Scripture readings: Luke 12:32-40; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
We don’t have to wait very long for the good news this morning. It comes first thing, right there in verse 32. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” These are astonishing words, and there is a lot packed into this short verse, so let me break it down a little.
First, there’s that word Father. Jesus reminds us again that the Creator of the Universe is utterly different than we expect. God is not like a vindictive judge about to pounce on us with punishment. No, in Jesus we know that God is like a loving Father, longing for a relationship of tender care with his children. God not only provides for our needs, but also desires that we participate in the ongoing creative unfolding of the universe. To give us these things is a good pleasure to God.
Let that second phrase perk up your ears. Good pleasure. One commentator notes that the Greek word translated here as “good pleasure” can also be translated as “delightful decision.” That is, it is your Father’s delightful decision to give you the kingdom. And there is a sense of completion in the Greek, telling us that this decision is not a future one, which depends upon our actions or our merit. Rather, God’s “delightful decision” is an action which has already been taken on our behalf.
Third, there’s that word, kingdom. It is Jesus’ word to describe the unseen reality at the heart of all things, a Creation in which justice, peace, and love reign. The dream of the Peaceable Kingdom, where the lion and the lamb lie down together. The holy city, God in our very midst, where all nations find healing and every tear is wiped away. To say the words the “kingdom of heaven” is to evoke this dream, which God intended at creation, which unfolds in God’s choosing of Israel, in God’s coming to be with us in Jesus Christ, in God’s guiding presence within us in the Holy Spirit, and in God’s promise that Christ will come again.
So, friends, what do these words tell us? It is your Father’s delightful decision to give you the kingdom. Though the kingdom may seem far off, it is not futile to seek it. It is not futile tofollow Jesus. It is not futile to share with our neighbors, to care for the widow and orphan, to seek justice and peace in a corrupt and violent time, or to welcome the stranger. For we are not trying to wheedle our pay out of the hands of a miser. Nor are we trying to avoid punishment from a tyrant who wants to hit the “smite” button. That is not who God is.
God is the generous provider of all that is, who, regardless of our own merit or actions, has already decided to give us the kingdom, who takes pleasure in such a gift. The good news for those who are called to seek God’s kingdom, is that all we must to do is be ready to open our hands and receive it as a gift.
Ah. When Jesus told us, “Don’t be afraid,” we knew there had to be a catch. For the longer we are alive, we discover how difficult it is to maintain an attitude of openness and readiness to receive.
It seems the longer we live in a broken world full of pain, the more we learn to be afraid, and the more we take on defensive tactics to keep that pain at bay. These defensive tactics can become habits that enslave us, as we clutch them in tight fists as if they can truly protect us. And how can we receive any gift with hands in tight fists?
The parables we’ve heard Jesus telling his disciples over the past few Sundays have been about these enslaving habits. Our tendency to make judgments about other people, desiring to justify ourselves. Our tendency to distract ourselves from what’s important by heaping minor tasks upon ourselves. Our tendency to clutch at our possessions, accomplishments, and even addictions, for a sense of security amidst life’s vagaries.
In this week’s scripture, Jesus takes on yet another enslaving tendency, which we experience when we must wait. For though God wants to give it to us, and it is even now breaking into the world, we must wait for the full coming of God’s kingdom. So what happens when we wait? Most of us jot from extreme to extreme, as in so many aspects of human experience. Recognizing this tendency, Jesus tells us two parables, both about what it means to live in readiness, for the Son of Man might return at any time.
The first is clearly positive. The servants who are “dressed for action,” with “lamps lit,” who live in an attitude of wakefulness, are available to open the door when their master returns from the wedding feast, and they receive the surprise blessing of a meal at his Table. The parable underscores the promise that God is wants to give us a blessing, if we are ready and open to receiving it.
