Sunday, October 16, 2016

Homily: Doris Peyton Guthrie [October 15, 2016] Trinity Church, Fillmore

We’re gathered this afternoon to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of Doris Peyton Guthrie, by any measure a remarkable woman. In a long and generous life, Doris had an impact on so many people. As one whose life she touched in so many ways, I am honored and a bit overwhelmed by the invitation to preach today.
Like hundreds of other seminarians, I first met Doris when I came to theological school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Doris had her own professional life away from the seminary, but she was deeply committed to the school community and the lives of the students there. As did many others, I came to know Harvey in the classroom and the chapel. I came to know Doris sitting at her kitchen table and drinking her French Market coffee, bracingly laced with chicory. There were many wonderful things to learn in getting to know Doris, perhaps the most surprising of which was that she turned out to be even more radical than Harvey.
This next doesn’t speak particularly well of me, but I have to confess that one of the first things that came into my head after Harvey told me of Doris’s death was, “I guess this means I’ll never have Doris’s lemon merengue pie again.” I know, a pretty self-centered observation, right? But if you ever had Doris’s lemon merengue pie (or, a close second, her blood orange sorbet) you will know what I’m talking about. It was delicious. It was authentic. It was simple and yet sophisticated. In some ways, Doris’s lemon merengue pie was an epitome of the woman herself. 
What I’m trying to say is that Doris was the total package as a human being. She was fiercely intelligent. She was politically committed. She was empathetic. She was generous. She was prayerful without being pious. She was also a lot of fun to be around. And before her accident on the ice in Michigan many years ago, she was one of the most buffest people I know. Like so many of you, I could talk for hours about Doris and what she means to me. But we’re here in church and we have these Bible readings to think about. So enough from me. Let’s hear what Isaiah, Paul, and Jesus might have to tell us.
Our first reading, from the twenty-fifth chapter of Isaiah [Isaiah 25:5-9], gives us an image of how things will be at the end of time. In this year’s dreary and creepy election season we have been treated to dystopian, apocalyptic visions of our future. But those visions are not the Bible’s vision.  The Bible, in the voice of Isaiah, views the end time as “a feast of rich food” which “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples.” (Here Doris would want us to note the absence of extreme vetting or Trumpian border walls.)  What Martin Luther King called the “arc of the moral universe” bends not only toward justice—it is pointed also toward fullness, abundance, blessing, and peace. When Isaiah says, “Let us be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation”, the us here is not an us versus them. The us for Isaiah is all of us, an us where there is no them.
So the first thing the scriptures ask us to remember this morning is the gospel vision of justice, blessing, and peace in the light of which Doris lived and to which she dedicated her energy.  I’ve known a lot of social activists over the course of my life, and frankly Doris ranks first among them in my heart because she actually cared about people, especially the people who were up against it. Doris generously and tirelessly served the poor, the oppressed, the stigmatized, and she did it quietly and without any egoinvolvement. For Doris Isaiah’s eschatological banquet was a lived reality here and now. She didn’t just pray for people to be fed at the end of things. She herself fed them—both literally and as an advocate—in the here and now.
Our second reading [Romans 8:14-19,34-35,37-39] is a passage often read at funerals, and that is because it concludes with these memorable words:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

