Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16;
11 August 2019
To paraphrase this morning’s gospel text from St. Luke, Jesus says: Fear not, for I will give you the Kingdom. Use your stuff so that you have permanent benefit from it. You will be happy if you are ready for my return.
Or, to put it even more simply:
Don't be afraid;
enjoy your stuff forever;
Talk about the Good News of the Gospel! This sounds wonderful! Reminds me of that catchy late-80’s song by Bobby McFerrin: Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Only one problem with this easy-going, devil-may-care philosophy: None of us can really do this – or not carry it off for very long. How can we not worry and just be carefree, when most of our lives are spent in a never-ending journey, searching for something that we hope will give focus, definition, and meaning to our lives.
The vast majority of us are like the characters in The Wizard of Oz. I’m not talking about Elphaba, the Wicked Witch – although I’ve known a few of those. No, I’m referring to the four main characters:
We may look like ferocious lions, except we are filled with fears and anxiety.
Or we are tin woodsmen: bright and shiny on the outside, but lacking any of the internal characteristics that help to bring fulfillment.
Or, like the scarecrow, we are quite agile and adaptable, but don't have wisdom or self-confidence.
And others among us, much like Dorothy, are just lost and trying to find a way home.
All of these characters in The Wizard of Oz - a marvelous literary window into the human psyche - essentially begin each action or statement with, "if only."
The Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus came to take away our fears and fill us with love. In a certain sense, he came to take our "if only"s away. Jesus teaches us that through the three gifts promised in today's Gospel lesson, that crippling "if only" phrase can be eliminated – or at least kept in check.
"Don't be afraid, little flock," Jesus begins. Fear can be debilitating. How many bold ideas and bold people has fear side-lined, held back, stopped completely?
A person well-known for boldness in thought and action was once asked how their fear of failure had been overcome. In response, this bold and assertive, confident person shared a reflection about the cross.
"I came to understand,” the person said, “that the cross is a test for us. We had God right here with us, in the person of Jesus. God came among us to lead us and love us out of this mess we are in. And what did we do? We killed him. And I know myself well enough to know that, had I been present at the actual event, I would have been right there in the mob, yelling for crucifixion. There is something in me that can't accept absolute love and goodness, even though I crave it desperately. So, the cross test is one that I failed. I failed it completely. And God's answer to my failure? God’s response is love, forgiveness and presence in my life forever. When I reflect on my failure in Christ’s cross, and God's loving answer to my failure, then I need never be afraid of any failure ever again. I have already failed completely. And yet God loves me completely and is forever present with me. If only I can accept that truth, it is silly and a total waste of time to be afraid.”
To live in the Kingdom of God is to live in a realm without fear. Jesus said in this Gospel lesson that we are not to fear because it is God's pleasure to give us the Kingdom. But the absence of fear can be achieved only when there is no room for fear because we are so completely filled with love. Being filled with love for God and all God’s children is the door we must open to enter into the Kingdom of God, to live where there is no fear. This is truly Good News! But, as most of us can attest, even good news can be scary. This is the reason that the angels at Jesus’ birth begin their wonderful announcement by saying "don't be afraid." The shepherds who heard the announcement of Jesus' birth from the angels first had to hear, "fear not", before they could accept the good news of their Savior’s birth.
There is a certain irony in all of this. Living without fear because we are filled with the love of God can be a fearful concept. But Christ promises us that such love and freedom from fear is promised us and awaits us as citizens of God’s holy Kingdom.
The next promise from Jesus is that we can have and enjoy our stuff forever. We can have what the Gospel calls an “eternal purse.” In a parallel text, we are instructed to "lay up treasure in heaven." This seems to contradict Jesus’ instruction to free ourselves of our possessions, and last weeks’ admonition to “Take care to avoid all types of greed.”
