Danish Martyr, Kai Munk, Speaks for Today
Jesus told them this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. The man talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’
“Just then God showed up and said, ‘“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
“That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”
So what does this parable have to do with us? We're not pulling down the old barns to build newer, larger ones, are we? I'm guessing that those of us who are on fixed incomes husband our resources carefully. Those of us still in the workforce are budgeting for kids' college expenses, or retirement or just paying the mortgage and the bills. Maybe we budget for a nice trip. Maybe we splurge on a new pair of boots, as I did just the other day--and wait until you see them!
But as my financial planner--a jovial round-faced man who has an oddly calming effect--said to me a couple of years ago, "Well, you're not wealthy, by any means" by which I think he meant that I wouldn't be dumpster diving in my seventies, but that I was no Marilou Whitney, either.
So really, of what account is Jesus' parable to us? Is it even relevant to us?
Well, in fact, this parable is central to our lives, even if we are not a Whitney, a Carnegie or a Trump--though we have to hand it to Andrew Carnegie, the father of modern philanthropy, who tried to give away most of his vast wealth and defined his life's meaning this way: "To try in some way to make the world better than you found it is to have a noble motive in life."
You see, the parable isn't really just about money. It's about selfishness and self-absorption. It's about self-interest. And in that way it pairs well with our reading from Colossians:
But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
I'm not telling you anything that you don't already know, but we are in a very big pickle in our country right now. We have become big on incivility--the Episcopal diocese of Washington, D.C. called out our commander-in-chief on his racist rhetoric this past week. We have become short on genuine dialogue--the two nights of the Democratic debates make my point handily about that. Incivility and not listening to each other are, sadly, things that reach across the aisle. And they have become embodied in the highest echelons of our government. A lot of the times I just want to put my head in my hands and shop for new boots.
But--rarely--do I. And it's because of the Holy Spirit. It's because of whatever defines ultimacy in my life. And I know I'm just a tiny speck of a person with a voice that not many people hear, even as I follow what I believe is God's call to me to announce God's ways for God's people. But tiny speck that I am, I am not alone. And I am not easily cowed. And I believe that we all--all--are called to live into our responsibilities not only as citizens in our beloved nation, but as God's children in this wondrous creation--this creation we are summarily and actively destroying as we seek to build newer and bigger barns for all the wealth we seek to amass.
Now--my mom used to call me an idealist. And it used to--pardon my French--really piss me off. I wanted to say to her, "Well, you raised me, Mom, so some of this is on you." I wanted to say, "So? I'm an idealist. I want to marry an idealist. I want to raise up idealists in my kids. In my work I want to inspire people to be idealists. That's a work order for life. I mean to embrace it."
Of course, Mom didn't mean anything bad by saying that she didn't want me to be an idealist. She had lived through the Depression--her dad lost their house. As a first-time mom, she'd given birth to a disabled daughter. She was widowed in her mid-forties. Mom never had any thought of building new barns because there was never really enough money to put in the barns she had already. So she didn't want me to be an idealist because she wanted me to be safe. She wanted me to have a safer life than her life had been. But boy, did I chafe against her desires for me!
And in the end, not without reason. Because for all our deepest desires for safety, security, non-involvement--think how loooong it took for us to become involved in both world wars--safety cannot be assured, guaranteed, vouchsafed or husbanded.
Oh, and God has never, ever called us to safety and security. All we have to do is look at Jesus on the cross to know that. All we need is to not turn away from the cross in order to know that. As Christians--as with people of many other faiths, as well--we are called, we are bound to do as Andrew Carnegie said--"To try in some way to make the world better than you found it." It's not a choice we're offered to refuse or embrace. For followers of Christ, that mandate comes to us in our baptism and tugs at us throughout all our lives.
We are supposed to get smart. We are supposed to raise our voices on behalf of the suffering, the lost, "the widows and orphans" as the Hebrew scriptures routinely say. And instead of building golden escalators and new barns, we are called to find out who is in pain and how is the best way to help them. Because are gifted. Because we are God-driven. Because the Holy Spirit will not abandon us--even when we are scared and insecure. Because this world needs people who claim to be people of faith to actually act like people of faith.
So--I'm going to close out this sermon with a little story about the Danish pastor, Kai Munk. Kai Munk was a playwright, a modest Lutheran pastor in Denmark, husband and father of five when he was murdered at age forty-five in 1944.
His crime? Well, his crime was to stand in public solidarity with Norwegian clergy who were opposing the Nazification of that country's state church throughout the war when it was occupied by the Wehrmacht.
Danish clergy were told not to be vocal or opposed to this Nazification. But when asked to tamp down his support Munk's response--again, modest--was this: "I permit myself to inform the Ministry that I propose, not only to not obey the decrees which I have received, but to act directly contrary to it....I feel myself very closely bound up with my Norwegian brethren in the faith, both because they are Norwegians and because...they are fighting for the same ideals for which I, too, have sworn to fight. If I were to sit down as a passive spectator because of the fear of men, I should feel myself a traitor to my Christian faith, my Danish outlook and my ordination vow."
So Kai Munk got arrested; then he was released for Christmas 1943. And January 4th he was taken from his family's home and shot through the head that same day.
His body was left in a ditch.
You know that story about the guy who got beaten up and left in a ditch. He's ignored by several of the religious authorities who pass him by. He's helped by the hated one--think of your worst nightmare coming to your aid in need. That's how we get the term "the good Samaritan." Precisely because no Samaritan was supposed to be "good."
Kai Munk writes this about that story: "'Love your enemies' does not mean that you shall adopt yourself to him and accept his views. On the contrary, you are to love your enemy so much that you would rather spit in his face than commit the crime against him of being silent and consenting to his actions and methods. You are to love your enemy because he is a human being like you, but you are to hate your enemy in as much as he is a performer of that which is evil....The goodness of God is that which is meek and long-suffering--but it never compromises with evil."
Kai Munk, a body in a ditch, a modest parish pastor, speaks truth to power in our time. As people of faith, we are called to do exactly the same. Amen.