July 24, 2016 – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proclaimer: Rev. Martha Kearse
Summer Sermon Series: STORIES TO LIVE BY
Scripture: Luke 11:1-13; Psalm 100
Many of Jesus’ parables are offered in answer to specific questions he has been asked: “Who is my neighborhood?” “How should we pray?” If Jesus had been asked the question, “What does it mean to love one another as God loves us?” Jesus might have offered a story very like Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol. Although God is not mentioned at all in the story, love for one another certainly is, mostly in the form of generosity. There are two wealthy men in this story—that is, two who are wealthy by worldly standards. One is the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge is so nasty and parsimonious that he’d rather be cold and hungry himself than to spend a little of his money on coal for his fire and good food. He’s convinced himself that he is somehow righteous—that the money is his by right and that he should get to keep it. All of it. There’s another rich man in the story, though—one who does not always come to the forefront in discussions about this story. He is Mr. Fezziwig, a man known for his generosity, who invests in his young apprentices and teaches them the joys of community and shared wealth, of dancing at parties with beautiful women. It’s important that there are two rich men in the story, because without Mr. Fezziwig, the story could become merely a cautionary tale about having too much money. It could, in that case, simply be about amounts, about money itself, and that would not be a very interesting or helpful story.
Instead, the story of Scrooge and his spiritual journey, all completed in one night, is a story about his soul, about his heart. It is a story about generosity and where it comes from. Let me ask you to consider a question: Who is saved in the story “A Christmas Carol?” It’s not Bob Cratchet. Bob Cratchet is fine, from the very beginning of the story to the end. He is poor—granted. He is cold and his family goes without a great many things. But Bob Cratchet is neither angry nor resentful. He is not troubled by Scrooge’s stinginess, and, though his life is made easier when Scrooge loosens his money bag, Bob Cratchet does not change. It’s not Tiny Tim, either. We don’t know what happens to Tiny Tim. There is some implication that Scrooge’s money might save his life, but when the story ends, we are in a new future—one that is not written in stone. No, it is Scrooge who is saved. It is Scrooge who has been confronted with the chain he has been making for himself for the many years of his life and it is Scrooge whose heart is lightened and made joyful by the advent of Christmas and the realization that he has a chance to make right his many wrongs.
Scrooge’s pathway to redemption is marked by both the carrot and the stick—the sticks are the visions he is shown the sins of his past and the consequences of his sin on the future. In the midst of these threats, however, is his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Present. In the musical, “Scrooge,” the Ghost of Christmas Present is an enormous, happy man with a booming voice. He gives Scrooge a special drink and then makes him repeat this song: “I like life. Life likes me. Life and I fairly fully agree. Life is fine, life is good, ‘specially mine which is just as it should be. I like thinking the thoughts I’m thinking!” To which Scrooge replies, “I like drinking the drink I’m drinking!” There are many threats to Scrooge, which do seem to move him. But Scrooge’s repentance, his complete 180, is deeply motivated by his memories of the generosity of Mr. Fezziwig and by his experience of joy with the Ghost of Christmas Present. He witnesses the love his nephew has for him, the sweetness of the Cratchet family, and the bliss of that celebratory drink! His shame at his behaviors of the past is not hardened and tempered, as it could be if he were only scolded. He is filled up, offered generosity, reminded of how generosity has, in the past, been poured out onto him—and it is out of his own fullness that he begins to loosen. When he finally does open his purse, it is an act of pure joy. He stops worrying about himself, stops thinking about himself constantly, which frees him up to actually feel joy. He feels no duty, he takes no count of what he has spent—he explodes with delight at his ability to astound the people in his life with gifts and with love.
