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18th OT C ~ "Bigger Barns" ~ Susan McGurgan

In the northwest corner of Kansas,

out on the high plains,

there is the small town

where my great grandparents settled as pioneers.

Today, it shares the fate of many small towns--

abandoned buildings,

overgrown lots,

roads leading nowhere in particular.

This corner of Kansas is a land of extremes—

hot and arid in the summer

bone-rattling cold in the winter

and with a prevailing wind that

blows the laundry into the next county.

In this place of both beauty and risk,

pioneers dug sweet water wells

and put down deep roots.

They built their first homes of sod,

cutting shelter from the earth itself

because the land offered up no trees or stones.

Today, standing beside a golden field

just ready for the harvest,

or tracking a field of sunflowers

as they follow the morning sun

it can be easy to romanticize the past—

to smooth out the rough edges

and polish up the hardship 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,


and all too often,


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.

But those that endured

felt pride.

Pride in surviving another year

because they planned and saved.

Pride in emerging healthy and alive from the long winter

because they stored up grain against cold.

Pride in seeing a family grow strong.

Pride in building schools, and churches, and a vibrant community.

Pride in knowing their own hard work

made the razor thin difference

between life and death.

On the high prairie,

a family’s barn and the community silo

were more important than their houses—

they were sources of comfort and wealth



more stoutly built than the home.

And if you were hardworking;

if you prepared carefully for the future;

if your sons grew strong and your daughters were clever and brave,

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 rich

and the barn filled to overflowing,

it was 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 was easy to believe that

these treasures were yours alone.

In good times,

when children thrived and the town grew,

it was easy to trust in your own efforts

and celebrate your own success.

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 ominous music

and a whiff of sulfur.

It doesn’t always look exotic,

or ugly,

or monstrously evil.

Only in movies does it arrive clattering on cloven hoofs.


idolatry comes as simply as the summer corn

and the winter wheat

and in the overwhelming pride of ownership.

Idolatry means that we honor something—

like our own efforts—

in place of God.

It means we elevate ourselves,

our possessions,

our talents,

believing that we are in control.

Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God, *

making true communion with God,


As Pope Benedict said,

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

This isn’t the fear of a terrorized child,


from a harsh word or a heavy hand.

Rather, it is 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.” * *

To be without this fear of God

means we allow our barns and our silos and our careful planning

take center stage.

It means we believe that our own courage and strength

have saved us.

My great 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

is the author of life and death;

that God alone

is the master of the harvest

and creator of goodness.

They trusted in God’s 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

and his success has made him blind.

He made more money

than most of us even dream about.

His mistake,

in the end,

isn’t really about money, or silos, or stored grain—


it is in his belief that wealth can make him independent—

even from God. * * *

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

sex, food, popularity, careers--

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

just as 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, 7/25/10

Image is from a letter my Grandmother, Sophia, wrote applying for membership in the "Sons and Daughters of the Soddies" a national organization of people who were born or lived in sod houses on the frontier.

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