Overwhelmed: A Sermon for Lectionary 18C / Pentecost 11C

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Augustana Lutheran Church
31 July 2016 + Lectionary 18C
Luke 12.13-21 [22-34]



elections_ahead_sky_0It’s all a little bit overwhelming, isn’t it? This election season, that is. We’ve certainly witnessed a mix of exciting and interesting moments.

One moment in particular caught my attention this past Tuesday as delegates at the Democratic National Convention cast their votes, state by state, for their party’s nominee for president. Jerry Emmett, a 102-year-old delegate from Arizona, herself older than women’s suffrage, proudly announced her state’s votes for the first woman candidate, nominated by a major political party, for President of the United States. It was overwhelming to watch.

Now, in case you can’t tell, I’m a bit of a political junkie, and it’s easy for me to become overwhelmed in all the excitement—and anxiety—of an election year.

But even if you don’t share my particular fascination with politics, surely you know what it’s like to be overwhelmed. For better or worse, being alive means having no shortage of things which overwhelm us.

For many of us, it’s technology. It’s hard to imagine any ordinary moment of life without our devices. Sherry Turkle identifies what she calls the “I share therefore I am” principle—the idea that we have come to define ourselves by our digital presence and social media output.

And so, when we don’t have connection, she says, we don’t feel like ourselves, and so, to compensate, we connect more and more—but as we do, we in fact become more isolated, replacing digital connection for the real thing. [1]

I have a hunch the rich man in the parable from today’s gospel reading knows something about being overwhelmed to the point of isolation.

The parable begins: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” Good news, right? For this man, not so much. Instead of viewing his surplus as a blessing, he is immediately overwhelmed and frames it as a problem to be solved. “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” His solution? Build a bigger barn, and store the crops for himself.

It would seem the rich man in this ancient parable is latching on to a rather timeless phenomenon that finds its expression par excellence in our contemporary culture. Theologian Rob Saler puts it this way:

We are programmed to be “not only consumers, but anxious consumers. Even as we are urged to spend and spend, we are simultaneously bombarded with injunctions to save and build up wealth for retirement [and] future catastrophes… We measure the health of the economy by its ‘growth’ even as we are warned that only those who have sufficient reserves will be able to navigate the future successfully.” [2]

No wonder we’re overwhelmed. Hoarding up stockpiles like the rich man is made to seem like a lucrative opportunity. It means safeguarding ourselves for the future. It means not having to rely on anyone but ourselves.

But of course it can also mean isolating ourselves. For Saler, it’s as though we’re actually able to “purchase distance” from each other and the world around us, a sort of “padding” against any potential threats.

And so the parable ends: The rich man, having stockpiled his possessions, will die, alone. There is no one to answer to God’s question about who will inherit all his stuff.

Still feeling overwhelmed?

Beyond the confines of the lectionary, Jesus immediately continues, “Therefore I tell you…” As if to say, This is the point. Pay attention! “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear… Consider the ravens… Consider the lilies…” It’s a passage many of us have heard before and could probably quote, or at least paraphrase, from memory.

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Remember too that all this talk about the rich man and his barn, and about ravens and lilies, started with a simple request from someone in the crowd: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Did Jesus miss that entirely… or is he making a much more profound point? Hold that thought.

Physicist and theologian Paul Wallace recounts one particularly memorable moment in his introductory astronomy course. He began his standard opening lecture: “Under a dark and transparent atmosphere, with an unobstructed horizon and healthy vision, one can see at most about 3,000 stars.” He goes on: “And if we were to remove our home planet from under our feet we would see 3,000 more.” [3]

It was this last point that caused one of his students to react first with a look of horror before grinning and explaining, “It’s just that you said that there are stars under my feet, and I had never really thought of it like that before.”

In that moment, Wallace’s student suddenly became aware of his relatively small place within the vastness of the cosmos. Maybe you’ve had one of those moments too, looking up at the stars in the night sky, or standing in awe of some other natural wonder.

Moments like these reorient our perspective and move us from being overwhelmed by the things that distract and isolate us to being overwhelmed by creation—the very creation that Jesus points to: “Consider the ravens… Consider the lilies…”

As if to say: Look! It’s not just about you. There’s a whole world, a whole universe, out there, and it’s all connected.

Jesus points to a small sliver of the vastness of the cosmos and offers an alternative vision: It’s a vision that reminds us of our radical dependence on God’s grace and God’s certain word of forgiveness. It’s vision that reminds us that we are dependent creatures.  But it’s also a vision that reminds us we are interdependent.

The splendor of creation, the vastness of the cosmos, the radical grace of God. It’s overwhelming.

Rather than isolation, being overwhelmed by these things, to borrow from Saler again, “frees us up to be creatures who joyfully embrace our dependence upon each other and our environment.” It’s an alternative to the ways we get wrapped up in ourselves and our own worries and concerns.

“Do not worry,” Jesus says, and concludes: “Instead, strive for God’s kingdom.”

It reminds me of a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., I have hanging above my desk in my office: “An individual has not started living until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

King liked to call the kingdom of God “the Beloved Community.” I like that because it reminds us of the communal nature of that kingdom.

Jesus’s alternative vision to strive for God’s kingdom has to do with building up the Beloved Community.

It’s the community prophetically imagined by Mary where the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things. It’s a community whose members are “rich toward God,” which starts by being rich toward our neighbor, as the Good Samaritan reminds us.

It’s a community we are welcomed into at our baptism and which continues to be strengthened every week when we gather at this Table. When we take into our hands simple bread and wine, we wield powerful reminders that the Beloved Community proclaims resurrected life in spite of death and abundance in the midst of scarcity.

It’s an overwhelming mystery that proclaims there is enough to go around in God’s kingdom. We don’t have to hoard it, but we  do get to share it freely.


[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together

[2] http://www.lutheransrestoringcreation.org/the-eleventh-sunday-after-pentecost-in-year-c

[3] Paul Wallace, Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), vii.

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