Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Seating Arrangements," Luke 14:1, 7-14 (Proper 17C, Ordinary 22C)

Sermon 8/28/16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Seating Arrangements

I’m a big fan of Jane Austen novels. I have a small collection of favorite books that I tend to read and reread, and Austen’s novels are among them. As a woman of the twenty-first century, I certainly find it difficult to imagine how I could ever live under all the constraints and rules, particularly those placed upon the proper behavior of women. But society and behavior were highly structured in the Regency era, and most areas of life functioned according to very particular rules, especially for upper class men and women. And so, the drama can be heightened in many scenes of Austen’s work because of something as simple as this: who got to escort who to the dinner table – because people could only walk into dinner in a certain order, according to social rank, age, and marital status – and who ended up sitting next to who at the dinner table – because it wouldn’t have been appropriate to try to speak to people who weren’t sitting near you, and certain seats at the table were more coveted than others. Imagine the pain of the Austen heroine being made to sit next to an unsuitable prospect for marriage – intolerable!
I’ve been thinking about the different places we find ourselves choosing where to sit, where to place ourselves this week. We don’t have such a clearly defined social structure anymore as in the days of Jane Austen, but there are still some areas of life in which our world today isn’t really so different. Maybe we all have some experience with assigned seating in our own homes. I think of my grandparents’ house, growing up. We’d eat there many night a week, and we didn’t exactly have assigned seating, but we most definitely always sat in the same place. My grandparents at either at end of the table, my mom and I on either side of my grandmother, my Uncle John next to my grandpa. I can’t imagine what kind of crisis would have had to take place to get us to sit in different spots at that table.
Our kids who are in school might have a better appreciation than the rest of us of the trials and tribulations of assigned seating, although I’m a bit out of touch with current practices. There would always be a teacher or two who would let you pick seats near your friends, but most of my teachers in junior high and high school sat us alphabetically. If you had all your classes with the same kids, you’d end up near the same handful of people in every class. There’s also, of course, the intricate dynamics of who sits where at lunch time. I know that I sat with the same group of people at the same table during lunch every day during junior high. I might wander over to speak to people at other tables, but some great upset to the social order would have had to take place for me to sit down at another table without invitation.
We might be most familiar with careful seating arrangements when we think about wedding receptions, although even there the trend is toward more casual, unassigned seating. But generally, the closer you are to the couple getting married, the closer you will be to the head table at the reception. If you are a more casual acquaintance of the newlyweds, you wouldn’t expect to be at a table that was front and center. A number of TV sitcoms make whole episodes of the bride and groom trying to figure out who will sit where at the wedding reception, or of wedding guests being disappointed with the table to which they are assigned. I have to confess that I often end up seated with any and all religious-type people at wedding receptions, no matter how little else we might have in common. Better to keep all the churchy-types where you can keep your eye on them! Many of you know my youngest brother Todd recently became engaged, and I wonder how he and his fiancĂ©e Emma will handle the struggles of figuring out who gets invited, and where you will put them when they show up!
            In our gospel lesson from Luke today, Jesus is eating dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees on the Sabbath, something he does regularly. Pharisees were teachers and interpreters of the law of Moses, forerunners of the rabbinic Judaism we know today. Pharisees were leaders, generally well-respected in their community, looked to for guidance and advice. Luke tells us that they’re watching Jesus closely. This isn’t surprising, given that it was just the chapter before when Jesus was healing in a synagogue on the Sabbath, and offering an interpretation of the commandments concerning Sabbath that completely contradicted the teachings of the Pharisees. And indeed, in the intervening verses in our passage today, those verses 2-6, Jesus purposefully leads the conversation back to whether or not one can heal on the Sabbath, and proceeds to heal a man with dropsy – we’d called it edema today. Jesus leaves the Pharisees and lawyers, the group of guests gathered for the meal, grasping for ways to argue with him.
