10, Aug. 8, 2004
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also. Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (NIV)
One morning a middle-aged woman sat in the office of a psychiatrist because for too long she had been dealing with daily depression. It was the third session for her and she had been struggling to find the source of her problem. Together they had addressed many of her concerns dealing with her relationship with her husband and her parents. There was a lack of satisfaction with her job and her daily activities with friends. She found no pleasure in any of her hobbies nor did she take interest in the news or the activities taking place in her community. She was always concerned that she wasn’t getting enough sleep and she tended to fear that she wasn’t eating the right foods or that sooner or later a serious illness might result from an imbalance in nutrition. The psychiatrist proposed experimenting with some medication to help her refocus, but she was afraid of that. What seemed to make the most sense to her was his concern that she was consumed with issues on the periphery of her life, but unaware of what was going on at the center. Together they began a quest to find out what was going on at the center of her life, the place from which everything else was ordered. What could it be, she wondered, as she left the psychiatrist’s office that day? The center of my life: what could it be?
This question is at the heart of a recent book, become a movie, by Andre Dubois, The House of Sand and Fog. In the story, a number of people are trying to identify the meaning in their lives. It seems to be centered in a house. A recovering alcoholic woman loses this house given to her by her father because she has failed to pay the taxes and the county, in error, sells it at auction. A former Iranian colonel who hasn’t found meaningful work in this country and whose wife is always depressed because she can’t forget her former lavish lifestyle buys this home as an investment on their way to recovering the life they have lost. Complications set in over the house, the two families become pitted against one another, and tragedies occur. The Iranian couple’s son is shot and killed. The colonel in despair kills his wife and commits suicide. The recovering alcoholic’s lover ends up in prison and the movie closes with the fog surrounding the woman who decides she doesn’t want this house after all. Playing on the old children’s rhyme, for want of the house, the kingdom was lost! A material object became so important that several people lose the meaning of their lives. They are concerned with peripheral things, not things that matter. They ceased, if it had ever been true in their cases, to be concerned about central issues without which life gets lost, despair sets in and everything goes haywire.
Today’s text is dealing with such central issues. Because the text results from the fusion of a number of elements found in differing places in other Synoptic writers, the various points seem confusing. However, Luke combines them here to make a point within which we are to locate the center of our spirituality, the ground of our being, as Paul Tillich liked to put it. He uses some teachings of Jesus as well as a little parable to take us away from all the details of life in which we can so easily lose ourselves. He takes our head in his hands, as my father used to do when he was pointing out something to me and I couldn’t seem to see it, and focuses us in the right direction. Combining these textual elements for us, Luke shows us how not to get lost in peripheral issues, how not to miss the center of our lives.
Watching out for border issues and goose turds
In the words he quotes from Jesus, it is clear that many are preoccupied with border matters. A friend of mine who is currently in Iraq working with the U.S. government to help train Iraqi communities in the art of running local governments tells me that border details prevent them from getting their jobs done. If it weren’t for the enormous amount of time spent during the day going through security checks at the borders, they could be helping the Iraqis learn how to develop policies, work out community meetings with rules of order, and structure a society using input from everyone involved. Border issues are usually the problems in our lives when things aren’t going right. In our text, people have been busy acquiring possessions and finding safe receptacles and structures in which to store them. They have been running around preoccupied with daily details, forgetting why they are doing what they are doing in the first place. Jesus reminds them that the larger issue is to ask what your real treasure is because if you miss the point there, you can be busy buying Gucci bags and prestigious houses in which to store things that ultimately don’t really matter. And you can be filing your life with drama and detail that have nothing to do with “whose” you are in the first place.
