“Do not be afraid, little flock”

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper C 14 / Lectionary 19
August 11, 2013

The text for the sermon

Luke 12:32-4032“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed 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. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

39“But know 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, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

The Prayer of the Day:

Gracious God, you promised to Abraham and his children a wondrous inheritance and called them to live trusting in your word.  Grant us confidence in your promises and courage to live as children of your kingdom.

The Sermon

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

Where we’ve been

As we listen to the text this morning, I need you to do two things for me.  One is to remember where we have been.  The other is to pause after reading the first line.

Last week we heard Jesus respond to the man who asked him to tell his brother to divide the inheritance by warning about the desire to acquire.  We talked about that part of the human heart that wants the bigger piece of cake – although sometimes we choose the smaller piece because it makes us look disciplined, health conscious or generous and thoughtful.  Although such motives don’t apply to little boys, they are made up of the same spiritual threads: the desire for more than my share – whether it is cake itself, or to be liked better, to be respected more, to feel superior to others.

After warning us about that desire for more than our share, Jesus tell us about the man with the abundant harvest who tried to store up his wealth by building bigger barns.  The man was a fool because he did not understand the purpose of God’s gifts.  He saw only himself and not the community around him or God above him.

From those warnings about the dangers of wealth, we have skipped a few verses about not worrying about your life.  This is where Jesus talks about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air – if God provides for them he will provide for you – ending with the injunction to seek his kingdom.

The Key

When we come to our reading today, we are still in the conversation about the place and role of wealth and possessions.  Jesus is going to say in our text, “Sell you possessions, and give alms,” and “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  But to understand what these lines mean, we have to be sure that we hear that opening phrase, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

This line is the key to what has been said about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.  And it contains three core elements are: 1) not being afraid, 2) God wants to give, and 3) God wants to give you the kingdom.

The text doesn’t say that we don’t have to do the work of plowing and planting and harvesting – it says we shouldn’t live from fear, for God is eager to give the kingdom.

Our ability to live with and use our possessions as they were meant to be used rests in not being afraid.  Our ability to use our possessions rightly flows from the confidence that God is eager to give us the kingdom.  Indeed, our ability to live rightly in the world rests in the knowledge understanding, experience and trust in the goodness of God, how profoundly God loves us, and how eager God is to govern our hearts and our world in his Holy Spirit.

Jesus doesn’t say that we don’t have to work and plan and care for our children and take reasonable care for our future.  Jesus doesn’t say that we must all live as mendicants – or that God is going to drop manna from the sky every night.  Jesus says that we need not live from fear of what tomorrow may bring; we are to live from joy that God is bringing his kingdom, God is bringing his goodness into the world.

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Our fearful time

We live in a strange time.  Fear is all around us.  It drives politics.  It drives the news.  It drives most of the daytime talk shows.  It drives much of economy.  It drives the sale of antibacterial products.  It drives the NSA gathering up all your phone and Internet data.  It drives our concerns about food.  It drives our concern about health and fitness.  I had a running partner when I was in Seminary.  He dragged me out to a nearby track three times a week.  I asked him once why he liked to run so much and he said, “I don’t like to run; I’m just afraid to die.”  He had a family history of early death from heart attack.

When I lived in Detroit I joked that the biggest industry in the city was fear.  My first call was as assistant pastor in a suburb on the east side of the city.  I remember the first time I drove into the city to visit someone in a particular nursing home and pulled up to a parking lot surrounded with an eight-foot chain-link fence topped with razor wire with an armed guard at the door.  When we moved into the city from East Toledo a few years later, it was discomfiting to shop at the local market where the cashier stood behind counter-to-ceiling bullet-proof Plexiglas with a bolted door at the end.  It was the same at the bank, at the pizza shop, at the drug store.  Every home and business had bars on the windows and doors.  Every restaurant with a parking lot had a security guard.  There were neighborhoods that hired private security forces to drive around and respond to calls. Our church building had locks on the front door, an alarm system, and interior gates with padlocks blocking the hallways.  We kept all the typewriters in a locked vault in a locked office.  Growing up in Palo Alto, I wasn’t prepared for the council deliberation on whether the security guard for Sunday morning should carry a gun.

The tragedy is that you get used to all that stuff – it becomes normal.  When I moved to the suburbs eight years later I was uncomfortable buying beer at the liquor store because there was no Plexiglas.  It made it seem like an easy target.

Fear constricts

Fear constricts your life.  It makes you think twice about where you will go and during what times of day.  It means you don’t open downstairs windows to get fresh air.  Every year children were killed in house fires because they couldn’t get out past the window bars.  There were people who wouldn’t go downtown for the symphony or the museums or the fireworks.