Today’s story, often called the Parable of the Visitor at Midnight, is not one we hear very often. Unlike the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, which I think is more aptly named “Two Twits and a Dad,”the Friend at Midnight is really not all that dramatic. A guy bangs on his neighbor’s door—the guy asks for some bread, because his friend has come to visit and he’s embarrassed that he doesn’t have any bread. The neighbor moans and complains that he’s already in bed and he’s going to have to wake his whole family up to get the bread, but, to avoid his own embarrassment, he gets the bread. Jesus’ point in the story is that the guy gets the bread he needs. Despite the complaining, despite the inconvenience, he gets what he needs. Then Jesus asks this question: “If you guys, who can barely get your act together for a loaf of bread, can give good things to each other, HOW MUCH MORE will the God of the universe give you all that you need?” The context of this story in the 11th chapter of the gospel of Luke comes after the explosive news in the 10th chapter that women are as welcome to hear the teachings of Jesus as are the men. The story itself is an illustration to answer the question, “How should we pray?” The story is bracketed on the either side by Jesus teaching his followers the Disciple’s Prayer and by his admonishment to ask, to seek, to knock, and to expect that we will find answers, solutions, and welcome on the other side.
In the world of Jesus’ parables, the character who is the “seeker” is often a fairly obnoxious character. In the story of the judge and the petitioner, the woman gets the justice she seeks by hounding the judge relentlessly. In this story, someone shows up at a door at midnight, after everyone is asleep, and demands bread until he gets it. In Luke’s gospel, both of these stories are offered as models for prayer. Here’s the logic: if the most obnoxious man imaginable can get the bread he needs in the middle of the night, if the most immoral judge can finally offer a woman justice, HOW MUCH MORE will the loving God of all the universe give good things to God’s own children?
It’s like birthdays. How many of you get a present or two on your birthday? Do you ask for something special? I have a birthday boy at my house this week. If he asks me, as he has, for a Pokemon Go Plus, would I give him socks and underwear? Would I give him school supplies? By no means! It is my job, as a parent, to do my best to give my children what they need, and, over and above that, when I can, what they want. Sure, sometimes the answer to what they want is “Absolutely not.” If, for example, my child had said, “Mother, oh Mother of Mine, I wish to have a Ferrari for my birthday,” I would have said, “Dear Child, O Light of My Eyes, You must be mad or feverish, for a Ferrari costs more than your entire college education and I cannot give it to you, may you live a thousand years.” One time, this same delightful child was turning 15 years old on the day we happened to be visiting a resort area at the Alps in the southern part of Germany. What this boy wanted, of course, was to jump off the side of a mountain, several thousand feet up, with the help of a South American hippy and only a few yards of nylon between him and certain death. When his father came up to me and said he would like to pay money to enable our son to leap off the side of a rock so tall we couldn’t see the top from where we were standing, I said the following: “I am going to pretend that you did not just say that to me. I am walking away. Let me know, after it’s over, if he actually did it.” We all do what we can.
Because we want good things for our children. We want them to have what they need and what they want. Our love for our children overflows and goes beyond even what we might feel for ourselves. Mothers will go without new clothes, fathers will keep driving the same old car so that their children can have the things they want and need. And we, my friends, are deeply flawed. We cannot, even with our children, claim pure motives. We love our children, but they are also an ongoing part of our advertising campaign for ourselves: my child is so bright, they had to create a program for him in kindergarten! My child is so sweet and talented, she made me this noodle necklace and she’s only three! My child is so cute—look at this series of pictures of her standing on her head! If we, who are caught up in our own selfish realities, if we can do good things for our children, HOW MUCH MORE will God be able to do for us?
Here’s the thing about God: God’s not particularly worried about how things will end. God is not selfish, or grasping, because everything already belongs to God—and God doesn’t have security issues. God is full, full to overflowing. Think of all the images in the Bible of abundance—crops that grow 100 fold; cups overflowing with wine; baskets of bread, full to the brim, that only represent the leftovers. God’s generosity spills out because the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. God is complete and taken care of and not anxious—at all—about the future. And out of that fullness, God gives to us because it is God’s pleasure to do so. Listen to our choir as they sing for us this version of the twenty-third Psalm. While they sing, think about being filled up, being full to overflowing. (Choir sings)
The Psalmist expresses this sense of fullness, of abundant love and protection, in the form of causality. The Lord is my shepherd; therefore, I have everything I need. I’m full. I’m protected. My heart overflows with a sense of love, and connectedness, and compassion. The tone of this poem is confident—I fear no evil. Surely, goodness and mercy will follow me. In other words, I know that I am good, and taken care of; I am both safe and assured of future safety. It is a potent word against the fears that our world throws at us constantly. This summer, the media presentations to which I have access have been rife with fear. Fear of the police, fear of entire people groups, fear of this politician or that one and where we will live if that person we hate is elected. We’re encouraged to fear immigrants, to fear those who do not share our cultural history or who are not identically pigmented the way that we are. And the response to that fear is violence, and more fear. A deadly cycle which encourages all inside of it to stop talking to each other, stop listening to each other, to assume the worst of each other, to shoot first and ask questions later.
