Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Last Word

12th Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 14 (Year C)
Genesis 15.1-6; Psalm 33.12-22; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40
Sunday, August 7, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

I may be a glutton for punishment, particularly in this election cycle, but I enjoy watching political news. Although I’m by no means a political junkie like some of my friends. Being a progressive, I generally get my political news from MSNBC. I love “All in with Chris Hayes” and “The Rachel Maddow Show.” And occasionally, if there is nothing else on TV, or if I have not gotten sufficiently sated, or sufficiently disgusted, with politics, I watch “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.” The title comes from the fact that at the end of his show, Lawrence makes a point of giving the last word on the issue of the day to one of his guests. You never quite know what you’re going to get. Sometimes it’s a word of optimism. But sometimes it’s a word of warning. Or of dread. Or of fear.

Unlike any other time in recent history, at least in my lifetime, we seem to be living in fear-filled times. Times that fill us with fear. (I use the term “fear” in the broadest possible way – from concern and anxiety to outright panic.) There seems to be a pervading sense of fear, or at least anxiety, about the current state of our society. As a result, many individuals feel a certain amount of fear and anxiety about their own personal circumstances. And our individual and collective fear is not just about our current condition but also about the future.

It’s hard to pin down the actual timeline of this increase in fear. If anything it has been a slow ratcheting up over a period of time – slowly but surely increasing bit by bit. But the causes and the symptoms are certainly evident.

Without a doubt, the events of 9/11 forever changed our society and precipitated many of the circumstances and events that have, if not directly caused our collective and individual fears, contributed to them. But no event has probably had more tangible impact on our collective and certainly our individual fear and anxiety than the Great Recession. This financial crisis succeeded in decimating investment portfolios and retirement plans. While we have technically recovered as a nation, the financial climate is still shaky and uncertain. The stock market, even though at all-time highs, is still skittish. As a result, many people live in fear of not having sufficient resources for the future – particularly those who are retired or nearing retirement. And many more fear that another financial catastrophe is looming on the horizon.

And then there is war. After 9/11, we entered into two wars – one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. While the war in Iraq officially ended six years ago this month, the war in Afghanistan continues. Certainly at a lesser degree than before, but it continues nonetheless, making it the longest war the United States has ever fought. And there is the fear of war in such places as Syria. These wars have contributed to the rise of such terrorist organizations as Al Qaeda and ISIS. And over time, these groups have increased their terrorist activities in more and more places around the globe, such as Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Dhaka, and Nice. And for the first time since 9/11, we are now seeing terrorist attacks on our own soil – such as San Bernardino, Orlando, and Dallas. As a result, many fear that our own country is no longer the safe haven it once was.

At the same time, we are seeing increasing levels of unrest and violence in our own streets, in places too many to mention. Violence involving the shooting of innocent people by police – often motivated by fear. And attacks upon police officers in retaliation. Not to mention riots in reaction to these events. Again, bringing increased fear for safety in our very own towns and cities. Uncertainty of who we can even trust to keep us safe.

And now we are in the midst of a presidential election, looking to our leaders to provide explanations, to propose ways that they will keep us safe, to provide guidance to lead us into a better future. But even that is resulting in nothing but insanity. Recognized by pundits as the most bizarre presidential election ever held, neither major party can seem to maintain a sense of unity within their own organizations, let alone for the country as a whole. We are witnessing extreme positions, harsh rhetoric, and vilification on both sides. As a result, there are unprecedented levels of discomfort regarding both major party candidates as evidenced by record high disapproval ratings – not approval ratings; disapproval ratings. All of this reflecting fear about the direction our country is heading. Fear of what the future holds for us as a nation, as a society, and by extension, as individuals.

Yes, we have justifiable reasons to fear – for the present and for the future. But the stock market, terrorists, vigilantes, rioters, the police, not even our political parties or their anointed candidates, have the final word.

In response to all of this mess, and in response to whatever other personal concerns we each may carry, our Gospel reading for today opens with Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” In what follows, Jesus lays out a message that the concerns of this world nor the fear that they might bring are to distract us from the fact that God has something bigger and better in store for us. God loves us and wants us to be part of his kingdom. He wants us to be part of building that kingdom here on earth.

Jesus starts off by going someplace that makes us a little uncomfortable. He talks about selling our possessions and giving alms. He talks about how where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. In this simple imagery are several layers of meaning as to this kingdom that God promises. In short, we are not to put our faith, our hope, in the stuff of this world. The stuff of this world is of no consequence when compared to the kingdom that we will inherit. Our possessions, while being important to us now, have little meaning in the long run. They are perishable, while the kingdom of God is imperishable. It is a gift that will be ours for all time.

But in the meantime, we are not to just sit and passively wait for its coming. Until we enter into the fullness of that kingdom – how long that will be, we don’t know – we are to work on behalf of the kingdom. We are to work to help bring about the kingdom of God here on earth. We are to engage the world by sharing the gospel, by living the gospel, by living the abundance of the promised kingdom here and now. Certainly one of the hallmarks of this kingdom is the care for those who are in need, who are vulnerable. Hence, Jesus’ suggestion to give alms. For this is how we begin and engage in the work that will be brought to completion with the fulfillment of the kingdom. And since God’s pleasure to include us in his divine plan renders the stuff of this world transitory, we are therefore empowered to put what we have to good use, to use what we have to further the kingdom.

Jesus goes on to tell us that we must vigilantly wait for the coming of the promised kingdom. That it will be like a thief in the night – that we don’t know when that will happen, that it will be unexpected. When it does come, it will be manifest in surprising ways. Just as the master returning from the wedding banquet, rather than expecting to be served, chooses to serve his waiting servants. Something new and unexpected, where the whole social order is turned upside-down, where all things are made right and all things are made new. In this waiting, we prepare ourselves to receive the blessings God has in store – God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. We prepare to live more fully into the meaning of God’s reign, which is not just in the future, but is also in the here and now. For God’s reign includes sovereignty over our hearts, minds, values, and actions. As such, this vigilance means being open to hearing God’s words and feeling his presence in our lives. This prompts us, allows us, to live the Gospel, which we do by opening our hearts to others. And in so doing, we open our hearts to receive the blessings that God is preparing to give us now and in his eternal kingdom.

The overarching message in today’s Gospel is that the stuff of this world, the concerns of this world, the fears of this world, do not define who we are. They do not have the last word. We cannot let concern about the things of this world, we cannot let our fears, keep us from the most important thing. From our calling as Christians to strive for the kingdom of God – to share God’s love with an increasingly hurting world. An increasingly fearful world. Even in the midst of the fear, we are to offer a glimmer of hope. For it is the hope of the promised kingdom, the assurance that it is God’s pleasure to give it to us that provides an antidote to the complacency, to the fear of a crazy present and an uncertain future. Assuring that fear does not have the last word. But rather that the last word is the promise of God’s unbounded love.

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