            Then Jesus turns his attention to the guests as they are coming in for the meal, noticing how everyone is trying to get the best seats. And so he says, “When you are invited to a wedding banquet, don’t choose the best seat, in case someone of higher status than you shows up, and the host who invited both of you has to come and ask you to give up your seat and move to a lower place. Instead, start at the lowest place, so that your host will have to come and say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus continues saying that when you host a lunch to a dinner, you shouldn’t invite your friends or family or rich neighbors. They might invite you back, and then you’d be repaid. Instead, Jesus says, invite the poor, the infirm, the blind, and any others who cannot pay you back, invite you back, offer you something in return. In this way, Jesus says, you’ll be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
I had the pleasure of going to see a play last night – Anne of Green Gables. It was general seating -  you could sit anywhere, and we had good seats. But many times, people will pay big money to get what we would call “the best seats in the house.” The idea is that there’s a seat from which you can enjoy the best views of the stage, take in the most action, get the best angle. If you can’t pay as much, you might get to the see the show, but you have to crane your neck a little, or look to the side, or you can see into the wings and see the actors waiting to come on stage, or you’re so far away you can’t really see the small details.
But – there’s something we miss out on when we’re obsessed with getting the best seats in the house. Many years ago, when I was living in New Jersey, I saved up money and invited my youngest brother Todd, the actor, to go see the Nutcracker with me at the New York City Ballet. We both love dance, and I was so excited, even though I could only afford seats in one of the higher level balconies. And then, we turned out to be sitting next to a mother and her toddler – 3 or 4 at the most, this child. And the mother, when the show began, started narrating everything that was happening to her little daughter. I could feel my blood boiling. Ballets don’t require narration! And I’d worked hard to get these seats and was going to have to listen to this woman narrate the entire show. But I started to think about my first time seeing the Nutcracker, when I was probably close to this child’s age. Did my mom tell me about everything that was happening? Probably. And here I was, getting to witness this little girl ooh and aah at the magic that I sometimes missed as a more experienced connoisseur of the ballet. Maybe my ballet experience wasn’t so quiet and reflective. But what would I have missed, had I had a “better” seat?
            I think of the Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio movie Titanic. Aside from the whole sinking ship thing, the main point of the story was that Kate’s character, Rose, was going through life with what was billed as the best seat in the house. Wealthy, status, educated, opportunities. But Jack showed her all the things she couldn’t see from her supposedly best position. Decks full of people who were not even allowed to walk in the same places Rose had been walking. Suddenly, Rose could see them, when she was willing to leave her seat, her deck, her status and position behind.
Jesus uses the image of a wedding feast often in his parables. It’s a time of celebration and rejoicing, and so it makes a great metaphor for the kingdom of God. And the great thing is: we’re guests! We’ve been invited! We already have a place at God’s table! Our identity, our value, our true value, comes from God alone. We’re God’s children! Sometimes, we act like we’re still waiting for our invitation in the mail. But God has already invited us. Friends, we’re in. But God is also hoping we’ll stop climbing over each other trying to find the best seat, the seat at the head of table, as if there’s some bigger reward waiting for us there.
We’re meant to strive for, to work for God’s kingdom, God’s reign on earth. And to do that, we need to get a different perspective. We need to realize that Jesus isn’t staying put at the head of the table anyway. He’s out at the fringes, out on the street, seeing who else wants to come in. He’s out there where he can really see everyone, and especially seeing people that have been overlooked, who never heard from anyone that they were invited, who’ve felt like they wouldn’t be welcome, who’ve felt like this party wasn’t for them. That’s where we’ll find Jesus.
What can we see from our seat in God’s house? How much of the world do we see, really? How much of our community do we see? Who do we see? Who do we eat with? Who do we sit next to? Who do we invite? In the days and weeks ahead, I encourage you to ask yourself those questions – not just metaphorically, but literally. Who do you see? Who do you make eye contact with, or not? Who do you eat with? Who do you sit next to? Who have you invited to be a part of your life, to be a part of this community, to move up to the seat you’re willing to give up for them? Who have you invited to be a part of God’s party? There are so many people God wants us to see, and such blessings that await us when we do. Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Long Enough," Luke 13:10-17 (Proper 16, Ordinary 21)

Sermon 8/21/16
Luke 13:10-17

Long Enough

            Sometimes, we create really complicated systems that are meant to help us do something good, but the very system meant to help ends up making things harder, not easier. My older brother Jim works for the ARC as a manager in vocational services, helping people with special needs find and maintain employment. He told me, once, about all the rules in place that had to be worked around for a particular young man to stay working, which was the goal. This young man couldn’t work too many hours, or he wouldn’t qualify for certain programs that were really helping him thrive. He couldn’t work too few hours, or he wouldn’t make enough money to survive. He couldn’t make more than a certain amount per hour, or again, he wouldn’t be eligible for benefits. While at work, he wasn’t allowed to complete his work too quickly, because he was required to be in a supervised setting for a certain number of hours a day, and if he worked too quickly, even if he did his work well, again, he’d lose out. To help this man work, all sorts of rules have to be followed. The aim is to help him work, but sometimes the process is so complicated that it feels like the rules are making things harder, not easier, moving him farther from his goal, not closer.
