A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
August 11, 2013
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
“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. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 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. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (NRSV).
Something I have often wished for when reading the Bible is a tone-of-voice-indicator. Do you know what I mean? Something that would tell me how the things Jesus said sounded when he said them. Because tone of voice can make all the difference. Some people can say “I love you” in a way that makes you wonder if they really do, while others can say “I hate you” in a way that lets you know they mean just the opposite. So when Jesus speaks in the Gospels it would be nice to know: how did he say it, and what did he mean?
Last Sunday we were on the road with Jesus when a man in the crowd said, “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” And Jesus said, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14). But how did he say it? Was he angry? Surprised? Indifferent? You have to look at the context for clues. So, when he turns to the crowd in the very next verse and says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” it’s a clue that Jesus thought the man was greedy. But in the story he tells next, about the rich fool, you begin to see that for Jesus greed is not a matter of simply wanting more and more of everything, but a basic insecurity that makes you think it’s entirely up to you to provide for your needs, a nagging anxiety that won’t let your soul relax until you know you have enough to live on.
And that’s why I think Jesus says what he says with great sympathy: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed! For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (12:15). He’s not trying to scold the greedy; he’s trying to cure them of that basic insecurity, trying to relieve them of that nagging anxiety. And the next section of the Gospel gives it away. In Luke 12:22-28 Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!”
If I were publishing a Tone-of-Voice Bible—a TOVB—I might suggest that this section should be read as if you were a mother who has just discovered that her son is hoarding groceries under his bed because he is afraid that he won’t have enough to eat. Can you imagine what she would say, and how she would say it? “Son! Why are you hoarding groceries? You don’t have to do that! As long as I am your mother, as long as I am able to provide, you will always have enough to eat!” Jesus might say that’s how it is with your Heavenly Father. As long as he is able to provide you will always have enough to eat. And he will always be able to provide. “So do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink,” Jesus says, “and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (12:29-31).
Do you hear how the word strive is repeated in that passage? The Greek word means something like “to seek in order to find, or to find out, to seek after, to strive after, to crave or demand.” It’s that thing we keep looking for, the thing that won’t let us rest until we have it in our possession. So Jesus says to his followers, “Listen, if it’s security you’re looking for, if it’s the sure and certain knowledge that your most basic needs in life will be met, that you will never have to starve or shiver in the cold, then relax, you can stop striving for that. You’ve got that. Your Heavenly Father has got you in his care. When the storms of life are raging you can sleep like a baby on its mother’s breast. So, in our Gospel reading for today, when Jesus says, “Have no fear, little flock!” the Tone of Voice Bible might suggest: “This verse should be read as if the Good Shepherd himself were reassuring his sheep that they had nothing to fear, that he would always make them lie down in green pastures, always lead them beside still waters, always restore their souls.”
Which means, of course, that they can give up all that anxious striving, that they can turn their attention to something else, and what Jesus wants them to turn it to is the Kingdom. “Have no fear, little flock,” he says, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom!” (vs. 32). And the way he says that last word is important. The Tone of Voice Bible might suggest: “In the Gospels, the word kingdom should be pronounced as if it were the best thing ever. Say it like an eight-year-old girl would say Disney World.” “It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” Jesus says. So, stop worrying about whether or not you will have enough. In fact, do this if you have the nerve: take a radical leap of faith. “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” (12:33-34).
Let me pause long enough to say that selling your possessions and giving the money away may not be the right approach for you, but what Jesus is after is freedom. I think he would say that if these things are keeping you from loving God and neighbor, you need to get rid of them. If striving for these things is keeping you from striving for the kingdom, you need to throw them out. You have been possessed by your possessions and you need to get yourself free. Just load up the truck, Chuck. Have a big sale, Gail. There must be fifty ways to leave your money.[i] Francis of Assisi did it: in the year 1204 he gave up everything he had so he could follow Christ. He went around barefoot, dressed in a simple robe, embracing what he called “Lady Poverty.” All these centuries later we’re still talking about him. What will they say about the man whose anxious striving leads him to an early heart attack? Will they put up a tombstone that reads: “Here lies a man who was so afraid he wouldn’t have enough to live on that he killed himself trying to get more.” “Don’t do that!” Jesus warns. “Don’t be afraid that you won’t have enough. Have no fear, little flock! It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!”
