Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church
8 August 2010
Let me first thank all of you for inviting me to come to Saint Luke’s on this warm August morning. We have a happy memory here of a much different occasion. It was the celebration of a new ministry. The Reverend Patty Mouer was being installed as Rector on a beautiful December night. When we emerged from the standing room only service we saw that the snow had begun falling from the sky. The charm of Saint Luke’s parish is apparent in all seasons.
The Mouers are among our oldest friends in Asheville. The Bleynat family started attending Trinity Church in the mid 1990’s when Patty was its Director of Christian Education and was working toward her ordination. Our eldest child, Web, was not even in school. Now, he is a 6’6″ rising high school senior. Jim Mouer and our daughter, Elizabeth, were both toddlers. Wade Mouer and Luke Bleynat had not yet appeared in all of our lives to introduce their own particular brands of chaos.
I think it is my daughter Elizabeth who gave your Rector what has become her official name, at least around the Bleynat house: Our Dear Miss Patty. You might envision it in capital letters, like a title.
Now, unlike Our Dear Miss Patty, even though I am giving a sermon this morning, preaching isn’t my day job. Lawyering is. So, when I look into my closet to pick out something to wear, I have plenty of gray suits, and plenty of blue suits; but no vestments. So I asked whether Saint Luke’s had any 48 extra long athletic cut robes. No luck. I then checked the closet at Trinity Friday. Still no luck. So I hope you will forgive this variation from typical preacher dress. I did try, after all!
Some of you are aware that I have published a couple books in a multi-volume series on the synoptic Gospels. Not sure when I will ever get to the next volume, but I do love the project!
Hmmm. As I look around, I wonder if some of you might be asking “What are the ‘synoptic’ Gospels?” Well, the word “gospel” means “good news of God’s saving action.” The word “synoptic ” means “to see together.”
So, when we talk about the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we are talking about good news of God’s saving action that can be seen together as we read these three books in relationship to each other.
There are academic questions about those relationships. For instance: which came first? And how is it that they came to be so similar, yet also to have such remarkable differences? The leading scholarly position is that Mark is the oldest of these three Gospels, and that Matthew and Luke incorporate Mark’s story of Jesus as the core narrative of their own Gospels.
But you will notice that Matthew and Luke are much longer than Mark. So, you might ask, “Where does the rest come from?”
When we look at them closely, we find Matthew and Luke have a lot in common with each other that Mark doesn’t share. These materials include many sayings of Jesus, such as what we find in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Because the shared sayings do not come down to us in a single document today, scholars have tried to determine how they might once have been grouped. They have reconstructed a hypothetical book containing sayings of Jesus that they call “Q” — the first letter in the German word “quelle,” which means “source.”
Matthew and Luke have unique materials as well, shared with no one. In Matthew, we might think of the parable of the sheep and the goats. We might also think of Luke’s parable of the prodigal son. The sources that provided these separate materials are called “M” for Matthew and “L” for Luke, respectively. They may have been oral or written. We simply don’t know, as they, like Q, are lost to us.
With all this talk about who’s on first and what’s on second, I think it is fair to say that I have been wearing a teacher hat for the last few minutes. Now, it is time to take off that hat and put on another one. But don’t worry—it’s not the lawyer hat. There will be no cross examinations today. It’s the preacher hat I need to put on.
So to make the transition from teaching to preaching in a most familiar way, I will ask you to join in.
“May the Lord be with you”
“And also with you”
Let us pray:
May the words of our mouths
and the meditations of our hearts
be acceptable in thy sight,
oh Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.
The gospel before us today is taken from Luke 12. Jesus has already “set his face toward Jerusalem” in the words of the evangelist Luke. We are not in the beauty of the Galilean lakeside, but on the way to a crowded and tense Passover week in Jerusalem.
As Jesus gets physically closer to his destination – and to his destiny – friction increases. We are told that the Scribes and Pharisees have been lying in wait for him, ready to cross examine Jesus. It seems that I am not the only lawyer in the house this morning!
If we were to peruse Luke before coming to our text for the day, we would see that Jesus has just been speaking to the crowds. Then, something happens that is a little more personal. Jesus turns away from the crowd, and toward his disciples. “Do not be afraid, little flock” he says. “Do not be afraid.”
In this remarkable moment, Jesus shifts from preacher to pastor, from proclaiming a message to seeing how important it is to reassure the people closest to him. The life with him that they have chosen has taken them out of the home waters around the Sea of Galilee and into the hustle and bustle of travel and encounters with many people, not all of them pleasant. In fact, some are downright unpleasant – like the Scribes and Pharisees.
What is it that these classes of people represent? Might it be order? That is required for any civilization. But might it be something more? Hierarchy? Legalism and doctrine? The placement of burdens on the people?
Those who follow Jesus and lay these burdens down are then left without the strong ties of property and place that define so many of our lives. To cast them off is to receive a blessing. Jesus has set them free.
But free from what? And free for what?
Let’s think about that a little. Jesus has been counseling “the people” – a term Luke often uses to describe a fairly large, but usually friendly group – not to worry about tomorrow.