When we think about the list of oppressive forces that might presume to stand between us humans and God’s love, we can’t help but think first of the “principalities and powers” of sexism, racism, homophobia, and selfish affluence which Doris worked against for so longBut oppressive forces can also be personal challenges, such as the extreme pain Doris endured in the last several weeks of her life. In this passage from Romans, Paul wants to remind us that God’s love is the truest thing about us and that there is nothing—not even death—that can separate us from that love: not tyranny, not sexism, not poverty, not extreme pain. God is always in there in all of it with us.
But here’s the thing:  as I read that scripture for the millionth time with Doris Guthrie in mind, I was caught by the phrase that begins that remarkable passage. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” A lesser theologian than Paul would have praised us as conquerors, as victors in the oppressive struggles of life. But Paul has it that we are “more than conquerors”. Our contest with oppression, violence, degradation, and even pain is not a power play. We don’t win and pain doesn’t lose. The God from whose love we cannot be separated does not prevail by crushing the opponents. And if God is not about power, then living with, following, and loving that God is not about power either. God “more than conquers” life’s oppressive forces through transformative justice and love
Doris’s life and witness are a testimony for all of us about what it means to be something more than a conqueror. We stand, as she stood, against violence and oppression not by mimicking them but by living abundantly and generously in the style and image of the God we know in Jesus. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. That is as true in death as it is in life. The truest things to say about Doris are that God loves her and that she knew it. We are more than conquerors. We are missional lovers. God’s love is not a power trip. It is an invitation into universal blessing, wholeness, and peace.
And finally we have the gospel [John 11:21-27] in which Jesus tells Martha as she mourns the death of her brother, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Martha has complained to Jesus that if he had only been there, Lazarus would not have died. Jesus responds that even those who die are part of the resurrection now. 
Those of us who follow Jesus have so gotten used to talking about resurrection in the future tense that we have forgotten to look for signs of it in the here and now. I have no doubt that Jesus’s promise is real, that in and through him and the one he calls his father you and I and all creation will participate in that glorious banquet proclaimed by Isaiah. And if I know anything, it is that nothing—not even death and not even the pain of her final days—can separate Doris Guthrie from the love of God that she knew all her life not only in Jesus but in her marriage and her family and in her friendships and in her ongoing work for justice and peace.
But here is something else I know, and it is something we often miss at occasions like this. I know that every once in a while someone like Doris comes along who shows you what resurrection actually means. When we’re lucky enough to know someone who lives as Doris lived, we get a sense of resurrection not only as a future promise but as a lived reality now. And as painful as it is to lose Doris from the day-to-day experience of this life, it is in a sense easier to hand her off to the next stage because for almost 92 years she was already living the promise she hoped for.  Doris Guthrie lived a risen life in the here and now. And in so doing she made it possible for those of us who knew and loved her to live that life too and to trust that the promises of universal justice, peace, and abundance might just be not only possible but also trustworthy and true.
Today’s scriptures remind us why we so loved and will so miss Doris Guthrie. Her life was a banquet. She loved and was loved by a God who does something more than conquer. She chose to live as a person who knew what resurrection looks like today. We are coming now to the Eucharist—the meal we share with each other, with Jesus, with Doris, with God. This meal is a foretaste of Isaiah’s banquet. It is presided over by Jesus, the one who refused to be a conqueror and in so living showed us something about weakness as it moves into grace. This meal is another moment in our shared journey into what it means to be with Jesus, with Doris, with the saints, and with each other in resurrection and life.  
No, I guess I never will get to have Doris’s lemon merengue pie again. But I can be with her at this meal, as we gather around God’s table, and for right here, right now, this moment, and beyond,that will be enough. Amen.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Homily: St. Francis' Day [October 2, 2016] All Saints, Pasadena

“Francis, We Hardly Knew Ye”

