Luke 12:32 -40 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 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. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those servants.
39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Many of you might have heard that this week Toni Morrison passed away. If you’re not familiar with her work, she was one of the greatest writers ever, who wrote unapologetically from her perspective as an African-American woman. In the hours after her death was made public, folks started posting tributes to her online, most of them just quotes from her work. I was struck by one of those quotes after reading this weeks’ Scripture. It comes from her novel Paradise, where one of the characters is talking about how it’s possible to love someone: “Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind. It is a learned application without reason or motive except that it is God…You have to practice God. You have to think God-carefully. And if you are a good and diligent student you may secure the right to show love.”
This is a great example of what I appreciate most about Morrison, that she writes beautifully and brutally at the same time. Love is real, possible and available, but it’s difficult. God is love but God is beyond our understanding and so love doesn’t always come naturally. Love is the kind of thing you have to practice. If we want to live in the rhythms of God’s own life, as persons and as a community, we have to practice God.
I think this gets at what Jesus is saying to us in our passage this morning. He’s saying to the disciples, I want you to be ready. Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit. Your calling will come like a thief in the night. God’s not going to send a letter two weeks in advance saying, “a homeless man is going to ask you for money on the corner of Fordham and Elliot, but that person will actually be me. Act accordingly.” You’re not going to get advance notice when your friend comes up to you with really hard medical news; you love or you wound that person by how you act in that moment. Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn’t advertise when they’re going to round up our neighbors and take them away from their families: communities either see a white van show up and intervene…or they just go about their days. In those moments, we’ve either been diligent students of God’s love or we haven’t, but there’s no time to figure it out then.
Maybe you saw the story out of Nashville, TN a couple of weeks ago when ICE showed up at a family’s home to detain a man. He had just gotten into his car with his 12 year old son, and he assumed (correctly) they didn’t have the kind of warrant to search his car, so he locked the doors and started to wait them out while they threatened him from the other side of the glass. After awhile the family’s neighbors saw what was going on and, instead of going about their days, they started bringing the father and his son water and snacks. One neighbor filled his gas tank so that they wouldn’t run out. And eventually, a whole group of people locked arms in a human chain around the car so that the man and his son could run into their house. That man was ready, he knew his rights, and his neighbors were ready. They could’ve just gone about their days, telling themselves, “Someone more qualified than we are should handle this,” but instead they acted in solidarity and love.
Jesus is saying to the disciples, “Get ready,” your neighbors need your love and the kind of love they need might not come naturally if you’ve been raised to be a polite citizen. The kind of love our world needs is divine only—it disrupts the world as we know it—and it is difficult always. If we want to be that kind of church, that shows up for each other and our neighbors, we have to practice God.
Now that raises the question: how do we do that? What does it mean to practice God? Jesus tells the disciples to practice God with our minds and to practice God materially. We tell the story of God’s love and live the story of God’s love.
We practice God with our minds. Jesus begins this teaching by saying to us, “Do not be afraid for God delights to give you the Kingdom.” Do not be afraid. Breathe that in for a second. The disciples who are with Jesus had lots of reasons to be afraid. They’re being interrogated by some of the religious leaders who think that Jesus is a false teacher, that he doesn’t care about Scripture, that he’s morally lax. He’s also walking around and people keep calling him Lord when there are other lords in power who have lots of men with weapons at their disposal to make sure they stay lord. And they’re on the road, not sure where their next meal is going to come from, what they’ll do in bad weather, what happens if one of them gets sick. Their lives are precarious.
Maybe you know the feeling. Maybe you grew up in a church that taught you to be ashamed of who you are and even though you know they’re wrong you practiced that story for such a long time that when you hear those words today your skin still crawls. Maybe you’re not sure if your health insurance is going to cover the medicine you need. Maybe you don’t know if your boss is going to schedule you for enough hours to make your rent. Maybe you’ve been shopping for school supplies and you keep seeing backpacks with bulletproof panels sewn into them and you realize what lessons our kids are really learning. Our lives are precarious; there’s a lot to be afraid of. In so many ways we are taught to practice fear.
And fear creates its own habits of mind. Fear tells its own story. When we’re afraid that something bad is going to happen or repeat itself, our instinct—what we’ve been taught to practice, especially under a capitalism where accumulation and competition are the highest goods—is to cling to whatever stability we have, even if it isn’t great. Fear tells a story where my little circle of stability is threatened by the needs and insufficiencies of people all around me. We hear this kind of thing all the time. “They’re coming to take our jobs.” “If I give them cash they’ll take advantage of me (so instead I give to a shelter that teaches the homeless to code).” “I need it to defend my family.” “They’re pushing for change too fast, they’re too radical, and it’s going to be disruptive.” Anything more than incremental baby steps or small acts of kindness within the systems we already have, and things get risky. Fear mobilizes us against each other and paralyzes us in the face of the powers that run this world.