Today, we’re skipping ahead a little bit in the gospel of Luke, and find another story of something being made harder, more complicated, until Jesus steps in. Jesus, we read, was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And he sees there a woman “with a spirit” that has caused her to be crippled for the last eighteen years. She is bent over, quite unable, Luke tells us, to stand up straight. The text doesn’t tell us she was coming with the hopes of being healed, or that she was seeking out Jesus in anyway. Instead, he calls to her. When she comes over, Jesus simply says to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Jesus lays his hands on her, and immediately, she stands up straight. She begins praising God. And in fact, the phrasing suggests not just a one-time prayer of thanksgiving, but that rather, from this point on, she begins praising God. It’s a turning point in her life, and her relationship with God. But that’s not where our story ends.    
            One of the leaders in the synagogue is indignant. Jesus has just healed a woman on the Sabbath. Healing would be considered a form of work – the job of a healer, performed on the Sabbath – was considered breaking the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. And so the leader begins his own teaching to the crowd, reminding them: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” He’s right, of course. It can be our tendency to think that everything the synagogue leaders and scribes and Pharisees do and say in the scriptures is bad, because Jesus argues with them so often, and we’re smart enough to know we want to be on Jesus’ side. But technically, what the leader says is right. He doesn’t say that the woman shouldn’t be healed. Instead, he asks why, of all days, Jesus had to heal her on the Sabbath. Why not on any of the other days? The Sabbath is a day set apart. Why break it, when what Jesus did could have easily been done the day before or the day after?
            In response, Jesus calls the man and his colleagues hypocrites. “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” he asks. “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” At this response, Luke tells us, Jesus’ opponents are put to shame, and the crowd rejoices at the wonderful work of God they see in Jesus.
            We have a remarkable talent for taking gifts that God gives us and turning them into burdens, when we misuse or abuse, or simply ignore what God offers to us so freely. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus teachers that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not the other way around. Sabbath is a gift from God, enjoyed by God, and shared with us. There are two main “sources” of Sabbath in the scriptures. The first, of course, is in the very first story, the very story of creation. God created the heavens and earth and all living things, and then God, creator of the universe, rested. And so we rest, because God demonstrated to us that rest and renewal are a precious part of life. We honor God and God’s creative work when we set aside time to rest in God. Sabbath also finds roots in the story of the Exodus, when Moses leads the Israelites to freedom, as he helps them escape from captivity to their Egyptian masters. Sabbath-keeping, keeping a time of rest and making it a holy time is good news to slaves who had been working relentlessly to serve their keepers. And the gift of Sabbath was for all in the community – all economic classes, all ages – even animals got to rest on the Sabbath. (1) Sabbath is rest in God, aligning ourselves with the rhythm of our creator, and Sabbath is a sign of our freedom, the freedom that comes from following the ways of God. 
            That’s why Jesus calls the synagogue leader a hypocrite. Because when Jesus heals this woman who has bound, been captive to her own body for so many years, the way for her to experience rest, the way for her to experience freedom is for Jesus to heal her and to heal her at once. Eighteen years is long enough, and Jesus sees no need for her to wait a single day, a single minute longer to experience the true gift of Sabbath. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, Jesus says, is making something simple and freeing into a complicated burden that tries to negate the gift of God.
