A Sermon based on Luke 12:32-40
"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33Sell 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. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35"Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, 36like 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. 37It 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. 38It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night. 39But 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. 40You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (NIV)
EMBRACING THE FUTURE
Walter was a hypothetical shut-in. He was crippled with arthritis and walked with two canes. Occasionally I saw him driving by the parsonage, going to the grocery store or to the bank. In his late 70s, he lived alone, his wife having divorced him and having moved in with the neighbor man next door. Church, however, was not something he attended. He had a lot of bitterness and anger. I visited him monthly, accepting him as a kind of psychological shut-in, even if he did sometimes take the car for a jaunt. He was locked into the past. At some point, he ceased to dream, to plan, or to think about the future. Inevitably, when I would visit, as we chatted, he would raise his cane, and with trembling voice, proclaim, "we've got to go back to the old ways." That's where it was for Walter. In truth, the old ways and old days had not been so good. He had been an abusive husband and hadn't made life easy for many people. Yet he used selective memory to give comfort to him, to assure that there had been some value to his life. Now in declining years, he clung to those few affirming memories because the future was too uncertain, and devoid of hope.
For many people, Christians included, this is life's trap. Circumstances have convinced them that if there is a tomorrow, it has no promise and no joy. Some of us, Granger Westberg, the pioneering pastor in the field of wholistic health ministry, liked to say are "just a little bit sick" in this regard. We are subject to occasional depression, troubled by a disappointment here and there and feeling negative only when bad things overwhelm. Others, however, have major problems in this regard. The glass is typically half-empty. People seem to have it in for us. God, if there is a god, doesn't like us any more. We navigate from day to day, savoring the good old days and the good old ways, just to keep ourselves afloat.
Sometimes this problem is more serious. We need medications to help us keep from succumbing to negative pendulum mood swings. Recently, the young son of a friend committed suicide because he couldn't handle his depressions. When something so tragic happens, we anguish over it and wonder what we could have done. Could we just have held and hugged the person long enough to overcome the imbalance? Could we have supervised the medications better to assure no lapses took place?
The dark side of our human psyche can be overwhelming, frightening. It can take us down. There is much here that only those trained in these matter can begin to comprehend and we can be grateful for the gifts of those who work with the deep recesses of our minds. However, there is much in our Christian faith that speaks to the issues of despair, depression, hopelessness, negativism and doubt. Today's text is simple and blunt, overwhelmingly encouraging: "Do not fear, little flock, for it is your father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom!"
Living in tomorrow's kingdom, here already, now already
What a delightfully childlike, simplistic, fanciful thought! And yet it is the kind of optimism and exuberance with which Jesus of Nazareth led his whole life. When the authorities tried to do him in, when mounting pressure suggested he was in league with the devil-when punishment and execution was the solution of the leaders of the day, Jesus still focused on tomorrow. As the author of Hebrews writes, "For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and now is seated at the right hand of God."
It is important to understand Jesus' theology. We, on the one hand, too easily succumb to theologies that make materialism and human recognition our gods. When they fail us or when we can never get enough of them (which is the more likely problem), then we become virtual atheists who declare that these gods were never real all along. And it is certain, that materialism and human affirmation never had claim to ultimacy. Jesus knew that the only ultimates were God's own love for us and his love alive within us. Given that the fullness of such love is always a gift in process, the tomorrows of this life beckon with possibility if we seek to realize love's potential within us. For Jesus, that was the goal and destiny of life, to be fully in possession of God's love, and to be possessed by it.
This is what he means by talking about the treasure in heaven. For Jesus, heaven and the Kingdom of God are not merely some distant pie-in-the-sky promise. The down payment of that reality is available to us, here already, now already. We live in the kingdom in which, by faith, forgiveness can triumph over revenge, hope over despair, joy over sorrow, generosity over stinginess, love over apathy. These are the characteristics of the kingdom of heaven and they gave Jesus daily power. These characteristics were the means by which he overcame the world. And this is what he is telling us in our text when he says, "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." If our treasure is these realities that belong to the kingdom of God, then our heart will be set on the positive side of these realities and we will be overcome by them, not by their dark alternatives.
