Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24; Luke 12:32-40
Perhaps you’ve heard of Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing consultant and writer. In books like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and her Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, she espouses the idea that we should always be cleaning and organizing, keeping only those things that spark joy for us. She says that her method is partly inspired by the Shinto religion. Cleaning and organizing things can be a spiritual practice in Shintoism, which is concerned with the energy or divine spirit of things and the right way to live. Kondo says, “Treasuring what you have; treating the objects you own as not disposable, but valuable, no matter their actual monetary worth; and creating displays so you can value each individual object are all essentially Shinto ways of living.”[i]
You might have read one of her books, or watched her show, but I haven’t. I have never been able to convince myself to investigate further because I am afraid she might make too much sense. I am afraid she might force me to examine all my stuff, and even consider throwing some of it away. I’m not sure I’m ready to do that.
But of course, she’s not the only one urging me to stop and think about all the stuff I have collected in more than half a century on this earth. In this morning’s gospel, 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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Ouch.
Note that the passage begins by addressing fear—probably our most primal emotion. Jesus draws a link between our fear and our treasure. I think that makes sense. Our covetousness and greed are often caused by fears—either the fear that we must be inferior to others who have more than we do, or that we have failed our families if we don’t provide everything they might desire, or simply that not having a lot may mean that we will miss out on something.
And beyond these kinds of fears, there is so much more to be afraid of in the world today, isn’t there? Terrorism, domestic and foreign; war; the economy; global warming; and you can add a lot more to that list. When you think about all these scary things, it seems easy to just succumb to our fear, bury our heads in the sand, and never risk anything.
Of course, preachers have talked about fear a lot, too. Some faith systems use fear as a tool to drive people to Christ. Perhaps you’ve heard a few “fire and brimstone” sermons in your day. The idea is to paint a picture of the eternal torment that we might experience in the afterlife, in order to scare people into right belief. You’ve heard me say before that my husband Don, who grew up as a Southern Baptist in Waco, Texas, can quote this sort of exhortation at the drop of a hat: “If you die tonight, will you spend eternity in the fires of hell, separated from the presence of God and surrounded by weeping and gnashing of teeth?”
But Jesus looks at us trembling in our very human fear, and instead of using that fear as a tool of manipulation, offers us comfort in the midst of an increasingly threatening world: “Do not be afraid, little flock,” he says, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I think this is a remarkable idea for us to embrace: it is God’s desire to give us all good things.
Can you wrap your mind around that? God is not waiting to punish us, or to take things away from us, but rather to shower upon us the treasures of heaven. Jesus wants us to understand that the manner of life that he is talking about leads to real and lasting treasures. So the reason to follow the way of Christ is not because we fear what will happen if we don’t, but rather because of the riches that will come our way if we do.
The passages in the middle section of Luke’s Gospel that we have hearing on these Sundays after Pentecost are like neon signs pointing the way to those good gifts. In the parable of the Good Samaritan we learn about the rewards that come from care for our fellow man; in the story of Mary and Martha we are reminded to spend time at the feet of Jesus, soaking in his words. In the questions and answers about how to pray we learn that God wants to be in dialogue with us. And In last week’s parable of the rich fool, we saw that greed can take us off the path.
In today’s passage Christ expands on this lesson about greed and gluttony. Jesus explains that the riches of the world lie not in earthly treasures, but in a life lived after the example of Christ. We find life through the act of connecting in meaningful ways to the world around us.
One can feel the growing urgency with which Jesus is speaking to his flock as he makes his way toward Jerusalem and his death. All of these encounters on the road to Jerusalem point to the gravity of the moment, and to the enormous reward that will come to the world through the events about to unfold. Jesus longs for everyone who hears him to be ready to receive that gift.
Certainly the urgency Christ feels comes through this passage. Look at the parable here, that starts, “be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet.” Although we are listening to these words nearly 2,000 years later, knowing how this part of the story is going to end, I think we still feel the same urgency. There are all those things to fear in our world—maybe we have more to fear than the people of Jesus’ time.
And Jesus reminds that we don’t need to be afraid. Not because the gift of a life lived in the way of Christ will take away the bad things in the world. But because this way of life lessens anxiety, keeps us focused on the good, and thus erases the fear.
I have told you before about my call to the priesthood. I actually first heard that call when I was 12 years old, but I managed to push it aside for many years. Then, in 2003, the call became more persistent, and I began to contemplate what it would mean for me to answer that call—in other words, I began to list my fears. Now chief among those fears was the issue of money. How could I afford to quit my job and go to seminary? How in the world would I pay for seminary?
And then, even if I did figure out how to afford it, did it make any sense to become a priest in a shrinking church, leaving behind a cushy job that I could leave at my desk at 5:00, all for a smaller salary?
I came up with lots of good legitimate and fear-filled reasons why it was a bad idea. But then, a wise advisor urged me not to make the decision on the basis of fear. So I began the discernment process, and you can see where it led me.
To be sure, some of my fears have come true—I work a job where I am always on call, I don’t make a Fortune 500 salary, and on top of all of our regular living expenses, I once again have student loans to pay.
But I have certainly not been left destitute. God has provided me a good and rewarding job; we have a beautiful and comfortable home in this wonderful community; I lack very little. And I am happier than I have ever been in my life. Somehow I was able to put aside my fears about money and possessions just long enough to heed God’s call to the way of Christ. The abundance of good things in my life today far outweighs anything I have ever had before.
Jesus continues his talk about treasures and our heart with that curious parable stuffed into the middle of this passage. The master arrives home and finds, despite the late hour, that his slaves are waiting for him. The slave/master dynamic may be troublesome to us today, but it also makes the master’s actions all the more unexpected: he puts on an apron and serves the slaves dinner!
If we follow that story through, we must imagine the slaves to be utterly surprised at this turn of events. Expectations are turned on their head—the one who they were waiting to serve is instead serving them! Once again Jesus tells an upside-down story. (Or is it actually right side up?) Perhaps Jesus is again illustrating God’s grace: “The kingdom for which we are expected to strive is presented to us (as the banquet is to the slaves) not as compensation or achievement, but as gift.”[ii]
Jesus hopes we will understand that all of life is unending gift from a generous God—a gift that we don’t need to hoard, but rather give away with full confidence that there is always more—our God is a God of abundance!
Theologian Audrey West explains it in this way: “The less we want to have, the less we need to have. The less we need to have, the less we need to fear. The less we need to fear, the more we know that a life of giving allows us always to live, not on the brink of destruction, but on the brink of blessing.”[iii]
God wants us to know that real abundance comes when we share the bounty of God’s gifts with one another. If we can learn to treasure life instead of possessions, God instead of stuff, we will become the recipients of nothing less than the kingdom of God.
So do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Amen.
[ii] Schlafer, David L. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. p. 339.
[iii] West, Audrey. Ibid., p. 338.