And with those words Jesus begins to turn our attention away from worldly goods and toward the kingdom, in the hope that he will also turn our hearts away from worldly goods and toward the kingdom. Because he doesn’t only want us to acknowledge the kingdom; he wants us to love it, to live for it, to make it our aim. “Pile up your treasure there,” he says, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And that’s just a fact. We put our money where our hearts are; we spend it on the things we love. How much money have I spent on my children? I don’t want to know, and I’m not finished yet. But I love my children; I would do almost anything for them. Some of you feel that way about the church, you feel that way about this church. You’ve written it into your wills, you give generously and faithfully. But you can see the church: and I don’t only mean the building, I mean the body of Christ that meets in this place. And I can see my children: I can hear their voices and hug them close. It’s not hard to love something you can see and touch. It’s hard to love this invisible kingdom Jesus keeps talking about. How do I pile up treasure there?
I’m almost sure I’ve told you this story before but when I came to First Baptist five ago I took the staff on retreat and wrote one question on the flip chart: “Why are we here?” I had to explain to them that I didn’t mean why are we here on retreat; I meant why is this church here in the city of Richmond? What is our mission? What is our purpose? We spent an hour talking about the church’s existing mission statement but eventually I divided them up into four small groups and asked each group to choose a Gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. I handed out some of those Bibles that have the words of Jesus in red, and asked each group to look through its Gospel for the clear commands of Christ. They worked on it for an hour and wrote down their results.
You know what they are:
- Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
- Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
- Love one another as I have loved you.
- Go, make disciples of every nation.
- Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- Teach them to obey all that I have commanded you.
- Tell them that the Kingdom has come near.
- Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
- Preach good news to the poor.
- Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons
- And don’t be afraid
- Don’t be afraid
- Do not be afraid.
At the end of the exercise I put those sheets of paper up on the wall and asked, “Now, which one of these should we do?” Well, they didn’t think we should do any one of them; they thought we should do all of them. But how do you sum up the clear commands of Christ in a single mission statement?
I don’t think it was pre-meditated, but as we sat there looking at those commands I had an insight, and during the break that followed I wrote across the bottom of those four sheets: “Is this what life in the Kingdom looks like?” Is it that place where disciples love their enemies, wash one another’s feet, preach good news to the poor, and visit the sick and imprisoned? And shouldn’t the mission of Jesus’ disciples have something to do with making that heavenly vision an earthly reality?
Is that how you pile up treasure in heaven? Do you do the work of the kingdom? Do you love your enemies, and wash one another’s feet, and preach good news to the poor, and visit the sick and imprisoned? Is this how you put your money where your heart is? If so then this year-long, every-member mission trip we’ve been on, this thing called KOH2RVA, has been gradually nudging us away from our love for worldly goods, gradually nudging us toward the things God loves. I know this, because I’ve seen people on this mission trip spend money on things they wouldn’t have spent it on before. The second grade Sunday school class held a bake sale and raised money to buy someone who need them a new pair of shoes. Some of our members took a group of immigrant kids to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and afterward to Sweet Frog frozen yogurt, where one of them gladly paid the whole bill. Joyce Clemmons asked if we could come up with some nice prizes to give to the kids who came to the Spring Bash at the Anna Julia Cooper School and someone handed her a check for a thousand dollars.
Little by little our hearts are shifting from the things of the world to the things of the Kingdom. Little by little we are laying up treasure. And if we do it often enough, long enough, we will come to love the Kingdom Jesus loves, won’t we? Isn’t he the one who said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”?
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
[i] Inspired by Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.