This article written by Christy ran in our diocesan e-news on August 20th. It is an adaptation of her August 11th sermon.
Pentecost XII/ Proper 14
The Gospel for the twelfth Sunday of Pentecost (Luke 12:32-40) this year began with Jesus saying to his disciples, “ ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’ ” (Luke 12:32, New Revised Standard Version). This is a solid start to any passage, right? Jesus endeavors to comfort us and his disciples, assuring us that we need not be afraid because it is God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom.
It’s after this things get a little dicey. Jesus continues, “ ‘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’ ” (Luke 12:33-34 New Revised Standard Version). And instantly I’ve forgotten Jesus’ first statement. Fear has set in. How on Earth am I supposed to sell all my possessions and give it all away? This isn’t feasible or realistic! My inability to comply with this must mean that my heart is in the wrong place!
From there, things seem to continue downhill, “ ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes…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’ ” (Luke 12:35,-40 New Revised Standard Version).
And I shut down. It’s one of those end times passages. Give away all your money… be ready at all times. It feels impossible. And since I cannot achieve that for which it advocates, I am left unsure what to do with this passage. Perhaps you are left in a similar conundrum? Do we simply ignore it? Guiltily acknowledge our failure and discomfort and move on to a more pleasant saying of Jesus?
But we’ve forgotten how Jesus began, “ ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’ ” (Luke 12:32, New Revised Standard Version). We fear. And in fearing, we forgot that Jesus promises us that we need not fear because God, out of God’s grace and pleasure, has already given us the kingdom. This passage is not about earning the kingdom.
It is our fear that blocks us from hearing the rest of the passage. It is our fear that prevents us from hearing what Jesus has to say to us. Human fear has this tendency. Fear impedes our perception of God’s will and ways at work in our lives (Richard Carlson, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, Proper 14). Throughout scripture, God constantly encourages those to whom God comes not to fear—Zechariah (Luke 1:13), Mary (Luke 1:30), the shepherds (Luke 2:10), the disciples (Luke 12:7) and now us too, Jesus’ little flock, are entreated not to fear.
The fear this passage addresses in particular, is the fear that prevents us from letting go of our anxieties over the basic necessities of life. This passage follows Jesus telling his disciples, “ ‘…do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing’ ” (Luke 12:22-23, New Revised Standard Version). He reminds them of the ravens who, “ ‘…neither sow nor reap…’ ” nor store and yet God feeds them (Luke 12:24, New Revised Standard Version). He speaks of the beauty of the lilies and how not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these. If God clothes the grass of the field, he argues, which is so disposable and fleeting, “ ‘…how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!’ ” (Luke 12:28, New Revised Standard Version)
It is in this context that Jesus instructs us to sell our possessions. This instruction is all about trust. We are to sell our possessions because they are things on which we depend and to which we cling. Jesus challenges our tendency to hold on to what we have in order to protect against what might come. In our dependence, our possessions, our material wealth, become our treasures. They begin to hold our hearts.
Many of us fear losing the blessings of our lives. A good friend of mine always says when everything in her life is going well that she is waiting for the other shoe to drop. She’s waiting for something to go wrong. After I got married, I was so grateful to have found such a wonderful, supportive partner in life, that I found myself unhealthily afraid something would happen to him. Every time the poor guy left the house, I felt compelled to yell after him, “Drive safely!”
Fear can do something to our hearts. It can block us from living into the blessing. Whether it is the fear of losing a loved one, a home, a job or financial security, fear twist and distorts and causes us to grasp and cling.
Commentator David Schlafer writes that, “Neither receiving nor sharing is possible when hands are grasped and fingers clenched” (Richard Carlson, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, Proper 14). The same thing happens in our hearts that happens in our hands. Just as our hands grasp and our fingers clench, so do our hearts—they clamp down and close. This makes it hard both to give and to receive.
So Jesus encourages us not to fear, but instead to trust in what has been given to us. We are encouraged to uncurl our fingers, to open our hearts and to give. In giving, we release those things we grasp and their power over us is diminished. We release our hearts from being bound to these things. The Gospel promises that giving from what we have makes us mindful of the God of blessing, of the blessings we receive, and more ready to receive blessing.
In fact, when we manage to read past this instruction to sell our possessions and give without panicking and falling into fear, when we keep our ears and hearts open, we notice that the text continues in an unexpected way, “ ‘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’ ” (Luke 12:37-38 New Revised Standard Version). We notice that God’s return is all about blessing, rather than a cause for panic. The slaves are to sit down while master ties on an apron and serves them.
This end times text is not about shame and fear. Instead, it is full of promises of blessing. Jesus assures us that God has already given us the kingdom. We need not fear, we need not grasp and cling. And in order to drive out our fear, deny it its power and truly rest in the promise, Jesus encourages us to release those things we cling to and to give. And in so doing, to open ourselves to receive, to receive God’s blessings and lean into God’s promises.