A sermon From Linda Mackie-Griggs for 12 Pentecost, Year C (Proper 14) 7 August 2016
Luke 12: 32-40
“Do not be afraid…”
Have you ever noticed that whenever we hear this phrase it actually means, “fasten your seatbelts”? This is no exception.
This lesson is part of a longer discourse in which Jesus is speaking to a huge crowd, described as “…gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another…”—He’s talking to this chaotic mass of people about discipleship; about prayer, possessions, and even about the endtimes—the coming of the Son of Man. In short, he’s talking about the Kingdom mindset; what it is to take on the mantle of a follower of Jesus.
Today we are given three images on two topics; one is treasure—specifically “unfailing treasure”, and the other is attentiveness—but what kind of attentiveness? We move through a world filled with a vast array of priorities competing for our attention. How to divide the finite pie of our energy and awareness among the seemingly infinite number of material, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs (and wants) that confront us on a daily basis? Jesus begins by telling us not to be afraid; this means that whatever priorities we currently have, we are about to be invited to re-order them.
Jesus uses two parabolic images for attentiveness; the slaves awaiting the Master’s return home from the wedding banquet, and the owner of a house vigilant for thievery. And each offers a different perspective, two different kinds of energy.
Think about what it is to be alert. Attentive. Ready. Girded. On the watch. It’s exhausting to be hyper-focused on one thing for a long time—and virtually impossible in perpetuity. Look at the Secret Service agents protecting the president and high level officials—can you imagine being on that kind of hyper-alert all the time? What an exhausting and soul-sucking prospect! Is this muscle-clenching vigilance really what is desired from the One who has been telling his disciples not to worry about anything because God the Father will provide all they need? How is it possible to be alert and watchful and not worry, especially in the context of being told at the same time not to be afraid? There’s a disconnect there; a little like what happens when someone says, don’t think about chocolate.
So, how to ponder what it is to be attentive?
Have you ever seen a meteor shower? There is one occuring now—the Perseids, peaking next week. It’s an annual astronomical event; every August, like clockwork, and well worth your time (and a few bug bites.)
The way to get the most out of looking at a meteor shower is not by focusing closely on a single point in the sky. Don’t even think of binoculars or a telescope. If you do that you’ll miss everything and your eyes will get tired; and since the best time to see meteor showers is often late at night, you’ll probably fall asleep. Rather, you want to soften your gaze and let your peripheral vision take over—just aim your eyes at the part of the sky from which most of the meteors are coming, usually out of a certain constellation (Perseus, in this case), and then be aware of what is happening on the edge of your vision. That way you’ll pick up the movements of shooting stars from a broad area and be able to respond and focus as needed. Soften the gaze, widen the space of awareness, and prepare to see the heavens dancing; as though God has decided to serve you your own private banquet of beauty. That is the reward of watching in anticipation.
Watching in fear or worry, though, like the owner of the house, is more like holding tightly to something you are afraid of losing. Holding tightly requires unsustainable amounts of energy, whether we’re physically, or emotionally, holding something. It drains us, and is often counterproductive. Think of holding so tightly to something that it becomes bruised or broken. Think of holding too tightly to an opinion and losing the ability to listen constructively. Think of holding too tightly to a relationship, potentially suffocating it. Hyper-watchfulness is only effective in the short term; in the long term it is unsustainable. This isn’t what Jesus asks of us—to exhaust ourselves in fear of what is coming, or of what we might lose. Hold lightly, and position yourself—your vision– to be surprised.*
And surprising things do happen to those who watch in anticipation. The master comes home from the wedding banquet and, finding his slaves alert and anticipating his arrival, amazingly sits them down to serve them—a reversal of the order of things in a way that only Jesus can express: Do not be afraid, little flock. But fasten your seatbelts; the world is turning upside down. Jesus invites us to envision and participate in a Kingdom—a Dream of God—where all are alert and aware of the periphery. What are the possibilities and opportunities awaiting us at the margin of our vision? Let go of the need to hold tightly and to control the outcome. Hold lightly: “Sell your possessions, and give alms….For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The difference between the slaves in the one parable and the master of the house in the other lies in what they were watching for, and that influenced how they watched for it. Which was it to be? Eagerly watching for the wedding guest or worrying about the thief coming to steal ? What does our attentiveness look like? Holding lightly, creatively, or holding tightly, fearfully? Are we waiting for the wedding guest or the thief?
What is “unfailing treasure” in the Kingdom of God? It is tempting to think that Jesus was talking exclusively about heavenly treasure of the afterlife. That’s a cop-out. It’s a cop-out because when Jesus tells us not to be afraid he’s telling us that our Kingdom mindset needs to begin right now, not later. And that means asking ourselves, what kind of transformation are we being invited into? And how does disciplined awareness—holding attentively, yet lightly, to our lives—fit into it?
A couple of years ago writer/preacher/scholar Jamal Andrew Calloway wrote the following reflection. The questions he raises elicit a vision of Kingdom watchfulness; softening our gaze and attending to our peripheral vision:
What would happen if we altered and rearranged our whole entire lives to fit each other, to make room for one another? Is it possible? Is there a different route we could take that would allow us to accomplish our goals, to achieve our dreams and have each other? …What if we thought of one another as goals, as dreams, too? What if we thought about what we could have together as a kind of goal in our lives? What if our joy was as important as our resumes and careers? What if our collective happiness, together, became our dreams too? What if the us we could become was a priority? Are we worth the sacrifice and changes that would take?
Do not be afraid, little flock…
Are we ready to be surprised?
*Professor/Preacher Eugene Lowry is credited for the phrase, “…position yourself to be surprised”