As people of faith, we are called to something more. Our God is the God of more. Much more. Our God is the owner of every single thing in the universe, and has generously offered it to us for our use. Our God would like to fill us each to overflowing, to fill us each up so that we can begin the work of filling the needs and wants of others. Think of a society where we didn’t spend any time worrying about who might have taken advantage of us or who might have cheated us, but instead spent our energy making sure everyone had what they need! Think of a city where each and every child was valued so highly that every school, every park, every recreation center, every library had enough and more than they needed to serve those children. Think of our neighborhoods, our actual neighbors, and a model of being neighbors that was all about making sure everyone on the block was ok, that everyone would be welcome on our block, that every neighborhood would be open to everybody.
How would we do this? Well, I’ll tell you the truth. We can’t. Period. Cannot pull it off. Again, we do well to consistently be nice to our spouses and our own children. We are not capable of loving the world. But God is. And what God can do for us and with us is much more than we can do on our own. What we can do is the work we are supposed to do of finding ways to access the love of God for ourselves—we can fill ourselves up, we can acknowledge our fullness, we can pursue gratitude and a sense of well-being. We can say to ourselves as a daily mantra, “Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need. My cup is completely full and spilling over. I am very well-loved.” And then, we can take that out into the world.
You know that scrabbly feeling? That one that says, “I’ve been cheated out of my fair share. I never have enough. Everyone has more than I do.” Living by that mantra means that every scrap that falls our way, everything we can reach, we grab, we hold, we hoard. We cannot share when the message of want is the one we permit to ring in our heads each day. Oh, but that other thing? That fullness? Well, think of this: have you ever sat at a Christmas table where there was not room for one more guest? I think about my grandmother, who believed in second helpings. I think about covered dish suppers, where there are seven kinds of chocolate cake which all must be tasted. I think about Halloween and the neighbors who give out the full-sized candy bars. That’s how this is supposed to work—God fills us with everything we need, God heaps on extra helpings and the plan is that we will be so full that we are truly able to offer the overflow of good things we’ve experienced to others.
So, those of you who have been making something wonderful out of your paper, what did you make? Will you hold it up? A few minutes ago, those were plain pieces of paper. And now they are more—much more. This is who God is—our God is the God of more, filling us up, making us whole. Our job, then, is to share the more we have, like the little girl whose story I saw this past week. She wants to help people be nice, and so she makes bracelets for people and gives them out at the grocery store and asks people to be nice; or the young man who gives away ice cream from his ice cream cart in return for the answer to a history question or a thank you note; or these young interns who give their summer to the children of Freedom School, learning themselves how to teach reading and reading comprehension while they play with and love these beautiful children. We’ve got wonderful models of ways we can fill each other up, and spread around all that we’ve been given. The gospel of wealth is not about how much you have, or how much I have, it is about how much WE have, how much we already have. And my call is not to look at you and decide whether you have too much or too little. My call is to acknowledge the ways that I am already filled up, my call is to allow myself to feel satisfied, to feel full to overflowing, and then to begin the joyful work of sharing, of helping those around me to also feel filled up. And the best part is this: when those chains of self-interest fall off, when we stop spending all our time worrying about ourselves and instead start the joyful act of pouring out our love on others, it’s Christmas and birthday and July 4th all in one. Because, the truth is that as fun as it is to be a kid at Christmas, it’s way more fun to be Santa Claus.