But what is going on with that second parable? I think blogger Dan Clendinnen begins to get at it in his description of a New Yorker Magazine cartoon which he recently decided was his ‘best ever’:
“I handed it to my wife and said, “this explains me.” The sketch pictures a man sitting in his living room with a look of panic on his face. He’s dropped his book and his hair stands on end. He’s yanked his legs off the floor and onto the chair where he clutches them in his arms. There’s a bomb on the floor that someone tossed through his window. Shattered glass litters the floor as the fuse burns down. In the punch line he confesses to his wife: “It’s my fault — I wasn’t worrying enough.”’
Do any of you recognize yourselves in this cartoon? I do! But, I think what the cartoon portrays is the opposite extreme of the readiness Jesus is counseling.
When told to wait in an attitude of availability and wakefulness, we may start out well, but gradually our alertness for God’s blessing can turn into an overblown sense of responsibility for it. We may even begin to think that the coming of the kingdom—or not—is contingent upon our alertness, our activity, and our worrying! In that second parable about the thief, I think Jesus is reminding us that, while we are called watch and prepare for the kingdom, its coming is not, finally, our burden. We cannot know what hour it will finally come, no matter how much we hope for it or worry about it.
To live at “high alert” is not a sustainable kind of attentiveness. People who live in “furrowed-brow fixations” eventually exhaust themselves and fall asleep anyway, when their bodies give up what their minds cannot! So what is the middle ground? What might it look like to “stay awake,” dutifully watching and ready to receive the gift of the kingdom, without turning our watching into worrying?
Two weeks ago, I was privileged to take study leave at the Grunewald Guild, an ecumenical community in Washington, dedicated to the practice of art in the service of faith. On the first morning of our week, one of the Guild’s founders, Richard Caemmerer, led our morning devotion, speaking about his creative process in a recent painting. His intended subject was clouds. Richard told us how he approached this painting, wondering how one might capture such an ephemeral, constantly changing phenomenon. Noting how we often claim to see pictures in the clouds as a way of tying down their fluidity and movement, Richard decided he would try to avoid doing that. He would try to see and paint the cloud as it was.
Now, Richard sees his painting as a learning process, and he told us who were about to engage new work in our classes, “Be intentional about the learning, not about the subject matter.” Every creative endeavor has something to teach us, as we study the subject and try things out in the creative process. Creative work is about discovering something new, which is given as a gift, not about regurgitating old thoughts, which he said is “a kind of forgery.” “Be available to surprise,” Richard said.
And when Richard turned over a large canvas to show the stunning imagery he’d painted, a huge mass of cloud moving over the earth, we saw the results of this attitude played out. As he worked to convey this cloud with integrity, a surprise happened, something he did not intend. The massive cloud began to suggest two shapes, nestled together.“Do you see it?” he said, pointing out the awesome face of a lion. “And over there, do you see it? The lion is lying with the lamb…That wasn’t my idea!” and he laughed with delighted joy.
It seems to me that Richard embodied the kind of faithful watchfulness Jesus is trying to teach us in these parables. It is neither a fixated grasping nor a fuzzy relinquishment of responsibility for the kingdom. Having cultivated a kind of “tacit awareness and peripheral vision,” the watchful servant proceeds faithfully in the work to which he or she has been called. That task may seem extraordinary, like painting a cloud, or rather ordinary, like ushering at church, cleaning a kitchen, fixing a leak. In any of those tasks, we are to be “available to surprise,” open to the blessing of God’s new creation revealing itself in and through our own lives. Rather than clutching at our tasks with ferocity, we hold them loosely, clinging instead to the promises of a generous God who takes pleasure in giving the surprising gifts of the kingdom.
For that is how God gives the kingdom to us, how it is revealed again and again in our midst: Surprise! The startling discovery of something wholly new. The uncanny arrival of loving companions we’d never have imagined for ourselves. The unexpected blessing emerging from loss. Eternal life resurrected from death on the cross. The end from the beginning.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
As those who are no longer afraid, who trust in the loving God who has delightfully decided to give us everything we want or desire, let us open our hands, to receive the surprising joy and surpassing gift of the kingdom continuously unfolding in our midst.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.