I was once asked to housesit for family friends, because they had two Dalmatians needing to be tended to. I think I was still in high school at the time, and all I had to do was walk and feed the dogs, and make sure everything was secure. It wasn’t a difficult job by any means, but since these were friends of the family, I needed to make sure everything was in order when they returned. I knew when they were supposed to return, and I was going to clean things up before they arrived. Now, as some of you know I don’t keep the tidiest of offices, so, you can imagine that I might have let things go just a bit. Of course, I intended to clean everything up before they were supposed to return, but I never thought about what might happen if they returned early and without notice.
Fortunately we have something the readers of Luke’s gospel didn’t have. We have telephones. And, the phone did ring as I was watching TV, with dishes in the sink and books and papers scattered here and there. To my surprise, Karen was on the phone, calling, I think, from Dorris, a little town just across California border to the south of Klamath Falls. She was calling to let me know that they were returning early and should be there in about 30 minutes. Remember this was before the cell phone, so they had to stop and use a pay phone – if you remember that device. You can imagine that I was glad that they stopped and warned me. Yes, by the time they arrived I had picked up the house, made sure the dogs were in the right place, and I think that no one, except me, knew the difference. Since all was in order, I received my reward – whatever the going rate for high-school-age house- sitters was in the mid-1970s. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had they returned without warning. I don’t think I would have been ready for them, and had that been the case I might have been a bit embarrassed, my mother wouldn’t be too happy either, and likely I wouldn’t have received my reward!
Our reading from the Gospel of Luke today raises the question of whether we’re ready for the coming of the kingdom of God. This is a question we often ask at Advent, but this week’s lectionary readings remind us that readiness for the coming of God’s kingdom isn’t just a once-a-year event!
1. Don’t Be Afraid
Jesus’s conversation with his disciples begins with an issue that seems to plague our day – fear. We seem to be living in a constant state of anxiety. Every poll suggests that a majority of the American people don’t believe that the nation is on the right track. Consumer confidence remains low, which means that people spend less, which means businesses don’t hire new workers. And even if they would hire, lending institutions are skittish about sharing any money with businesses. Everyone is afraid of getting “snake-bit,” which means we’re in a vicious economic cycle, and that’s not a good situation to be in if you’re a consumer-driven economy.
But it’s not just the economy that makes us anxious. We seem to be afraid of a lot of things – terrorism, immigrants, people who are different, and climate change, just to name a few. To give you a sense of some of the issues causing people anxiety, consider the controversy that has surrounded the proposed Islamic center and mosque that are slated to be built a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. Responses have been driven by fear of Islamic-inspired terrorism. And, in California, a Federal judge has overturned a proposition that bans gay marriage. This has caused anxiety largely because some people are afraid that it would undermine their own marriages. The oil well in the gulf has been plugged, but there are plenty of other things out there to scare us – warnings about medications, crime, drugs, tainted foods, as well as cars and trucks that are defective. Although the media seems to drive this negativity that infects our world, our own insatiable appetite for bad news encourages the media to focus on the negative rather than the positive.
To get a sense of where things seem to be, it might help if turn to a conversation that takes place between Charlie Brown and Lucy in The Charlie Brown Christmas. In a famous scene from the show, Charlie Brown visits Lucy’s “counseling clinic,” where she dispenses advice for a nickle. She begins by asking him what he’s afraid of – as she rolls off a list of phobias, she comes to the one that afflicts Charlie Brown, and maybe many other people living on this planet. The conversation goes like this:
Lucy says: “Or maybe you have pantophobia. Do you think you have pantophobia?”
Charlie Brown replies: “What's pantophobia?”
Lucy answers: “The fear of everything.”
When he hears this, Charlie Brown shouts: “THAT'S IT!” (Sending Lucy flying back into the snow).
So, do you have “pantophobia?” Are you afraid of everything? If so, Jesus responds to our fears: “Do not be afraid!”
