Your breath is required of you | August 4, 2019

Text: Luke 12:13-21

Speaker: Scott Litwiller

Jesus has gathered with his disciples and as we learn in the passage before this text, a great crowd has gathered and they so often do when Jesus comes to town. Jesus must have had a frustrating interaction with the Pharisees because he tells his disciples in private to beware of their hypocrisy. He continues talking to the disciples and reminds them that God’s eye is even on the sparrows. Do not be afraid, are you not more important and valuable than the sparrows?

This intimate moment and time of teaching is interrupted by a sibling rivalry. A man yells out from the crowd at Jesus and asks him to tell his brother to share his portion of the inheritance. In these times a father’s estate was divided by the number of his male children PLUS one. The eldest child received two portions of the estate while all the others received only one.

This was the tradition and in a society that gave importance to the lineage it made sense that the eldest who would carry on the name would have the responsibility to maintain the bulk of the estate and grow it and then give it to their children. And yet… Jesus did not shy away from an egalitarian system. In fact, he didn’t shy away from telling people to get rid of their possessions all together. Jesus has worked in instances of family rivalry before and has settled arguments. Why is this time so much different?

In this story, one of my favorite biblical characters shows up: Sassy Jesus. Sassy Jesus has so many of the best one-liners as he calls Pharisees into account and calls them broods of vipers and claps back at his disciples who are fighting for no good reason.

Sassy Jesus snarkily responds to this man and he asks him who has set Jesus to act as a judge in this instance. Jesus has acted as a judge in the past, but he didn’t come to judge. He came to be a teacher, to save the people from themselves, and to bring about the Kin-dom of God. Now this guy wants him to settle a sibling squabble when there are plenty of others who do just that.

Rather than directly respond to this man, Jesus tells the crowd a parable, as he so often does. It is perhaps not a mistake that the passage begins with squabbling brothers worried about an inheritance and ends with Jesus invoking God’ voice in the parable to tell wealthy farmer that he is about to die. Is Jesus telling the story of their father’s life to his children? Has this father’s selfishness carried down to his children? Perhaps Jesus is inferring that if the younger brother receives an equal portion, this is who he will become?

The man in the parable is very self-centered. He doesn’t mention his workers. It doesn’t mention if he has a family. The man simply looks at his bountiful crop and determines that he will tear down his barns and build even bigger more beautiful barns so that there will be ample space to store his crop for years to come. Once that is done he will say to his soul, “Soul! You have ample goods laid up for many years. Relax! Eat, drink, and be merry!”

Is there anything inherently wrong with working hard and enjoying the fruits of your labor? Honestly? I hope not! As a 31-year-old going into a job as a pastor and having a REAL (albeit small) salary with benefits on top of the stressful title and responsibility of “pastor.” I hope that I’m allowed to relax and eat and drink AND be merry! Work is hard! Life isn’t worth living if it isn’t enjoyed, right?

The man doesn’t put his crop into the market during this good producing year. Perhaps he will wait until the prices are better and there is a higher demand for what he has? This is just good strategy, right? He is a shrewd businessman. But perhaps this is precisely what Jesus is talking about. The man only mentions himself. There is not acknowledgement of the workers he undoubtedly hired. Did he pay them, or will he wait until he has sold the crop? Will they be able to eat, drink, and be merry? Will the man ever give back to his community or thank God who provides?

Upon my first reading of this text, I struggled with this line spoken by God. God says, “You fool! Tonight, your soul is required of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” This doesn’t sound like the familiar God that I have come to know and love. It is even more frustrating knowing that Jesus who I follow is the one putting these words into God’s mouth.

When I study scripture, one of the practices that I have come to appreciate is the Jewish practice of PaRDeS. PaRDeS is very Anabaptist in the understanding that Scripture should be studied in community, it is a very old practice, similar to Lectio Divina. Practitioners come together and here they understand that neither one of them holds capital T truth, rather that truth is found in the midst of the act of studying of Scripture. PRDS has four levels of interpretation or study where you start with the “obvious” or simple or literal meaning and move deeper and deeper until you get to a hidden or secret meaning.

With this text I think that it is obvious that the literal meaning of this text is that we could literally die at any moment, then what has my life been worth? Have I focused on myself and horded my possessions and my soul to myself? Have I done enough? Have I shared enough? Have I supported local enough? This makes me come close into that Mennonite trap of always being busy and doing doing doing more.