            I wonder, do we understand Sabbath any better than the synagogue leader. The leader and his colleagues tried to keep Sabbath by making so many rules for observing it that it could actually be more difficult to experience it as a gift, as rest, as freedom. And ironically, I wonder if our very opposite approach to Sabbath has resulted in the very same consequences. In our world today, Sabbath, real rest, real time set aside to soak in God’s spirit is nearly unattainable. How free do we feel? We’ve let go of the rules and regulations that made it hard to practice true Sabbath, but we’ve also let go of the gift that God so desires us to have. From both sides, I think we’re in danger of being more bound up than set free.
So we have a few questions to ask ourselves, I think, in light of this text. First, I think we need to ask ourselves if we can receive the gift of Sabbath. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” I don’t know about you, but I hear that phrase “weary and heavy-laden,” and I know Jesus is talking to me. God invites us to rest, to rest in God. To rejoice in the freedom we find in Christ Jesus. To treasure our time and to treasure time we immerse ourselves intentionally in growing our relationship with God. I encourage you to look over your days and ask yourselves where you can find moments and minutes and hours – and maybe even a whole day of resting in God, honoring God’s creation, treasuring God’s gift to us, rejoicing in the freedom we find in God.
Next, we have to ask ourselves how we are bound, like this woman Jesus healed. How are we bound? How do we need lifting up? From what do we need to be freed? Sometimes we’re bound by things that we can’t get free from on our own, and we need help – from our friends, from our church family, from our community, from God, to find freedom. Sometimes, we can begin the process of loosening our bonds when we finally realize or admit or acknowledge that something about how we’re living is keeping us in bondage. How are we bound? 
And then, finally, we have to ask ourselves: how are we like the synagogue leader? How are we getting in the way of someone else experiencing freedom in Christ Jesus? What boundaries and limits have we been inadvertently, or, I’m afraid, sometimes purposefully putting on how others receive the gift of God? Who is it that we’d keep from healing, keep bound and bent because we don’t want to break any rules to find the freedom God offers? We have the opportunity – the responsibility – to help others break free of the chains in their life as they embrace the freedom God extends to us.
Jesus said, “’And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.” Let us go and do likewise. Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Prince of Peace?" Luke 12: 49-56 (Proper 15C, Ordinary 20C)

Sermon 8/14/16
Luke 12:49-56

Prince of Peace?

            Some of you may have seen on facebook a funny meme I posted. It was a picture of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, which as the title suggests, takes a hard look at what it means when we commit to truly following in the footsteps of Christ. Only this particular picture of the book was a copy of The Cost of Discipleship was at a bookstore – right next to a price tag that said $16. The Cost of Discipleship? Well, pretty cheap at Barnes & Noble!
            What do you think, though? What is the cost of following Jesus? Is there a cost to being a Jesus follower? Shortly after my facebook post, I came across some powerful words from Bonehoeffer. He wrote, “If we water down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands, then the cross is an ordinary calamity.” For Bonhoeffer, writing and preaching and teaching at the height of Nazi power in Germany, the gospel made very costly demands. He found no way he could follow Jesus completely without his obedience to the gospel making him willing to offer his own life. Indeed, he was executed by the Nazis for his actions attempting to remove Adolf Hitler from power. What does it cost to follow Jesus?
            There are places in the world today where it is risky to be a Jesus-follower, where people who follow Jesus are arrested and persecuted and killed. Most of us never have to experience that. Not that being a Christian is never challenging, not that we never had to make tough choices. But I wonder – what does it really cost me to follow Jesus?
            Today, our gospel lesson continues in Luke Chapter 12. Remember, last week, Jesus was telling us: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He was telling the crowds that it is God’s good pleasure to give us God’s kingdom, God’s reign – and that’s what we’re meant to strive after, to work for – God’s reign on earth. After Jesus finishes talking, Peter, one of the Twelve Disciples, asks Jesus to explain his words a little more. Our text for today picks up in the middle of Jesus’ response. He says, “I came to bring fire to the earth … I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” Jesus goes on to say that father will be set against son, and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, and so on.
