Restore Us

Luke 12:22-31

I worried a lot.  Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn as it was taught, and if not, how shall I correct it? Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better? Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows can do it and I am, well, hopeless. Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it, am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia? Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And gave it up.  And took my old body and went out into the morning and sang.[I]

The poem that I just shared, entitled I worried by Mary Oliver, is a wonderful introduction to our subject today: worry. Like I said before, we all worry. We worry about the things in our lives we cannot see and things of the world that we cannot control; and yet, “Faith,” according to St. Augustine, “…is believing what you cannot see, and the reward of faith is seeing what you have believed”.[ii]

And in our text for today Jesus seems to be “piling on.” Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will wear, he says, but instead, seek fist the Kingdom of God. Yah. Right. Good luck with that. If a person is hungry, you can bet they’ll be worrying about where their next meal will come from and if a person is naked, I can guarantee you that they’ll worry about finding some clothes. That only makes sense. So, I don’t think that’s what Jesus is driving at here. I think his message runs a little deeper.

Now, one way to unearth this deeper message is to read the text from a different perspective. I love the way Eugene Peterson presents this passage. He says, “What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. [God] wants to give you the very kingdom itself.[iii]

God-reality. God-initiative. God-provision. Reality. Initiative. Provision. What a wonderful alternative to worry. I mean, we often drive our selves almost insane with worry about things over which we have very little or no control. But what if we could find a balance between a sane amount of worry and thinking about and acting upon the things, we can have influence over? That’s reality. Right? There are real problems in our lives and in the world about which we can make a difference if we take the initiative to do so. Do you see what I’m getting at here? If we realize that God has given us the provision, (and by provision I mean the means) to take action, to advocate for justice, to dialogue about peace, to accept our calling to be sharers of the good news by sharing the love and the grace and the compassion of God in the world; then, we can transform our sense worry, our anxiety, our mode of panic into a mode of urgency.

Which, of course, begs the question: What’s the difference between panic and urgency? Well, panic is a sudden overwhelming fear, with or without cause, that produces hysterical or irrational behavior, and that often spreads quickly through a group of persons. We have all seen what panic looks like. Panic has no sense of purpose. Panic makes us run away from the problem. Panic gives a sense of hopelessness. Panic says there is no way out. For example, if I’m claustrophobic. When I feel trapped, I panic.

On the other hand, a sense of urgency is different. John Kotter, a Harvard professor, stated that true urgency may sometimes involve moving fast. But the most important aspects of true urgency are relentlessness, steadiness and the purposeful pursuit of a goal while “…continuously purging irrelevant activities to provide time for the important.”[iv]

And that gets to the very heart of Jesus’ message to us today. We must be relentless and purposeful in purging irrelevant worry to provide the time for what’s urgent.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Climate change is urgent! But if we panic and crawl into a hole somewhere and make ourselves sick with worry; or if we deny that it’s even happening and that our human centeredness is causing it; or if we throw up our hand and say, there’s nothing I can do about it; then we’ve lost. These responses to the on-going climate crisis are finally acts of hopelessness.

But there is hope. Jesus says, “All of the nations of the world long for these things.” He’s talking about food and clothes of course, but we can expand this thought to include clean water and clean air, a diverse habitat for all of God’s creatures, billions of new broad-leaf trees that will produce more oxygen and absorb more carbon dioxide. There is hope! And we can propagate this hope if we’re accountable to the future rather than the present. We can be this hope if we would choose to make every important decision, (politically, communally, and personally) with the next seven generations in mind. There is hope! If we, as a people, can reduce our preoccupation with getting stuff, and instead, respond to God’s giving by being generous to the earth and those who live upon it, then we will, as Jesus said, get the “very kingdom itself.” There is hope!

Do you see how this text encourages us to look past our worry and put away our panic? Do you see how it can help us to take on an urgent situation, any situation, personal or global, by calmly envisioning a solution? Worrying, excessive worrying anyway, prevents us from taking the initiative and using the tools that God has provided.

I worried a lot.  Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn as it was taught, and if not, how shall I correct it? Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better? Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows can do it and I am, well, hopeless. Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it, am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia? Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And gave it up.  And took my old body and went out into the morning and sang.[v]

My friends, may we go out into the morning of this new day and sing a song of faith, a song of God’s provision, a song … of hope.

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[i] Mary Oliver. I Worried (lakesidemusing.blogspot.com) 2011

[ii] Gil Watson Get Your Thinking Right (www.Day1.org) 2011

[iii] Eugene Peterson The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2005) pg.1608

[iv] The Difference Between Panic and Urgency. (www.Feld.com) 2009

[v] Ibid. Oliver

Living into the Promise

Luke 12:32-40

Where your treasure lays there your heart will be also. This is one of my favorite Biblical statements. It’s saying, “the thing on which I focus my attention, the thing that I invest my time, talent and treasure to bolster, that’s the thing that I treasure most. I get that. It’s pretty simple.