When Jesus took control over the future destiny of the world at the cross, he placed in our hands the means to live not in the past or even in the present, but for the future. Those who crucified him thought that by destroying his rallying power among the weak and powerless, they could re-establish control in their little universes, were mistaken. "Forgive them, father," Jesus said, "for they know not what they do." And in reality, only we can know how wrong they were if we focus our faith on the realities of heaven's kingdom and the power and joy such realities can bring into our lives.
Our stories are filled with examples of wrongs people have done to us, failures we have experienced, embarrassments we have suffered and rages we have never entirely overcome. Yet the love which dominated Jesus' life and took him to the cross seeks to embrace each of us in such a way that we come truly to believe there are new and better alternatives for us when we allow the realities of the kingdom to take over in our lives. Life is never finished for us as Christians because the door to eternal tomorrows has been open by the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. For that reason, we seek not to be fulfilled by things and what other's think of us, but by the degree to which we can become lovers, forgivers, hope-filled, confident, joyous citizens of the kingdom.
Keeping our focus when the darkness comes
The text continues with a little parable about a master who goes away and longs to rejoice upon his return with those who have kept watch through the night. This is a positive way of saying that God is waiting to celebrate with each of us who allow faith to focus on the positive traits of the kingdom that Jesus has lifted up for us in his life, death and resurrection.
Last Sunday an interesting, if not inevitable story came to us from the land of the Bible. A father, an Orthodox Jew, had gone swimming in the Dead Sea with his three sons. It was a crowded area, and darkness came and everybody started moving off together, making preparations to get dressed and go home. Everyone, that is, except the father's eight year-old boy who had been left behind. The boy later related that he just lay there and floated, thinking about his friends and trying not to panic. Of course, the heavy salt content of the Dead Sea allowed the boy to do this. Had he started thrashing around and got the heavy salt content in his throat, he could have choked to death. Six hours later, army helicopters spotted the boy two miles from shore and rescued him, bringing him back to his father's waiting arms. It's a wonderful story about happy endings, but it's also a story about a father who lost focus.
It's so easy to do. The "Home Alone" movie series with Holden Caufield gave us lots of laughs, largely because we recognized times in our own lives where we have been as unfocused as the parents in the movie. We set New Year's resolutions, but seldom realize them. Hundreds of different diets bid for our attention, because we've tried half of them and never stuck with any of them. Attempts to work at our relationships flounder because we are who we are, and tend to repeat our caustic remarks, secure our advantage or become frustrated at being "left behind" in one situation or another.
How to keep focus-that is the challenge for the steward in the story who may too easily have lost it by partying through the night and not being aware when a thief broke into the house. It is our challenge as well. How do we avoid lapsing into destructive mentalities and life-styles when they are found all around us? How do we prevent ourselves from raising our canes and saying with Walter, "We've got to go back to the old ways?" How do we avoid raging into the deep dark night of despair?
Some years ago I visited the great Lutheran church on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a weekday morning, there was no one in the sanctuary, and I wandered around in the building. I walked up into the chancel and was surprised to see the words of the Greeks who one day approached Phillip, carved in stone on the all: "Sir, we would see Jesus." Of course, the Greeks just wanted to have a chance to meat the man. But here, it meant so much more. It said to the pastor as he mounted the pulpit, "these people want to see Jesus, in your words, in your life, in your faith."
This is how we keep focus. We see Jesus, "who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God." We would see Jesus who daily invites us into his future. We would see Jesus who alone can transform us by the power of his spirit at work in us to be more like him. We would see Jesus, who makes the kingdom come, as we pray it in the Lord's prayer, here already, now already.
Many years ago, as a student at the University of Goettingen, I attended an evening service at the Albanikirche (Church of St. Alban). I don't remember much about the service except that the motet that evening was Heinz-Werner Zimmerman's "Have No Fear, Little Flock." In Zimmerman's incomparable way, the motet had a syncopated rhythm that gave bounce and joy to the rendering. I left the church unable to get that joy out of my mind and heart. And it has never left me. I know that whatever burdens or disappointments arise, Christ has opened the future to me. I know that no matter how devious my deceit or transgression, God's grace has received me again and again. I know that when fear and despair seek to claim me, Christ calls from the cross, "Have no fear, little flock."
It is a good feeling. I hope it yours as well.