Sell your possessions. Enjoy your stuff forever. These statements seem at odds until we understand that the treasure of heaven, the stuff of an eternal purse, is not money or earthly possessions. The treasure of heaven is relationships. A person who tithes to God through the local congregation and then makes still more offerings to God by giving money to other good and godly causes and programs, said, when asked about this behavior, "I do what I do because I want to spend eternity with people I love." This faithful Christian understands the consequence of giving to God and working to do the work of God in this world. A part of that work is sharing the good news about Jesus, not just through our words, but perhaps even more importantly, through our actions. When this good news is shared, people are drawn to him. They are led to claim him as Savior and begin to find their lives filled with the love of God. And filled with that love, they can then enter and join us in that realm of love we call the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom is eternal. It turns out that we are meant to be the treasure of heaven for each other. It is not our wealth or our possessions, but these loving relationships, that fill our eternal purse.
Last week, I told you that upon hearing of Aristotle Onassis’ death, a group of his friends, curious to find out the size of his estate, asked his accountant, "What did he leave behind?" The accountant replied, "All of it. He left it all behind."
Jesus' invitation in this morning’s Gospel is not to leave it all behind, but to pay it forward, to send your treasure on ahead in the form of relationships grounded in the love of God. You might ask yourself, "Who do I love enough that I would want to spend eternity with them?" It is a question worth pondering . . . "Who do I love enough that I would want to spend eternity with them?" Have you told them that? Are your words and actions filling their eternal purse – and your eternal purse – with constant and unconditional love? If not . . . why not?
The third and final promise of Jesus is happiness. So far, we are called to first, live unafraid; and second, to build holy relationships, the true treasures of heaven. Now we are told that this way of life is the way to eternal happiness. The scriptural word "blessed" is most appropriately translated as our modern word “happy”. Jesus calls "blessed" or "happy" those who anticipate and are ready for the Lord's return.
“But how?”, we might ask. “How can we be ready for the Lord's return?” Some will interpret this question in a very moralistic way. A story is told of a preacher with moralistic leanings who once framed the question this way: "Would you want Jesus to come again and catch you with a beer in your hand?" The answer he received surely caught him off-guard: “Well,” someone replied, “I hope to be caught holding two beers, so I can offer one to him!” And the smart-aleck may have a point; after all, Jesus did ask: “When did you see me thirsty, and not offer me a drink?”
Seriously, being ready for Jesus' return is probably a little more complicated than that. The readiness Jesus calls us to deal with this morning has little to do with morality. Morality and virtue are good in and of themselves. They need no justification. But in reality, none of us, no matter how good or moral we are, is made ready for the Lord's return through these virtues.
This is because readiness for Jesus' return isn’t based on good behavior. It is grounded in the quality of the relationship that we have developed with Christ. We know this instinctively . . . When the love of one's life walks in the door after an absence, our natural response is immediate happiness. A loving grandparent embracing a beloved grandchild after a long separation would be a fitting illustration of what Gospel readiness means in this text. Our readiness for Jesus’ return is a consequence of our love for him. The greater our love for Jesus, the greater our readiness for his return.
As I conclude, let us return once again to The Wizard of Oz. In the end, the four heroes of the story are able to give up their "if only" postures. You will remember that at the end of the tale, each of the heroes is given a symbolic gift. The gifts are symbolic of the four heroes’ discovery that they have learned to live without their "if only"s through the learnings and experiences and relationships of their journey. The Wizard, the Great and All Powerful Oz, doesn’t give them what they seek. The courage, the wisdom, the heart, and the home they sought, they ultimately come to understand, they already possess by being in relationship with each other, by loving, and supporting, and journeying, and seeking together.
The Christian life that Jesus is promising is much like this. In relationship with Jesus and with one another, we grow into the promises of today's Gospel lesson. As we grow in love, we grow less and less fearful. As we grow in love, we discover ourselves focused more and more on eternal relationships. As we grow in love, we learn to await Jesus' coming not with dread of judgment, but with eagerness, with great joy, and great love.
It may be scary to think about living this way, but remember what Jesus says to us, his little flock, this morning . . . the same thing the angels first say to the shepherds on that first Christmas morning: "Don't be afraid."