A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Pentecost 9 ~ Luke 12:32-40 (NRSV)
This is part 3 of a 4-part sermon series all about ‘IT’ (capital I, capital T). ‘IT’ is my shorthand way to say ‘the presence of God, the love of God, and the Kingdom of God’ all in a little 2-letter format. We started by ‘Asking for IT’, then we explored being ‘Full of IT’, and today we are wondering what’s it means to be ‘Fit for IT’. ‘IT’.
Today’s scripture begins with a wonderful assurance about ‘IT’. Luke 12:32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” We need to keep that assurance ringing through our ears through this whole passage – heck, through our whole lives. God’s great desire is to have God’s kingdom revealed and realized – that God’s way might be lived, that God’s love might be shared. Thy kingdom come. We pray it every week, perhaps every day.
So as we get into exploring these scripture verses today keep remembering that God wants us to be immersed in ‘IT’ – immersed in love, immersed in the realm of God, immersed in God. Now, if that prompts a question – like, “What’s preventing us from experiencing God’s presence and reality right now?” Well, you’re in luck, because Jesus has a story for us.
It begins with a radical suggestion. Luke 12:33, Jesus says, “Sell 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.”
Another passage our biblical literalist friends never seem to take literally! What do you think? Does he literally mean it? Jesus famously was an itinerant preacher. He seemed to call working people away from their previous work and into the work of ministry. All those great call stories of the fishers walking away from their boats and nets. Possessions and wealth clearly didn’t mean much to him.
I don’t think Jesus means this literally – but I do think he means it! He’s talking about what we hold tightly, and what we hold loosely. Sell your possessions, and give alms. (Alms are like charity, giving to those less fortunate, less privileged.) Put simply, he’s saying, “Don’t horde. Don’t covet your wealth so greatly that it makes you greedy, or closed-hearted, or paranoid.” In Buddhist spirituality this teaching would be called ‘detachment’. Don’t let your attachments entangle you, and handcuff you, and prevent you from doing the most important thing – loving.
Remember the starting assurance? God wants us to be immersed in ‘IT’, in God’s kingdom. You can’t do that if you’re immersed in the kingdom of Self; of possessions, of closed-heartedness. Then Jesus delivers one of the greatest lines of scripture ever to sum it up. Luke 12:34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Fascinating fact: there is not a single hymn in either of our hymnbooks that are based on, or include, that line! I was shocked! Maybe it’s because it’s a whole sermon in 10 words. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If that’s all you take away from today, it’s enough!
Then, as usual, Jesus tells a story to amplify his teaching and put it in context. And, as usual, we are prone to misunderstand the point!
Luke 12:35-38, Jesus says, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be 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.
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.
If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
The house servants appear to experience reward when the Homeowners find them ready to serve. But I want to take a step back and have us look at this more fully. I want to draw a really important distinction here – between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards.
Extrinsic rewards come from someone else – a compliment, a thank-you, a raise in your work salary, applause after a performance (or a sermon!) LOL. Extrinsic rewards are wonderful. It feels fantastic to have someone acknowledge something you said, or accomplished, or did, or didn’t do (!) and to tangibly let you know that they saw the thing and appreciated it. Everybody loves extrinsic rewards. They remind and reassure you that you’re doing good stuff, and that it matters.
That’s what it seems like this story is about. The Homeowners come home and find those people who worked for them ready and willing to do their thing. Rewards follow – not because of what they did, but because of their readiness. Sounds good. Here’s the problem. If we stop there we turn our relationship with God into a performative commodity. Our faith becomes fire insurance. We limit our thinking to action and reward, and start to believe that we are ‘earning’ God’s love. That’s ridiculous. You can’t earn something you are already completely steeped in. Remember, God wants to give ‘IT’ (the kingdom) to us! We can’t earn ‘IT’ – we can only open ourselves to ‘IT’.
Action/reward quickly gets interpreted as reward/punishment, as in the Homeowner could choose to not give the reward if the servers didn’t measure up – that God could choose to withhold God’s love. Nope. Utterly impossible. God is love. God can only and always love. Love can do no other than love.
