This very night...
Last year, I took my boys, who are now 9 and 11, camping for a few days in the woods. On the first night — as the campfire embers were nearly out — the boys and I sat huddled together for warmth and company. When you’re out in the woods at night, it can feel like a vast and lonely place. Especially for little boys… But right then, when all was quiet and our eyelids were getting heavy, we heard that magical sound: A whip-poor-will! If you’ve never heard one before, it’s a wonderful sound. It’s unforgettable. And the name of the bird is the onomatopoeia. Sounds like whip-poor-will! When it seems as if nighttime has cast its slumber upon nearly every living creature, the soft echo of the whip-poor-will stands out in stark contrast. And there’s something very comforting about it, too. Because most of the nocturnal animals are trying to be silent at night. Predators, and those who go about their evening tasks. Not so with the whip-poor-will; They will let you know exactly where they — and their nests — are. These birds, you see, build their nests on the ground. And when they lay their eggs, the mother will stay right there on the nest until you’ve nearly stepped on her. Like a pheasant — then she’ll startle you and fly away! But because they are so vulnerable, we don’t see or, sadly, hear them, in populated areas. Dogs and cats will quickly find and catch them! And that’s why we only usually see them and hear them way out in the woods at late at night. Lonely places I think there’s an amazing lesson that we learn from the whip-poor-will: And that is simply this: we have to be in a silent place to be able to witness them. We have to make a conscious effort to sit silently in a place where we don’t often venture into to know of the whip-poor-will’s song and to experience one live. Now, I can tell you all about the whip-poor-will — And I could show you a picture or video or even play an audio clip. I could also direct your attention to what we call our pop culture, and there, you would learn the hundreds, if not thousands, of references that would allow you to experience the whip-poor-will through the eyes of others who have been affected in some way by the bird. People such as the authors Washington Irving, James Thurbur and William Faulkner. The poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Frost and Stephen Vincent Benet. Songwriters and performers such as Hank Williams, George Whiting, Gene Austin, Elton John and even the Indie artists Dr Dog. Or the actors of the films such as “Tammy and the Bachelor,” or “It Happened One Night,” or even “The Dunwich Horror.” The common denominator of the whip-poor-will? Loneliness or isolation. And that all accentuates our first point tonight: If you want to know of the whip-poor-will, you have to go to where she is. Often a lonely, dark and empty place. Luke In our reading this evening, we understand this story and its parable within it to be a lesson in not being greedy and, specifically, why we shouldn’t Jesus has been teaching on how we should live our lives, oriented on social practices. We know Jesus is teaching about conversion to God’s will; that is, transforming the way we so-commonly practice hostility toward one another; how we deal with social relations; how to be faithful; how not to be hypocrites; and, of course, what we do with our possessions. In short, Jesus is teaching about loving God and loving neighbor. Let’s not miss this point: We often read it as what we shouldn’t do ourselves, when really it’s more about what we should do for God by doing for others. God doesn’t take away things from us to keep us in a stringent and narrow line; God opens an enormous kingdom before us and rejoices when we expand into it! This is very important! Because, you see, we can say we love God, but if we don’t love our neighbor, we are not really loving God. We’re not embracing the fullness of God’s love by being God’s love. And it’s simply seen in this light in our reading: Someone in the crowd gathered to hear Jesus teach shouts out: “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me!” In the culture of the Jesus’s time the inheritance would come at the time of death of the family patriarch. But unlike today (generally) the eldest son — that is, the firstborn — in Jesus’s day would have gotten the largest share of that inheritance, then the remainder would be divided among the rest — the second born receiving more than the third-born, and so on… Then the women in the family would be expected to be taken care of. In light of Jesus’s teaching, though, the younger brother accuses the elder, and the message is clear to both: Don’t be greedy with what you have; and The only way to inherit treasure in heaven is the share what you have — any amount that you have — here on earth. The lesson is for both the brothers: Whether you have a little or a lot, you are to be generous to those in need. Then Jesus launches into the parable in which a wealthy farmer has an amazing harvest and wonders what to do with his surplus. He wrongly tears down the current barns he has to build even larger ones to store the surplus grain so he can live high on the hog for the next several years. It’s a wonderful plan; that is, until God speaks to the farmer: Verse 20: “This very night your life is