My grandfather was a great example of this. He lived through 50 weeks a year for the two he spent up here on vacation. Northern Wisconsin, especially the Chippewa Flowage, I would wager was the treasure of his heart. Once when I was about 12-years-old or so, I came up here with my grandparents on vacation. And it was remarkable to me how grandpa’s demeaner changed as the fields gave way to forest and the Northwoods began to surround us. You see, my grandfather, Cham was his name, has some strongly held opinions and he never seemed to be afraid to share those opinions with whoever happened to be around, including his 12-year-old grandson. I’m pretty sure I learned most of my cuss words from my grandpa. Now, it was lost on me then, but as I look back, I can see that his attitude improved, and his anxiety began to fade as we continued northward. And once we were on our campsite, with pop-up camper fully assembled, he was the most relaxed I’d ever seen him. As a matter of fact, I recall his saying to me on that first evening as we looked out across the lake, “it doesn’t get any better than this.”

The woods and the lake, camping in the wilderness with my grandma and me, that was a place and a time that my grandfather treasured. It was one of the things in his life that truly spoke to his heart. And, like I said before, sometimes it’s as simple as that. But not always. I say “not always” because this teaching about “treasure and heart” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like every other passage of Scripture, that we examine and try to apply to our lives, it’s subject to the material that comes before and after it. So, if we look back to the beginning of chapter 12, we find the key element, the thesis statement if you will, for this entire section of Luke’s Gospel. Verse 1 says, “Jesus first began to speak to his disciples: ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees – I mean the mismatch between their hearts and lives.’”[i] And he goes on in this chapter to offer several dimensions of faithful discipleship; several ways in which our hearts and lives might come into sync. Jesus warns against greed and worry, and he warns the disciples (and us as well) not to be afraid of worldly powers, but instead to have faith in divine power. So, the key here is this idea of a mismatch between our “hearts and lives.”

Which brings us to the text that we have before us today. In our lesson, Luke gives us two additional dimensions of living as faithful disciples; two additional ways in which we can match the passion of our hearts with the actions of our lives.

First, we are encouraged to focus on divine rather than earthly treasures. Now, this is an expansion or a deepening of last week’s lesson about greed. Remember the farmer in the illustration wasn’t called a fool for being wealthy or because he saved for the future, but rather because his priority wasn’t focused on gratitude to God for his abundance. And because his priority was solely on the accumulation of wealth, he was clear that he was unwilling to share any of his goods with those in need. In the verbiage of today’s lesson, the rich farmer’s heart treasured his material wealth above service to others or gratitude to God. There was a “mismatch” between his heart and life.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his brilliant theological work The Hobbit, puts these words in the mouth of the wizard, Gandalf the Gray: “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage, and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”[ii]

I think this is good advice considering the current state of our nation and world. If more of us treasured in our hearts “food and cheer and song” in other words, relationships, rather than material wealth, the world certainly be a “merrier place.” I mean, what if we were to treasure the person above the stereotype; what if we were to put the needs of others or the needs of this planet before our own self-comfort; what if we were to treasure justice and peace and equality; these things that God has called us to not only to treasure our hearts but passionately pursue in our lives, what if we were to make these things a priority? Wouldn’t this world indeed be a merrier place?

And what’s more, I think, the biggest and most divisive issues we face in the world today, would, at the very least, be put into perspective. Climate change and the loss of so many species of insects and animals; the immigration crises, and the bigotry and racism that have surfaced as a result; mass-shootings, violence against the most vulnerable; all of these things, I would argue, are the result of treasuring wealth above all else; a mismatch between the heart of this nation and lives of her people.

Which leads us directly into the second dimension of this text: we are always to be ready for the unexpected presence of God in our midst. Luke tells us to be dressed for action and to have our lamps lit so we will be ready when God shows us. “Now wait just a cotton-picken minute,” you might say, “Aren’t you always telling us that God is with us all the time, no matter what?” “Why should we be waiting for God to show up if God’s already here?’ Good question, glad you asked. I’m glad because it leads us right to the last line of today’s text. Jesus says, “You also must be ready because the Human One is coming at a time when you don’t expect him.” Now, this line in theological terms is about what’s called “Parousia” (παρουσία) or the “second coming.” This is a subject we don’t dig into very often here on the progressive end of Christianity. I think this is so for a couple of reasons.

First, the rise in the last century and a half of all this rapture nonsense. Rapture and second coming are not the same thing! Rapture theology is this idea that on and “great and terrible day of the Lord” all the Christians will be swept up, raptured into heaven, while all the rest will be left behind in misery. The problem here is that rapture theology is neither traditional nor is Biblical. It’s comes from taking a bunch of end-of -the-world passages and jamming them together to make them say what the theologian wants them to say. So, of course, we’ve resisted viewing the Bible in these terms.

