Saturday, August 7, 2010

Maintaining a Light Grip

Luke 12:32-40
Ordinary 19
August 8, 2010
William G. Carter

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The picture is in my hallway at home. We found it in an antique store in Massachusetts. From the moment I saw it in the window I heard it call out to me. Here’s what it looks like: a young shepherd hugs a little lamb, with these words inscribed from Jesus: “Fear not, little flock. It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you a kingdom”

It’s usually hung right there on the wall, right in the middle of our comings and goings. It offers a word of comfort in the crossroads of our front hallway. Whenever I give it a glimpse, I am reminded of the promise of Jesus in our text. God takes “good pleasure” in providing the kingdom to us.

We have been talking about this kingdom through the summer. It is a new dominion, a network of shalom. And in God’s good pleasure, Jesus gives us one invitation after another to live in this new realm, to stake out heaven on earth. Today he maps out two more ways to claim the kingdom: by voluntary downsizing and radical generosity. As he commands us, “Sell your possessions and give alms.” Then he adds, “Make yourselves purses that never wear out.”

I saw you squirm over there – I’ll bet you think this is going to be a stewardship sermon. In the broadest possible sense it is. But I’m not sure “stewardship” is the right word. The better word is probably “generosity.” In fact, sometimes, late at night, I get this crazy idea that we ought to rename our “Stewardship Committee” as the “Generosity Committee.” Generosity is the name of the game.

Presbyterians like that word “stewardship” because it sounds like we are in charge of what we have, that we have oversight, that we use proper caution. Presbyterians love the word “caution.” That’s why we can be lousy stewards. But the better word is “Generosity.” That is the Kingdom Behavior: to give freely, joyfully, without restriction, without the restraints of caution. We unclench our grip on what God has given to us, and the gifts fall into the hands of those who need them most.
That’s what Jesus is talking about. The evidence that we belong to a Generous God is that we act generously ourselves. So he says: “Sell your possessions, give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out.”

Nobody is born to do this. It goes against all of our natural tendencies. The world teaches a selfish lesson that goes like this: if we want it, we should grab it. If we grab it, we should keep it. If we keep it, we must increase it. The assumption is that it is ours, all ours. And it is so seductive that it can suffocate us.

I came across a poem by Tom Disch. The title says it all: “The Garage Sale as a Spiritual Exercise.” Listen:

Once someone loved this piece of junk
If only for a moment at the mall
With its wrappings intact
And its price so much reduced.
You need me, it whispered,
And he couldn’t disagree.
So he bought it, the way he bought
Everything he’d ever been sold,
In the belief that it would do the job.
And it did, for the longest time,
And never broke down or wore out
And in fact has outlasted him.
Because here it is, a sickly blue,
In the basement of the Methodist Church,
And not it means to have you.
You sneer at it and think: No way.
You can see only its tackiness,
The virus invisible back at the mall
Which now blots out all its viable features
Like triumphant acne. You don’t see
The years of loving drudgery,
The promises fulfilled.
It needs you now, don’t turn away.
Take it to the lady and ask what it costs.
Don’t be proud. Remember the Beatitudes
And who gets into the kingdom of heaven. (The Gospel in Our Image, p. 81)

Who gets in, you will recall, are the “poor in spirit.” Or as Luke defines them, “the poor.” God’s beloved are those who go without, by choice or by discipline. They are the ones who know that blue trinkets do not sustain our lives.

Given the choice, we might prefer the lies of the world: if we want it, we should grab it. If we grab it, we should keep it. If we keep it, we must increase it. Sometimes we will spend it only if we think we can gain more.

Somebody was telling me recently that local bus service to Atlantic City isn’t what it used to be. Once there were firty-five buses a day from Wilkes Barre to the boardwalk at Atlantic City. Now there’s only one. Anybody want to guess why? Nobody is going to take a bus to a casino three and a half hours away when we have two casinos in our backyard.

I heard that, and I wondered why anybody would want to go to a casino anyway. Is it because they are generous people and want to make a large donation to organized slime? Probably not. They go because there may be the chance, the slim chance, that they could make more money themselves. For a lot of people, it becomes an addiction, a vain dream to increase one’s income. More important than spending their paycheck on food.

Today we hear Jesus say, “Give your money away.” That’s crazy. That’s counter-intuitive. It doesn’t make sense right away.

He says this, of course, in light of the surrounding verses that God comes without any suggestion. It’s like the person who returns from the wedding banquet. Don’t know how long the party will go – but he will return at any time. He might be out all night – you never know – but he will come back. So stay on your toes!

Jesus says it’s like a thief who breaks into your house. If you knew the time and day of the burglary, you could be ready. You could defend yourself from that larceny. But God is a Burglar who lifts the window when you’re not looking. Suddenly everything is up for grabs.

I’m not sure about the direct connections between these texts, by the way. One minute Jesus speaks of giving away money. Next second he says that God will break into your house.

But it does remind me of the parable that Bob Young didn’t preach on last week. He had the good sense to leave it alone, and so he left it for me. It is the parable a few verses before our text. It speaks of money and possessions, and it speaks of God’s abrupt arrival.

