Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ready, Get Set ...

Sheepscott Community Church August 8, 2010

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

Luke 12: 32-40

I Want to Be Ready

There’s an old Spanish saying, “There are no pockets in a shroud.” That’s a little more colorful than what we Americans usually say, i.e., “You can’t take it with you.” I’m talking about money, and I am talking about money because so was Jesus in the first part of this morning’s gospel.

It’s interesting that that introductory paragraph is usually read with the preceding verses in which Jesus tells his listeners not to worry about what they will eat, what they will drink, and what clothes they will wear, because God will take care of them, even as he clothes the grass of the field and the birds of the air. All that is followed by the searching question, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Who indeed?

That the passage introduces the reading of Jesus’ admonition toward watchfulness, as we do not know when the parabled Master will return from the wedding banquet, that unexpected introduction has to give us pause. Rather than being tacked on to the end of considerations of how God will take care of us in this life and not to worry about where the next meal is coming from, it introduces the idea of preparation for the next life, and consequently, its content takes on a more ominous and compelling ring.

To wit: “Do not be afraid, little flock.” So far, so good. “for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” So far, even better. But now, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Ouch. I didn’t see that coming. “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Interestingly, in this week’s news, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, two of the richest men in the world, announced the Giving Pledge, which asks the nation's 100 billionaires to publicly commit to give at least half of their wealth to philanthropic and charitable groups within their lifetimes or after their deaths. The pronouncement by Buffett and Gates stems from a series of dinners the two men held over the past year to discuss the effects of the recession on philanthropy with some of the nation's richest people. Thus far, 40 of the hundred billionaires have bought in to this idea of spreading the wealth around. Their goal is to help create an expectation in society that the rich should give away their wealth, and also to create a peer group of wealthy people that can offer advice on philanthropy. The pledge is a moral commitment, not a legal obligation.

Brother and sister philanthropist billionaires from Maine, Marion Sandler and Bernard Osher, are among the 49 who have pledged to give. Besides Buffett and Gates and these two Mainers, I thought of at least two other people who gave up their wealth. The legendary St. Francis of Assissi, who when he had discovered the pearl of great price, gave up all his possessions and his soldier/playboy lifestyle to possess that pearl. He acted out by stripping himself in the village square of the beautiful raiment he had from his father, a cloth merchant, and placing his naked self under the protective cloak of the local bishop. Francis knew how to make a dramatic point, when he embraced Lady Poverty.

The other person I actually knew many years ago was a Jewish convert to Christianity. He too, when he felt God’s call on his life, took the admonition from this morning’s gospel literally and sold his considerable holdings and gave all the money away. With the passage of time he married and had children and often had need of what he had given away. I don’t know how he came to peace about all that, or whether he did, but I think his initial act of faith in the words of Jesus can only ultimately be for good. Like Francis, who happily called himself God’s fool, this man often felt the same way. But more often than not, what the world considers foolishness is wisdom in the sight of God.

The realization of ideals, spiritual and otherwise, is not always as simple as it seems. Practically and realistically speaking, I think we can all acknowledge that we have to keep for ourselves enough to live on and not be a burden to the State or our children or the community. While it’s important for all of us as community to continue to provide a safety net for those––including the poor––who are not able to provide for themselves, it is also true that we need to continue to provide for our selves the best we can. But we must be honest with ourselves and answer the question before God, how much does that take? As billionaire Marian Sandler noted in her letter of commitment to the Giving Pledge, “There’s no way to spend a fortune. How may residences, automobiles, aireplanes, and other luxury items can one acquire and use?”

If we are reasonable about tithing, however you do that––through the church, through personal charities, even in our own families where there is always another need cropping up, as in, Charity begins at home––I think that can fulfill what Jesus is asking here. More important is that last line, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What do we value more? Accumulating wealth that enables bigger, better purchases? Or accumulating the other wealth, that Jesus is suggesting, the wealth that is actually divestiture of money and goods and redistribution, thereby providing a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys?