            Last week, as I was starting to prepare for tomorrow, I had my brother read this text to me aloud as I was driving us somewhere or other. After he finished the passage, he said to me, puzzled, “Jesus said this?” I knew why he sounded surprised. We love to celebrate Jesus as the Prince of Peace! And indeed, Jesus speaks in the gospels of bringing peace to us. But here, we are getting a very different message. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace? No, I tell you, but rather division!” My first reaction is: Wow. What the world really doesn’t need any more of is division. We have that in abundance! We look around and wonder – have we ever lived in a world more divided? Over everything? Why would Jesus say he’s coming to bring division? Why would we need that? What does he mean? And what about this part about being divided – parents from children, children from parents? And that brings us back to our first question: What does it cost to follow Jesus?
For the first followers of Jesus, the cost was very, very steep. Sara Dylan Bruer helps us imagine. She writes: “Imagine for a moment the scene when Peter goes back to his mother-in-law [after responding to Jesus’ call on the beach to “follow me”] and [he] says, ‘Hey, mom ... I've got some important news. I'm not going fishing tomorrow morning. I don't know if I'll ever step in a boat or lift a net again. I'm glad that you were healed of that fever, and I hope you don't catch one again, because I have to tell you that I probably won't be around to take care of you or to bury you when you die. See, that man who healed you asked me to follow him as he travels around teaching and healing, and I'm going to do it. I really think that God's kingdom is breaking through in this guy's work, and that's just too important for me to stay here, even to take care of you.’
“How would you feel if it were your son who said that to you? There's no social security to fall back on if you're Peter's mother-in-law; Peter is the closest thing you've got to that, and he's leaving. I have some idea of what I'd probably feel if I were Peter's mother-in-law: Betrayed. Abandoned. Despised. Shamed. Perhaps even hopeless. I have some idea of the kinds of things I'd say if I were in her shoes … When I found out that Peter AND Andrew were both going, my language would reflect even more anger, grief, fear, and straight-up, no-chaser, and very bitter pain. I think the same would be true … if Peter and Andrew had other brothers and I were one of them. I'd want to ask Peter and Andrew how they could do this to all of us, how they think we'll survive without their help with the fishing, and whose prophet would ask a man to walk out on his family. I'd ask Peter and Andrew if this is how they were going to follow God's command in holy writ to honor parents and care for widows.” (1)
Suddenly, Jesus’ words make a little more sense to me. Sometimes I forget that for the disciples who literally followed Jesus, they were leaving more than their fishing boats to go where God was calling them. Sometimes, following Jesus doesn’t bring peace – not if we’re thinking of peace as the absence of conflict, and everyone just getting along. Sometimes, Jesus brings not peace, but division, because choosing to follow Jesus should have consequences. What does it cost to follow Jesus?
Our temptation whenever we read words like this from Jesus – and he says stuff like this more often than our minds want to remember – our temptation is to try to find a way to soften their blow, mute their impact so it doesn’t seem as bad as it sounds. But in this case, I think that’s exactly what Jesus is warning against. Do you think I come to make things easier, Jesus asks? Nope – I come to make them more and more challenging! That’s my paraphrase at least.           Listen to the verse just before today’s passage: Jesus says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” In other words – we’ve received a lot – God’s blessings, God’s love, God’s unfailing grace, limitless second chances. But God expects a lot from us, too. And foremost, what God expects, what Jesus expects, is that if we choose to follow Jesus, we actually follow Jesus. It’s both that simple of a request and that hard of a request. Because following Jesus means choosing one path and not the other, and we’re very much a people who want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to take the path of Jesus, but we also want to make our own choices, choose our own way, and go our own direction when it suits us. Jesus says that he comes and brings division – and we must choose our way or Jesus’ way, and they are not always going the same way, friends!
Years ago, I heard Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, one of our now-retired United Methodist bishops, preach on this text at General Conference. She was using the version that appears in Matthew, where Jesus says, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” I can still picture her preaching, wielding this imaginary sword. She asked, “When we say we are born again, aren’t we saying there is something distinctive about our life before and after Jesus? The dividing line is dividing what we leave behind and what we take up … If the world is not different because you and I have come here, then it’s because you and I have put something other than Christ at the center of our lives. Jesus comes with a sword. The sword cuts to purpose, to results. And I believe that Jesus is extremely impatient for the results. He is impatient for the results because he is passionate about people. It is a divine, consuming love that cuts to the results … You know, even more, Jesus says he brings a sword, but perhaps Jesus himself might be a sword, cutting us free from the past, from our weaknesses, our errors, opening us to a new future, reborn. Jesus is calling us to himself, to the edge of transformation, inviting us to enter into a new reality that God is creating.” (2)
Friends, if we are not different because of following Jesus – then maybe we better check and make sure we’re actually following him, going where he goes, living as he lives. If we are not different, if our world is not different, if those with whom we come in contact are not different because of what we do in the name of Jesus, then perhaps we have put something else, something other than Jesus at the center of our lives.