Martin Marty, church historian and frequent editorialist in the Christian Century, has pointed out that this is not just a problem for those who live on the edges of poverty, as may have been the case with a lot of Jesus’ hearers who were lucky to have one purse (which could wear out) and one cloak (which could be eaten by moths). In Seattle, Washington, where multi-millionaires in the computer industry have their mansions, there are other menacing threats to holding on to value (if, in fact, this is a central concern in their lives!). There the concerns have to do with a problem that is goose-turd green. Vast flocks of geese flying in from the sea strut over acres of well-manicured lawns and driveways, dumping 30 pounds of doo-doo daily on treasured terra firma. What to do? Hire dogs or boys to chase them away? Get electronic systems to jolt them or honk them away? Nothing is working in Seattle and the wealthy are preoccupied with finding contemporary “purses” to preserve their possessions. Marty wonders whether his readers are seeing a connection between this and Luke’s Gospel.
Finding the real core values
Of course, it is possible for us to lose our focus in life and pursue
matters which have little to do with the central things with which we
should be occupied. In fact, it is possible for us to become hysterically
confident that the things with which we surround ourselves at the periphery
are in fact the most important things in the world to us. The recent
enthusiasm of the crowds, shouting and rejoicing over the challenges
and promises of the speakers at last weeks’ Democratic Convention
in Boston, is a case in point. Delegates knew, they certainly hoped,
that a series of speakers would be primed to address significant issues,
to speak to their compelling needs, to lift them up and give them new
hope. A variety of people with differing approaches, from Al Sharpton
to Barak Obama, from John Edwards to John Kerry, gave them reason to
believe that “hope is on the way!” “America can do
better,” promised John Kerry, the presidential candidate.
“Don’t be afraid, little flock,” says Jesus, “for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” Is this more than cheaper prescriptions and gas? Is this better than a $300 tax cut or an environmentally sound car? You better believe it is. Here Jesus is taking you to the heart of the matter, to the center of your life. And then he tells this little parable about servants who are busy running around doing peripheral stuff, not giving a lot of thought to the master who has gone off to get married. But when he comes back, even in the middle of the night, oh what a time this will be! This will be a celebration. He will dress up like a servant, get them to recline at table and wait on them hand and foot. He will get them to share his joy! They will become fellow celebrants. What a time this will be! Are they ready for it? Are they focused on the very reason why they live and work in the master’s house? To share in his joy? To belong to him and to know his love? Or are they busy with peripheral matters which keep them from understanding whose they really are!
This is the point to which all of us need to come, in this story and in our personal stories-- including the middle-aged lady in the psychiatrist’s office, the people in the mansions in Seattle, the marginalized with cloth purses that wear out, the Iranian colonel and his wife, the Democrats and the Republicans, and every one of us! We need to come to the point when we ask ourselves whether our central concerns have to do with the things which really matter, or with all those matters which are just things-- things which can so easily preoccupy us, but also make us depressed or anxious when they aren’t there for us. Jesus is talking about central things like forgiveness, or the confidence which comes from knowing we belong to God eternally. This has to do with basic principles like relationships with our fellows that are grounded in love, honesty and a desire to serve. Here we are confronted with integrating beliefs that assure no one needs to make himself/herself acceptable because Christ’s redeeming sacrifice took care of that! These are the convictions that there is no greater freedom than that which comes from trusting in Him whose Spirit rules our hearts in love.
Living out the joy of your center
These are the real core values that cannot be established by the visioning
of a political party or the affluence that a strong economy may bring.
They are gifts given when the Master comes into our lives, when his
kingdom comes. As his servants and followers, we know that we are not
talking merely about the kingdom which comes at the end of time. It
comes to us also in the here and now, just as surely as the King himself
is present with us through our faith in his love for us. For that reason,
the center of our lives, the place from which our entire motivations
daily arise, is joy, the joy that welcomes the Master on a daily basis
and keeps us centered, free from depression and useless avarice. It
is the joy which takes away fear and daily reminds us whose we are.
It is the joy which makes us ready to take on the challenges of a new
day or decade. It is the joy which assures us that nothing can separate
us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. It is the joy which makes us
generous beyond belief and keeps us expectant. It is always the joy!
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