If I look a little tired this morning, I apologize. I’ve been up since 3:20 a.m. tweeting out insults to my detractors.
Today All Saints Church celebrates St. Francis of Assisi, and I was glad when they assigned me to be inside at the service inside rather than with the animals on the lawn. Don’t get me wrong. I love animals. But as the owners of two terriers (one a scotty, the other a cairn) Kathy and I are always mortified by their behavior around other dogs. Our terriers don’t need blessing. They need absolution.
You and I don’t know Saint Francis very well. As with many saints, we have a collective cultural cartoon of him. We tend to see Francis as a kind of blissed-out medieval hippie who walked round Italy picking daisies and smiling at wolves—a monastic version of Doctor Doolittle. Like all cultural cartoons, this version of Saint Francis trivializes him. Yes, he loved animals as he loved all creation. But there was a lot more to him than that.
When the current pope took the name Francis three years ago, I decided to read up on the life of the saint. To be sure, Francis did love animals. But he loved them as part of a larger openness to all of nature—his “Canticle of the Sun” famously praises brother sun, sister moon, brothers wind and air, sister water, brother fire, and sister earth. Francis saw God in all creation, and one of the reasons we respond to him in this moment is that his medieval nature mysticism anticipated our own postmodern love for an endangered earth and its creatures. But Saint Francis saw God not only in animals. He saw God in the poor, and that’s why he gave up a life of affluence for one of prayer and poverty and service to the poor and sick.
         Francis did not live his life of prayer and poverty alone. Like Jesus, he gathered a community around him. Early in his ministry, Francis was viewed with suspicion and ridicule.  His family disowned him. He and his brothers in the order owned no property or money, and they begged for their meals.  Even more shockingly, Francis did not shun lepers but would embrace them and kiss their sores.  The first responses to St. Francis were fearful and hostile.  He was considered a dangerous madman before he was revered as a saint.
         If Cardinal Jose Mario Bergoglio felt the need to call himself Pope Francis in 2013, he must have felt that Francis had something important to say to the 21st century. What can we take from this saint’s example to help us with the living of our lives?
You and I are living through an overheated moment in American society. While the presidential election may be the most visible evidence of the emotional process at work among us, the election is really more of a symptom than a cause. As a compulsive consumer of news, it seems to me that everywhere I turn I see people overwhelmed and overwrought, blaming their problems on scapegoats and behaving badly at every turn. I think this is true at all levels of our society. Our political life is overheated. Our personal lives are overheated. Our friendships and our households are overheated. Even people in churches can get a bit testy. The enmity on view in the election is only the tip of the cultural iceberg.
And then, of course, there is the unfolding of the story Friday’s killing of Reginald (Junior) Thomas at the hands of police here in Pasadena and the attendant protest yesterday. I have cops in my family, so I understand the pressures the police are under. But when is this seemingly endless drumbeat of police killing African American men going to end? The best way we can show that black lives matter is to stop taking them.
I’m not a sociologist, so I won’t hazard a guess as to underlying causes of this overheating. But I will try to put this moment into a religious context. Like the societies that surrounded Jesus and Francis—each one a holy fool who refused to accept the cultural norms of his moment—you and I have bought into some fairly pervasive and pernicious illusions—and that’s a religious problem. We have come to see the world as essentially competitive and not collaborative. We think there is not enough to go around and so we feel compelled to do everything to get ours first. We put our trust in leaders or systems or ideas that promise to make and keep us safe by giving us a leg up on someone else. We think that if we get and hoard enough we will be invulnerable to the risks and depredations of life.
For all its greatness, Western culture has consistently fallen prey to these illusions from Jesus’s day to our own. As these illusions collapse, things become overheated, as they are today. It is a sign of God’s forbearance, mercy, and grace toward us that holy fools like Jesus and Francis keep showing up in our lives to show us a way to bring our own personal and social temperatures back down to normal.
In today’s gospel [Matthew 11: 25-30], Jesus says two things we need to hear this morning. Here’s the first:
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.