Sara Dylan Breuer gives us two more scenarios to imagine. “Here's another possible outcome: Peter and Andrew tell Jesus that no prophet of the God of Israel would ask people to ignore the Ten Commandments, and they tell Jesus that on that basis they know precisely what sort of a man Jesus is, and there is no way they'd follow him. They go home and tell their families about what kind of dangerous nutcase the wandering healer turned out to be, and how glad they are that they figured it out. The next morning, they go fishing … Here's another one:
“Peter and Andrew tell their families more about Jesus, what he's saying, what he's doing, and what they think that means about what God is accomplishing right now for the world. They talk about the community of people following Jesus and how they care for one another, how their life together is a sign to all of how relationships could be in the world and what might come of it if we believed the kingdom of God was breaking through this world and therefore we could live as though God were king here and now. Peter's mother-in-law, his sisters and all his brothers, and the rest of the family face and go through the break that Jesus talks about in our former relationships. It's only natural for them to grieve sometimes at the passing of old ways of being and to chafe at or stumble in the new relationships that are forming, but they have a new joy, a new peace, a new freedom from anxiety in the living reality that if they have lost a mother-in-law, a son-in-law, a daughter, or a father, they have gained more sisters and brothers than they ever imagined they could have, and had joined a people who would come to fulfill the promise to Abraham of numbering more than the stars of the clear desert sky -- more to care for them and be supported by them, more to love and be loved by than any earthly family could offer.”
What does it cost to follow Jesus? It means we have come right up to the dividing line and must choose a path. Which way will we follow? Amen.

(2) Swenson, Bishop Mary Ann.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Treasured," Luke 12:32-40 (Proper 14C, Ordinary 19C)

Sermon 8/7/16
Luke 12:32-40


            Last week many of you had the pleasure of hearing someone’s first sermon, as Amber shared with you in leading worship. It’s a special experience, the first sermon. Last week also happened to be the 18th anniversary of the first time I ever preached, a sermon I gave at my home church in Rome, NY. I had used the lectionary text from the gospel for the week, and because it was my first sermon, that scripture passage has been forever burned on my mind, and I find myself thinking of it often. It happened to be the same lectionary year as we are in right now, and so the text I preached on came just before the one we just heard this morning from the gospel of Luke, chapter 12. In the text, a man who is part of a gathered crowd asks Jesus to make his brother divide the family inheritance with him. Jesus sensibly wonders why on earth this man would think it Jesus’ job to arbitrate this kind of dispute. Still though, the man with the request probably gets more than he wanted from Jesus, because Jesus tells him a parable about a man who had so much stuff that he couldn’t fit it into his barns anymore. So he tore them down and built even bigger barns, and rejoiced to himself that he could now eat, drink, and be merry. But God says to the man, “You fool! This very night your life will be required of you. And these things you have stored up? Whose will they be?” Jesus says, “One’s life does not consist of the abundance of possessions,” and chastises: “So it will be with those who store up treasure for themselves, but are not rich towards God.” Oof. These words have really stayed with me, as I’ve tried to ask myself the twin questions through the years: What am I storing up for myself? And am I being rich toward God?
Have you ever had to answer one of those scenario questions like, “If you could only save one thing from your house, if you had to leave your house forever and you could only take one thing, what would it be?” Assuming, of course, that you already have all your people and pets from the house, what would be that one thing that you’d want to take? For me, it’s my journals. In this scenario I cheat and count them as one thing, when in actuality, it’s like 4 hefty boxes full of the journals I have been keeping since 5th grade! Most of the time, when people answer a question like this, the answer reveals that the most valued things we have are not the most expensive things we own, but rather the things that are most tied up with emotional value. Things that represent who we love. Things that are from our most cherished life experiences. If we only got to keep one thing, that’s what we’d choose.
