with guidance on wealth, possessions, simplicity, and the Kingdom of God.
I love driving through the countryside and seeing the fertile land, beautiful farm animals, and barns in varying states of upkeep and decay. Many times barns look well-used—not falling down but certainly not spotless. Much like an old church building, big barns are laborious and costly to maintain. Driving to Pennsylvania or Canada, we often see the outcome of costly maintenance and the decline of small holder farming: barns that look like skeletons, see through and holey, barns which appear to be wooden avalanches, a jumble of weather-worn wood and roofing materials. Barns visually illustrate that farming involves investment. In order to adequately store your crops, animals, and equipment, barns need to be built.
In Jesus’ parable in Luke 12, a rich man decides that he needs to build a barn. The scene in vs. 13 starts with Jesus, the disciples, and the crowds around them. In v. 13, a person in the crowd asks Jesus to intervene in the family inheritance. I assume that Jesus declines to get involved because a lot more was going on. Instead of wading into the man’s situation, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach. He says, “Who am I to get involved in this?” and then declares to the crowds, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (v. 15). Jesus then proceeds to tell a parable to teach about abundance and possessions.
A certain man was rich and his land produced abundantly. The man thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” (v. 17, NIV). The answer comes to him easily, “‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’ Just then God show[s] up and says, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets [them]?’” (vv. 16-19, the Msg). Jesus sums up the moral of the story, saying, “So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God” (v. 21, NIV).
Why does Jesus call this man a fool? One commentator says that the rich man, “is in fact a model of cultural success” in his era (Boring & Craddock, p. 228). This man would probably be commendable in our culture. Your business is doing well, you have a lot of money; store up what you have and make way for more money. Invest so that you can get all you can! Yet Jesus does indeed call the Rich Man a fool and we must figure out God’s wisdom in this situation.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus uses parables to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God. In all of the gospels, Jesus talks about the use of money. Luke’s gospel “has a particular focus on the right use of wealth. Several of the parables unique to him discuss this theme” (Snodgrass, 1992, p. 600). This parable of the rich fool is only found in Luke.
It is helpful to understand that the term fool does not mean stupid. Jesus is using the word fool as it used in the Old Testament: a fool is someone who misses the point, who doesn’t understand truth or what is good in life, and someone who fails to acknowledge God. The rich man in this parable is a fool for several reasons. First, the rich man does not recognize God as the source and owner of his resources. Second, in all his considerations of what to do, the rich man is only focused on himself. Third, he seems to think that a good life is defined by one’s amount of wealth.
The man assumed that he needed to stock up for the life ahead of him. Little did he know, he was going to die that very evening. The underlying value that Jesus teaches here is that all we have is a gift from God—and we should acknowledge it with thanks and a willingness to share. When we understand all we have comes from God, we ask ourselves about how it can be used for God’s purposes, to build up the Kingdom of God. God’s desire is that we think not only of ourselves but about the needs of others. While Jesus doesn’t say it explicitly (the point of parables is to make you think about the deeper meanings), the rich fool should have thought, “I have much more than I can fit in my barns and much more than I need. How can I honor God with what I have received? Who is in need right now? How can my abundance meet someone else’s scarcity?”
Jesus told his disciples in John 10:10, “I have come that you might have life and life to the fullest.” Having this full life involves radically redefining our values from those of our culture, particularly when it comes to material possessions. When we understand that a good life is not defined by material possessions, we are freed from clinging to them. When we understand that a good life is not defined by material possessions, we are freed to put more energy and resources into the things that do define a good life—loving God and loving our neighbors.
From the parable of the rich fool, we learn that the wise recognize God’s ownership of our resources, the wise think about the needs of others while assessing their resources, and the wise define the good life by the amount of love they give and receive.
While we learn about the role of possessions in our lives by considering Jesus’ parable about barns, we also have much to learn from Jesus’ teaching on birds.