         Maybe it’s important that we bless animals because, unlike us, dogs and cats have no intellectual pretensions. Both Pope Francis and Saint Francis have what we could call a “simple” faith, and here “simple” is a good thing.  The more that we live in our heads, the more we make following Jesus more complicated than it needs to be. Francis of Assisi believed in God and Jesus in a way that was simple and yet deep. His life and action were grounded in the basic teachings of Jesus: love God, love people, treat everybody—including animals—with decency, compassion, and respect. When Jesus says that God has “hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and [has] revealed them to infants” he is telling us something simple yet deep about the meaning of life. Really smart people can do really stupid things. Really smart people can do really cruel things. Our intellects can often mislead us. When I have done something incredibly stupid or cruel, I’ve usually done it as part of a carefully-reasoned well-thought-out plan. Jesus and Francis call us to get out of our heads and into our hearts. That’s a lifetime journey for some of us, but Jesus would remind us that only as we approach profound simplicity will we be open to the depth and beauty of life.
         And here’s the second thing Jesus says:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Francis gave up a life of relative affluence for a life of voluntary poverty. He spent that life in solidarity with and service to the poor and sick and outcast. And, like Jesus, he found the life of social solidarity finally easier and more joyful than the life of comfort. To the extent that you and I have bought into the values of an affluent, competitive society we have placed ourselves in comfortable traps.  We strive to attain and keep our culture’s signs of success—an important job, impressive houses and cars, exotic travel—but at what cost? Francis did not give those things up as a way of self-punishment. He gave them up as a way of personal and social liberation. In taking on the yoke of Jesus, Francis discovered that loving and serving the poor, treating others with compassion, regarding the whole creation with reverence and respect—these actions were rewarding in and of themselves. They were not punishments. They were gifts.
In one way or another, each of us is a prisoner of our culture and its values. We are like fish swimming in the water of affluence which we can’t even see. It is part of God’s mercy to us that people like Jesus and Francis, others like Dorothy Day, come among us and show us that there is another way to live. It’s not that we all have to drop our jobs and pick up begging bowls. It is, rather, that we can follow Jesus and Francis at least by questioning the truisms our culture offers. He who dies with the most toys does not necessarily win. She who opens herself to God’s presence in the world, especially in the ones or things the world does not value, can live a life of generosity and joy in the here and now.
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants. . . Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

In this overheated season, let us stop and listen to Jesus and Francis. We can survive and actually flourish in this moment by seeing and living life as it is, not as our culture portrays it. Life is not scary. Life is beautiful. Life is simpler than we make it and easier than it seems. Like Francis, let us see each other as blessings rather than threats. Like Jesus, let us rejoice not in our sophistication but in the elemental values of love, compassion, reverence, and respect. Once again, let’s try to move out of our heads and into our hearts. And if we need some guidance in how to do that, let us turn to brother dog and sister cat, our teachers gathered this morning on the lawn. Amen.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Homily: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [August 28, 2016] All Saints, Pasadena

 "Jostling for Position with God"

            There are many things to love about living and working in Washington D.C. where, until recently, I served the cathedral. It is a beautiful city, full of interesting people, with great museums, good restaurants all around, and the natural world close at hand. Every day that Kathy and I woke up in Washington I counted myself happy and lucky to be there.
            There is, however, one great drawback. As the seat of governmental power, Washington is what we might call a court culture, somewhat like living in a perpetual “Game of Thrones”. It is literally true that when a powerful person walks into a room or opens their mouth, everything else stops. So living in Washington is also like being in an endless E.F. Hutton commercial: when a person with real or perceived power speaks, people listen. Everyone there seems to be jostling for position with the powerful: organizing a big state occasion ceremony at the cathedral was like wrangling egos on a movie set. In the planning sessions for those services the battles over who would get to be on the platform—and who could be closest to the person of the moment--could be intense. And I’m sorry to tell you the church folks were often worse than the politicos. During these precedence and protocol food fights I would often wonder, “Is this really what Jesus had in mind?”
            Well, if you listen to today’s gospel (Luke 14:1, 7-14), apparently not. In the passage we just heard from Luke, Jesus tells us to avoid sitting in the place of honor at a banquet lest we be told to go back down to the cheap seats. Instead, Jesus advises that we sit in the lowest place and then be invited to move higher up. Good advice, but I doubt Jesus would have had much of a career in Washington protocol.
This passage is an odd one because in it Jesus gives what sounds like just plain talk, but Luke tells us that it is a parable. Now parable is a loaded word. In the New Testament, a parable is a story that demonstrates or enacts something about the nature of God. So Jesus is not really talking like Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, or Miss Manners here. In this little story about where to sit at a dinner party, Jesus is telling us something about God.
As if to emphasize what it is Jesus wants to show us about God, he finishes the story with another piece of advice:
"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
So at the conclusion of this gospel passage, here is what we have: an opening parable about position and precedence with some advice about sitting at the lowest place, and a concluding saying about whom you should invite to your own banquet. Don’t, like a Washington hostess, invite the rich and powerful. Be instead like God:  invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. This is theology masquerading as etiquette. If you want to jostle for position with God, do what God does. Care about, get to know, and serve, the poor. If you want to curry favor with God, start by currying favor with the poor.
The poor. I remember them. We used to talk about them a lot. How long has it been since we have heard anyone in American public life mention the poor? In this election season we have heard about a lot of other things—about emails and walls and syringes and hand sizes, but we have yet to hear one serious word from either of the major candidates for president about the poor.  Hillary Clinton says, “I believe America thrives when the middle class thrives.” Speaking to that same middle class, Donald Trump says, “I am your voice.” But who speaks for the poor?
Here is what Matthew Desmond, a professor of Sociology at Harvard and author of the recent book Evicted says,
We don’t have a full-voiced condemnation of the level or extent of poverty in America today. We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda. [New York Times 8/11/16]

