Sunday, August 12, 2007

Fear and the Little Flock: A Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

“Fear and the Little Flock”
Luke 12:32-40
August 12, 2007

“Do not be afraid.” When I was a little girl, I heard these words most often at bedtime, because the thing I feared most was the darkness. I was a constant presence in my parents’ room long after I was supposed to be asleep, because I found the darkness unfriendly, unsettling. I feared monsters and nightmares. I feared things I couldn’t even put into words. I remember my mother singing me the song “You Are My Sunshine,” in an effort to calm my fears.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are grey

You’ll never know dear how much I love you

Please don’t take my sunshine away.

But you know, that last line was kind of scary. It almost sounded as if my mom was afraid that someone was going to take me away from her! If that weren’t bad enough, she would go on to the second stanza:

The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms

When I awoke dear, I was mistaken

So I hung my head and cried.

That song, which was supposed to comforting, absolutely terrified me. When my mom would sing me that second verse, a vivid picture developed in my mind: a picture of a man in a raincoat and a hat, carrying me down the back stairs of our house in a brown paper bag. Of course, I didn’t tell my mother this until many years later. She was distraught to think her attempts to reassure me were so frightening.

“Do not be afraid.” Of course, the things we fear change somewhat from childhood to adulthood. As for me, I have found the dark to be a friendly and inviting place after all. In fact, now I have a hard time sleeping if there is too much light in my room. But there are other things I fear now… I fear for my children’s safety, in so many ways… I fear the things that can reach them right in the security of my own home, never mind when they’re out of my sight, out in the world. I fear loneliness, not having those I love around me. I have had brief periods of fearing economic insecurity, though it would be terribly dishonest of me to say that I really know what it is to be cowering in terror from “the wolf at the door,” as so many of our neighbors are in these harsh economic times.

“Do not be afraid, little flock.” What we fear as a group can be very different from what we fear individually. In our reading from Luke, Jesus is speaking to a group. The “little flock” that has gathered around him is made up of his disciples as well as a crowd that is listening to Jesus as he preaches his way to Jerusalem. Remember that, at the end of chapter 9 in Luke’s gospel, we were told that, “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face for Jerusalem” [Luke 9:51]. Jesus has realized that his ministry is leading him inexorably towards Jerusalem, towards a confrontation with the powers and principalities of this world, towards the cross. He has “set his face” for that inevitability. He is determined. He is on his way. And as he goes to face judgment before the religious and civil authorities, Jesus teaches the people how they should prepare to face the judgment of God. So, the first extraordinary thing about Jesus’ teaching, “Do not be afraid, little flock,” is its context. Jesus is steadfastly on his way to face something that would cause any reasonable person to shake in their shoes, to lose the power of speech, to tremble and cry and run away and hide. And his teaching all the while is for his followers not to be afraid.

Even more extraordinary than the context is the content of that teaching. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” [Luke 12:32]. As he walks the road to his torture and death, Jesus proclaims his confidence that, not only should his followers not fear, they should realize that the kingdom of God is theirs for the taking, that it is God’s good pleasure to give it to them. While we are still scratching our heads, he goes on to explain:

Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit… ~ Luke 12:33-35

The way to prepare for the kingdom is, first of all, to sell your possessions and to give alms. Someone has wisely observed that we have a much easier time with the second part of that sentence—give alms—than we do with the first—sell your possessions. Last summer I went on a tear to rid my house of junk. I urged my children for weeks to prepare for a yard sale, in which we would sell all the old, junky toys, the knick-knacks that cause so much clutter, the books… I’m drowning in books! So for weeks we took things off shelves and priced them and when the big day came we dragged them all outside and opened up shop on our lawn. And for a while, our house was slightly less cluttered than it had been. The shelves were not groaning so loudly under all the books. But the truth hit me hard a few months later, as I opened a box from Amazon and tried to find a place on a shelf for a couple of new books I had purchased: I’d been thinking of books as clutter when all the evidence would seem to indicate that I really believe them to be treasure. Some of those old, junky toys? Treasure, if you were to ask my children. Knick-knacks, the ones I was secretly delighted to bring back into the house at the end of the day? They are my treasure, my precious…

Here’s the puzzling thing about Jesus’ admonition to not be afraid. He follows it up with advice that is almost guaranteed to frighten us. Don’t be afraid… and make yourselves even more vulnerable by giving up those things that give you security! Don’t be afraid… and make yourselves as poor as those you will be helping with your alms! We find ourselves feeling like that little girl, straining to hear words of comfort in a song that scares the daylights out of us. It just doesn’t compute.

