Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
May 7, 2017
Texts: Psalm 120; Luke 12: 13-21
The communities we live in all have sharp differences. We just usually don’t recognize them. On Sunday mornings, as I drive down Woodland towards the church, I see the enormous–and I really mean enormous–houses being built in what was once an open field surrounded by trees. The area was clear-cut, of course, to make the building of these 4.000 plus square foot homes possible.
And on the way home from the office at Casa Esperanza, I see a different side of life: They are the smaller houses–even smaller than mine, for sure – with neatly trimmed postage stamp lots. As I pass them I wonder, where do they put their books? That, of course, would be my question.
And then I think of my friends Ted and Jane who are not that much older than me and now looking at a senior housing complex. They are unloading what they consider to be the non-essentials, including almost fifty years of books. But it really doesn’t matter, whether books or crops, the question for us is why do we build bigger barns?
Although we may not, like the rich man think that now there is a bigger barn, one can simply eat, drink, and be merry, we carry within us the seeds of denial of our own mortality. We really cannot comprehend our own deaths.
On Thursday night, I listened to the volunteer psychologist we use at Casa and who has given so much of his time over the years to helping to protect victims of war-related trauma, domestic violence and asylum seekers talk about the impending possibility–no, the word really is probability—of his own death. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he is carefully choosing the forms of treatment and clinical trials he will continue seeking. But he is realistically aware of his limited timeline for life.
He spoke candidly about putting his “affairs in order.” A good forty years ago, he had been building bigger barns, constructing a business but it collapsed. He then shifted his priorities and totally changed his occupation. When I told him I was really concerned about him because he looked so tired, he just shrugged it off telling me that he would continue volunteering until he could not do so any longer.
Bigger barns. The investment ads on television and—yes!—even public radio tell us that we must consider wealth management. Most of these ads are couched in terms of leaving something to our children, and most, if not all, of us, including me, want to leave something to those we love, some of us have also probably considered the causes or organizations that we also care about.
But there is another kind of barn that we build, not one of wood stocked with material goods, such as the crops of the rich man. We also build figurative barns filled with the actions and activities of a lifetime. These are the barns that will outlast our mortal lives; they are the barns of our deeds and actions.
In this parable Jesus preaches against greed and the way that we are often tempted to put our lives in terms of our possessions. Although we may not do this intellectually, we often do this emotionally. This past week the Midwest and Texas suffered severe weather; tornadoes and flooding struck these regions killing at least 14. Pictures from the scene show signs of utter devastation. There’s literally noting left of some houses but sticks on the ground. The picture was of a man walking over the now open field trying to find the personal items that helped frame his life.
We saw the same kind of devastation here with Hurricane Sandy. How could we forget that iconic photo of the house floating in Barnegat Bay more than six months after the storm? And we know there are still people picking up the pieces of their lives. Furniture, even books can be replaced, but not the items of our memories—the photos, that one item from our favorite grandmother or aunt.
Bigger barns. How do we build the barns of our lives? And what will be in those barns when we die? My friend the psychologist has been talking not only about what kind of legacy he will leave but what he sees as his continuing mission, which is to continue to do what he does best for the greatest number of people. Those are the crops in his barn now.
Some of you remember Earle “Mac” McCullough and his wife Elizabeth, called Beth. They met while he was at Yale Divinity School and she one of the first women to be admitted to Yale Law School. They married in 1943 and went on to be ministers even after Mac retired. In the early 1980s, when people thought AIDS was contagious, they bravely led this church into creating a ministry to persons with AIDS, now known as The Center in Asbury Park. But their life in service did not end even then. Their trust, the crops in their barn, is enabling both the Divinity School and the Law School to create a future of justice and mercy.
Bigger barns. I look at the bookshelves across from my desk and I have to ask myself about my own barn. The books are little more than symbols of my own drive to constantly expand the parameters of my soul, which is comprised of my heart and mind. As I listened to my friend Thursday night, I had to honestly ask myself how I would respond to such an illness, to not just the possibility of my own death, but the clear certainty brought on by medically indicated timelines.
This is when it gets personal. A very long time ago I read a small book of poetry called “How could I not be among you?” It was written by a young man dying of cancer. At that time because he was so close in age to mine, it made a deep impression on me—and his question still resounds. How do we—how do I—leave the world we have lived in? What are the crops in our barns?
Rather than thinking my comments as depressing, they should actually be looked at in light of hope, for the barns we build and the crops we gather provide a legacy of having lived Jesus’ call to continue the Kingdom of God he came to establish among us. Our work is not done and we strive for a future that will reflect all we have given. Our Nation’s Founders called that “posterity.” They truly believed that their efforts were like the crops in the barn. And they were.
Posterity is more than simply the transfer of wealth. Posterity is the heritage we pass on to the next generation. Many of the causes I have supported over the years now make requests for what are called “legacy gifts,” portions of our estates that will support the same causes long after we have ended our lives here on earth.
But our legacy is much more than the material goods we can give. Those of you who have been teachers know—or should know—the impact you have had on the lives of the children you taught. Every once in a while you are reminded by a parent or a student you had some many years ago. “Don’t you remember me?” the student will ask, and you think, yes, but why is it you remember me? The impact you had will be part of the crops in your barn.
It must have been almost fifteen years after Bob had died, at a political meeting—where else—in New Haven, a young man in thirties, heard my name and asked me if I was related to “Professor Phipps.” When I told him who I was, he went on to tell me how Professor Phipps had shaped his life and his vocation.
I was both stunned and deeply moved, but knowing Bob’s commitment to the importance of understanding the present in light of the past, encouraging students to follow their dreams, I should not have been. His encouragement to students were just some of the crops in his barn,
On Friday night, I went up to County College of Morris to see the student production of The Elephant Man. The student who played John Merrick, a young man by the name of Liam Young, provided an extraordinary performance. There is no other word to describe him but extraordinary. As I was leaving the building, he was talking with some adults who were congratulating him on his performance and I heard him say, “But I never could have done it without Dr. Cioffi.” And I knew what he meant.
Bigger barns. The barns we build will indeed be our legacy, filled with the crops of how we have lived here on earth, our commitments to our professions, the seemingly little things like walking dogs at an animal shelter, activities we engage in as part of our stewardship for God’s world, the care we show others by cleaning a kitchen or working at the Calico Cat for all these actions reflect the love of God we share with the world.
Let us pray: Indescribable One, Author of our being, open to us the many ways we can be the crops in the barns yielding a harvest for justice, mercy, and love. In the name of him who was your harvest, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.