            As if to emphasize this point, this week brought a particularly depressing anniversary. On Monday, August 22, it was exactly 20 years since President Bill Clinton signed the so-called Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—the law we have come to call the Welfare Reform bill. In those 20 years the government has cut benefits to the poor dramatically, yet the rate of what we call “deep poverty”—the share of the population “living on a household income less than half of the official poverty level” has increased. The current U.S. Government poverty level is $16,000 a year for a family of two. So we are talking about people living on $8,000 a year. And extreme poverty—people living on $2 a day or less—has doubled since the signing of that law in 1996. To the extent they can, most poor people cobble together an income made up of low-wage work, food stamps, and disability benefits. And no one in this election cycle is talking about them.
            Worse than that, hardly anybody in the church is talking about the poor this year. A couple of weeks ago someone shared a cartoon on Facebook which accurately depicts the problem. Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount. He lifts his hand and says, “Blessed are the poor.” Someone in the crowd shouts back, “Blessed are all lives, Jesus.” We seem to have relegated the poor to being yet another interest group iin whom we have lost interest.  But in the gospel they are much more than that.
            Those of us who follow Jesus seem to have forgotten what Jesus himself said about his own priorities. For good and understandable reasons we have expanded the circle of our concern to include almost everybody, and it is right that we do so. But in expanding that circle we seem to have forgotten that the poor stand at that circle’s very center and demand a preferential place in our attentions. It is hypocritical to blame either of our major party candidates for their obliviousness about poverty in America when we have become oblivious ourselves. In focusing on giving more benefits to those of us who are already comfortable, they are merely reading back to us our own priorities.
            Listen again to Jesus:
When you are invited to a . . . banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host. [And] when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

            Taken together, these stories tell us something about God and ourselves. You and I are like guests at an exclusive cocktail party who spend our time sucking up to the host, and it turns out that the host wants us to turn our attention to the people who couldn’t get into the party in the first place. We tend to think that we can curry favor with God by listing our accomplishments. We are a bit like people on the cathedral platform jostling for the position closest to the most famous and powerful person. Jesus knows we can’t help ourselves in this regard, that we will continually fall for the bright shiny objects of fame and power and seek to have them for ourselves. And here is his point:  if you want to get in good with God, turn your attention away from those trinkets and turn toward the concrete reality of people who are up against it. If you want to jostle for position with God, do so by knowing and loving and serving the people everyone else has forgotten. Most of the things we value are worthless. And the people we often call worthless mean the most to God.
             I believe America thrives when the middle class thrives.” “I am your voice.” Our political leaders will only speak for the poor when we who follow Jesus speak for them. Churches all over America are looking for new and innovative programs to make themselves relevant to a post-Christian age. How about we start with the big idea that Jesus gives us. Jesus’s persistent calls for us to love and serve the poor tell us something deep and true and important not only about the poor but about what it is to be human in the first place. Living in the affluent part of America and trying constantly to prove our worth to ourselves and others is exhausting. As Lily Tomlin said, “Even if you’re winning the rat race, you’re still a rat.” The poor have nothing and yet they are blessed. They are us, denuded of all the worthless stuff with which we encase ourselves. All human beings—especially the poor--are blessed in and of themselves. We do not need all the effluvia we tack on to ourselves to be important. We matter, as the poor matter, because we bear the basic dignity of what it means to be human. We honor that dignity when we honor those who have nothing, who most purely reflect human dignity back to us. And that dignity, borne and redeemed by God in Jesus, is all that finally counts about us and about those we serve.
            Our political leaders will only wake up to the importance of poverty in America when we wake up to it ourselves. And we will only begin to take it in as we come to see ourselves in those who are up against it. We reject the poor because we deny the possibility of being poor ourselves. But given the world’s economic, environmental, and social fragility, each of us could be wiped out in a moment. Accepting one’s vulnerability is a hard but vital spiritual task. And it’s the basic first step of what it means to follow Jesus. So let’s take that step and see where that journey takes us. Let’s make poverty in America both a social and a spiritual priority. Maybe then our politicians will listen. Maybe then we’ll all have jostled ourselves into a little bit better position with God. Amen.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Homily: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [July 31, 2016] All Saints, Pasadena

