Trinity 11 – Ready, Steady…Wait. Annemarie Woodward

St Mary’s, Hadlow

Trinity 11: St Luke 12: 32-40

 Sunday 7th August 2016.

 

May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 Ready, Steady … Wait.

 ‘Do not be afraid’ [1] – reassuring, powerful and – yes – familiar words: from Genesis all the way through to Revelation, the voice of God rings out again and again, loud and clear ‘Do not be afraid.’[2]

I have to confess that when I started to prepare for this morning, I was at a loss: key words and phrases in today’s gospel kept leaping off the page, any-which-way, before landing in a jumbled heap at my feet. I felt as if I’d crept into a theatre half way through the second act of Measure for Measure.

So, I started again, only this time I went back and read through, not only the central part of St Luke’s gospel (the long[3] journey made by Jesus and his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem),[4] but also the Old and New Testament readings set down for today. In St Paul’s letter to the Hebrews I found the key: ‘Faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance about what we do not see.’[5]

Suddenly St Luke started to come into focus. From the glory of the Transfiguration high up on a mountain, down to the border of Samaria, then back to Galilee, and on to Jericho and Judea before reaching Jerusalem, St Luke is inviting us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus: prophet, healer, loving companion, and – crucially – revolutionary teacher. The crowds that gather round him may not realise it, but if they want to become true disciples, they are on a steep learning curve.

Day by day, they listen, spellbound, as he describes a kingdom that will have no end, a kingdom of love and compassion, a kingdom like none other, the kingdom of God. At first they don’t understand: a borderless kingdom? Raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty? Un-heard of, counter cultural, politically subversive, even dangerous; nothing would ever be the same again. No wonder they’re afraid.

Jesus has to convince them in a very short space of time that the kingdom of God cannot be seen through the prism of earthly majesty. The kingdom of God is centred on ‘God’s sovereignty sweeping the world with love and power, so that human beings, each made in God’s image and each one loved dearly, may relax in the knowledge that God is in control.’[6] In the midst of the crowds who gather round him, throughout this long journey, Jesus brings his Father’s gracious kingdom into the here and now – healing the sick and raising the dead, championing the outcast, the poor and the lowly, and welcoming repentant sinners with open arms.

Through prayer and parable, Jesus is teaching the crowds what it really means to be a true disciple[7] – warts and all. A true disciple of Christ can never be half-hearted or casual, laid back or lackadaisical; a true disciple – trusting implicitly in God – must always be loyal, focused, obedient, courageous, steadfast and faithful: God-centred, never self-centred. A true disciple has to be ready for anything, and brave enough to face ridicule and repudiation, to say nothing of real and present danger.

This, surely, is just as true today as it was then. Can we really claim to be “true disciples” if we put self-will before God’s will? Are we being true disciples when we relegate God to a diary-slot on a Sunday morning? How can we claim to be true disciples if our bibles gather dust, and we only pray when it suits us? Can we be true disciples if we fail to stand up for our faith in the face of derision? Can we?

Looking back, to the first disciples, we can see all too clearly that, at this point in Jesus’ ministry, political tensions were building rapidly, and powerful forces of opposition (the Pharisees in particular) were becoming increasingly vocal, particularly when challenged, face to face. No small wonder, then, that many of these fledgling followers are afraid, even when Jesus tries to reassure them that they have nothing to fear but fear itself.[8] It is at this point that he turns to them, saying ‘Do not be afraid, little flock,’[9] instantly evoking images of the Good Shepherd; here Jesus is echoing Gabriel’s reassurance first to Zechariah,[10] then to Mary[11] and on to the shepherds abiding in the fields.[12] In St. Luke’s gospel, the words ‘do not be afraid’ always preface ‘good news of great joy,’ and the ‘good news’ we hear in today’s reading is that this amazing gift (the kingdom of God) has already been freely and joyfully given. It is here, now, right this minute!

The kingdom of God is not “pie in the sky when you die”- it lives, through God’s good grace, in the here and now. Over two thousand years ago Jesus demonstrated that the ‘reign of God is a reality of this world; (and) it is our task to give it shape in our world.’[13]   We are his eyes, his hands, his feet, and his body.[14] As true disciples of Christ we have to be both Mary and Martha. Two weeks’ ago I came across this powerful quotation: ‘We (can) discover God in our environment; in the homely imagery of the psalmist; he is about our path and about our bed and familiar with all our ways. It is in him, to quote St Paul, that we live and move and have our being. But if God is around us he is also within us. And if he is within us it isn’t as an alien, not as “another”, but as our truest selves.’[15] God is present every moment of every day through our faith in his overwhelming and unfailing love for each and every one of us.

Seen in this light today’s gospel passage is liberating: we can look at ‘sell your possessions and give alms’[16] not as an injunction to rid ourselves of everything[17] we own, but as a command to step back and think again about what we really need as against what we ‘really, really want’, and then, without shouting it from the rooftops, give till it hurts in alms, supporting local, national and international charities.