Yesterday, the Youth Peace Travel Team, Nate and I went to the National Zoo. There is joy in watching and observing animals. Animals delight us for their beauty and also, in some ways, for their sense of peacefulness. Anxiety is not an affliction of wild animals. They eat the food that exists in their environment, they utilize caves or holes or brush to sleep in. Animals do not spend time anxiously wondering how they will be provided for. Somehow, in their hardwired instincts, they trust that food chains and environmental factors will all work out. They don’t have a scarcity mindset where they squirrel away as much food as they can get. Except for, of course, squirrels (But they don’t count because they end up forgetting where they put most of their food).
In the second part of our gospel passage, Jesus teaches his disciples with an illustration about birds. Jesus says, “Don’t worry about money—or your life, what you will eat, your body, or what you will wear. God made the ravens and cares for them. They don’t worry and store up food. They trust that God will feed them. Aren’t you more valuable than birds?” Jesus continues, mentioning that the earth—from animals to flowers—demonstrates God’s hand of care. “If we see God caring for the earth, don’t you think that God will care for you? Stop worrying. Seek God first and things will order themselves. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
If we acknowledge that all we have comes from God, if we give freely to others and trust that God will continue to provide for our needs, then we are not burdened with anxiety. This doesn’t mean that we don’t prepare for the future in some way. Rather, it means that our financial decisions are influenced by our actual needs (versus our wants) and the needs of others. We trust that, if we follow God in caring for our sisters and brothers, God will also use them to provide for us if we would also have a need.
Jesus’ lessons on barns and birds provide truths which guide us on path to simple living. Simple living, or simplicity, can be understood as attitudes of the heart and actions in our lives. God as source. Generosity and sharing of abundance. Trust. Freedom from anxiety. A good life defined by love. These ideas frame Jesus’ message to his followers about wealth and material possessions. These thoughts form the basis of how we, today in 2013, can start thinking about how to live… peacefully, simply, together.
So how do we start thinking about what this looks like practically? My answer to that lies in urban homesteading.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation creating the United States Department of Agriculture, or the USDA (1999, WGBH). Lincoln called it “the people’s department” for good reason: “90 percent of Americans at the time were farmers” (1999, WGBH). Today, less than 2% of Americans farm for a living (USDA, 2011). Over the past century, the US population has shifted from rural to urban settings. Farming has also changed over time. It went from something everyone did, to something very few people did. Gardens were in everyone’s backyard and then in almost no one’s backyard.
In the 1970s, with cities decaying, people struggling to make ends meet, empty lots blighting city neighborhoods, and poor access to healthy foods, people began to rethink what farming looked like. At the time, farms were big, involved machinery, and were commercial enterprises. Slowly, community gardens began to spring up on empty lots in cities. People started to tear up parts or all of their lawns so that they could grow food right in their backyards (or front yards). Farming no longer needed to look like acres and tractors. Farming was reimagined: it could happen in small spaces and could allow all sorts of homes to explore sustainability, growing their own food, adding to the local food chain, and tending the earth.
People were detached from the land and—valuing what farming had to offer—reinterpreted what farming could look like. The urban homestead was born.
At times, we as Brethren have thought that simple living involves plain dress and we’ve written off the values as something outdated that no one does anymore. Yet we see in Scripture that Jesus calls us to live simply and share our wealth abundantly. Let us therefore re-imagine, let us make an “urban homestead” version of simple living, finding creative ways to counter our culture’s materialism and share freely. This, sisters and brothers, takes work. One theologian, Richard Foster, suggests that “The majority of Christians have never seriously wrestled with the problem of simplicity, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ many words on the subject. The reason is simple: this discipline directly challenges our vested interests in an affluent lifestyle” (Foster, 1999, p. 184). We are called to the difficult task of trying to spend less and give more, to talk about money and greed in a society that glorifies excess and conspicuous consumption.
May we work together, wrestle together, talk together, about what it means to live our lives today as followers of Jesus in a culture that says we should get all we can. Let us not be like the rich fool, who misses the point. Let we give thanks to God, from our blessings flow. Let us prioritize the needs of others alongside our own. Let us share freely in love and in all that God has given us.