"Eat, Drink, and Be Merry"

After 7 short months, let me give you an interim progress report on retirement.
Here's the upside: Kathy and I finally have some time together, even though it's still split between some ongoing volunteer commitments we each have and a seemingly endless need to work on a house we've pretty much neglected for 15 years. So far, so good.
Another upside to retirement is that I now have the time to engage in leisurely, cultural pursuits. I have time to binge watch a number of TV shows I previously neglected:  Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Americans, and the greatest of them all, Friday Night Lights. I probably care more than I should about the problems of Coach Taylor and the Dillon Panthers, but hey, rooting for a fictional football team is probably healthier than caring about office politics.
Here, however, is the real downside. I've always been a political junkie, and without a day job to go to I spend far too much time watching news on cable television. I think of Joe, Mika, Chris, and Rachel as my actual friends. I am too invested in the daily machinations of our presidential candidates to do myself or anybody else much good. I’m so grateful those conventions are over. (Talk about dystopia!) I couldn’t have taken one more day. And then, when something violent or horrible happens--Orlando, Dallas, Nice, any of the traffic-stop shootings--I seem to spend endless hours obsessing about those who have suffered and died. The killing of Father Jacques Hamel in a French parish church last week nearly did me in, as did the dismissal of all charges in Freddie Gray’s death. This summer's events have made me both heartsore and heartsick.
This has been a particularly difficult summer for all of us. Not only have we witnessed a seemingly unprecedented amount of violence both here and abroad. We've also been exposed to a particularly virulent strain of ugly social thought in our public life, and the looming general election campaign promises to be at best an unedifying spectacle and at worst a WWE smackdown. Where can we go for comfort? How do we get our bearings?
In today's gospel [Luke 12:13-21] Jesus tells the story we call the parable of the rich fool—the tale of a man who, like me, retired when he thought he had it all made. The sayings which surround the parable make it sound like a tale about money. But, as elsewhere, Jesus here uses money to signify something else. This is a story not about money but about control. Check that: this is a story about the illusion of control.
A rich man builds a big barn to store all his crops. He has so much grain and so many goods that, by his calculations, he can now sit back, relax, and binge watch Real Housewives of Nazareth to his heart’s content. When he says to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry”, he is expressing the false hope that events are in his control. And then the tables turn: the full barn wasn’t his guarantee of anything. He died, and his riches went to someone else. Not exactly a comforting story for a recently retired person, but an apt parable about the fragility of human life.
Although the multiple stresses of the modern world can make us think that we are the first people on the planet ever to live with anxiety, consider the situation of those who came out 2,000 years ago to follow Jesus. They were poor Palestinian Jewish peasants. Their country was occupied by imperial Rome, an empire that impoverished its colonies in two ways: it taxed them mercilessly, and its standing army ate most of their food. So the Palestinian Jews of Jesus’s day were usually both hungry and broke. Being hungry and broke can make one anxious. And when we’re anxious we often retreat to a hording mentality. The rich man with his barn is a good example. He thinks: “I’m going to get enough for myself and ride out the storm. As long as I’ve got mine, the rest of the world can go to hell.” Not a beautiful sentiment, but we say that to ourselves all the time. We have bought in to the shared illusion of control. We think that our relative affluence will protect us.
When people came out to follow Jesus they were usually poor, starving, and often sick. How did Jesus respond? First, he healed them. Then he invited them into a community of sharing, compassion, mutuality, and hope. Jesus helped frightened people do exactly the opposite of what their first instincts told them to do. He taught them that the way out of anxiety was not through hording but through sharing. Each New Testament gospel has an account of the feeding of five thousand people with a couple of loaves of bread.  What are those stories but examples of the truth that, when we pull together rather than apart, there is always enough to go around?