Then we read on: ‘make purses for yourselves that do not wear out’[18] this, surely, can also be seen as an instruction – as valid today as it was two thousand years ago: act responsibly in your best interests, yes, but within a framework that will bring together, seamlessly, love of self, love for others and love of God. In a nutshell, God wants us to turn away, not only from the ‘must-have, must-hoard’ mentality that suffocates the spirit, but also from the seductively false images of ‘treasure’ that threaten to overwhelm our world: selfish, vaunting ambition; ruthless thirst for power; asset stripping and self-centred greed; even (sadly in this day and age) vacuous celebrity. All these, and many, many more, can be seen as ‘treasure’ – but are they? Surely our real treasure has but one source: the grace of God.  Through God’s grace we can enjoy (and share with our families, friends and neighbours) the abundance of life that only comes from a genuine sense of community and a right relationship with God. Then, and only then, will heart and treasure be as one, because ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’[19]

At this point, having preached on living and proclaiming the gospel[20] together with the husbandry of possessions,[21]   Jesus turns his attention to the stewardship of time. Stewardship has, sadly, fallen out of fashion. We tend to think of stewards as no more than waiters in a gentleman’s club on or a cruise ship. But stewardship has a deeper meaning: it has been defined as ‘the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.’[22] In his first letter to the Corinthians St Paul wrote ‘It is required of a steward that he be found faithful’[23] and there is at least one member of the congregation here this morning who will recall, as I do, sitting cross-legged on the floor in morning assembly (more years ago than we care to think of) and seeing these words emblazoned above the stage in deep gold lettering on a royal blue background. They were a constant reminder of what it means to be a steward – what, in effect, it means to be a true disciple.

In addressing the stewardship of time,[24] Jesus compares all would-be disciples with a household of watchful servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet: our Saviour’s commands are crystal-clear: ‘be dressed for action,’[25] ‘have your lamps lit,’[26] ‘open the door as soon as he comes:’[27]   in other words – be ready for anything; never give up and be prepared to wait … and wait … and wait.[28]

Plus ça change – all these years later we, too, are being asked to wait. Not that it’s easy: far from it. We live in a world of mobile phone apps and high-tech laptops, with instant access, 24/7, to super-fast broadband, and whatever we need (or think we need) is there, at the touch of a button. But, as they say, patience is a virtue; so, week by week, we reassure ourselves by confidently affirming our fervent belief in the Second Coming: ‘Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again!’[29]    We know it will happen, but we don’t know when it will happen (and perhaps, if we stop to think about it, it’s best that we don’t?).

Think back for a moment: in the Bible people of faith were often called upon to wait: all those named in the ‘hall of faith’ in St Paul’s letter to the Hebrews[30] had to wait – patiently – for the promised blessings of God. So, as faithful stewards of Christ’s gospel we, too, have to wait.  Just like the watchful servants in the parable, we have to gird our loins, light our lamps and be ready to greet our Master and our friend – not only when he comes in glory, but also when we see him in the here and now, because the presence of God, ‘not as “another”, but as our truest selves’[31] is all around us: there are thousands of ways in which God draws near to those he loves – and he loves each and every one of us. His presence is here, with us today, in St Mary’s. Time after time, day after day, if our hearts are open and our faith is steadfast, we – as true disciples of Christ Jesus – can discover the presence of God in our daily lives.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Luke 12: 32

[2] Genesis 15:1; Revelation 2:10

[3] St Luke demonstrates the protracted nature of the journey with many references of time and place spread over 19 chapters.

[4] Luke 99:51 – 19:27

[5] Hebrews 11: 1

[6] Tom Wright Luke for Everyone SPCK 2004 p.153

[7] In Luke 11:28 Jesus describes the true disciple thus: ‘Blessed are those that hear the word of God and keep it,” in effect echoing the description of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the start of Luke’s gospel.

[8] A slight misquotation from Franklin D Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address on 4th March 1933 – FDR’s actual words were “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes (action).

[9] Luke 12: 32 (see also Acts 20: 28,29 and I Peter 5: 2,3) for references to “little flock” used to describe a group of believers. Here, Luke is referring not only to the original disciples, but also through them the early Christian church. The words ‘little flock’ are a reminder that God is the shepherd of the faithful.

[10][10] Luke 1: 13 “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.”

[11] Luke 1: 30 “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.”

[12] Luke 2: 10 “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

[13] Wilfrid J Harrington Reading Luke for the first time. Paulist Press 2015 p.91

[14] Adapted from the prayer of St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). Born in Spain, Teresa entered a Carmelite convent when she was 18, and later earned a reputation as a mystic, reformer, and writer who experienced divine visions. She founded a convent, and wrote the book The Way of Perfection for her nuns.

[15] H A Williams The Joy of God. Quoted in The Tablet 16th July 2016

[16] Luke 12: 33

[17] In the book of Acts Luke describes Christian communities where members live in their own homes with their own material goods around them; there was never any suggestion that they were either rebellious or second-class disciples.

[18] Luke 12: 33

[19] Luke 12: 34 This phrase has often been misquoted, for example ‘where your heart is, put your treasure’.

[20] Luke 12: 1-12

[21] Luke 12: 13-34

[22] Webster’s Dictionary

[23] 1 Corinthians 4: 2

[24] Luke 12: 35-48

[25] Luke 12: 35

[26] Luke 12: 35

[27] Luke 12: 36

[28] St Luke’s gospel was set down at a time when the early church was still eagerly awaiting a swift return, by Jesus, cautioning them to be patient. We should also bear in mind that when Jesus was preaching to his disciples that he knew (whereas they did not) what awaited him in Jerusalem.

[29] Service of Holy Communion: the Eucharistic Prayer. Common Worship: Church House Publishing p. 176

[30] Hebrews 11

[31] See footnote 15

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