being demanded from you And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Well, let’s consider some opposites for a moment. The opposite of greed is what? Sharing. Benevolence, Charity? The opposite of silence is what? Noise, Commotion, Distraction. What does greed do? It distracts us. We can say that greed is an occupation. That is, we are formally occupied with the task of greed. Greed is a consuming action. It consumes our time and our energy. We learn how to get, then act on how to keep what we get. In the parable, the wealthy farmer tears down his old barns and builds bigger ones. After he’s been occupied with his occupation, we might say, he becomes occupied with his abundance — and, specifically — hoarding it away. When we’re silent, though, we’re still. We’re calm, focused, meditative, contemplative. We can hear things that we might not normally be able to in all the noise and distractions that we’ve created in our lives. The opposite of that is distracted. The farmer was incredibly distracted with his wealth. In fact, that which he accumulated set into motion more distractions: Eating and drinking and being merry. I picture a big feast, with an expensive layout of food and people and noise. Comparison If we were to compare the wealthy farmer’s distractions to the way that we live today, what does that look like? It occupies the bulk of our time and energy. We go to work, and we work long and hard to get to the top. The corner office. The power position. All the social events, the speaking engagements, the parties… We are up and out the door before our kids are even awake, and we’re home long after they’re asleep. We spend more time earning than we do with our spouses. We engage with business acquaintances and coworkers more than we do our own good friends and family. For what? So that we can show off our expensive luxury cars and items that we’re financing, furnish all the surplus rooms in those gargantuan McMansions, and collect all the latest toys and gadgets we can accumulate. Always with an eye to the stock market, Always with the attention on what’s stored in those barns. We just call them banks now… And while we’re so distracted with all our work and paying for the stuff and all the gadgets and networking… we never hear the lonely call of the whip-poor-will. Of metaphors What is the whip-poor-will? What is the metaphor we’re talking about and thinking about tonight? It’s this: We’ve become so distracted with what we often jokingly call “the rat race” that we don’t hear the peace of the still of the night. Instead, like the gluttonous farmer, we hear the noise and distractions of stuffing our barns with wealth. The brother in our story today may be talking about his inheritance. And the farmer his abundance. But neither really understand what the True Currency is, do they? Then let’s look now to a third opposite. Jesus says in Verses 20 and 21: “…the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” What does it mean to be rich toward God? Remember what we said a few minutes back: Jesus is teaching about loving God and loving neighbor. The currency for the kingdom is loving God, yes; but it’s also loving our neighbor. We demonstrate our love for God in our love for our neighbor. What we’ve done, however, like the wealthy farmer, is that we’ve isolated ourselves from the neighbor — not even considering his or her cry. We haven’t been still to hear their cry. We, instead, have created and engaged in so many distractions in our lives — all in the self-interest of our own comfort — that we haven’t been still and traveled to the places to listen to the cries of those in need; in the still of the night, in the dark, dark places, hiding away and clinging so tightly to the little they have… We do not hear the cries any longer. This very night. Jesus says “This very night your life will be demanded of you.” It’s a sobering statement for sure. And not one of us ever wants to hear those words, and suddenly be whisked away to stand in judgment. And then, and only then, do we hear the cries. Like the whip-poor-will. And it’s too late. Jesus offers a stern warning, but then again, it’s only a parable; it’s meant to bring us to a realization and show us the way God calls us to live. When we’re generous toward each other, then we are generous toward God. We’re not only talking about money here… It’s all that we are and all that we possess, physically and intrinsically. And God’s generosity for us is as wide as it is deep; It’s unfathomable and endless. Nothing here on earth — no amount of gold or riches or expenses — can ever match God’s love and grace toward us. But we can come closer and get an idea: We do that when we make others happy. In fact, there is no better joy than when we bring joy to others. God celebrates those events with great joy, too. We don’t have to look at being generous as giving something of ourselves that makes us less or leaves us with less in this life; because being generous gives us more of the kingdom life, tomorrow in heaven? For sure! But today on earth as well. When we make life better for all of God’s children, we are making life better for ourselves and all those whom we love, today and tomorrow. These are the riches of kingdom life. And sharing that kingdom life is how we’re rich toward God.