But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” and the reason he offers is that “God delights to give us the kingdom.” When Jesus calls our attention to the kingdom, he’s not belittling our worries, he’s not saying “buck up, things aren’t so bad.” He’s saying that in the face of your fears, I want you to remember a different story so that fear does not determine love’s possibilities. God delights to give you the kingdom. God determines what is real; God created the heavens and the earth and filled the earth with abundance so that it would be fruitful and multiply and everyone would have everything they need. That’s the kingdom, God’s overflowing love made incarnate in an overflowing creation that we give and receive together; take and eat. That’s who God is and that’s the kind of life God desires for every single one of us, a life where property and borders and guns, all the institutions of fear, just don’t make any sense. The kingdom is Jesus who revolts against fear, takes the axe right to the root of that poisoned tree, and starts building something new: in Jesus’ Body, the rich who hoard all their grain are sent away empty, and the poor are fed. In Jesus’ body, there are no kings to protect, no thrones to keep, no swords to discipline the weak, just neighbors on level ground plowing fields that produce all we need. That’s the story Jesus gives us. Don’t start with your fear and say anything better is impossible; seek first the kingdom of God and all of this will be added unto you. That voice of fear that calls any hope naive, any change doomed, any fantasy utopian (like its a bad thing) does not have to be the only voice you hear. There’s another story, there are other possibilities, the world does not have to be this way. Do not be afraid.
But it’s not enough just to tell the story, as important as that is. We tell ourselves stories all the time. Some of them are deeply deceptive. If we want the story of God’s love in Jesus to bear fruit, we’ve got to live that story together also. We’ve got to practice God in material ways, too. So with the story, Jesus gives a practice: 33 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. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. God wants to give you the Kingdom: here’s what that looks like. This is how God’s love works its way into our habits so that love becomes like muscle memory: give according to your ability and take according to your need. If you have, give, trusting that if tomorrow you don’t have enough you also can come here for what you need. If you need, take, knowing that if we keep living together I’m probably going to need your help, too. To live this way would disrupt most of what we’ve been taught about being living a good life. In America, we’re taught to accumulate, that to become an adult is to purchase certain class symbols like houses and retirement accounts and college funds. To be responsible in our world is to collect equity so that you don’t burden anyone. Giving away what you have and not being ashamed of what you need is practice in bucking the system. It requires becoming a different kind of people who love different things. Where your treasure is there your heart is also. If we want to be a people whose hearts are with our neighbors, then we’ve got to practice holding our treasure in common.
It’s important that Jesus gives this practice to a whole community of disciples. Jesus doesn’t want us to be alone in our burdens and in coming up with solutions for them. The burden for the kingdom doesn’t fall on any one of you as individuals or as families. That’s one of the ways fear works: the problems of our world seem so large that we’re taught to individualize everything, which just ends up making people feel guilty and paralyzed. We’ve really been taught that when we come to the end of ourselves there’s nothing more we can do, but in the life Jesus’ calls us to live its when we come to the end of ourselves that we can look around and start organizing with our community, because it turns out there’s probably a whole bunch of others who have come to the end of themselves, too.
That’s why Jubilee is committed to paying off peoples’ debts through the debt collective and helping people out of poverty through direct cash payments with the Jubilee Fund. Hopefully these ministries offer a collective vision for how our lives could reflect God’s love, how we can step out of the patterns of fear and make new patterns for our lives. When we pay off debts together, we’re trying to live as if the Kingdom of God really has come near in Jesus. We’re not just doing a social justice on the side of our real church stuff. We’re putting off fear by trusting each other, we’re loving each other by showing grace. This is how we practice God.
And hopefully, because of that practice, because we’ve been preparing our minds and our bodies together, we’ll be ready for whatever else God calls us to do. Telling the story of Jesus and paying off each others’ debts are good things to do in themselves, but hopefully they also give us new habits, new ways of thinking, new possibilities for acting. Hopefully these practices get us used to disrupting business as usual and set us in motion. Our calling could come like a thief in the night, like an ICE van in the morning, like our teachers saying, “We’re going on strike next week, are you with us?” Those moments will come, those moments are already here. So we’ve got to get ready together. We can tell a different story. We can show the grace that fear calls impossible. We can get dressed for action and have our lamps lit. Together we can be good students so that we are practiced in God’s love whatever comes our way. Amen.