Yet as I go deeper into my own understanding of this text, I see that quote from God in a new light. The word in Greek that is translated into soul can and is translated correctly. It can be said that God is saying the man will die. But, in other instances this word is translated to say breath or life. What does it mean that our breath is required of us? Does it mean only death? What is the first thing that you would do if God popped up here and convicted you of something

*Sharp Inhale* and hold

I saw the Lion King this week and was reminded of the great philosophy of the Circle of Life. As Mufasa tells his son Simba, they as lions are a part of the circle of life because they eat the antelope, but when lions die their bodies become the grass and the antelope eat the grass. We are all connected.

If there are too many antelope there is not enough grass to go around and if there are too many lions, there aren’t enough antelope to go around. There is a balance that comes with the circle of life. We are all connected in this life. When I look around at our world I see that in large part as a society we have forgotten this. We need to be reminded. We too are connected. We are learning all too terribly that our actions as a human race of destroying the planet for profit is not only killing the planet, it is killing people! Western society and our way of life has caused pain, hardship, and death in non-western society. Because of this there have been mass migrations of the people affected by our actions and they are not being met with compassion or understanding or even a admitting of the fault that we have in the devastation of so many parts of the globe.

This week a white nationalist gunman traveled 9 hours from his hometown to El Paso which is 87% Latinx in population, many of whom can trace their heritage to folks who lived in Texas back when Texas was Mexico. He killed at least 18 people and injured dozens more because of racism and the lie and the sin of white supremacy. There have been 250 mass shootings in this country since January 1st. I woke up this morning to hear about another mass shooting in Dayton, OH where 9 are left dead and 20 injured! That’s two shootings in a 24-hour period. Racism and hatred and othering of people who are not like us is killing people. It is killing people and it is being glossed over by thoughts and prayers. I will fully admit that at this point I have become numb. When Columbine happened, I was in 8th grade and I was shaken to my core for months. Now that there are shootings every other day… I barely feel anything. When I do, it is a holy rage at our collective inability to see the image of God in other people’s faces and a huge disappointment in myself for being at a place where I have learned to numb myself. Our breath is required of us. How will we respond?

Thankfully this isn’t the end of the story. One thing that I have learned about scripture is that you can’t read a text without the one that comes after it. This passage seems all doom and gloom and convict-y. It is! Jesus is frustrated with this man’s request. Sassy Jesus gets tired of people’s junk and sometimes he gets fiery! But there is always grace that comes along with Sassy Jesus. Quit squabbling and being greedy and othering!!

But! Consider the ravens. They do not sow or reap, they don’t even have barns! God feeds even them. Don’t you have more value to God than a raven? By worrying, or being greedy, can you add a single hour to your life? Consider the lilies who have never sown or spun clothes and yet Solomon in all his glory was never clothed like they were. Don’t be afraid, little flock. Strive for the kin-dom of God. It is God’s very pleasure to give the Kin-dom. I believe that when Jesus talks about God’ kin-dom he is talking about a literal space here on Earth. Strive for a place where everyone’s needs are met, where every tear is wiped clean. Where racism and gun violence are only legends of a dystopian past.

If you remember one thing from this sermon, I hope that it will be the idea that we are all connected. What we do, how we live, how we breathe, how we treat others, it is all important. We cannot breathe alone like with the antelope, if we did we would all suffocate. We need the lilies and the trees and plants to breathe with us to recycle our breath to make it breathable for us again. Just like we need each other in all our diverse glory.

In my favorite poem by Wendell Berry, Berry says”
Sit and be still – Until in the time – Of no rain you hear – Beneath the dry wind’s – commotion in the trees – the sound of flowing – water among the rocks – a stream unheard before – and you are where – breathing is prayer

You are where breathing is prayer.

Being still allowing our breath to be prayer is important. But let these prayers be the reminders that fill and rejuvenate us. Do it until you believe it, or until you begin to feel yourself leaning into it more than you were before. Your breath is required of you. Sit. Be still. Listen for the unheard things and breathe. Find your soul, your breath, your life amongst the unheard, the unseen, the unlistened to. Allow your breath to be prayer. Let every breath be an action toward, or prayer for, the kin-dom Accept that prayer as fuel and let it move you and give you strength in all that you do. Friends, our breath is required of us.