Proper 14 Year C
Genesis 15.1-6; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40
“Do not be afraid, little flock!”
In these few beautiful words of consolation and endearment, Jesus assures us that all will be well, though in doing so he inevitably gives us opportunity to reflect on what our own fears might be and what they tell us about ourselves.
He offers two images or categories of things to fear: moths and thieves (12.33). The first destroys gradually all that we are; it includes the slow gnawing of hunger and cold (12.22) and the personal unravelling that can be caused by injustice or the law’s delay: “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me” (12.13) .The second type rips from us in sudden violence all that we have; it is typified by “those who kill the body” and then can do no more (12.4). Among such are numbered “the synagogues, rulers and authorities” (12.11) who, as Paul discovers most prominently in the New Testament, can inflict all manner of pain, ordering an execution or flogging or imprisonment, as mood or expediency dictates. Moths and thieves, all of them.
And we must accept and admit that there is plenty of scope for fear at this time of local political uncertainty, global upheaval, ecological challenge and the spate of random killings that continues all over the world.
“But do not be afraid!” we hear: “it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”
Here is a promise to gladden our hearts! We know where we are with kingdoms: they mean crowns and cavalry and getting our own way, and silken girls bringing sherbet. So the command that follows this attractive promise, to sell all our possessions and give our money to the poor, is an unpleasant shock, a verbal kick in the guts that worsens phrase by phrase. The confidence that this kingdom will shower us with gold, putting us in charge and erasing all our fears is stolen in a sickening instant. What use is a kingdom which I inherit by making my way down the ladder, stripping myself of all my goods and wasting the proceeds on those who are beneath me, unable to do anything for me? Surely this is folly, to embrace the very fears I’ve been fleeing?
But the command continues and the promise is fleshed out: we must make ‘purses for ourselves that do not grow old’ containing ‘treasure in the heavens that does not fail’. For “where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.” This flips over the question of fear and asks what is it that I really desire and treasure? What makes me tick? What do I place at the centre of my life?
If I shift my centre to focus everything on the inheritance of the Kingdom of God, my fears will begin to evaporate as my faith grows in the ‘things unseen’ of the Letter to the Hebrews. Selling my possessions and giving alms to the poor will then make absolute sense. But surely, it will be argued, such abandonment of ordinary prudence requires a belief in the imminent ending of the world which Jesus may have had, which the early Paul had, but which most of us do not. Our long-term economic strategy is going to be a little more nuanced than simply giving everything away.
And this is, of course, quite true. But we who are focused on God’s Kingdom of justice and peace (either through family background, intellectual conviction or an Emmaus-like experience of the risen Christ) will have a commitment to generosity in alms-giving as part of that life of service described in the second half of the gospel passage (12.35ff). Here we learn that our unfailing treasure and never-aging purse is our service of the Master, ‘dressed for action and with lamps lit’. His return is at an unknown hour, and he looks to find us not with our feet up, the drinks cabinet open and the television on; but alert, awake, constant in his service, that ‘perfect freedom’ of which the Prayer Book speaks.
The decision to live like this was made by us or for us in our Baptism, and is one that we have made our own through Confirmation, or in the regular reception of the Sacrament of the Altar. The lamp that we must keep lit and held aloft is therefore not an Olympic flame but the candle given us in baptism ‘to show that we have passed from darkness into light’. In the same way, the garment in which we are dressed for action is the baptismal robe worn by those who emerge from the waters of rebirth. It is echoed in the long white alb worn by priests at the Eucharist. And this is why I always put on the vestments for mass not in the secrecy of a vestry, but in the sight of the whole congregation: a sign that all the baptised are celebrants of this banquet; all are called to play their part in the Divine Liturgy and to put on the motley in service of the world.
Each of us will work out with our community exactly what form this service will take, given that we can serve only as we are (running from what frightens us and towards what attracts with the glint of treasure); and naturally we can serve only according to the needs of where we are, always ready for the coming of the Master, finding in our own places the means and materials for making purses that never grow old, keeping their stitching tight and their treasure safe.
Such an activity requires certain good habits of thought and action to be successful. Of these, we may first highlight passion. For once we are not using this in the strictly theological sense, but in the ordinary sense of the word: a passion, an excitement, a dedication to the cause. Without a certain naïve passion for the teachings of Jesus, we will find it impossible to sustain any faith or hope in things not seen, especially in an age of careerism, professionalism, managerialism. Any role as descendants of those who have gone before us in faith will be a dry and empty claim, capable of becoming real only if we assume the passion that inspired and sustained Abraham, Sarah, Noah and the rest.
Our second ingredient is penitence. This is not merely sorrow for our sins, but rather a more general awareness of God as God, me as me, and the immense gulf that lies between us, one that is bridged only by the divine mercy. This awareness and accurate appraisal of reality is the beginning and bedrock of the generosity and humility we will absolutely need if we are to welcome and serve a Kingdom so very different from the one we’d hoped for, selling our possessions and giving alms to those who can give nothing in return.
Finally, prayer. This is more than a pious adjunct to an alliterative list of desirables. Time spent with the Trinity in silent adoration is the absolutely irreplaceable and irrefutable means to the formation of my centre in Christlikeness without which I will not be able to play any part in the unfolding of the kingdom, still less be a gospel for others to read and to illumine them in their way of service. But if, like a miser gazing on gold, I can bring myself by grace to know Jesus as my treasure, I will want and need to spend time with him, to delight in serving and meeting him in a thousand ways, and to await his return in the fullness of time.
This will not put an end to the attacks of moths and thieves. But our fears will at least diminish as they are leavened by faith and hope. For as we await the day of the Kingdom, putting on the long white robe of work and worship, keeping our Baptismal candle alight and seeking out ways of loving service the Lord’s beautiful and truthful voice speaking to us his living Word: “Do not be afraid, little flock! It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Amen. Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.