This is sound advice. But his call to the “little flock” is qualitatively different. He has asked them to take a portion of the father’s kingdom. He has asked them to sell their possessions, give alms, and lay away unfailing treasure in Heaven where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
There is such truth and beauty in what Jesus tells the little flock that it flows over us and holds us in a bit of wonder as we consider what we relinquish and what we gain. The words resist being cluttered with commentary and rationalization. And yet, if we are to respond to the call; if it is to remake our lives, then we MUST talk about it.
We must start where we are in order to see where we might go. But we are so tethered to this world, that a different way only breaks in around us when we let our defenses down and embrace the image of the new person we are being called to become.
Think of our own lives. We are shackled by business expenses, rent or mortgage payments, insurance payments, providing for utilities, clothes and food, recreation, education, retirement, and every conceivable thing. And that includes feeding teenagers! Our time is spent seeking ways to fund these lifestyle requirements. In acquiring the means to secure goods and services we have gained not freedom, nor even true security; but bondage.
The servitude is more visible at some stages of our lives than at others. Last year, for instance, I heard that the age at which the average man confronts his highest level of annual expenditure is 46. Now, I do not know the methodology that led to this conclusion, but would make the educated guess that it has a lot to do with costs I described a few moments ago ramping up or peaking in these years. Not to mention feeding teenagers. And, with that said, I will let you good people just take a wild guess about how old I am right now!
So, it is VERY difficult to see where we are to go when directed to sell all our possessions, give alms, and move on.
And even if we can’t take this passage literally, we must still take it seriously. And that fills us both with a hint of possibility, and with more than a touch of dread. There is a conflict between what our Lord tells us, and what our experience tells us, and so we are placed in that little box where God likes to put us so that we may become true men and women: Paradox.
Now paradox is not petty contradiction, but a tension between two great truths that seem to conflict. It is not like arguing who had the green light with a fender bender at an intersection. No, it is more like coming to grips both with God’s sovereignty and with our free will. And it is our obligation, if we are to live authentic lives, to sort out what all of that means.
For example, our experience tells us we must prepare for the future, lest we be victimized and marginalized and left without security or meaning and see not only ourselves, but also our loved ones, suffer from whatever the world has to offer, whether loss of job or health or relationships.
But our Lord tells us something different. He tells us to let go. Because, you see, we can’t hold on anyway. We see lives disrupted by oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico or by the earth heaving in Haiti or by power struggles in the mountains of Afghanistan. If destructive forces can sweep down on these people, they can sweep down on us as well. We can all be disrupted, dislocated, and destroyed.
Is there no security? Is there nothing upon which we can rely?
Jesus seems to suggest that we have been looking for security or perhaps even meaning in all the wrong places. So he challenges us. By selling possessions and giving alms, we let go of the shackles of the world. We also come into possession of an unfailing treasure that we receive when we reset our sights on God and where he is calling us to go. It is the treasure of the heart and soul in right relationship with God and each other.
If we take these steps, if we walk in faith into the place where God is calling us to go, what happens to us? What do we experience in the place left open when we lay our burdens down? Knowing the hearts of men, Jesus moves from talking about letting go, to talking about – of all things – PREPARATION!
Look out guys because we are once again put in the little box called Paradox. Isn’t preparation what he has just tried to get us to QUIT doing? Weren’t we just being asked to give up security, and contingency plans, and all sorts of “prudent” things? And here, the little flock is being told to be dressed for action and to keep their lamps lit.
And what is the nature of this new preparation? Is it trading one house for another, one job for another? But that would just alter the forms of our lives, leaving the substance intact, wouldn’t it? So the change must involve something else.
Maybe it requires a core change. When we set down all the clutter, and take hold of the heavenly treasure, we witness the image of the beloved master returning from the wedding banquet. It is a festive occasion. He has been away, but his servants are still dressed for action with their lamps lit. They are going about the daily work the master has assigned.
It is the servant who unburdens herself of her own daily anxieties and reorients herself to the values of the kingdom – who gives alms to the poor; who follows her master’s directions – that receives the kingdom of love and delight now being offered. And, to make it even stranger, when the beloved master comes home, it will be HE who is serving the servants. The world is turned upside down.
As with so many of the things Jesus teaches us, we find ourselves struggling between meaning and practicality. The call to give all away, and yet to prepare, creates conflict. It is that paradox of two great truths in tension. It is up to us to sort out how to live them.
And with that in mind, I ask this of you, Our Dear Miss Patty’s little flock:
How can this be?
Can we come to know what Jesus means simply by thinking about it?
Or is it possible that we can only understand it by living it out, at least a little?
By giving something away, by unburdening ourselves, are we preparing our lives a little bit better for the master to come home?
And if we can take a first baby step, what might the second step look like? Or the third?
Might we find that, by trusting Jesus and following his words, we lose the half lives we have come to know?
Might we gain authentic lives, servants of the master, unburdened by the worries of the day, sitting down with our beloved companions at the feast he has provided?
So may it be with us.