And here we have it: an encounter with Jesus’ “kingdom thinking.” We are accustomed, as was Jesus’ little flock, to kingdoms that look, well, kingly. Kingdoms are marked by their wealth, their opulence, the jewels in the crown or in the chalice; the fine tapestries adorning the walls or the altar. But Jesus’ idea of “kingdom,” and our idea of “kingdom,” are not the same. In Jesus’ understanding of “kingdom,” the possessions that we believe give us security actually take away our true security. Our true security lies in our willingness to trust in God entirely.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I can’t help feeling, as I say goodbye to you today, that there are powerful words from God directly to you and me in this passage from Luke’s gospel. I believe, in the deepest core of my being, that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, that God’s hands are open and ready to pour these blessings upon us. And I believe that, if we are attentive to Jesus’ words this morning, the key to receiving the kingdom is twofold. First, we have to realize that the kingdom might not look the way we expect it to look. And second, we have to be ready to trust God entirely.

First, the kingdom might not look the way we expect it to look. I know that the leadership of this church has been and will continue to be involved in a soul-searching and sometimes difficult process, seeking to find where God is leading you as a congregation. In a few weeks, God willing, I will begin working with another congregation where we will be asking the same questions. And it might be, as the process unfolds, that we will all be asked to commit to taking steps that feel scary… like Jesus saying, “Don’t be afraid,” and then telling his little flock to sell off their possessions. When and if that moment comes, I pray that we will all remember how very, very blessed we are by one another, that the true treasure of any congregation is its people, that we will pray like crazy, and that we will ask God, “Is this how you want us to participate in the kingdom?”

And second: readiness is key. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…” [Luke 12:35]. Jesus talks here in parables about slaves being ready for their master to return home from a wedding banquet. That doesn’t sound too appealing to us, until we get to the punch line: the master will be so pleased by our readiness, that he will become the servant. It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. I believe God asks us to be ready to do something daring… something, perhaps, completely unexpected and unlike anything we have ever done before. I believe God is asking all of us to be ready, and God, in turn, is promising readiness to pour out those blessings.

There is a church in a nearby presbytery that has attracted a lot of attention in my denomination. It was small… quite small. They had eight people in worship, and a large older sanctuary that they could no longer support. They made a radical decision. They sold the church building, and rented the basement so that they could continue to worship together. With the proceeds of the sale they wanted to do something for the community in which they were located. They surveyed their neighbors, and found that they were clamoring for youth ministry, a viable option to life on the streets. So that’s what they did. They poured the proceeds from the sale of the building into a new youth ministry. Eventually, the families whose lives were affected by this new ministry began to wonder… who were these people who had given so much to their community? They sought out the little church, started worshiping with them. And this congregation that was so tiny they had to sell their building began to grow. Eventually, they outgrew that basement, and decided to build themselves a smaller, energy efficient facility. Are they a mega-church now, with thousands in attendance? No. They are still a relatively small congregation. But they are a congregation that is able to devote itself to a ministry instead of exclusively fretting about building maintenance.

Please understand. This is not a prescription for you or any church to sell your building or to start a youth ministry. Only you can determine where God is calling you. But I think two things happened to that congregation, things every church should consider. First, they accepted that, in order to continue as a church together, they needed to embrace the fact that they might not look like the same church they had been in the past. They gleaned that in order to keep participating faithfully in the kingdom, they had to do something that, at the outset, was pretty darned scary. Second, this little church had to be ready. They had to keep their lamps burning, to be vigilant, to be dressed for action, so that when the time came to commit their resources to a new venture, they were able to joyfully, perhaps with fear and trembling, say, Yes. They had to be ready to trust God entirely with their unpredictable future. They had to be like a little child who learns to trust in her parents’ love and to be willing to enter into the darkness for a time.

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Be ready, be alert. Be dressed for action, and keep your lamps burning. God’s hand is open, waiting for all of us to be ready to receive blessing upon blessing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Photo: Banditto by pattilamesh courtesy of flickr.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Mags, this is a lovely sermon. It was a great blessing to me.

First off, I don't know if you are aware that it was a Louisianian who wrote the song that your mother sang to you, Jimmy Davis. He was governor of Louisiana a long time ago. I have met him, and I found him to be a charming man. He once rode his horse up the steps of the State Capitol, and because of that, many thought of him as a buffoon. He was not.

Then, with your story of your fear of a man in a raincoat carrying you away in a paper bag, I immediately thought of my now deceased sister, who used to have recurring nightmares of a pair of empty galoshes chasing her. She would wake up terrified. She did not even want to look at galoshes when she was awake. We used to laugh at her because of her fear, but her fear was very real to her, and we should not have laughed. Had I been in your church, I'd surely have smiled when you told that story.

Then I love the linkage you make between Jesus' setting his face toward Jerusalem, where he knew trouble awaited him, and admonishing his flock not to be afraid.

Then he tells them to give away everything and give alms. Doesn't he turn the world upside down?

And then, "Be ready."

God bless you in your new ministry.

Serena said...

Awesome sermon. What a great way to say goodbye. Looking forward to hearing about your next call.

Diane said...

yes, this is a lovely sermon. really full of grace and vision. You really do have a gift.