The second reason I think we’ve resisted second coming language ties back into our text about treasure and hearts. As a church, as a movement of progressive Christianity, our heart’s treasure has been strongly focused on social justice. Absolutely a good thing and we should keep it up! But in our understanding of justice as the highest end, we sometimes shy away from the mystical, more spiritual side of our faith. And we do that, I think, to our determinate. I say this because in the end, this idea of second coming is mystical. By mystical I mean beyond our understanding, at this point in time anyway. And since our faith tells us that God is with us, always, and that God is Still-Speaking, still present, still creating in the world today, it stands to reason, to me anyway, that “second coming” is less about Jesus coming down on a cloud at a fixed point in time then it is a continuing progression toward that day when God’s justice finally prevails on earth; that great and wonderful day when God’s reign of peace is indwelled by all of creation; a time and a place, somewhere in the future, when all our hard work for the sake of justice finally pays off, and the heart of this nation and the treasure of her people are finally, finally as one.

May it be so, Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Luke 12:1 Common English Bible

[ii] Katheryn Matthews Loving God Back (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermon/seeds) 2019

Soul Investment

Luke 12:13-21

Many who hear this parable, especially may wonder: Why is the rich farmer called a fool? One could easily argue that the rich man is a wise and responsible person. He has a thriving farming business. His land has produced so abundantly that he doesn’t have enough storage space in his barns. So, he plans to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store all his grain and goods. Then he will have ample savings set aside for the future and will be all set to enjoy his golden years.

Isn’t this what we’re encouraged to strive for? Isn’t it wise and responsible to save for the future? The rich farmer would have probably been a good financial advisor. He seems to have things figured out. He has worked hard and saved wisely. Now he can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of his labor, right?

Well, not exactly. There’s one very important thing the rich man didn’t planned for… God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

The rich farmer is a fool not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he appears to live only for himself, and because he believes that he can secure his life with his abundant possessions. When the rich man talks in this parable, he talks only to himself, and the only person he refers to is himself: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’”

Do you see what’s going on here? The rich man’s land has produced abundantly, yet he expresses no sense of gratitude to God or to the workers who have helped him plant and harvest this bumper crop. This farmer had more grain and goods in storage than he could ever hope to use yet seems to have no thought of sharing it with others, and no thought of what God might require of him.[I] You know, there’s a great saying that goes like this: “Greed destroys your soul while gratitude enlivens it, and grace expands it.”

So, what about us? Are we going to let greed destroy our soul? Individually? Collectively? As a people? As a nation? Or will we let our gratitude enliven and reform our thinking. Will we let grace expand our compassion, our love of neighbor; will we let grace expand our circle of caring? I read somewhere this week that “God’s people are not to accumulate stuff for tomorrow but rather to share indiscriminately with the scandalous and holy confidence that God will provide for tomorrow. Then we need not stockpile stuff in barns especially when there is someone in need.”[ii]

Now, please don’t misunderstand me here. It’s not that God doesn’t want us to save for retirement or for our future needs. It’s not that God doesn’t want us to “eat, drink, and be merry” and enjoy this life. We know from the Gospels that Jesus spent time eating and drinking with people and enjoying life.

But all of this, in my mind anyway, finally boils down to one thing: priorities. How we spend our time, invest our money; how we use all the talents that God has given us speaks to our priorities. So, in light of all of this, here’s the question I believe I need to ask myself every morning when I wake up: “Will my priority today be primarily focused on myself and my passing desires, or will my priority be fixated on loving God by loving, and caring for, and being kind to, my neighbor; all my neighbors? Will my priority today be to participate in God’s mission of justice and peace for all people and all of creation in whatever way I can? Will my priority today lead me to think of the other before self?

One final thing today. As I was researching this text for today, I can across a sermon preached by Dr. Martin Luther King in Chicago around 1967. And in it, Dr. King said these words: “I’d like for you to look at this parable with me and try to decipher the real reason that Jesus called this man a fool. Jesus called this man a fool because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. You see, each of us lives in two realms, the within and the without. Now the within of our lives is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, religion, and morality. The without of our lives is that complex of devices, of mechanisms and instrumentalities by means of which we live. The house we live in—that’s a part of the means by which we live. The car we drive, the clothes we wear, the money that we are able to accumulate—in short, the physical stuff that’s necessary for us to exist.

Now the problem is that we must always keep a line of demarcation between the two. This man was a fool because he didn’t do that. …he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. This man was a fool because he allowed his technology to outdistance his theology. This man was a fool because he allowed his mentality to outrun his morality. Somehow, he became so involved in the means by which he lived that he couldn’t deal with the way to eternal matters. …he looked at suffering humanity and wasn’t concerned about it.[iii] Dr. King was awesome, wasn’t he?

But anyway, this text, this condemnation of greed, is finally another reminder from Luke about the importance of social justice; of the importance of putting the other before self. It’s a reminder that wholeness and healing and restoration don’t come from having a lot of stuff; restoration, true restoration is found in community. Community with God and with each other.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Elisabeth Johnson. Commentary on Luke 12:13-21 (www.workingpreacher.org) 2019

[ii]Shane Claiborne. Quote found at www.ucc.org/samuel/sermonseeds. 2019

[iii] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Why Jesus Called A Man A Fool Sermon Delivered at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago Illinois. c. 1967 (www.kinginstitute.stanford.edu)