I haven’t posted a sermon here in a while because I’ve been happily listening to other peoples’ preaching this summer. In August, however, I’m coming off the bench twice to give a beloved colleague a well-armed vacation.
A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost, 7 August, 2022. Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland, Barrie, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.
Texts for this Sunday: Isaiah 1:1,10-20, Psalm 50:1-8,23-24; Hebrews 11: 1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40
Blessed are those slaves 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. Lk 12: 37
I’ve chosen this text to begin today’s discussion because I believe it highlights the key idea of today’s gospel reading, the idea of readiness. By the word readiness, I mean our being prepared and ready to respond to what God asks of us. Last week, we heard from Luke’s gospel (Lk 12:13-21) about the foolish rich man who put his faith in earthly things, only to be let down by the unexpected shortness of his life. Today’s reading carries this idea forward but in a positive direction. Rather than putting our trust in inert and temporary wealth, Jesus tells us to look for what God is doing in the world, so that we can receive the real rewards that God wants to give us.
As I said, the gospel is about readiness, so let’s start by trying to understand that word better. My time in the Canadian Forces introduced me to readiness as a military term. Readiness to a soldier means having the right equipment, the proper training and fitness, so that you are ready for action at short notice. When I first joined the Forces as a nervous chaplain recruit, the need for readiness was drummed into us by constant inspections. At the crack of dawn, our training staff would examine everything, from the creases on our pressed shirts to our polished boots, even the cleanliness of our toothbrushes, while we stood silently at attention by our tightly made beds. We quickly learned to be up well before the sun, polishing and cleaning, but despite all our efforts we seldom passed muster, and in the early days of our training we always paid for some fault with numerous pushups. Later we learned that the system was designed that way!
The same mania for readiness carried into our field training. Among the items we had to carry was a clumsy pouch for the gas masks which we always had to hav with us. The pouches were a nuisance, but they also made a useful space to carry snacks for the long hours we spent outdoors between meals, although using the pouch for anything other than a gas mask was strictly forbidden! One day, sure enough, came the dreaded warning cry “Gas! Gas! Gas!” and we all had just a few seconds to get out our masks and get them on properly. In the midst of us there was my friend Bill, foolishly holding a sandwich because he’d gotten in the habit of leaving his mask in the tent so he could carry extra snacks. That day we all had to do a lot of pushups, as our instructors drove home the point that readiness saves lives.
The idea of readiness also applies to our faith lives. Today’s reading is typical of those heard during the season of Advent, like the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (Mt 25:1-13). These readings are designed to emphasize the idea of being ready for the unexpected coming of God. The idea is that only those who are found ready will have a place in the kingdom of heaven. Usually being found ready means living a life of kindness, regard and charity for those less fortunate (eg, insomuch as you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it to me” Mt 25.40). In today’s gospel reading, this idea is conveyed in Jesus’ telling his disciples to “sell your possessions and give alms” (Lk 12.33), alms being givings or donations to those less fortunate than ourselves. At the end of Matthew 25, there is a rather terrifying accounting, where those who are spiritually ready are sheep, who will be rewarded, and the unready, those who were not charitable and generous in life, are goats who will be punished (Mt 25.46).
If by now you’re afraid that Jesus will suddenly appear like a dreaded Drill Sergeant to make a surprise inspection of your spiritual life, maybe finding you unfit and unready, let’s look again at v. 37 of today’s gospel reading.
Blessed are those slaves 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. (v 37)
Notice what’s curious about this passage. It’s late, and the servants, the “slaves”, have stayed up waiting for their “master” to arrive at some unannounced hour. Presumably they have everything ready for their boss: lamps lit, perhaps food and drink, a hot bath and a made and turned down bed. They’ve been busy and active when they no doubt wish they were asleep. But instead of being served, the master will serve his servants, waiting on them while they eat. So what’s going on here with this strange inversion of roles?
As I thought about this passage, I remembered the first night of my military basic training course to be a chaplain. We were in our barracks, wondering what the next day would be, and what would be expected of us. We weren’t expecting our visitor, a mountain of a man. Corporal Jimmy Wells was a Newfoundlander, as solid as a rock from his native island. He’d had a long career as a soldier and a commando, including service in the horrible failed peacekeeping Rwanda mission, and still bore the invisible scars of his time there. We realized that he had seen and done things we would never care to think of, and he could have a scary temper, but we came to love him.
That night Cpl. Wells patiently sat down with a bunch of would-be chaplains, some of whom had never used an iron in their lives (pastors and priests often have people to do these tasks for us, but in not in the army!). As if teaching children, he showed us how to get a razor sharp crease on our shirts, how to make our beds to the regulation drum tightness, and how to polish our shoes like mirrors. During our four month course, we learned that while Cpl. Wells could run us ragged and shout at us when we annoyed him, most of all we realized that he wanted us to succeed. Later we learned that he still hurt from the things he’d seen and done, and he wanted us to be the sort of chaplains that could help soldiers with his sort of invisible wounds.
I think of the master turning up late to serve his servants, and I remember Jimmy Wells patiently showing us how to iron a shirt so we could one day be judged ready to be soldiers and chaplains. I never knew for sure what he believed about God, and he’s gone now, so I can’t ask him, but I think that in his own rough way, he was an example of the grace that we see in the first line of today’s gospel:
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Mt 23:12)
This line begins with those great words of the gospel, especially Luke’s gospel, “Do not be afraid”. How often do we hear these words, starting with the words of the angels to the shepherds in the Nativity story, and then repeatedly through the story, always reminding us that where Christ is at work, we need fear nothing. And what is the work of Christ? The work of Christ and the good will of the Father is to give us the kingdom, meaning not to give us material stuff, not so shower us with blessings, but to make us ready and fit to be the blessing to the world that is the kingdom of God.
How does the kingdom of God arrive, then? It arrives unexpectedly, like a thief or a late night guest, and it shows up in unlikely forms, a master (or corporal) who comes to serve the servants. What does the kingdom of God look like? It looks like generosity to the poor, it’s found in hearts that are attuned to heaven. Which leads me to a final point.
If the master who comes from the wedding to serve the servants is the Son of God, as I think it clearly is, who is the owner of the house at the end, the one who tries to guard his treasure from the thief? Is it possible that they are two different people? Is it possible that the owner of the house represents the parts of our hearts that are set on guarding our earthly treasures, while the unexpected thief is the heavenly one that comes in the night to turn our earthly values on their head? Is the real treasure not those things that we try to cling to and protect, but rather is the real treasure that which we give of our “good pleasure”? And, if so, as I think the gospel clearly suggests, how we might reorient our outlook and priorities?
How do we make ourselves ready for this work that God calls us to, this sharing of blessings? “Sell your possessions and give alms” says Jesus. We could let ourselves off the hook and say, well, he didn’t really mean “all our possessions”, but let’s remember that if we want to be judged ready for the kingdom of God, then we have to be part of the blessing that is the kingdom of God. So let me finish with a challenge. Over the next month, think of one thing you have that’s valuable, then sell it and give that money to a deserving charity, or, if that’s not possible, find some of your valuable time and use it to benefit others. I think you’ll enjoy how you’ll feel, knowing that as God has given the kingdom to you, so you have given the kingdom to others.
May God always find us ready and fit to share in the Kingdom, and may God find us willing to share it with others.