Saturday, August 11, 2007

Proper 14C (RCL) Sermon


The Epistle and the Gospel reading this week are all on about houses, and homes. Houses – who builds ‘em, who lives in ‘em, what it’s like to live in them, either joyfully or fearfully.
In Hebrews, we read that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “camped out,” as it were, in a foreign land, pitching their tents wherever they were as they looked forward to the City that God would prepare for them. The servants in Jesus’ first parable keep watch at their master’s house as he celebrates his wedding feast, awaiting his return. And the home-owner in the second parable finds that ownership means having to be watch out, or risk being robbed.
Houses—and homes. An old saying goes, “Home is where the heart is.” Jesus adds, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
So this week, Jesus challenges us to examine our heart, asking ourself:
- Where is my treasure?
- Where is my heart?
- Where is my home?

About three months ago, my wife and I bit the bullet, signed on the dotted line, and bought our first house.
As first-time housebuyers, we could feel our blood-pressures rise as we looked over a repayment plan calculated out thirty-years into the future. Thirty years! That’s longer than either one of us has been alive! And, wow, it’s pretty anxiety-provoking to contemplate what thirty years interest does to your debt. I kidded that we ought to be signing in blood; Our mortgage broker, an impeccably well-groomed man with a bland smile on an inoffensive face, didn’t think this was very funny.
It seemed that from the moment we owned the house, there were any number of things we desperately needed but did not have. Apparently, the neighbors were not happy about the lush jungle of knee-high grass and weeds that came with the house. Within two days of moving in, our neighbor to the left had offered to lend us his lawnmower, some enterprising kids from down the street had quoted us some very competitive landscaping rates, and our neighbor on the right side had offered to mow our lawn himself. Okay, okay, we got the message: we needed a lawnmower. And a shed to keep the lawnmower in, I guess. And some furniture to fill up all these confounded rooms. And window-curtains, so our curious neighbors couldn’t peek through our windows to see those strange priests in their empty rooms who don’t seem to know how to mow their lawn.
Owning a house also meant we had to think about security. We suddenly had to ask ourselves questions like: What kind of homeowner’s insurance do we need? Should we get an alarm system? Do we need a brace-bar for the sliding door? Oh, what about the front door lock—are there still keys floating around from the Realtor’s lock-box? Should we change that lock? How about those motion-activated lights porch lights? Maybe we should get a guard-dog?—preferably a surly 200-pound pit-bull / mastiff mix with a pituitary condition and a pathological hatred of all strangers—but who’s good with kids?
Well, we ended up deciding against the auto-targeting defense lasers, and picked a relatively normal-sized, good-natured dog, but the point remains: Once we owned a house, we quickly found ourselves more concerned about “things,” more anxious about money, and thinking more than usual about our security.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells two short parables about houses. But first, he sets up these stories with this teaching: “Do not be afraid, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 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.”
There’s good news in this teaching, that’s for sure. The very first thing that Jesus tells his listeners is to let go of some of their fear. “Do not be afraid, little flock.” Just before this, Jesus has talked about all the ways we are afraid: We worry about food, we worry about clothing, we worry about our lifespans, we worry about the color of our hair-- worry about just about everything. When we’re afraid, we end up clutching what we do have so tightly our knuckles turn white—we take own lives in a stranglehold. Jesus here tells us that we can let go of that anxiety because “it if your Father’s good will to give you the kingdom.” If we have faith in God’s promises, we can ease up, just a little bit, on the life-constricting chokehold of fear—and with that letting go, we can breathe again. With trust in God comes hope, joy, peace, and the courage to give to others from what we have.
Jesus also says that this kingdom that the Father will give them is in heaven. All of the normal dangers and uncertainties that govern our worldly wealth won’t apply there—no thief comes and no moth destroys. Our true heavenly home, which is not of this world, will not have loss or anxiety or mortgages or theft. But Jesus tells his disciples they must fix their heart and their hopes on heaven, not earth. They should be piling up heavenly treasure, not earthly treasure—and that involves giving alms and doing good, not digging trenches and hunkering down.
And so, Jesus tells two short parables, both about “houses.”
Weirdly, these two stories feel very different, and yet both are stories about someone coming to a house. The first story, of the watchful servants waiting for their master to return, feels hopeful and joyous. The second, about the owner of a house who does not know the hour that a thief will come, is threatening and scary. Both seem to be about the coming of the Son of Man—so why does one seem so promising, and the other one so frightening? Why are these strangely dissimilar parables right next to each other here?
I think one thing that the juxtaposition of these two parables offers us is glimpses of our choices. Jesus has told us that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also; later in the Gospel he will elaborate that no one can serve both God and Earthly Wealth (Luke 16:13). This is the choice before us, and these two parables show what those choices look like.
To lay up our treasures in heaven and put our trust in God looks like the first parable. In this story, the main characters are servants of the household’s master. They are waiting “dressed for action”—more literally, with girded loins—with their robe cinched up and tucked under a belt so they can move quickly. They watch for his return with eagerness, because as good servants they know it is his house, not theirs, and they are ready to serve. When the master returns, in a surprising twist, he fastens his belt for service (in the greek, he “girds his loins” just as the servants did) and he begins to serve them. This parable is full of hope, joy, and blessing.
The next parable is also about the coming of the Son of Man, and is also superficially the same story—“someone comes to a house.” But that’s as far as the resemblance goes. Whereas in the first story, those at the house were servants, here the householder is the house owner himself. So, the whole attitude about the house is different. Here, the prevailing mood is defensiveness and threat. The parable suggests that the owner is, or at least might be, anxious about his possessions and protecting them. The house and everything in it is his, so he is worried about keeping them safe.
Here, then, is the question before us: If home is where the heart is, where is our home? Where is our heart? Where have we laid up treasure for ourselves? The letter to the Hebrews describes how Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth,” while looking forward to “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” They lived in tents, the letter suggests, because they knew they were “just passing through.”
When we feel like this world and this life is our true home, we end up living defensively and fearfully. We can find ourselves clutching what we have and grasping at more, and eyeing anyone who gets too near distrustfully. The man in the second parable reminds me of someone with twelve locks on his door, a baseball bat by the side of his bed, and a loaded pistol under his pillow. Who wants to live that fearfully? But the servants in the second parable make me imagine friends with party hats on, crouched behind furniture, waiting to shout “Surprise!” as the guest of honor returns. That’s the choice before us: crouched fearfully under the bed in a locked house, or joyfully welcoming and sharing God’s hospitality with each other.
So it's up to us. The question these two parables present to us is, “Which will you be, the servant eagerly awaiting your master or the owner, fearfully hiding from the thief?” Because Jesus is coming one way or another. Your attitude toward that coming will not change his nearness. Jesus is always drawing closer and closer to us. We must decide if he will look like a thief or a benevolent master when he appears.
And the way to decide this is to decide whether you will liver as a homeowner or a renter. Now, I don't mean you need to sell your houses and rent apartments in order to find God. I mean, we must all decide to live as though everything were indeed God's. Because, I'm afraid whether we care to admit it or not-- everything really is God's.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples, “In my father's house, there are many rooms. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:2). As that slogan in those corny Motel Six ads goes, God'll “leave a light on for you.” Let us hold what we have in this world, then, lightly, in open hands, more ready to share than to clutch. For when the Son of Man returns he will come like the benevolent master returning to tell his servants. “Well done; your room is prepared and everything's been made ready for you. Welcome home.”


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