“Where Our Treasure Lies”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell 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. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed 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.38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39“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. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (NRSV)
When I was in fifth or sixth grade and my sister, Laura, was in Jr. High, our parents let us take a Trailways bus, by ourselves, from Augusta, GA to Montgomery, AL to visit grandparents. Before we left, Mom and Dad lectured us – briefly – on safety. “Be careful,” they said. “And watch out for shady characters.” That was it. Nothing specific. However, for a couple of sheltered kids who lived in a “nice,” all-white neighborhood outside a small city in the deep south, we knew which visible characteristics immediately qualified someone as potentially shady. Now, our parents didn’t push prejudice on us, but our southern culture certainly did. So, diving into shady-character-watch mode, we started a list. Before the bus even left Augusta, it was as long as my forearm.
During the trip, a flat tire stranded us in the Middle-of-Nowhere, AL. While we waited for Trailways to resolve the problem, Laura and I went on high alert. The old flat tire trick, we thought. Now that’s as shady as it gets. And the list grew until we arrived safely in Montgomery.
Parting words are often warnings: Be careful. Have a safe trip. Anything can happen, you know.
Do you remember this child’s bedtime prayer? Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take!
How does a four-year-old process those words after Mommy and Daddy turn out the light and shut the door? That prayer is borderline religious extortion. Sadly, it’s a reflection of the Church’s principal tool of evangelism over the last two millennia – fear. Why do people enter the fold more readily and remain longer when they’re more afraid of God than in love with God?
Now, I’m not talking about healthy fear – the fear that keeps us from standing too close to the rim of the Grand Canyon or swimming with alligators. That’s what “fear of the Lord” refers to – respecting the limits of our creatureliness before God.
I’m talking about fear as the natural consequence idolatry of oneself or unresolved guilt. That kind of fear is antithetical to faith. It eviscerates faith, exterminates hope, and asphyxiates love. Because it cultivates the incarnate hell which so many seek to escape, fear doesn’t draw us closer to God; it exiles us from God. We cannot be afraid of God and love neighbor.
Now, I understand that Be careful really is a way to say, I love you. Still, it seems to me that we have chosen to live in a state of relentless fear – which necessarily means treating our neighbors as shady characters, especially those who appear different from us. And when our communities are armed like the militaries of small nations, and when our hearts and minds are being warped more and more toward an at-any-cost self-preservation, preparedness means readiness not only to imagine the worst that someone can do, but to be able to respond in kind.
“Do not be afraid, little flock.” In a culture of fear, Jesus’ words are pie-in-the-sky nursery rhymes. So, we approach them from a standpoint of “Yes, but…”
Yes, I love God; but first I have to take care of number one – me.
Yes, I love my neighbor; but first I have to prepare to defend myself from him.
Yes, God is love; but it’s a cruel world out there, and only the strong survive. (Is it not a paradox when people of faith, in good faith, argue vigorously against evolution, and yet choose to live by its foundational principle of survival of the fittest?!)
When our treasure lies with only ourselves and our tribes, that’s where our hearts are: Fearfully seeking one thing: Survival. And survival is not the same as living.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” says Jesus. “Be like those who are waiting for their master to return.”
Many Christians hear those words as a call to live in constant anxiety of a vindictive god who is “coming soon,” brandishing a sword of judgment. That god’s vengeful passion is to punish – eternally no less – those who haven’t earned grace through right belief and right action. And isn’t it another paradox to think that one must, or even can, earn grace?
Jesus’ life and teaching reveal a much different God.
Jesus was formed by and preached from Hebrew scriptures laden with retributive theology. And yet, in his sermon on the mount, “An eye-for-an-eye” becomes, “do not resist an evildoer…[and] turn the other cheek.” (Mt. 5:38-39) “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” becomes, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt. 5:43-45) And the Messiah isn’t a triumphant military leader, but an itinerant rabbi who rewrites scripture and dies a traitor’s death.
What does such a life prepare us for? How does it take care of us and those we love? The hard truth is that following Jesus sets us at odds with cultures that regard resentment and fear as the “realistic” approach to life.
“Be like those,” says Jesus, who wait on their master, a bridegroom, to return from his honeymoon. When he gets home in the middle of the night, what does he do? He straps on an apron and serves them a feast.
One can imagine the disciples cutting their eyes at each other thinking, The master serving the servants?
That’s right, says Jesus. So, be ready. Grace happens when you least expect it.
If we surrender to fear, “when you least expect it” warns us of the worst possible contingencies. When animated by faith in the loving and gracious God revealed in Jesus, “when you least expect it” invites us to live differently in the world – to live expectantly, graciously – and not just for ourselves, but for others, for neighbors next door and across the globe, and for the earth on which all of us depend for life, health, and joy.
The awareness to which Jesus calls us is not the kind of hypervigilance of police officers patrolling Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras, but the openness of the painter before a blank canvass, or a committee before a new idea – or problem. Such awareness takes time to learn and nurture.1 Gene Lowry, a well-known preacher and teacher of preaching, says that we must learn to “position ourselves to be surprised.”2 Fear prepares us to avoid surprise. Faith prepares us to welcome it the way the servants prepare to welcome the gift of their master’s hospitality in the middle of the night.
Right now, it feels like few of us expect the coming – much less the presence – of the Son of Man. Our sick culture is too busy not just preparing for, but empowering the next angry person armed with hate and fear. We can prepare for shady characters, and expect the worst from them – and only deepen the sickness in which we live.
Or we can follow Jesus, looking for and evoking the holiness around us, expecting to be surprised by signs of God’s presence and grace in the world even in the midst of its admittedly, and all-too-often invasively, fearsome brokenness.
Neither approach to preparedness guarantees safety or survival, but only the latter engages us with the power of Resurrection at work in the Creation. It allows us to live as witness to the ongoing advent of the gracious, creative, surprising God revealed in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the grace of Agape Love alone lies our treasure and our hope.
1David J. Schlafer in his article, Homiletical Perspectivein Feastin on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010. P. 339.