Considering the recent economic collapse, and the effects of which I’m sure even some in this congregation experienced sharply, we know the reality of the thief and the moth, and it should give us pause about what we value more, and where and how we want to invest our wealth and to consider what kinds of dividends we want that wealth to generate. Temporal or eternal? Also, it should be becoming clearer to all of us as time and the years go by, just what true wealth is, viz., what Jesus is teaching about this morning.

All of that is by way of introducing the rest of this morning’s gospel, which speaks about readiness––being ready to meet God. If you recall, last week’s gospel dealt with the rich man who didn’t have enough room to store all his worldly goods, and so he happily hit on the idea that he could build bigger barns to hold the stuff. Do you ever wonder about the recent proliferation of storage units on our roadsides? I wonder if those aren’t the bigger barns of our present day, and also a corruption of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” viz., “I have, therefore I am.” What does God say to all that? “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.” Are we ready? Have we prepared the way?

In the narrower sense, what we’re talking about here is the Second Coming of Christ, but in the wider sense, it is God’s call on each individual life, the eventuality of death that comes to us all. The Grim Reaper reaps without regard for what’s growing in the field and how good it looks. How do we prepare? First, sell our possessions and give the money to the poor, whether you want to hear that literally, metaphorically or somewhere in between. We have considered ways of thinking about that.

Next, like the menin the gospel waiting for their master’s return from the wedding banquet, we should be dressed and ready for service, with our lamps burning. Our translation is “dressed and ready;” an older translation is “With girt loins,” which is to say, let the long robes worn in the East be gathered up at the waist with a belt to make work possible. We wait as workers ready for service, with our lamps burning ready.

One understanding of being dressed and ready is having completed the work we came to do. In John 17: 4, Jesus says to the Father, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” Wouldn’t it be a sweet relief to be at the end of our lives and able to say that? All of us need to give that long thought and prepare, where we are not prepared. Life for many of us is filled with loose ends, and a simultaneous sense of unfulfillment. Pay attention to that feeling. There are things done, and things undone; things said and things as yet unsaid; some things we have put off, and other things never undertaken. We need to make an inventory of these important matters.

I think many of us could tell stories about those close to us who have passed on, who needed to attend to unfinished business. So often that attending is an indication of the mercy of God at the last, with members of families being reconciled. Others refuse the grace of the moment, which is an act of the free will.

In the last month of my mother’s life, while she lay in the hospital suffering the aftereffects of a massive stroke, her overarching worry was who would harvest her garden. She was a good and faithful gardener, and nothing ever went to waste that the earth produced in her garden. It was canned, frozen, pickled, or dried, but not wasted. She was realistic enough to know, as August bent toward September, that she would not be able to harvest her garden that year, and it was clearly a source of distress. My younger sister had the time and was in the right place in her life that she was able to step in to can and preserve enough of the garden’s bounty to set my mother’s mind at ease. Now my mother’s husband, our stepfather, would have plenty to eat through the winter. My mother finished her work before she died, with a little help from her friends, and that included a full month of life following her first stroke. She had time to settle more serious accounts than the garden.May we all be so blessed.

Sell all our possessions, i.e., search out in prayer before God where our heart’s treasure lies, and depending on what we understand, act accordingly. Then we need to see to the completing of our several works, whatever forms those works might take.

Next are the admonitions to be at peace with others and also with God. Ephesians 4: 26 reminds us not to let the sun set on our anger. Before we sleep each night, it is always a good and smart thing to review the day before God, forgiving where we need to forgive and asking forgiveness for ourselves in turn. Thereby can we come to be at peace with God.

We don’t have to wait until we know we’re dying to do these things. They should be a regular practice of anyone who is trying to live the Christian life, who is trying to follow Jesus’s example. He had no possessions except the seamless garment he wore. As I quoted earlier, he completed on earth the work he came to do. From our recent consideration of the Lord’s Prayer, we know that he was at peace with God and with his fellow human beings because of what he included in the prayer, which he left behind for us to follow as a road map: Father, holy be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, our sins, our debts to one another. And lead us not into temptation. Amen.

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