Sermons That Work

In the Gospel Text…, Proper 14 (C) – 1998

August 09, 1998

In the gospel text from St. Luke, Jesus is quoted, saying, “Don’t be afraid. I will give you the Kingdom. Use your stuff so that you have permanent benefit from it. You will be happy if you are ready for my return.” Or, to paraphrase it in the simplest way, don’t be afraid, enjoy your stuff forever and be happy.

This sounds wonderful. Our problem is that none of us can do this. Most of our lives are spent in a never-ending journey, searching for something that we hope will give meaning to our lives. Most of us are like the characters in the Wizard of Oz. We look like lions, except we are afraid. We are bright and shiny on the outside, but don’t have any of the internal characteristics that help to bring fulfillment. We are tin woodsmen. Or, we are most agile but really don’t have wisdom, like the Scarecrow. And some of us, muck like Dorothy, are just lost and trying to find a way home. All of the characters in The Wizard of Oz – a marvelous literary window into our lives – essentially begin each statement with, “if I only.” If I only had a brain. If I only had a heart. If I only had courage. If I only could find my way home.

Jesus came to us to take the “if only” phrase out of our speech. So let us examine the three gifts promised in today’s Gospel lesson and look at how the “if only” phrase can be eliminated.

“Don’t be afraid.” A person known for boldness in thought and action was asked how fear of failure had been overcome. The bold person shared a reflection about the cross. The person said,” I came to understand that the cross is a test for us. We had God right here with us, in the person of Jesus. God was here to lead and love us out of this mess we are in. And what did we do? We killed him. I know myself well enough to know that I would have been in the mob yelling for crucifixion had I been present at the actual event. There is something in me that can’t stand absolute love and goodness, even though I crave it. So, the cross test is one that I failed. I failed it completely. And God’s answer to my failure is love, forgiveness and presence in my life forever. I can almost imagine forgiving someone who kills me. But then creating and sustaining a relationship with such a person is totally beyond my ability to imagine. Only God can do that. When I reflected on my failure in the cross, and God’s answer, then I decided I need never be afraid of any failure ever again. I have already failed completely and God loves me and is present with me, It would be silly and a waste of time to be afraid.

To live in the Kingdom of God is to live in a realm without fear. Jesus said in this text we are not to fear because it is God’ pleasure to give us the kingdom. But the absence of fear is achieved only when we are filled with love. Being filled with love for God is the door we open to enter the Kingdom where there is no fear. This is good news. But it is scary. Perhaps this is the reason that the angels say when they appear “don’t be afraid.” The shepherds who heard the announcement of Jesus’ birth from angels first had to hear, “fear not”. There is irony in all of this. Living without fear because we are filled with the love of God can be a fearful concept.

The next promise from Jesus in this text is that we can enjoy our stuff forever. We can have an eternal purse. There is a parallel text that says we are to “lay up treasure in heaven.” Now the treasure of heaven, the stuff of an eternal purse, is not money. There is no divine electronic fund transfer device. The treasure of heaven is relationships. A person who tithes to God through the local congregation and then makes offering to God by giving money to other Godly causes and programs, said, when asked about this behavior, “I do what I do because I want to spend eternity with people I love.” This Christian understands the consequence of giving to God means the work of God in this world can be done. A part of that work is sharing the good news about Jesus. When this good news is shared people are drawn to Him. They are led to claim him as Savior and submit their lives to his Lordship. They enter that realm of love we call the kingdom of God. That kingdom is eternal. We are the treasure of heaven for each other. Even though most of us do not know each other very well, we will have a very, very long time to get to know each other. It will seem like an eternity.

There was a rich man who died. A group of his friends asked his accountant, “What did he leave?” They were seeking to find out the size of his estate. The accountant replied, “he left it all.” Jesus ‘ invitation in this text is to send it on ahead in the form of relationships grounded in the love of God. You might ask yourself, “Who do I love enough that I would want to spend eternity with him or her?” Your answer will be a resource for reflection.

The final promise of Jesus in this text is happiness. So far, we are called to live unafraid after having given away our stuff. Now we are told that this is the way to happiness. The word “blessed” is most appropriately translated as happy. The text calls “blessed” or “happy” those who are ready for the Lord’s return.

How can we be ready for the Lord’s return? Some interpret this question in a moralistic way. A preacher with moralistic leanings once framed the question this way. “Would you want Jesus to come again and catch you with a beer in your hand?” Being ready for Jesus’ return is probably a little more complicated than that. The readiness we are dealing with in the text had little to do with morality. Morality and virtue are good in and of themselves. They need no justification. In reality none of us, no matter how good we are, is ready for the Lord’ return just because we are good.

Readiness for Jesus’ return is grounded in the quality of relationship that we have with Him. When a love of one’s life walks in the door after an absence the response is immediate happiness. A grandparent embracing a grandchild after a long separation is an illustration of what readiness is in this text. The readiness is a consequence of love. Let us go back to the Wizard of Oz. The four heroes of the story are able to give up their “if only” postures. At the ceremony at the end of the tale, each of the heroes is given a gift, like a college diploma. The real gift of college is a combination of learning and of building relationships. The four heroes of the story discover how to live without their “if onlys” through the learning and relationships of their journey. The courage, wisdom, heart and home they sought they ultimately discovered by being with each other and seeking together. The Christian life that Jesus is promising is much like this. In relationship with Jesus and through learning about him we grow into the promises of today’s Gospel lesson. As we grow in love, we grow less and less fearful. As we grow in love, we discover ourselves focused more and more on eternal relationships. As we grow in love, we await Jesus’ coming not with dread, but with joy.

Perhaps, it is scary to think about living this way, but remember the first thing the angels say, “don’t be afraid.”

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Christopher Sikkema


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