Refocusing the Picture

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 ~ Colossians 3:1-11 ~ Luke 12:13-21

Our family lives in Montgomery, a suburb of Cincinnati on the northeast side. If you’ve ever eaten ribs at the famous Montgomery Inn, you were just a few blocks from our house.

From its founding in 1795 until the middle of the 20th century, Montgomery was a village with fewer than 500 houses centered on a small downtown, the 12-mile stagecoach stop northeast out of downtown Cincinnati. Our neighborhood was built beginning in the late 1940’s, and each decade since then has seen new subdivisions added. It’s a popular place to live, and some of the smaller houses have become what’s known as a “teardown.” You’ve probably heard of it, maybe even seen examples here in the Trenton area. The older, smaller house is sold either to a new owner or a builder. It’s torn down, and a larger, modern house is built on the lot.  Sometimes the neighbors don’t like this big, new house in their block…but some neighbors see the opportunity to cash out and go ahead and sell to a builder as well.

I couldn’t help thinking of this “teardown” phenomenon when I thought about the farmer in today’s lesson from Luke. The original teardown! His barns weren’t big enough to hold the year’s harvest, so he just knocked them down and built bigger ones. It was an easy solution.

Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with building a bigger barn or a bigger house. If you need the space to store what you’ve grown or to hold your livestock, or if you have a big family or entertain a lot, or need a home office or workshop…nothing wrong with building the space to accommodate it.

But there’s another detail in our story from Luke that hints at what bothers me about the idea of erecting ever bigger buildings. Did you notice the pronouns in this story? Every time the rich man speaks, it’s the classic “me, myself, and I.” Even as he summarizes, preparing to “Eat, drink, and be merry”, he’s talking only to himself. “…I will say to my soul, SOUL, you have ample goods laid up…” In fact, some versions state it even more clearly: “I’ll say to myself, you have plenty…”

This is a solitary man: he has no one to share with, no one to consult in making the decision about what to do with his abundance. He doesn’t even consider that he might share some of his excess grain.   Surely there are people around who haven’t had the same good fortune and would love to have a bit of his bounty.

Sometimes I look at the people living in the huge houses and wonder…when 2, or 3, or 4 people live in a house of more than 3,000 square feet…might they be a little bit lonely?  When everyone has their own bedroom, bathroom, TV-watching room…maybe there’s a bit of me, myself, and I going on here too.

Again, I don’t mean to sound critical of people who live in big houses and who have lots of stuff—believe me, if you came to visit us you’d see plenty of stuff in a fairly big house– but I think all of us can stand to evaluate the state of our relationships. That’s the poverty in this story of the rich man with his barns, and in the lives of lonely people who live in big houses—or really, people who live in any kind of home. You don’t have to live in a super-sized house to be lonely.

Now, the way Jesus tells this story, he’s pretty hard on the guy with the big barns. “You fool” he says. “You’re going to die”—(in this story very soon)—and then who’ll take care of all this stuff? Jesus wants us to know that our real purpose, the reason we were created, wasn’t so we can collect stuff.

But again, it’s not the stuff that’s the problem; it’s the way we deal with it. The problem is when we spend all of our time and energy on our stuff: earning money to buy it, shopping for it, building bigger barns or houses to store it, counting it, taking care of it…and we don’t take time or energy to pay attention to our relationships, to living in community.

That’s how God wants us to spend our time and energy. That’s why God created humans in the first place. Being in community—with God and with God’s children around us—is why we’re here, and why Jesus lived, died, and rose. In community we find sustenance, comfort, help, and hope. And it’s in community that we experience life with God. Right here, in this community of St. Peter. Or in the community of our family, where we might be lucky enough to experience unconditional love—the human kind, anyway, which sometimes falls short of being truly unconditional.

Sometimes it’s hard to find this community—sometimes we have to dig ourselves out from our pile of STUFF to get to the people who are our community. This week the author of one of my morning devotions gave me an idea for doing it. I’d like to share the author’s lovely words to set the scene…

For once, the weather forecasters were right. The ice storm hit just when they said it would and just as hard. The entire middle part of Indiana was hunkered down, hoping that the ice buildup and high winds would not result in massive power outages and in people finding themselves stranded in their cars out on stretches of rural roads. At the farm the wood was stacked, food stashed in the fridge and water bottled just in case. For our part, we were lucky. Our power stayed on. And there was no place we had to go. We stayed put and listened to the ice hit and the wind howl.

The next morning I woke to the amazing vista of ice. Everything was covered and glistening—trees, windows, pickup truck, rocks, fence rails, bird feeders, light fixtures, an old wagon. I beheld a world wrapped in crystalline dazzlement. I knew I’d have to brave the wind and cold and venture out with my camera. I needed to capture these scenes that sparkled from what little light poked through the leaden clouds.

After breakfast, I struggled into my…coveralls, pulled on a stocking cap, grabbed my camera and headed out. As I stepped off the relative warmth of the windowed porch, an amazingly vast scene overwhelmed me. I began snapping away.[1]

He shares that his first photos just didn’t really capture the magnificence of the icy scene—both its beauty… and its danger. After taking some time (back indoors, where it was warmer), he realized that he needed to REFRAME the scene. He was trying to take a photo of the whole view, trying to see it all. But if he would find some detail to frame in his viewfinder, that single image might better express the amazing sight before him.

So he shot a photo of a single ice-crusted tree. You’ve seen them—a thick layer of ice glistening on each and every branch. This reframed photo was better, but still, not quite expressing what was so amazing to see in person.

Finally, he remembered about focusing…if you’re a photographer, you know about “depth of field.” How you can change the way the camera sees the scene so a single item is in focus, while everything in the foreground and the background stays a bit fuzzy.

And that did it. A shot up close, with only a single branch in focus, became a powerful image of the storm’s impact on the landscape.

*****

What if we try to reframe and refocus our view to make it easier to focus on God and on those around us? Like the photographer, we might be so sure that our usual way of viewing the world is right that we can’t really SEE what’s out there. Maybe we have to look from a different perspective, or with a different kind of focus. If we can look beyond our house or barn, whether big or small, to the people in the next room or down the road…we might SEE someone who needs our love—or our extra grain. If we look outside of our house or barn, we might SEE a bit of God’s creation that will show us how God IS REALLY present in our world; among us all the time.

My neighbors have resigned themselves to the big new houses that’ll keep popping up on our street, probably until all the little, old houses are gone. Maybe I can reframe and refocus the way I see those houses…after all, they’re occupied by PEOPLE; people who are also children of God. People who may be hungering for community, who might need a friend in the neighborhood.

I bet… you can find a way to reframe and refocus the way you see the world around you. Change your viewing angle; look up close; check your focus. You can find a new way to see God and find new ways to live in community with all those around you. Because that’s how God wants us to live.

[1] J. Brent Bill & Beth A. Booram, Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012) 69-70.

Preached at St. Peter Lutheran Church, Trenton, Ohio on July 31, 2016

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