2. Yours Is the Kingdom
The question remains, why shouldn’t we be afraid? After all, the times are tough. Jesus’ answer is quite simple: It “is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That is, God has provided us the kingdom for which we pray each Sunday: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Jesus’ message is this: There is no need to fear, for God is our provider. In the verses that precede our text, Jesus points out that God doesn’t forget the sparrows, which sell for two pennies, or even the number of hairs on our heads. So, don’t be afraid, because you’re more valuable to God than many sparrows (Lk 12:4-8).
To make this point even clearer, Jesus says to his “little flock,” sell your possessions, give alms to the poor, and make purses that don’t wear out by seeking treasure that is in heaven, where no thief or moth can destroy. In offering this directive, we hear echoes of God’s call of Abraham and Sarah. This couple picks up and follows God’s leading into a land that wasn’t their own. They would dwell in Canaan the remainder of their lives as strangers in a strange land. All that they had at their disposal was God’s promise that a nation would emerge from them --- this despite the fact that they didn’t have children and were past the age of childbearing – and from their descendants would come blessings to all the nations. In recalling this story, Hebrews 11 offers Abraham as an example of the life of faith.
It’s easier to live our lives when we know that we have a sufficient nest egg, a solid retirement, a reliable job, and a home we can afford. Indeed, it takes less faith to live boldly, when you know you have something to fall back on. But Jesus says to us: God has provided you the kingdom, all you need to do is trust your lives to God. Yes, trust God by selling your possessions, giving alms to the poor, and entrusting your future to God’s care. By doing this you’ll be making purses that don’t wear out and be seeking treasure in heaven.
Are you ready to trust God that much? There have been those who have chosen this path. St. Francis of Assisi maybe the best example, but he’s not alone. What is interesting about him is that he came from great wealth, and yet he gave up everything, including his inheritance to become a beggar and a preacher. Of course his efforts were rewarded after his death when he was declared a saint of the church. The question is, am I ready to sell the house, empty my bank account, and head out as an itinerant preacher? Even if that might lead to my being declared a saint, I’m not sure I have the confidence to make that decision, Besides I might get some flack at home if I unilaterally made that kind of decision.
So, while I might not be ready to sell everything and follow the example of St. Francis and become an itinerant evangelist living off the land, I do believe that God is present in our midst offering us the kingdom as our inheritance. And that means, letting go of our fears and trusting our lives to God’s care so that we can live lives that make a difference in the world. To Isaiah that means “ceasing to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17).
3. So Be Ready and Alert
But when should we do this work of justice and mercy? Can’t it wait til another day? The expectation of Jesus is that we’re continually engaging in this work of the kingdom, which God has given to us. The question is, when Jesus, our master, returns, will he find us at work or not? Will we be dressed and have our lamps lit, when the master returns to join in the wedding feast? If the master returns at midnight, will we be ready to greet him? Our text has a sense of the apocalyptic to it. It reflects the sense that the days were short and this age would end rather soon. There was, therefore, a sense of urgency to the call of God on the church. Well, it’s been 2000 years and the end hasn’t yet come to pass. When that is our historical experience, it’s rather easy to put off until tomorrow what God would have us do today. But as the scriptures continually remind us, we don’t know the exact time or date that the end will come. Yes, as Jesus says in this passage, the Son of Man will come like a thief in the night. If you know when the thief is coming you’ll be ready, but it’s rare that thieves give warnings, so you just have to be alert!
My take away from this text is this: God is calling us to live out the message of the kingdom. We’re called to participate with God in extending God’s reign in the world. This means making a difference – doing good rather than evil – so that a world that experiences fear and anxiety, pain and suffering, might find healing and hope. As I pointed out in my newsletter article, the phrase: “A Movement for Wholeness in a Fragmented World” – a phrase that defines the mission of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and that is found printed on the front of your bulletin, is a reminder of this calling. To make this claim, doesn’t mean that we’ve experienced complete wholeness. It does mean that God has chosen people and communities like this one to bring wholeness to a fragmented world that is marked by fear. And the implication of this text is that there’s no time to waste!
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
August 8, 2010
11th Sunday after Pentecost