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July, 31 2016

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dr. Susan Fleming McGurgan

 

In the northwest corner of Kansas,

out on the high plains covered with short prairie grass,

there is a small town where my grandparents were born.

 

It is a land of extremes—

hot and arid in the summer

bone-rattling cold in the winter.

Most days,

there is a wind blowing from the west that never seems to die

and a sky so big that you can feel lost and alone,

even when you walk hand-in-hand with another. 

 

This is a place where pioneers dug sweet water wells

and put down deep roots.

They built their first homes of sod,

cutting shelter from the earth itself

when the land provided no trees or stones.

 

Today, standing beside a golden field

just ready for the harvest,

or tracing a sunflower’s arc as it follows the sun,  

it can be easy to romanticize the past—

to smooth out the rough edges

and polish up the pain to a high reflective gloss.

 

But in truth,

there was very little romance

to living in a sod hut or plowing the uncut prairie.

It was dirty,

inconvenient,

cold

and incredibly risky.

 

Human life was fragile

and crops failed as often as they thrived.

Life on the frontier was unforgiving.

Some pioneers died along the way

and others simply gave up

and returned to a more comfortable,

less marginal way of life.

 

There could be moments of unexpected beauty along the way—

joy so sharp and clear

it could take your breath away.

There were times of high adventure

and the thrill of knowing

no hand but yours had turned the soil.  

 

And there was pride.

Pride in surviving another year

because you planned and saved.

Pride in coming through the cruel winter

because you stored up grain against tomorrow.  

Pride in watching your family grow strong and safe.

Pride in knowing your hard work made the difference

between life and death.

 

On the high prairie,

a man’s barn and silo were more important than his house—

            bigger,

                        stronger,

                                    more stoutly built.

 

And if you were hardworking;

if you prepared for the future;

if your sons lived and your daughters were quick and bright,

then like the rich man in the Gospel reading,

you could look around one day,

and believe that you had tamed the land

and created a legacy.   

 

More hands = more work = greater harvest = bigger barns.

 

In good times,

when the harvest was fine

and the barn filled to overflowing,

it could be tempting to see survival and success

in strictly human terms.

To feel yourself master of your fate

and lord of your future.

 

In good times,

when the rains fell

and the wheat became golden and ripe,

it could be easy to believe that

these treasures were yours—

stored up for years to come.   

 

Today’s Gospel reading about big harvests and bigger barns

reminds us that idolatry

doesn’t always come in the form of a graven image

or a demon god.

 

Idolatry isn’t always accompanied by a whiff of sulphur

and the sound of cloven hoofs.

 

Sometimes, it arrives as simply as the summer harvest

and the winter wheat.

 

Idolatry simply means that we honor something—

like our own efforts—

in place of God.

Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God, *

making true communion with God,  

impossible.

 

As Pope Benedict said,

the “fear of God is the beginning of true wisdom”.

This isn’t the fear of a terrorized child,

but rather, the “respect of His authority over life and the world.

To be without this fear of God

is equivalent to putting ourselves in God’s place,

to feel ourselves to be a master over good and evil,

life and death.” * *

 

My grandparents were truly wise.

They knew that despite the size of their barn

or the height of their silo,

there were times when crops failed,

locusts swarmed,

and prairie fires raged unchecked. 

They knew that despite their best efforts

and despite all of their love and care,

neighbors suffered

and beloved children sometimes sickened and died. 

 

They knew with a faith as deep as their wells,

that God alone was the author of life and death,

and they trusted in his mercy,

even when they could not trust in seed, or sun or summer rain.

 

The rich man in today’s Gospel is not a cheat,

or a thief,

or even particularly greedy.

He’s just successful.

 

He made more money

than most of us even dream about.

His mistake,

in the end,

isn’t really about money—

rather, it’s his belief that wealth can make him independent—

even from God. * * *

 

That’s the allure of money, or power, or toys, or sex, or food,

or any of those “things”

we are tempted to put in God’s rightful place.

In the end,

these idols don’t make us independent

and bigger barns don’t make us rich,

no matter how full we can stuff them. 

And as our Holy Father reminds us,

learning this

is the start of true wisdom.  

 

© Susan Fleming McGurgan

 

* CCC 2113

* * Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, June 22, 2008

* * * David Lose, WorkingPreacher.org 7/25/10

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