Proper 14, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
We are in the long days of late summer now. Our lectionary continues in the season after Pentecost for another 113 days. School starts this next week for many children in this area. We are a long time from any major holidays. But today’s Gospel reading reminds me of one of the most iconic holiday commercials. First aired in 1986, it was replayed for seventeen years until it was eventually remade. A car pulls up outside a snow covered home, a young man quietly lets himself in. He’s greeted by a small child, and together they make coffee. The smell of coffee wakes up the rest of the house who come downstairs, presumably at Christmas morning, to find the beloved son who’s been away for awhile. Certainly when you Jesus talking about the master who is coming home to surprise the servants, such a strong image from mainstream culture comes easily.
It’s funny how a passage can be taken in very different ways. Growing up in a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian church, this passage was a dire warning. Beware for God is returning soon so your soul better be ready for judgment. If Jesus returns before you’ve prepared, you will suffer the consequences. God is coming like a thief in the night so you know you better be afraid.
But reading that passage again, I’m almost perplexed at how it can come across as such a warning and not an expectation of joy. The master is returning from a feast. The master has, let’s be frank, been at the party and has been their quite some time if they aren’t returning until the early hours. This isn’t the image of a stern, joyless master carrying a whip. This is a master who takes joy in celebrating with others. This is a master who, when they return, is serving those who normally serve. This is a master who wants to make sure the joy and peace that they know is shared with those who are willing to serve. This is not a return to fear, but one to have hope for.
Hope, maybe more aptly faith, underpins so much of what Jesus teaches us to do. When Jesus tells us to live a certain way, when Jesus says love your neighbor as yourself, when Jesus teaches that we are to clothe the naked, feed the hungry; when Jesus says sell your possessions and give alms, all of this is about faith. Living out the values of the Kingdom of God is certainly work we are tasked with. Jesus makes it really clear what God expects us to strive towards. But maybe the part we could miss is that Jesus is not dangling us over the pits of Hell to make sure we abide. All of these commands on how to live, all these ways of living into the Kingdom of God should come to us because of our faith.
When I say something like pacifism is the most Christian response to violence, it’s not that I hold that to be a rule that must be obeyed, but rather it is my hope that our faith would lead us to that response. When Jesus reveals to us the glory of the Kingdom, and shows us what those values are, it’s not rules written down on a stone tablet anymore. It is instead how we live when we have faith in God’s providence. When we put our faith in God’s ability to provide, when we put our faith in the Kingdom of God, when we put our faith in the promise of a glorious resurrection, then nothing this earth can offer us should be more persuasive.
This passage from Luke starts out with the call to not be afraid. That happens a lot throughout Luke’s gospel. There was a lot that one could be afraid of when this was written. The early Christians were persecuted, disliked by Rome and the Jewish authorities. But then again, when it comes to survival, there always seems like a good reason to be afraid. Whether it is saber-tooth tigers or oppressive empires, if we have no faith in our victory over death, than fear will win the day. This is why Jesus preaches so much on this subject. It’s why so many ways of living into the Kingdom of God have to do with letting go of the control over our own existence. If we cannot have faith in God taking care of us in our moments of greatest need, how do we ultimately have faith that God will resurrect us into the Kingdom?
It’s hard to talk about faith in this way. It seems antithetical to our nature to trust that God is unfolding the path before us when we don’t like where we are at. We also of course want to tread carefully lest we be heard saying that God intends for someone to suffer. In fact, we for the most part get to live fairly comfortable lives away from the fears and terrors many people in this world face. Perhaps that makes our necessity for faith even greater.
Audrey West writes, “The less we want to have, the less we need to have. This fact is itself one of the blessings God offers, with compound interest. The less we need to have, the less we need to fear. The less we need to fear, the more we know that a life of giving allows us always to live, not on the brink of destruction, but on the brink of blessing, where we can more readily hear the promise that the “Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” desiring not to punish but to bless.” I’m sure we’ve all many times seen the ever popular bumper sticker, “Look busy, Jesus is coming.” Maybe instead it could read “Have faith, because Jesus is most certainly coming.”