Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Sermon for Sunday, August 12th

A Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
Grace and St. George’s, 12 August, 2007

Isaiah 1:1,10-20; Psalm 50; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40

Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. (Luke 12:37)

In these difficult times that the church finds itself in, isn’t it interesting how we seem to spend so much time talking about sex, when Jesus seems to be more interested in what we do with our money? Today, for the second time in two Sundays, we have heard from chapter twelve of Luke’s gospel, in which Jesus continues his “less is more” message. “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (Luke 12:33), and last week we heard our Lord say “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Lk 12:15). These are challenging messages, and it’s tempting for a preacher to back away from them, lest people start to complain that “my church is always asking the same people to give more and more”. But the fact remains, that God makes demands on his people, and God expects us to be accountable for how we use our time, our talent, and our treasure.

Faced with these demands, our first response tends to be “how much do I have to give?”, as if God’s approval and our salvation was something that we could buy, provided it’s affordable. However, I don’t think this is the question God wants us to answer. Here in Luke’s twelfth chapter and in many other places, Jesus confronts us with a different question: “how much do I really need?” In her sermon last week, which I read with great interest, Patsy helped us to understand this question in terms of things temporal and things eternal. “Things temporal” means all the transitory stuff that gets us through life – food, clothing, shelter – our necessities. Things eternal are what makes our life worthwhile, the things that really count.

You may have seen the bumper sticker, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins”. It’s a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek kind of message, but it makes a shrewd comment on our society’s relentless desire to consume and acquire. As we saw in the parable in last week’s gospel, the rich fool is not a winner, despite his abundance of possessions. The things he gained in life did give him security and did not give his life value. In other words, Jesus asked us last week if we want quantity in life, or do we want quality of life? Quantity or quality?

The question, do we want quantity of life or do we want quality of life may seem innocent, but it’s actually a difficult one to answer because it makes us fearful. Our society encourages us to think that security comes from quantity. Words in today’s gospel like “possessions” and “purses” and “treasure” have enormous power in our lives. We put our faith in these things because of our fear – fear of dependency on others, fear of poverty in our retirement, fear of being considered a failure in the eyes of the more successful. Now these things show signs of failing us. How many people this week are nervously watching the stock markets and wondering where things are going? I’m not an economist, but I understand that things are so shaky at present because a lot of people who didn’t really have money were leant money to buy homes and were then encouraged to borrow more money against the value of their homes so they could go shop at places like Wal-Mart. This system worked as long as the value of homes was grossly over-inflated, but now that the house of cards is collapsing. People talk about a correction in the markets, as if the market was a God who passes judgment on us when we make mistakes, punishing us for our financial sins and errors. As the preacher Will Willmon says, people today fear the judgments of the market more than we fear the judgments of a righteous God.

So what if we took fear out of the mix? What if we put the question another way, not quantity vs. quality, but true abundance vs. false abundance? What if we stopped thinking about the things that God wants to take away from us, and started thinking about the things that God wants to give us? Notice the first thing Jesus says in today’s gospel lesson – “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32). Jesus tells us to stop worrying about what God wants to take from us, and invites us to open ourselves up to God’s generosity.

Notice how the parable in today’s gospel works. It is late at night, and a group of servants are ready for their master’s return from a wedding banquet. As soon as they hear him at the door they are ready to spring into action. You might be expecting the servants to come running with water so he can wash away the dust of the road, or perhaps a clean soft road and refreshments after his journey. But then, in a way that’s so typical of his proverbs, Jesus takes an unexpected direction: “truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them” Wait a minute, you might have said as you listened, I didn’t see that coming, but that’s how Jesus works. In Mark’s gospel we hear Jesus say In the Incarnation, "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45), and in John’s gospel we see this idea enacted in the story of Maundy Thursday, when Jesus kneels and washes his disciples’ feet. Again and again we need to be reminded that Christ came to serve us, so that we may have new and better life.

As I understand today’s gospel, Jesus is telling us to stop worrying, to stop trying to serve ourselves by buying into the world’s security, and to start letting God serve us the good things of his kingdom. Trade the false abundance of the world for the rich and real abundance of God. Allow God’s generosity to touch us in this way, and we will be changed. “Sell your possessions and give alms”, we heard Jesus say. The word “alms” comes from a Greek word which can mean "to be gracious" or "to show mercy" or "to feel sympathy". How could the world be changed if more of us were filled with mercy and sympathy? Did you know that North Americans spend $33 billion in weight loss products and services each year and $12 billion yearly on video rentals. Did you know that it’s been estimated that for an additional $13 billion each year, a fraction of what the world spends on weapons, basic nutrition and health care needs could be met around the world.

How could this happen, we ask? I think God is constantly showing us how this could happen. World Vision Canada, for example, can often triple its donors’ dollars to maximise their impact. In one small part of Zimbabwe in Africa, one World Vision project has managed to provide 1 furnished classroom, textbooks for thirteen schools, vocational training for 7 high school dropouts, two houses for refugee families, 74 toilets, medical assistance for 126 orphans and vulnerable children, training for 71 church workers to help reduce the stigma of AIDS/HIV, and 6 community talks on issues affecting girl children and the rights of children. One, seven, seventy-four, one hundred twenty-six – these are numbers that we can get our heads around. These things are doable, and they start with us. I don’t intend this to be an advertisement for World Vision, but I’m pleased that my few sponsorship dollars can help make a difference in one place.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit”, Jesus tells his followers. Some Christians have taken this to be a warning to expect the Second Coming at any time. A more helpful way of understanding, I think, is to take this as a reminder for us to be alert and ready to do God’s work. In the first lesson, the prophet Isaiah warned Israel not to be smug and complacent in its religious services, but to do God’s will in the word: “learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”. God has blessed us in so many ways – how can we share those blessings? How can we get ready to do God’s work? We expect our firefighters and police to be ready at a moment’s notice to come and help us. Are we as Christians ready and willing to do God’s work in the world? Are we as a parish alert for opportunities to be God’s people, ready to answer God’s call at an unexpected hour? In the book of Hebrews we heard that God’s people “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one”. We all want to live in a “better country”, but today’s scriptures remind us that our hope is for more than a heavenly reward. Our hope is also a better country of God’s abundance here on earth, and it starts with us. As an old African spiritual says, “I wanna be ready”. Today is an opportunity for us to say, like the servants in our Lord’s parable, “we wanna be ready”.

©Michael Peterson+ 2007

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