But it isn’t just fear of crime.  Fear of slipping on the ice kept people in their homes all winter.  Fear of bears can keep you from going camping.  Fear of the unknown can keep you from new experiences.  Fear of scarcity can keep you from being generous.  Fear of rejection can keep you from friendship.  Fear of failing in a relationship can keep you from entering into a relationship or staying in one too long.  Fear of failure or fear of ridicule can keep you from trying new things.  I had a friend who suffered from agoraphobia – she couldn’t go outside without her husband – and even then, only to familiar places.  We get used to all these things, we adjust, we accommodate – but it’s not the life God intended for us.

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

The blessing spoken at creation was “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”  God set before us the abundance of creation and blessed our going out to explore.  We were created to live with joy and freedom and laughter and love.  We were created to learn and grow.  We see in children this passionate desire to learn and explore.  They will climb rocks and trees and jungle gyms and backyard fences and rooftops without being afraid of falling.  They make friends naturally.  They explore bravely.  They do things that scare the heck out of us.

I will never forget this Asian woman at the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  It’s called the Black Canyon because the walls are so steep the river at the canyon floor gets very little sunlight.  The cliffs were so vertically sheer that I have pictures of the canyon floor taken just by sticking my arm out over the edge and pointing the camera down.  I was walking the rim of the canyon and at one of the lookout sites a van pulled up and an Asian family got out – parents and 4 teenagers.  The teenagers ran straight to the railing at the edge, while the mother stood 15 feet back speaking urgently and gesturing to her children to get away from the edge.

There are places for fear.  I understand that.  There are dangerous things and dangerous people in the world.  But to live from fear, to be governed by fear, is not the life God intended for us.  And we cannot be in a right relationship with our wealth and possessions if we are living from fear.

It’s just money

When I was going through my divorce, I was frustrated that I was not only loosing daily access to my children, but had to pay my ex-wife for taking the kids away.  In the midst of all those emotions, you want to fight everything.  I was so grateful for my attorney who kept me focused on my goal to have equal custody of the children.  At one critical moment she spoke words I have never forgotten: “It’s just money.  You can get more money.  You can’t get more kids.”

It’s just money.  It’s not your self-worth.  It’s not your security.  It doesn’t define you as good or bad, a winner or a loser.  It’s just money.  It’s a tool.  No different in kind than a hammer.  It’s meant for certain things and not for others.  We don’t use a hammer to open a jar of pickles; that’s not its purpose.  We don’t use money to determine our worth and value; that’s not its purpose.  We all say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but we still buy lottery tickets thinking it will make our problems go away.  It may make some problems go away, but it doesn’t make problems go away – it just gives you a different set.  Possessions are not the right tool to gain happiness, wholeness or peace of mind.

The bountiful crop is to be shared.  The fatted calf is for a feast for the community.  The abundant harvest of grapes is for the village to sing and dance and give thanks to God.  The first fruits and the tithe are to be brought to the temple to give thanks to God and to be shared with those in need.  Wealth and possessions are a tool for sharing God’s goodness, for extending God’s reign of mercy and life.

We are to live by the joy of the eternal wedding banquet, not the fear of famine.  That’s why we can sell our possessions and give alms.  We don’t have to sell our possessions for fear we might miss heaven – we are free to sell our possessions because heaven is dawning even now and we can add joy and goodness and beauty to the world.

We have a hammer.  We can store it up for that day we find a loose nail.  Or we can put it to work to build shelter for others.

the joy of the wedding

So now we come to this fabulous story of the servants waiting for their master to come home.  Those of you who have watched Downton Abbey know that Lord Downtown would never come home from a party and tell his servants to sit down at the table while he got them some food and wine and stood beside them to serve.  It’s an unthinkable thought.  When the master comes home the servants have to be awake and ready to serve – not awake and ready to be served.

This is the shock and surprise in the story:

37Blessed 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.

Servants are supposed to be awake and watching so they won’t get punished or dismissed for being asleep.

But Jesus says that master is coming home from a wedding.  He is arriving still singing and dancing the wedding songs.  He has a bottle of champagne left-over from the celebration and he wants the party to continue.  Those who are awake will share in the joy.

Our bridegroom has come

We are living in the joy of Easter.  We are living in the joy of God’s redeeming of the world.  The reign of God is at hand.  The celebration of the union of heaven and earth has begun.  A new king has come to the throne and the debtors prisons have been thrown open.  God’s healing and reconciliation is begun. The master comes to bring the joy of the banquet to the whole household of humanity.  Christ comes to us now in the joy of the eternal wedding feast.

If I can help any of those children in Rwanda go to school, I share in the joy of that dawning feast even now.  If I can feed a family at Pueblo de Dios, I share in the joy of that dawning feast even now.  If I contribute to my brother’s mission trip to Costa Rica, I share in the joy of that dawning feast even now.  If I contribute to the ministry of the Gospel in any place, I share in the joy of that dawning feast even now.

We do not belong to fear; we belong to God.  It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom – and we are called to share the joy.

Amen.

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