There’s a popular phrase in some Christian circles that goes like this: “Praises go up – blessings come down.” Aside from the up/down thing, can you see why that’s a horrific idea? It suggests that until I offer my praises that God won’t bless me – that God is waiting until I check off enough boxes to get my reward. But we know that God’s blessings flow over the good and the wicked. We know that God sows wonderfully wastefully, exuberantly, extravagantly, profligately. If anything, that popular phrase should be turned upside down: “Blessings come down – praises go up!” Praise is our response to God’s overflowing love.
Extrinsic reward is how the world works. It is transactional. It’s capitalism. I give you this so you’ll give me that. If we stop there it creates a performative Christianity that negates God’s love. So let’s not stop there! Let’s think about the corollary – intrinsic reward.
Intrinsic reward is that feeling within yourself that you know you did the good, loving thing, even if nobody ever noticed. It’s like I said at Kids Time – it’s how you live even if no one is looking – especially if no one is looking! It doesn’t require an outside judgement – you just know, deep in your heart, that you’re living lovingly. That inner disposition and orientation to lovingkindness is its own reward. It’s not performative Christianity –it’s immersive Christianity!
What if the Homeowners in Jesus’ story didn’t return for days, or weeks? What if the Homeowners never arrived and praised the servants for their readiness? Would the servants be lesser? Jesus says no. Their readiness is their blessing. Their willingness and openness to serve is their blessing. It’s about vocation, calling. It’s about giving yourself entirely to the purpose for which you’ve been called. It’s about “being dressed for action, and having your lamps lit.” It’s about fitness.
‘Fit’ is a very dense word with many meanings. In this case, to be fit for service means to make ready, to prepare, to equip. When we speak of fitness we often think of exercising. Fitness in that case isn’t the end itself – it’s creating a state of readiness and preparedness that makes you able to participate in activity without limitations. It’s a state of being called ‘healthy’. The best goal of fitness isn’t to make other people look at you with admiration (that would be extrinsic) – it’s to make you feel better about yourself and allow you to enjoy the physical activities of your life more (that would be intrinsic).
What would spiritual fitness – spiritual health – look like? It would look like someone who put in the hours of ‘exercising’ (prayer, bible study, learning, worshipping!) so that they had the fullness of spirit and openness of heart to be ready to put love into action at any time. To become fit you’ve got to break a sweat. You’ve got to put in the time, and effort, with conviction, and passion. Spiritual fitness requires the same commitment.
Welcome to your morning workout!
The scripture passage ends problematically. Luke 12:39-40 Jesus says, “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. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
It almost sounds like a threat – like a ‘be ready, or else’ thing. Well, that’s reward/punishment again, and I’m arguing against that. I think the problem is that you can’t see Jesus wink here. He talks of the ‘Son of Man’ coming – but if that’s him, then, spoiler alert – the ‘son of man’ is already here! Always has been. And so is the Kingdom of God. The kingdom is embodied within Jesus’ life and teaching. What’s more, in a couple of chapters he’s going to say that this mysterious kingdom isn’t coming swooping in at some distant point in the future – he’ll say that the kingdom of God is here – and even more mind-boggling that that he’ll say that the kingdom of God is WITHIN YOU! Already. But hidden.
Remember where we started today? God’s great desire is to give the kingdom to us. Not to withhold ‘IT’ like some grumpy tyrant. In human interaction we revert to the idea of earning things, and getting some future reward. But Jesus says ‘IT’ is already here. That’s unexpected. Coming at an unexpected hour? How about now! He’s saying, “For crying out loud, open your eyes – ‘IT’ is right in front of you, and all around you, and even within you!”
The question is whether you are fit for ‘IT’. Clearly that doesn’t mean whether you are ‘good’ enough. It means whether you are open enough – willing to let go of your attachments – trusting in the spiritual nudges you feel – ready to love at all times, in all places, for all people. Such spiritual fitness will bring intrinsic rewards, ‘treasure’, beyond measure. And where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.