You and I have a lot in common with Jesus’s first companions. We live in a world characterized by oppression, inequality, and violence. And we have even more in common with the main character in the story he tells, the man we call “the rich fool”. As developed world people, we are all relatively affluent. Our prosperity brings with it a lot of privileges, but it also wraps us in a dangerous web of illusions. One of the things I learned in my years in Malibu, Bryn Mawr, Bloomfield Hills, northwest Washington D.C., and (yes) Pasadena was just how isolating affluence can be. Your investments may bring you some creature comforts, but they won’t protect you from global warming, the rage of those suffering gross inequality, or the depredations of illness and age. Why are we surprised that our politicians talk about building walls when so many of us live in gated communities?
If you are like me, and if you and I are like those who followed Jesus, then we are heartsore and heartsick about so much going on in the world and in our nation right now. Our first response is almost always to retreat to an imagined place of safety where think we can be in control. If it does nothing else, Jesus’s parable of the rich fool reminds us that we are not, finally, in charge. And Jesus’s whole life and ministry reminds us that not being in charge isn’t really so bad.
The hard news this morning is that you and I do not control events. The good news is that someone else does. That someone else is the one Jesus calls his Father, the one who makes the sun shine and the rain fall on the just and the unjust, the one who clothes the lilies of the field and feeds the birds of the sky.  The basic point of Jesus’s life and ministry is this: despite all of the real pain, suffering, and injustice in the world—and believe me, Jesus knew just how real pain, suffering, and injustice could be—despite all that, the deeper truth he shows us is this: reality is friendly to us. The way out of suffering, as our Buddhist friends tell us, is to give up on the illusion that things could be any way other than how they are. 
For those of us who follow Jesus, this means relaxing not into our affluent privilege but into the knowledge that the world we inhabit is God’s. This knowledge doesn’t insulate us from our fragility. We will continue to suffer and struggle personally and socially, and we will always be vulnerable just when we think we’re not. But knowing the world is God’s and not ours frees us to open ourselves and reach out to others, to make common cause with every other human being of whatever description who knows they too share our finite, vulnerable human condition.
The rich fool thought salvation lay in reclusive isolation. Jesus knew that the abundant life is all tied up with living, eating, praying, and working with others for justice. There’s the white knuckle ride of the control fantasy, and there are the open arms of mutuality and love. The choice is yours. Take your pick.
            This choice does not come without its risks. Remember that the one who offers us abundant life is the one who died on the cross. Life will always be what it is—abundant and stressful, peaceful and dangerous, free and oppressive. But those of us who follow Jesus come to know something else: we come to know, through our engagement with each other and the world, that the only peace worth having is an engaged peace, a peace that faces into and responds to the pain, injustice, and suffering known by others. The world may feel dangerous, but it is finally safe. We are in the grasp of one who knows and loves us as we are and will not let us go, no matter what comes toward us. Our security lies in accepting both our personal fragility and our cosmic security and then using them as a platform from which to reach out in love to others.
            You and I are not in control. It wouldn’t be all that great if we were. Let us learn from the example of the rich fool.  When our lives are required of us, what will we have to show for them? I hope we leave more than only a full barn. I hope, instead, for a shared legacy of justice, love, and peace. Amen.