Summer Reading Part 2: Rich Toward God

Date posted: Friday 01 September 2023

I like leading from a position of strength – with a plan in place, a clear goal in sight, and ready confidence that the venture ahead will be successful. I suspect you appreciate opportunities like that, too.


Many of us have lived through decades in which prudent planning and prosperity have paid off in the churches we attend. Growth in the congregation’s numerical size and increased sophistication in programs were simply expected and often accomplished. Each year ministry looked bigger and better. That wasn’t the story everywhere, as some congregations shrunk in size, but the story fit well enough that we continued to see it as the way “things were supposed to be.”


Across North America we are living in a different time. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed changes that have been underway for many years, as I described in the preceding blog. But now, I find the story in Luke 12:16-21[1] resonates well with the new circumstances in which we find our congregations.


Here, Jesus shares a parable as a way of enticing his disciples to change their own perspective. Like the landowner in the story, many of us pride ourselves on our capable leadership. Over the years, we have been pleased with the soundness of our church buildings and our balanced budgets, perhaps even drafting a multi-year plan for growth in staff, programs, and facilities.


Then, just as the man considers the barns he will add in the next chapter in his life, God interrupts with a new question; a reckoning with the fleeting nature of all life. As Luke summarizes in the final verse of this passage – “So it will be for those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 16:21)


Friends, this the biblical story that I am living with these days. As the church, are we focused on being rich toward God or are we captivated by other priorities and measurements of well-being?


More than a decade ago – long before the COVID-19 pandemic – I wrote an essay on this passage for a commentary on the lectionary.[2] It is easy to name what it means to be rich with people or financial resources in our congregations or synod. Who can’t think of a building renovation or a new staff position to add, if only the funds or the people talent were on hand? Yet, what does it mean to be rich toward God?


Being rich toward God is not measured on a balance sheet or in average worship attendance. Instead, it is an image that describes a deep relationship with God and with our neighbors. Being rich toward God is as applicable to a congregation of 30, meeting in a rented storefront, as it is to a congregation of 9,000 on a sprawling campus. It is an image that Jesus holds up in front of all of us, who seek to live as his disciples.


What does that image call to mind for you? For your congregation? I remember a car ride once with two colleagues in which we started talking about what it means to be rich toward God. As we talked about the work we were called to do and our family life, we became so engrossed in our conversation that we missed the highway exit for the concert we were attending that evening.


Is there another biblical story that helps you embrace what we do not yet know about the future of the church? I welcome hearing what story you are listening to and wrestling with these days.


I do hope you are listening to discover the path God is setting before your congregation in these times of uncertainty and change. In my next blog, the final one in this series, I will describe what I would look for if I were looking for community of faith that was rich toward God.


Bishop Patricia Lull


[1] “Then Jesus told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ “Luke 12:16-21, NRSV
[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 310-314.