            The thing is, though, rarely are we in situations where we really have to choose one thing, the most important thing. And so I wonder – what are we really storing up? Our text for today comes just a bit later in this same chapter of Luke, and continues on the same theme. Jesus has talked to the gathered crowd about not being full of worry. He urges them not to strive for the things that the rest of the world strives for, the things God already knows we need. Instead, says Jesus, strive first for God’s kingdom. With that aim first, everything else can come after. Jesus says it is God’s “good pleasure” to give us God’s kingdom. That’s a double positive, a strong emphasis – God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom of God. Sell your possessions, Jesus says! Give to the poor! Seek unfailing heavenly treasure. Because “where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” I’ve always loved thinking about this verse, not just because of what it says, but because of what it doesn’t say. What it doesn’t say is: Where your heart is, that’s where you treasure is. No, but rather where your treasure is, there you will find what you really love. I think the order matters. Jesus is telling us that it is the evidence that determines where our hearts are, not whatever we pay lip service to. So, if we claim our hearts are with our families, for example, but what we “store up,” what we spend our time thinking about and worrying about and spend the bulk of our time doing is making sure we have enough money or stuff or status or power or security or whatever – well, what we “treasure” is actually where our heart is, no matter what we say, and not the other way around. So what do you treasure? What do you store up? What takes all of your time and energy? What are you giving your life to? What do you treasure?
When I think about treasuring something, two images pop into my head: First, I think of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, obsessed with, consumed by the One Ring – “my precious.” That’s treasuring something – the ring is the only Master Gollum serves, and indeed, his heart is with the ring, no matter how much he struggles to put his heart elsewhere. And, although maybe it seems a bit out of season on this beautiful August day, I think about my favorite line in the Christmas story, the story of Jesus’ birth: When Jesus is born, and the shepherds hear the angels and arrive to greet the baby and they tell Mary and Joseph all that had happened to them, we read, “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” What Mary treasures in that moment is every precious word and experience and part of the process that has brought her child – God’s child – God-in-the-flesh – God’s hope for us in human form – into the world. And so indeed, because of what she treasures, her heart is full of love. What do you treasure?
            Jesus tells us that what it is God’s good pleasure to give us is God’s kingdom. We’ll talk more and more and more about what Jesus means by “the kingdom of God.” But in essence God’s kingdom, God’s reign on earth is the realizing of God’s hope, God’s plan for our right relationships with God and one another, God’s dreams made real in the here and now. And it is God’s good pleasure, God’s deepest desire that we would experience this – the joy of living fully into God’s kingdom, now and for eternity. Jesus seeks to share that vision with us. He tells us about God’s reign, God’s kingdom, in story after story, in parable after parable. And Jesus says it is this – God’s kingdom, God’s reign, God’s vision for the earth, for us, for you and for me – this is what we should strive after. This is what we should treasure. What does God want us to treasure? Our relationship with God, and our relationships with each other, and making real and concrete God’s vision for the world. Building up God’s kingdom now and for eternity.
            Our text closes with Jesus talking about a household that is ready for God’s kingdom. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” says Jesus. Be like the servants of the household who are ready to open the door for the master as soon as the master arrives. And then Jesus says something astonishing. Jesus says that the master will be so pleased at the readiness of the household that the master will serve the servants! All the hearers would have known this was NOT true. No master would really do this, not in real life. No master but one. Jesus would. God would. Because that’s what the kingdom of God is like – where the master is willing to serve the slave, where the centers of power are flipped upside down, where an enemy is beloved, where the humbled are exalted, where the last are first. Friends, God has put us in charge of one of God’s treasured possessions – this world, and God’s vision for this world. God has made us responsible for carrying it out, living into it, building up God’s kingdom, God’s reign, with God’s help. We are the staff of God’s household – only the way God runs things? God is delighted, indeed, it is God’s good pleasure to give us the whole thing. What a treasure indeed! Imagine if we invested all of our time, and all of our energy, and all of our heart and soul into God’s household? Let’s get dressed for action. Let’s make sure our lamps are lit. And let’s make sure we know exactly what we’re working for. Amen.