Once upon a time, says Jesus, there was a man who didn’t have enough closet space. So he built some barns to store some stuff. That’s the parable. It’s a joke. I bet they roared with laughter when they heard that one. Want to know what’s so funny? The average house in Capernaum, the town where Jesus lived, was about fifteen feet by fifteen feet. It was quite comfortable for a family of six (mom, pop, two kids, and the in-laws). Jesus says there’s this crazy guy who has so much stuff that he needs to build barns to store it. Isn’t that ridiculous?

Not only that, says Jesus. He had so much stuff that he tore down his barns and built bigger barns. In a country full of first-century peasants, that is absurd. That’s insane. No one can have that much stuff. No one!

Well, maybe I do; I am thinking about building more closets. I want to hide my stuff so it doesn’t look like I have too much stuff. I recently went over to my favorite new store, Ollie’s Junk Emporium. Ollie’s specializes in all the overstock stuff that they can’t move at Big Lots. So I went to Ollie’s and bought two books on Storage Solutions for Dummies.

Well, what does that man do in Jesus’ story do? He talks to himself. Of course he does. He has to talk to himself, because he has excluded himself from his neighbors. It was a matter of necessity. In downtown Capernaum, one fifteen by fifteen hut was next door to another 15 by 15 hut; they shared an exterior wall. And there was another 15 by 15 hut on the other side, and another directly behind it. So if he had so much stuff that he needed to build some huge barns to store it, that meant he had to move out of town. He had to move away from his neighbors because he had so much stuff. Of course he could only talk to himself.

And what he said was, “Self, I need more storage space. I need a bigger silo.” This guy was rich, and isolated, insulated, detached from his neighbors, all because he had too much stuff.

Then comes the punch line: his life is interrupted by God. Suddenly all those barns full of stuff do not matter very much. He miscalculated what is important. Jesus calls him an idiot. Reba McIntire would call him “a mo-ron.” To think he was stashing all he had - - out of fear.

We have an unpredictable God. The problem with an unpredictable God is simply this: no amount of cash, no amount of real estate, no amount of goods can ever insulate anybody from God. God loves us enough to want our full and complete attention.

Oh, I know: people skip out of church sometimes because they have so much property. And they need to take care of their property, especially in the summer. So it tugs them away from worshiping God, from serving God, from releasing and announcing the good news of God. That’s why Jesus says you can’t worship God and worship your stuff. You got to pick one. You can worship only one.

That’s why the Torah spoke of the Jubilee. Every seven years, you give your fields a year off – a Sabbath of rest, a Sabbatical. And every seven-times-seven years, you take all the land you have bought and sold, and you return it to the original owners. That was the Jubilee Year. You can read about it in Leviticus 25. It was God’s original way to remind the faithful of Israel that the land never really belonged to them. Promised Land came as a gift from God. So you received it, used it, gave it a periodic rest. You worked it, produced from it, shared from it. And one day, the moment came when you handed all of it back. This was God’s Holy Commandment for the Jubilee Year, the fiftieth year.

Walter Brueggemann, the great scholar, says there was never any proof that Israel actually did this. The Law was in the Book, but, well, you know what kind of excuses we make: what’s mine is mine, and God didn’t really mean what he said, and well, you know, all of us have to make a living, and make up every excuse you can, to ignore what God has taught us for our own welfare.

To live for God’s Kingdom is to maintain a light grip. To be ready at any time to let goods and kindred go. And we keep a light grip on our money and possessions, not because we are afraid of God, but because we love God, because we trust God.

We give alms (and make offerings), not because we are nice people who wish to share our spare change with the needy, but because the money is not ours to begin with. Money is merely a collection paper and discs of metal which we infuse with value. We use it to provide food and shelter. Sometimes we stockpile it to provide security and hope. But the day is coming – or is it the day of the Lord that is coming – when all of us will learn the big faith lesson that everything comes from God, and everything returns to God.

This is the financial secret of God and the Kingdom. The blessed ones are those who hang onto God as their treasure. They trust that what they need will be provided as daily bread. And if they find themselves with more than they need, they refuse to let it lure them into selfishness. Woe if God should come by surprise and expose them as morons.

Attitudes about money and possessions reveal a lot about what we believe, whom we love, and where we place our trust. It is a parlor game in some homes to see how much they can acquire. If there isn’t enough closet space, they will build a home the size of a barn. And sometimes people start believing they are better than the people around them, simply because they have more than their neighbors.

You may know the formula: more stuff, more money, more education, more vehicles, more clothing equals better persons. It is so tempting that they will vote for politicians who subtly promise them a bigger income. Some will take a grocery bag of quick cash even if it pollutes their neighbor’s drinking water. And they end up talking only to themselves, having moved outside the city limits of God’s Kingdom. There’s a New Testament word for such people: mo-rons.

Heaven, by contrast, is a commune, where everybody is equal and everything is shared. The water is free. Everybody is well fed. The only person who is better than the rest of us is the one with nail holes in his hands and calluses on his knees. We might not even notice him because he tends to blend in.

Nevertheless, Jesus is our treasure. He wants to rule our hearts. But he can only gain our hearts if we loosen our clutches on the very things he has given us. You see, in the kingdom of Jesus, only one thing makes us rich. Know what it is? It’s generosity. Generosity makes us rich. We learn that from Jesus himself, for he gives away everything. That’s why he is our treasure.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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